Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent detail and resolution (especially in raw mode)
- Lovely new LCD screen - the 3:2 format really makes a difference.
- Capable, flexible AF system in both phase-detection and live view modes
- High-spec video mode, including external microphone jack
- Highly intuitive operation, refined ergonomics
- Fast and responsive operation (although shooting in raw mode slows things down)
- Very reliable metering and white balance in most shooting situations
- Decent build quality for the price - no creaks
- Highlight Tone Priority works well, in both raw and JPEG mode.
- Excellent battery life for its class
- Acceptable - although not outstanding - image quality at highest ISO settings.
- Excellent supplied software suite - DPP is one of the best bundled raw converters around
Conclusion - Cons
- Auto Lighting Optimizer's effect is subtle to the point of being unnoticeable
- No rear control dial (as found on higher-end Canon bodies)
- Entry-level ergonomics won't suit everyone (the EOS 50D and 7D just feel nicer)
- No in-camera raw conversion option
- Slightly soft JPEG output at default settings (but this is far from unusual)
- Chroma noise takes a fairly big chunk out of resolution at ISO 12800 (but better than the 500D)
- AF assist strobe can be annoying
As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, Canon has pulled out all the stops with the EOS 550D, and has delivered the most highly specified Rebel-series DSLR we've ever seen. In practice, the camera does not disappoint, and in all respects it gives excellent performance, at least matching but in most cases bettering the best of the competition. Given that the competition includes cameras like the excellent Pentax K-x, and Nikon D5000 - both of which also feature video capture - this is high praise indeed.
After extended use of the EOS 550D, one of the most impressive things about the camera is its consistency. The 550D can be relied upon in almost any environment to deliver pleasant, well-exposed images, and although it obviously can't match the likes of the EOS 1D Mark IV or the Nikon D3S at its highest ISO setting of 12800, it is measurably better than its predecessor the EOS 500D, despite a hike in resolution. This is impressive in itself, but the fact that the 550D also brings an improved video mode (equal in the essential points to the current best video-enabled DSLRs on the market) will come as music to the ears of Canon users looking either to upgrade from a 1000D or 450D, or to 7D users looking for a (relatively) inexpensive backup camera.
It is these photographers, who already own a higher-end DSLR, that I think will really appreciate the 550D. Despite the entry-level ergonomics, and the inclusion of beginner-friendly features like Creative Auto mode, the 550D is actually closer to the EOS 7D in terms of specification. Crucially, it delivers this specification at a fraction of the size and weight, not to mention a lower price.
As you can see from the shooting that we've done for this test, the EOS 550D sets new standards for resolution in its class. In favorable conditions, in raw mode, it is clear that the 550D can unequivocally resolve more detail than an equivalent camera with 12 or 14 million pixels. Resolution in JPEG mode is lower than RAW, as we would expect, but at a pixel level, the difference should not concern most users. Unfortunately, however, the high pixel count of the 550D's CMOS sensor is something of a double-edged sword. Whilst it means that in optimal conditions, with a high quality lens attached, detail resolution is superb, it can also mean that when viewed at 100% on screen, images taken with cheaper, lower quality optics (including the bundled 'kit' option 18-55mm) look distinctly sub-par. It's an obvious point - higher resolution sensors make higher demands on lenses - but it is one which is easily overlooked in the race to put higher and higher pixel counts into low-end and enthusiast DSLRs.
The unavoidable fact is that to get the most out of the 550D's sensor you really need to pair it with Canon's better lenses, which is a considerable investment. Arguably, this is academic for most enthusiast photographers, since most of the time digital images are either admired onscreen or in small (sub-A4) prints. Of course if this is how you primarily view your images (and if we're honest, for most of us it is), it could be argued that packing 18 million pixels is somewhat unnecessary in the first place.
That said, the bottom line here is that the EOS 550D offers excellent image quality in a range of different conditions, including exceptionally low light, thanks to its usable ISO 12800 setting. Image quality is equal or better than its predecessor the EOS 500D, and not noticeably inferior to the considerably more expensive EOS 7D. The 550D's video capability is excellent too.
The EOS 550D is the latest product in a long line of Rebel-series DSLRs which all share basically the same design intent - to make the camera's various advanced features as easy to use, and as easy to understand as possible. As such, it represents not a revolutionary ergonomic advance, but rather a slight refinement of a proven basic design. The handling differences between the 550D and 500D are very minor, and are a consequence mostly of the new, larger LCD screen, but the handling experience of both cameras is to all intents and purposes identical.
The 550D doesn't provide a flawless handling experience though, and we do have some criticisms. The buttons on the rear are rather flat and close together, which makes it easy to mash them by accident, and very hard to press them accurately if your hands are cold/gloved/large. The general feel of the camera is plastic, and although far from flimsy, it doesn't have the reassuring heft of the EOS 50D or 7D. We wouldn't necessarily expect it to, but it is a shame that a camera with so much more to offer than the EOS 1000D (and at a considerably higher price) should have such similar build quality.
It is also a shame that the 550D doesn't share the EOS 7D's stills/video shooting switch. This switch goes a long way to solving the problem of integrating video into a stills camera without the function feeling 'bolted on' and the fact that the EOS 550D - which is aimed at a less sophisticated audience - doesn't have it is frankly a little bizarre. After all, in theory, it is lower end users who will be most used to shooting video on cameraphones and compact cameras, so why not make this feature as easy to use as possible?
The final word
Despite our (very minor) complaints, the EOS 550D is a very satisfying camera, and certainly offers the most compelling feature set of any nominally 'entry level' DSLR that we've used. It isn't just about spec though - the 550D's refined handling and excellent supplied software suite should not be overlooked. Although it doesn't represent a huge improvement over the 500D, the changes that have been made are worthwhile, and well-implemented. An external mic socket, manual control and wide choice of resolutions and frame rates means that the 550D is worthy of consideration for serious video use, and when paired with a high quality lens, image quality is superb.
With all this taken into account, it is hard not to recommend the EOS 550D. Quite simply, taken as a whole, it is the best camera of its class that we've ever seen, and one of those rare cameras that won't look out of date in a couple of years' time.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
All-round use, enthusiasts looking for a bargain second body, or beginners that don't want to outgrow their camera anytime soon.
Not so good for
Entry-level ergonomics won't suit all photographers, and the frame rate and AF system isn't up to sports and action work.
All in all, the EOS 550D is the most compelling DSLR of its class that we've ever tested. It is hard to imagine how much more we might realistically expect from a product of this type, and although the improvements that Canon has made over the EOS 500D aren't revolutionary, the 550D is a better camera than its predecessor. In terms of both still and video capture, the 550D is currently the best camera of its type on the market.