The SD500 broke away from the boxy styling of previous IXUS / Elph models with what Canon's marketing department christened a 'Perpetual Curve' design (there are no straight lines on the body at all). The SD550 is almost identical, though the new larger screen has meant some of the rear controls have been shifted around slightly. The other main external difference is the color (which you probably can't see on screen, but is now a slightly warmer 'champagne').
Like the SD500 before it, the SD550's looks and feel exude quality, and the silky stainless steel finish is almost indulgently tactile, and - as befits a camera at the higher end of the ultra- compact price range - it is beautifully built with an admirable attention to detail. The only downside of the finish used is that it seems very susceptible to scratches and marks (so keep it in a case when not in use). I also, personally, found the camera to be a little on the 'slippy' side, meaning I felt a lot safer with the wrist strap in place than without. Although the control layout has been tweaked slightly (there's now a mode dial rather than a switch, and most of the buttons have moved), the basics are the same as most models in the range. This means you get external controls for metering, flash, focus (macro or infinity) and self-timer/drive mode, everything else is accessed via the excellent FUNC menu.
In your hand
With a fully-loaded weight of around 194g (6.9 oz) the SD550 is just heavy enough to feel solid and stable in the hand, though as noted above, the pebble-smooth exterior, combined with the lack of any discernible 'grip' means it can feel a little precarious held in one hand, but is in fact perfectly usable. The positioning of the shutter release and zoom rocker make single-handed operation easy - just make sure you've got the strap around your wrist just in case it slips out of your hand and starts heading south.
The combined battery and SD card slot sits under a fairly solid hinged door on the base of the camera. The 4.2v Li-ion battery pack will give you around 150 shots if you use the LCD (CIPA standard) - slightly lower than the SD500 thanks to the larger screen. If you switch to the optical viewfinder and only use the LCD to check your pictures every now and then you can easily get well over 550 shots out of a single charge.The battery takes around 100 minutes to charge fully.
Directly below the battery compartment is the SD card slot. Fortunately the battery has a plastic retaining clip, so you can change the card without fear of the battery falling out.
On the right end of the body (looking from the back) you find the only other piece of plastic on the SD550's exterior (aside from the battery cover). This rubberized 'flap' is on a plastic hinge and covers the AV (audio and video) out and USB connectors.
The 2.5 inch screen may be bigger than the SD500's, but it's actually lower resolution (115,000 pixels). This means it looks a bit pixilated to say the least, though is perfectly usable. Despite the anti-reflective coating the LCD can be very hard to see in direct bright light - like all other screens. The monitor automatically 'gains up' in low light, and remains perfectly usable in very dim conditions.n It also has a wider viewing angle than the previous model.
The optical viewfinder is nothing to write home about; small, not that clear, has no dioptre adjustment and only shows about 82% of the scene. That said, it's no worse than 99% of its competitors. If you do decide to use the optical viewfinder you can, however, extend the battery life to almost 550 shots on a single charge - and reduce shutter lag. Two LEDs to the right of the viewfinder indicate focus and flash status.
The small built-in flash is a little more powerful than other Ixus/Elph models. There are five flash modes available; auto, auto with red-eye reduction, on (forced), off and slow-synchro. The stated range of the flash is 1.6 to 16.4ft (0.5 - 4.8m) at the wide end of the zoom and 1.6 to 9.8ft (0.5 - 2.8m) at the long end (auto ISO). You can also use the flash in macro mode in the 30cm to 50cm range (1.0 to 1.6 ft).
The 3x optical zoom covers a useful range equivalent to 37-111mm (though a wider start would be nicer), with a maximum aperture that varies from a nice bright F2.8 at the wide end to a less impressive F4.9 at the long end. The zoom retracts completely flush into the body when powered down. In normal shooting mode you can focus down to 50cm, the macro mode gets you down to a very close 5cm at the wide end of the zoom.
The large shutter release sits on top of the camera, around an inch in from the edge. It has a nice positive feeling and a distinct 'half way' point, meaning you won't accidentally take a shot when trying to activate the AF. The zoom lever is a large circular 'collar' around the shutter release. The zoom action is a bit on the 'jumpy' side - there only appears to be six steps from wide to tele, making fine framing a little awkward. Next to the shutter release, you will find the main power switch.
The main mode switch sits directly below the shutter release on the rear of the camera. There are five positions; play, record (auto only), record (manual), scene and movie mode. You can power the camera up in play mode and the lens will not extend until you move to record mode.
The inclusion of such a large monitor has meant the main controls have been moved to a cluster on the right side of the camera's rear. Canon has avoided the temptation to remove external controls and relegate commonly accessed features to menus.