Operation and controls

One of the joys of reviewing a Canon compact is that there is almost absolute consistency in controls and menus across its ranges, with each generation an evolution, not a re-invention of the wheel. And this is not without good reason; the combination of plentiful external controls and the superb 'FUNC' menu, which offers single-screen access to virtually every other aspect of the camera's operation, makes mastering a PowerShot simple, and using it remarkably fluid. Of course this is a fairly simple camera - a true 'point and shoot' model, with very limited manual control. What you do get is most of the important stuff; control over metering, flash, ISO, white balance, file size/quality and so on. What you don't get - aside from a handful of subject modes - is any meaningful control over apertures and shutter speeds.

Rear of camera

The rear of the SD550 is dominated by the 2.5-inch screen (one of the only cameras in its class to boast such a large LCD), meaning the controls have been moved to the right. Canon is one of the last major manufacturers to retain an optical viewfinder on its compact cameras - useful for very bright days (when the glare off the LCD makes it hard to use), and for extending the battery life; you get more than three times as many shots if you turn the screen off.

Top of camera

Viewed from above you can see just how slim and curvaceous the SD550 really is - the main body is only a smidgeon over 20mm deep, and the lens fits completely flush to the body when not in use. The only controls on the top of the camera are the main on/off switch (which has a half second or so delay to avoid accidental activation) and the shutter release/zoom lever.

Display and menus

Canon's menu and on-screen display system has - despite minor appearance tweaks here and there - remained admirably consistent across camera ranges and generations. There's nothing particularly new here - but then why change a system that works?

Pressing the DISP button cycles between three preview settings; off (use the optical viewfinder), preview image only (no information displayed) and - as shown above - full information. There's plenty of information ranged around the edge of the preview image. Half press the shutter and the camera will set the focus and exposure, indicating the focus point chosen (in AiAF mode the SD550 chooses from one of nine focus points). New - finally - is an indication of the shutter speed chosen, but only if it's 1/60th second or lower... and there's still no aperture indicated.
Another new feature - and a useful one if like me you've got one leg longer than the other - is the option of a 'rule of thirds' grid overlay. Perhaps the single most useful new feature on the SD550 is a button on the back for direct access to the ISO setting.
With the mode dial set to auto record mode the FUNC button brings up a menu limited to changing the size and quality setting. Moving the dial to record-M gives access to many more settings. From here you can choose Digital Zoom mode, My Colors mode and Stitch Assist mode (for making panoramas. Selecting the 'manual' option gives you access to AE compensation, white balance, picture/color effects and metering pattern. As always, the FUNC menu is fast and easy to use.
Selecting the 'My Colors' option brings up several extra options, allowing you to boost certain colors, swap colors in the scene (screenshot), remove all but one color (all other colors come out black and white) or set custom colors (screenshot). It's not Photoshop, but it's a nice novelty. Moving to the SCN (scene) position on the dial lets you choose from one of the nine scene modes. The only other controls are AE compensation and file size / quality.
Pressing the menu button in record mode brings up a list of less-commonly accessed functions and camera settings. In playback mode you get the option of full screen images with no information overlay or basic information (file number, date and time). A final option is a playback histogram. What you can't see is any exposure information. When scrolling through images you can choose between two very attractive transition effects. Incidentally, the SD550's orientation sensor now works in playback mode, so if you turn the camera vertically the display rotates to match the new position. It's a little thing, but it's very cool.
Pushing the zoom lever to the left (wide) changes the display to nine (3x3) thumbnails. As is usual with Canon, moving the zoom lever to the left a second time changes the thumbnail display to 'jump' mode, allowing you to quickly move through a page of thumbnails at a time. The zoom lever is also used to zoom into (magnify) images - up to 10x in 10 steps. Press the Set button when magnified and you can jump from image to image at the same magnification.
It's worth mentioning the SD550's new slideshow function, which features very professional-looking TV-style transition effects and is unusually customizable. Nice if you like to hook your camera up to the television. The play menu offers the usual range of options, including protecting, rotating and deleting images, plus slideshows and print ordering (DPOF).
The setup menu (accessible from both playback and record modes) is where you find more general camera settings, including sounds, power saving, date and time, LCD brightness, card formatting, language and video output format. Finally, as is now standard on Canon's consumer models, the 'My Camera' screen allows you to customize the camera with your own start-up screen and sound.