First Look: Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
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First Look: Sony Alpha DSLR-A550

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If you're a Live View-oriented shooter who doesn't care about color accuracy, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550's good performance and decent noise profile make it attractive for the money. Otherwise, you can find a better camera.

[ Background music ] >> Lori Grunin: Hi I'm Lori Grunin Senior Editor for CNET and this is the Sony Alpha DSLRA550. It sits in the middle of Sony's somewhat overcrowded DSLR product line and at first glance you might think that this is a promising competitor around the $1,000 price point. It comes in 2 kits, a body only version and one with an 18-55 mm lens. The A550 has a slightly different and less expensive sibling the A500. In addition to the sensor resolution difference between the two the A550 has a higher resolution LCD and a faster burst option. It's heavier and bulkier than its lower end siblings and while it feels solidly built the plastic housing leaves a cheaper impression than similarly priced models like the 50D. It also seems designed for LCD based shooting rather than view finder shooting. Usually on DSLRs with buttons on the top right they're placed forward enough to easily reach with your forefinger. On the A550 they're set closer to the camera back where you can't comfortably reach them with either your thumb or your forefinger unless you lower the camera. I like some things about the viewfinder. It displays image stabilization status with bars that show you how close to steady it is and it'll also indicate if the lens is in manual focus mode which is a problem I always forget about. Plus it displays the focus indicators as large boxes which is a nice switch from the tiny dots favored by view finders a price class down. But it's missing more traditional information such as ISO sensitivity, that means that you have to look to the back display in order to change it and since the LCD extends out a bit past the eye cup you actually have to cram your face up against the camera to see through it and I've left cheek prints all over the LCD. The switch you use to navigate feels a bit too flat without enough tactile feedback. I frequently ended up pressing the autofocus button while moving around the options and while it's not as flexible a design as a flip and twist articulated LCD like on Nikons cameras and Olympus's tilt able displays are nice for shooting at odd angles and if you use live view a lot then you'll really appreciate the A550s fast live view autofocus as well as the manual focus check LV mode which magnifies the focus area as well as adjusting the exposure so that you can actually see what you're doing. It's also useful because the regular live view displays only 90% of the scene, that's even less than the optical view finder and the MF check LV mode will display 100%. Otherwise while it doesn't burst with novel features the A550 does have a couple of interesting ones. There's auto HDR which snaps 2 sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with optimal highlight and shadow detail. It doesn't have quite as much control as I'd like, for instance you can manually select the amount of the bracket up to 3 stops in 1 and a half stop increments or leave it in auto but otherwise it's limited to 2 shots and it doesn't save the individual frames, just the combined result and only as a JPEG, and the fully automatic setting doesn't override your ISO sensitivity setting as I had expected it would. There's a couple seconds performance overhead on shot to shot time as it processes and saves the images though. The camera also includes a speed priority continuous advance mode which fixes focus and exposure on the first shot in order to burst the frame rate to 7 frames per second up from the rated 5. While it makes the camera sound like it out specs the competition on a features chart this mode has pretty limited usefulness. In order to stay in focus the subject needs to be moving in such a way that it always remains the same distance from you or always be beyond the lenses infinity focus distance and the lining on the subject will need to be consistent as well. The special speed mode doesn't seem very important though because overall the A550s performance is pretty good on par with its competitors. Though it has the same 14 megapixel resolution as the cheaper A380, the A550s EXMOR CMOS sensor delivers much cleaner images at all ISO sensitivities as opposed to the CCD chip used by its sibling but as I've seen repeatedly with the Sony DSLRs the creative style defaults yield poor color accuracy and over saturation and you can't tell that's what's happening because there's no natural style or its equivalent, nor does Sony tell you what the contrast saturation and shortness settings are for each style. They're all listed as 0 from which you either increase or decrease. With the A380 at least the raw versions were more accurate but the A550s raw files look as bad as the JPEGs. Given its excellent mid range noise profile and very good performance 2 of the most important reasons to buy a DSLR, it's frustrating that the A550s awkward design and poor color rendering keep me from being able to recommend it without so many caveats. [ Backgound music ] I'm Lori Grunin and this is the Sony Alpha DSLRA550.

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