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Design

The A550 immediately looks at home in the current Alpha lineup, with consistent design cues such as the vertical stripe on the handgrip making clear its position as big brother to the recently launched second-generation A2XX and A3XX cameras. Unlike those cameras, however, the main hand grip is of a more conventional design, giving a much more comfortable grip on the camera - in fact it is immediately reminiscent of the A300/A350. It also features considerably more in the way of external control, with AEL having its own button and separate buttons being provided for features that appear on the four-way controller of the simpler models.

In your hand

Thankfully the A550 features a much more conventional handgrip than the recently introduced A230, A330 and A380 designs (we've yet to find anyone with hands of a size or shape that allows them to comfortably hold these models for any length of time). The result is a comfortable grip that will immediately be familiar to anyone who's used a DSLR before.

The exposure compensation and AEL buttons (which for the majority of users are likely to be two of the most frequently used), are well positioned with the thumb being able to easily shift between the two without having to shift from the standard shooting position. The buttons on the camera's top-plate are rather harder to reach though, and probably require the eye to be taken away from the viewfinder. However these buttons have been assigned control over less frequently changed settings (ISO, D-Range and drive mode) and this isn't a camera that will necessarily be used with the optical viewfinder.

LCD Monitor

The A550 gains the lovely 920,000 dot (VGA resolution) LCD that has been appearing in an increasing number of DSLRs. It's a 4:3 screen (640 x 480 pixels) that can show the secondary, live view sensor's 640 x 428 pixel output at full resolution, with a black stripe with camera settings along the bottom (because the live view has to match the main imaging sensor's 3:2 aspect ratio).

The result is that the camera's main live view mode (using the secondary sensor) is greatly improved over any other Alpha offering the system, in that the screen preview is as sharp and accurate as it can be. And, of course, on this camera there's also the Manual Focus Check live view system, which again benefits from the screen's high resolution.

Quite apart from that, the high-res screen gives a great impression of the photos you've taken, when they pop-up as record review images. It may not seem like a big deal but it's hard not to like a camera that makes its pictures look good while you're shooting them.

The A550's screen is also more flexibly articulated than the A380/A330 and can flip up or down by 90 degrees.

Info Display

Like all cameras in its class the A550 doesn't have a status LCD on its top plate and uses the rear LCD as an information panel. There are two display types available, and you switch between them by pressing the DISP button. One display shows a graphical (and, as seen later, slightly misleading) representation of shutter speed and aperture (a fancied up version of the interface seen on the last generation), while the standard display is limited to numbers and icons, and offers some additional information (white balance, creative style, focus mode and metering).

Unfortunately, like the A3XX cameras before it, the A550's information screens aren't interactive: you can't access the settings directly (as you can on many other SLRs, and as you could on the Alpha 700). To change any of the settings that are displayed on the status LCD you have to either use the hard buttons, the function menu or the main menu.

Viewfinder

The Alpha 550's viewfinder display is almost identical to the A380, and has the same nine point autofocus system (though the focus points are lit differently - they've lost their little red dots), but the view is a lot prettier, being brighter and larger.

1 Flash exposure comp indicator 7 Shutter speed
2 Flash charging/charged 8 Aperture (f number)
3 High-speed flash sync 9 Exposure scale / Exposure comp.
4 Wireless flash mode 10 Buffer indicator
5 Manual focus mode 11 Shake warning and indicator
6 Focus achieved 12 Aspect ratio

Viewfinder size

One figure hidden away in every SLR's spec is the size of the viewfinder (often in a format that makes comparison between competing models impossible). The size of the viewfinder is a key factor in the usability of an SLR - the bigger it is, the easier it is to frame and focus your shots, and the more enjoyable and involving process it is.

Because of the way viewfinders are measured (using a fixed lens, rather than a lens of equivalent magnification), you also need to take the sensor size into account, so the numbers in the diagram below are the manufacturer's specified magnifications divided by the respective 'crop factors'.

The diagram below shows the relative size of the viewfinders of the Sony A550, Canon EOS 500D, Olympus E-620 and - for reference - the EOS-1Ds Mark III (currently the biggest viewfinder on the DSLR market). The Nikon D5000's viewfinder is essentially the same size as those of the Sony and Canon.

The A550's viewfinder is certainly an improvement on previous (and existing low end) Alpha models, and is now almost as large and almost as bright as the equivalent models in Canon and Nikon's ranges (though for the price it should really be better). My biggest problem is the eyepoint (eye relief): how far away from the eyepiece you can have your eye and still see the entire viewfinder image, which is, at 15mm, shorter than virtually all competitors. This means you need to get your eye right up to the eyepiece to see the entire frame (and the status display), something that's not that easy with the protruding LCD panel.

The A550's viewfinder is essentially the same size as the Canon EOS 500D and Nikon D5000 (not shown). This is a considerable improvement over the A3XX series. The flip-out screen means it's hard to get your eye near the finder (especially if you shoot with your left eye), but it's a step in the right direction.

Viewfinder crop

Most cameras at this level crop the frame slightly when you look through the viewfinder - in other words you get slightly more in the final picture than you see through the viewfinder. In common with most of its competitors the A550 only shows 95% (vertically and horizontally) of the frame.

Sony A550: 95% viewfinder.
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