Sony's approach to the DSLR market has been an interesting one to watch - the first generation of the A2XX/3XX family was a three-camera assault on a market that most manufacturers had tried to address with a single model. Sony instead created three cameras that placed greater emphasis on attracting new users across from compact cameras (whether that be through price or what was, at the time, the most seamless, compact-like live view system on the market), rather than simply stripping down their higher-end models. With the recent refresh of that range, its cameras have moved even further towards a compact-user friendly interpretation of what an entry-level offering should look like - with the predictable result that the A230, A330 and A380 have prompted disappointment and even derision from the company's DSLR fan base.

However, the launch of the A500 and A550 make it clear not only that Sony wasn't aiming for existing DSLR users with its 2XX / 3XX series but also that it intends to break the entry level market down into more segments than any other manufacturer has before tried. So now, in the sub $900 market, Sony offers five DSLRs - the price conscious A230, the simplified A330 and A380 live view cameras and the A500 /A550 for the more experienced DSLR user.

As such the A5XX series cameras regain a couple of the features lost from the most recent 2 and 3-series models - so the 'fives' feature the larger 11.8Wh FM500H batteries used in previous Alphas and include Auto Exposure Lock buttons. There is also a wider selection of external buttons for giving fast access to a variety of shooting settings such as drive mode, ISO and D-Range, freeing up the four-way controller for AF-point selection.

The return of two-mode live view

The most notable feature of the new cameras, however, is the inclusion of a second live view mode. The A500 and A550 still sport a small secondary sensor in their viewfinders to provide live view with fast phase-detection AF, but can also utilize the slower but higher-resolution main-sensor live view system used by all other manufacturers, albeit without any autofocus at all (Sony dubs this mode 'MF Check Live View')

Live view Optical Viewfinder MF Check Live view
Roll your mouse over the above images to see how the light path is redirected between the viewfinder and live view sensor. With the mirror in the up position, the new MF Check mode does not direct any light to the AF sensor at the bottom of the camera and hence is manual focus only (the A550 cannot use its main imaging sensor for contrast-detection AF).

The other changes are also quite striking - the 3.0 inch LCDs (in a lovely high resolution incarnation on the A550), are better articulated than on the A330 and A380 and both 5-series cameras are based around CMOS, rather than the CCD technology of the 330 and 380.

A550 vs A500

As we've seen before with Sony the 500 series is actually made up of two very similar models; the camera on review here (Alpha 550) and its cut-down brother, the Alpha 500. The most important differences is the sensor - the A550 gets you an extra couple of megapixels - and the screen (the A550's has three times the resolution), but there's a few others to justify the $200 price gap:

  • Sensor resolution (A550: 14.2MP, A500: 12.3 MP)
  • LCD screen (A550: 3.0", 920k dots, A500: 3.0", 230k dots)
  • Only the A550 offers the 'speed priority' 7fps shooting option (A500 max 5fps)
  • A550 has a larger buffer (14 raw frames vs 3)

For the most part the first section of this review applies equally to the A550 and A500, though we'd expect the A500's image quality to be significantly different.

Key features

The A550 represents a new category of camera for Sony and the specification makes it look like the company is aiming fairly squarely for Canon's 500D and Nikon's D5000, pitching a little above both in terms of most specifications.

  • 14.2 mp CMOS Exmor sensor
  • Manual Focus Check Live View using the main imaging sensor
  • 5fps in optical viewfinder mode (7fps with focus and exposure locked)
  • New user interface
  • HDR mode that combines multiple exposures
  • 5-level manually selectable Dynamic Range Optimization
  • Screen articulates up or down by 90 degrees
  • Increased battery life (1,000 shots when using the viewfinder)

Sadly, the much asked-for depth-of-field preview and mirror lock-up options have not returned. In both live view modes, the lens aperture is kept wide-open until the shot is taken, giving no representation of depth-of-field. And, although the mirror could theoretically be kept in the 'up' position, the new MF Check live view system still flips the mirror down and up again just as the shot is being taken, even when combined with self-timer.

The A550 is distinctly larger than the A380 - in fact it's much more similar in size to the A350, to the point that, with all its upgrades, it might appeal as a step up for A350 owners.
The 5-series cameras are substantially smaller than the A900 and A850.