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Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 review:

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550

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Sony Alpha A550 (Body Only)

(Part #: DSLR-A550) Released: Nov 1, 2009
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The Good Generally above-average performance for its class; excellent high ISO sensitivity profile relative to competitors; large, tilting LCD; fast Live View autofocus.

The Bad Poor color accuracy; Live View provides only 90 percent coverage; awkward design for shooting via optical viewfinder; no video.

The Bottom Line 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.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.1 Overall
  • Design 6.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Image quality 7.0

Sitting in the middle of Sony's somewhat overcrowded dSLR product line, at first glance the Alpha DSLR-A550 seems like a promising competitor around the $1,000 price point. It comes in two kits: a body only version and one with an 18-55mm lens. The A550 has a slightly different and less-expensive sibling, the A500; in addition to the sensor resolution differential between the two, the A550 has a higher resolution LCD--the same one used on the A700 and A900--and a faster burst option.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel CCD 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
23.6mm x 15.8mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 2.5fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
6 raw/12 JPEG
14 raw/32 JPEG
magnification/effective magnification
95 percent coverage
95 percent coverage
95 percent coverage
Autofocus 9-point AF
center cross-type
9-point AF
center cross-type
9-point AF
center cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 40 segment 40 segment 40 segment
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No No No
LCD size 2.7 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 500 shots 1,000 shots 950 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0x3.8x2.8 5.4x4.1x3.3 5.4x4.1x3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 19.1 24.0 22.9 (estimated)
Mfr. Price n/a $749.99 (body only) $949.99 (body only)
$849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,049.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$1,049.99 (with 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses) n/a n/a

The A550 is heavier and bulkier than its lower-end siblings are--though it's lighter than the competition--but with a much better grip design. Its siblings are about three-quarters height, which feels much less secure than the A550's full-height grip. While it feels solidly built, its plastic housing leaves a cheaper impression than similarly priced models like the 50D did. And even for a midrange dSLR, Sony doesn't make good use of the extra space, with too many buttons and labels unnecessarily crowding the body. For instance, the Smart Teleconverter--digital zoom--doesn't belong on a camera like this, and the D-Range Optimizer doesn't really require a dedicated button. They just get in the way while you're trying to distinguish among the drive mode, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation and exposure lock button, which all feel identical.

Usually more buttons mean a more streamlined shooting experience, but the A550 seems designed for LCD-based shooting rather than viewfinder shooting. On one hand, the viewfinder displays image stabilization status--bars show how close to steady it is--and will indicate if the lens is in manual focus mode. But it fits those in by trading off for more traditional information, such as ISO sensitivity. That means you have to look at the back display to change it. The viewfinder prompts mixed reactions as well. On one hand, it displays the focus indicators as large boxes, which is a nice switch from the tiny dots favored by viewfinders a price class down. However, the viewfinder is small with a low magnification factor. And since the LCD extends out a bit past the eyecup, you actually have to cram your face up against the camera to see through it. I've left cheekprints all over it.

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 forefinger unless you lower the camera. On the cheaper models, Sony puts controls for the ISO sensitivity and drive modes on the navigation switch on the back of the camera. I think that placement works better than the three hard-to-reach buttons on the top of this one.

The Fn button on the back pulls up drive mode, flash settings, autofocus mode, autofocus area, ISO sensitivity, metering, flash compensation, white balance, DRO/Auto HDR, and Creative Styles. But the switch you use to navigate them feels a bit too flat, without enough tactile feedback; I frequently ended up pressing the AF button while moving around the options. (I discuss the settings interface further here.)

While not as flexible a design as a flip-and-twist articulated LCD, Sony's tiltable displays are nice for shooting at odd angles. The A550's display is otherwise pretty comparable with the competitions'. If you use Live View a lot then you'll appreciate the A550's fast Live View autofocus, as well as the MF Check LV mode, which not only magnifies the focus area but also adjusts the displayed exposure so that you can actually see what you're doing. While Live View displays only 90 percent of the scene--that's even less than the optical viewfinder--the MF Check LV mode displays 100 percent.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Nikon D90 Canon EOS 50D
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 15.1-megapixel CMOS
23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.6mm x 15.8mm 22.3mm x 14.9mm
Color depth 12-bit 12-bit 14-bit
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1,600/3,200 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/12,800 (expanded)
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x 1.6x
Continuous shooting 5fps
14 raw/32 JPEG
7 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
16 raw/90 JPEG
magnification/effective magnification
95 percent coverage
96 percent coverage
95 percent coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
all cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/200 x-sync; 1/4,000 FP 1/8,000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Metering 40 segment 420-pixel 3D color matrix 35 zone
Image Stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No 720p at 24fps No
LCD size 3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Wireless flash Yes Yes No
Shutter durability n/a 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Battery life (CIPA rating) 950 shots 850 shots 640 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.4x4.1x3.3 5.2x4.1x3.0 5.7 4.2x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 24.0 26.0 29.8
Mfr. Price $949.99 (body only) $899.95 (body only) $1,099.99 (body only)
$1,049.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,099.95 (with 18-105mm lens, estimated) $1,129.99 (with 28-135mm lens, estimated)

While not bursting with novel features, the A550 does have a couple of interesting capabilities. There's Auto HDR, a variation on the Hand-held Twilight mode, one of the few things I liked in the company's DSC-HX1 megazoom. Auto HDR snaps two 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--you can manually select the amount of the bracket at up to 3 stops in 1.5-stop increments or leave it in auto, but it's limited to two shots and it doesn't save the individual frames, just the combined result and only as a JPEG. But it does seem to work better for extended the dynamic range over Sony's DRO, and the fully automatic setting doesn't override your ISO sensitivity setting as I'd expected. There's a couple seconds performance overhead on shot-to-shot time as it processes and saves the image.

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