The A5509 replaces the A530 incorporating several new features for improved ease of use. It’s a blocky looking beastie but actually quite small and although the predominantly plastic build helps keep the price down, it feels remarkably tough in the hand with a caveat on the battery/memory card flap on the base. This is fiddly to open and feels very weak in comparison, so care should be used getting batteries and cards in and out.
The key factor for the A550 is its target audience, the no-fuss family snapper brigade, and it seems to suit that well with little touches such as a large shutter release, even larger mode dial that incorporates all the main shooting options including the scene mode access point (rather than within a menu for example) but more importantly, the oft-used scene modes are directly accessed via the mode dial; even quicker to use. The options include the usual stuff such as portrait, landscape and a more unusual kids and pets setting.
The scene modes you’re likely to use less often are got at via the “SCN” setting on the mode dial and by pressing the ubiquitous “FUNC”(tion) button the camera’s back. Modes on offer here include a fireworks mode, snow, beach and foliage modes.
The 2-inch screen seems small by today’s standards (but again, helps keep the cost down) but is okay to use except when shooting into a bright light source where the LCD flares badly obliterating all detail. However the A550 boasts a reasonable optical viewfinder, so you can both save battery power (it uses two AAs by the way) and keep your eye on the details if the LCD keep s flaring or is hard to see in brighter conditions.
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The 4x optical zoom lens is a little corker and provides an above average, bright maximum aperture setting of F/2.6. The 35-140mm focal range of the zoom offers a nice range (though a wider “wide” end would be better) and is quite sharp, however I noticed slight barrel distortion at the widest lens setting, which seemed to be worse on the left side of my images than the right but makes everything at the edges curve slightly to the right! Odd indeed.
The built-in flash is good and recharges in a reasonable time; in fact, the camera is very responsive indeed. Focusing is swift although the 9-zone AiAF system can be irksome, as it always seems to focus on the nearest part of a scene, not necessarily where you want. However, the AF can be set to use a single central AF point, so you can control that too.
Shutter lag is noticeable but minimal and compared to the recently tested Kodak V803, seems to be working a light speed! Camera controls on the back include familiar stuff such as the four-way jog control that both scrolls setting menus and images when in playback mode. It also plays host to the ISO settings – from ISO 80 up to a respectable ISO 800 – the flash setting, drive mode and macro command.
The menus are typically Canon: two tabbed lists that are clear and easy to understand with highlighted text letting you know what each is as well as an icon to guide you through them.
But what of the image quality? First up, the focusing foibles aside, metering is pretty good overall, however it did struggle on some back lit subjects and while it id its best it erred on the side of underexposure most of the time. The upside is bright parts of a scene retain detail (white clouds for example) but shadows deepen too quickly and loose detail.
Noise at ISO 80 and ISO 100 is there but well controlled but over that and it becomes more obvious in shadows, until at ISO 400 and over it is very noticeable. Image noise processing also impacts on detail at that level as well.
Colour is natural (rather than oversaturated as is so common with budget end models) and so the combination of the camera’s top, Superfine JPEG setting (you have Fine and Normal too), lower ISO settings and the rather nice lens all mean you can get some very nice images indeed.
The Canon PowerShot A550 has enough resolution and that’s it, enough. Any more and the noise issues would overwhelm the otherwise nice performance and prevent some reasonably large prints from being made. Noise is ugly at higher ISOs but the camera’s nice lens (but with odd barrel distortion effects) holds detail and because the noise processing is less at the lower ISOs the camera manages to hold onto that detail – for the most part at least.
In short for a little under £170 you’re getting a camera with plenty of bang for your buck and as such it is certainly worth a closer look if your in the market for a neat “family” snapper.