DPInterface Canon PowerShot SD550
Digital ELPH Review (Digital Ixus 750/Ixy Digital 700)
Brad Soo - May 25th, 2006

The Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH is basically an SD500 with several small changes:

  • Comes in your choice of silver or the new champagne (beige) colored body
  • Larger 2.5 inch LCD (Up from 2 inches on the SD500)
  • New superimposed 3 x 3 grid to aid in framing
  • Buttons have been moved more to the right (As you'll see in a moment)
  • Battery/card slot cover switch (Instead of pull and open)
  • Improved user interface
  • More playback and slideshow features

Other than that, the SD550 is still 7 megapixels, has a 3x optical zoom lens and looks just as classy.

Before you get confused and have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a helpful list to get you through the name-game of the ELPHs:

  • Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH (USA)
  • Canon Ixy Digital (Japan/Taiwan)
  • Canon Digital Ixus (Rest of the world; UK, Europe, Asia, etc)

So that means: SD30 (Ixus i Zoom) SD300 (Ixus 40), SD400 (Ixus 50), SD450 (Ixus 55), SD500 (Ixus 700) and SD550 (Ixus 750). To put a halt to all this confusion, I'll use the USA name as a "standard" in my reviews, this one included.

In short, the Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH (USA) is known as the Canon Ixy Digital 700 in Japan/Taiwan and the Canon Digital Ixus 750 in other parts of the world.

Size and Weight

Here, you can see how small the SD550 compared to competition:

(173.9)  89.5 x 57.0 x 27.4 mm (170 g) - Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH
(173.3)  90.4 x 56.5 x 26.4 mm (165 g) - Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH
(171.2)  89.0 x 58.5 x 23.7 mm (130 g) - Casio Exilim Z850
(177.2)  92.7 x 56.7 x 27.8 mm (155 g) - Fujifilm FinePix F30
(183.6)  96.0 x 62.0 x 25.6 mm (130 g) - HP Photosmart R927
(189.7)  111.0 x 55.5 x 23.2 mm (160 g) - Kodak EasyShare V610
(171.1)  94.8 x 55.9 x 20.4 mm (103 g) - Olympus Stylus 710
(184.0)  92.0 x 61.0 x 31.0 mm (170 g) - Nikon Coolpix P3
(181.5)  100.5 x 60.0 x 21.0 mm (140 g) - Nikon Coolpix S6
(175.9)  97.0 x 56.2 x 22.7 mm (145 g) - Olympus Stylus 810
(170.2)  94.0 x 50.8 x 25.4 mm (132 g) - Panasonic Lumix FX01
(166.0)  88.5 x 54.5 x 23.0 mm (125 g) - Pentax Optio A10
(169.0)  89.0 x 57.0 x 23.0 mm (127 g) - Sony Cyber-shot W70

The SD550 is a fairly compact camera. It is slightly bigger than the new SD700 IS and is overall, a fairly compact camera.

Open up the Box

Open up that box and in it you'll find these:

  • 32 MB Secure Digital Card
  • Rechargeable NB-3L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM
  • User's manual

Storage and Power

Canon included only 32 MB of memory with the SD550. The SD550 doesn't have built-in memory - neither does the SD700 IS. Getting a 512 MB card for the camera might not be a bad idea - I got a 1 GB card for mine.

The SD550 can take about 150 shots (CIPA standard) using the NB-3L battery. For comparison, the SD700 gets 240 shots using the NB-5L battery:

150 shots - Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH
240 shots - Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH
440 shots - Casio Exilim Z850
580 shots - Fujifilm FinePix F30
200 shots - HP Photosmart R927
135 shots - Kodak EasyShare V610
200 shots - Nikon Coolpix P3
200 shots - Nikon Coolpix S6
180 shots - Olympus Stylus 710
250 shots - Olympus Stylus 810
320 shots - Panasonic Lumix FX01
150 shots - Pentax Optio A10
400 shots - Sony Cyber-shot W30
390 shots - Sony Cyber-shot W50
360 shots - Sony Cyber-shot W70
360 shots - Sony Cyber-shot W100

The SD550's battery life is below average in its category. Competition is getting better and Canon doesn't seem to be doing anything about it!

Extras

The accessories available for the SD550 include a waterproof case, external slave flash, AC adapter and various cases and bags.

 

Camera Tour

The Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH is available in silver or beige. The lens on the SD550 is a 37 - 111 mm f2.8 - f4.9 lens and does not have an image stabilizer. While the SD700 has IS and more zoom, the UA lens seems to have worse edge quality.

The built-in flash has a range of 0.5 - 5.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 3.5 m at telephoto which is above average. The SD700 IS does a lot worse in this area. The AF-assist beam/self-timer lamp and optical viewfinder are located above the lens and next to the flash, the larger window being the viewfinder. The microphone hole is the tiny dot next to the lens.

The SD550's LCD is big but has only 115,000 pixels. The LCD brightens a lot in low-light and indoor/night visibility is excellent. Outdoor visibility is okay but can be a little hard to see at times. The SD550 is one of the very few ultra-compact cameras with an optical viewfinder.

The mode dial on the top right has these options: Playback, auto, program, scene and movie mode. The print/share button below the mode dial lights up when connected to a PC/printer. The 5 way controller makes it easy to customize the main aspects of the camera:

  • Up - ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)/Jump (Go ahead/back: 10 images, 100 images, next shot date, movie, folder)
  • Down - Drive (Single shot, continuous, self-timer)/Delete photo
  • Left - Focus setting (Normal, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, auto with red-eye reduction, flash on with red-eye reduction, flash on, slow-sync, off)

The FUNCtion button brings up/down a list of customizable options which allows you to set:

  • Sub-shooting mode (Manual, digital macro, My Colors, stitch assist left-to-right or right-to-left)
  • Exposure compensation (2 in 1/3 increments) OR Long shutter (1 - 15 seconds)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom)
  • Photo effects (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black-and-white)
  • Metering method (Evaluative, center weighted, spot)
  • Quality (Superfine, fine, normal)
  • Resolution (7 MP, 5 MP, 3 MP, 2 MP, VGA, Postcard)

The FUNCtion button also doubles as a SET button (A "okay" or confirmation button). Do note that the long shutter and metering method are grayed-out in movie mode.

The DISPlay button toggles the amount of info displayed on the LCD: No info, general info or all info (Playback) and display on, display info or LCD off (Shooting). Pressing the DISPlay button for longer than 1 second boosts the LCD brightness till the max (Unless, of course, it's already at the brightest setting).

Now let me tell you about the "Postcard resolution". It's essentially a photo 2 MP in size at Fine quality. You can choose to imprint the date or date and time, or turn imprinting off. The custom white balance allows you to take photos which look natural and is especially useful when none of the 5 preset WB options are suitable.

Since the SD550 is a point-and-shoot camera, the only other manual control (Besides custom white balance) is long shutter. You can change the shutter speed between 1 to 15 seconds; which is used mostly for night scenes. Noise reduction is automatically activated (and it cannot be turned off) when you select a shutter speed slower than 1.3 seconds.

You may not like your My Colors processed photo when it gets too messy so there's an option to save the original "untweaked" version of your photo.

Positive film makes all the colors (Red, green and blue) more vivid. You can make those 3 colors individually more vivid (Vivid red, vivid green, vivid blue). The lighter/darker skin tone can make people look more pale/tan in photos (Too bad there isn't an option to change skin tone by person, especially when taking group photos!).

Let's talk about the Color Swap and Color Accent features on the SD550. Color Swap allows you to change on color for another - but just one at a time. While Color Accent allows selection of one color as well. It'll then make the rest of the photo monochrome so your colored subject will stick out.

Here are examples of Color Swap and Color Accent:

 

 

By increasing tolerance, the colors closer to the selected color are maintained/swapped while decreasing tolerance gets you the opposite results. Tolerance value ranges from 5 and can be changed in 1 step increments.

Finally, there's a custom color feature which allows manual tweaking of the individual values of red, green, blue and skin tone in 1 step increments, from 2.

The power button (which lights up green when the camera is on) and shutter button with a wrapped around zoom lever are located on the top of the SD550. To the other side, there's a speaker.

 

One side of the SD550 has a wrist strap mount and A/V Out + USB 2.0 High-speed ports while the other side is bare.

The SD550 has a tripod mount and SD + battery slot at the bottom. The SD500 had no "open" switch for the SD/battery slot but thankfully, there's one here. But then again, it's gone on the SD700!

Shooting

The automatic mode on the SD550 is self explanatory - All settings except image size/quality are chosen by the camera. "Manual" mode is more of a programmed auto mode. The SD550 has 9 scene modes and I think it needs more (Some competition offer more than 20 scene modes), considering that there are no manual controls.

The SD550 has a refined user interface with new stuff such as a 3 x 3 framing grid, auto-rotate (Depending on camera orientation) and shutter speed is shown in camera shake alert.

Shutter speed is shown from 15 seconds till 1/125th of a second. Faster shutter speeds are not shown!

Let's find out more about the "sub-shooting modes", shall we? The Canon SD550 can go as close as 5 cm in macro mode which is not too shabby; digital macro enables you to get even closer with digital zoom though the lens is fixed at wide-angle.

While the camera manual tells you a brief description of scene modes (ie. Use portrait to emphasize a subject by blurring the background.), I'm now going to tell you more specific info based on my testing (Like what ISO the camera uses, preferred shutter speed, etc.)

Portrait sets the camera at ISO 50 and selects a smaller f-number to blur the background. Night snapshot uses a minimum shutter speed of 1/8 second and no longer in an attempt to reduce blurring caused by camera shake; If the flash is used, the picture is taken after it fires and not along with it.

Kids & pets uses 1-point center focusing and focuses somewhere near infinity to increase focusing speed and indeed the speed increase is noticeable. The kids & pets scene mode uses ISO 200 to make the shutter speed faster. Foliage makes greenery more natural looking by changing white balance and vividness.

Indoor, snow, beach and underwater change the white balance and exposure accordingly based on their names (ie. underwater changes white balance so photos taken while swimming or diving won't have a bluish cast). Fireworks will always use a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds with noise reduction (remember to bring a tripod!) and flips on the built-in filter.

In addition to scene modes, I'd surely appreciate at least some "priority" modes (Aperture and shutter priority). Too bad the SD550 has none.

The custom timer option lets you take 1 to 10 shots at a delay of 1 second to 30 seconds. If you don't want that, there's the usual 2 or 10 seconds self-timer.

Recording

Like the other Digital Ixus/ELPH cameras in the same line, the SD550 has one of the best movie modes on a digital camera, though you may need to use a high-speed memory card. You can take VGA movies at 30 FPS till up to 1 GB in Standard mode - That's only 8 minutes! You can increase the recording time by selecting another size/frame rate. Selectable movie size/frame rate in Standard mode:

Size - VGA (640 x 480) or QVGA (320 x 240)
Frame rate - 30 FPS (Smooth) or 15 FPS (Can be choppy)

Another option, the "Fast Frame Rate" mode, can take QVGA movies at 60 FPS up to 1 minute. By doing some simple calculations, I'm unable see why the 1 minute barrier is there since QVGA at 60 FPS still uses less space than VGA at 30 FPS.

A Compact movie option records movies at QQVGA (That's 160 x 120) and 15 FPS up to 3 minutes so you can attach them to e-mails. Something worthy of note is there's a My Colors movie mode which allows you to record movies using the My Colors feature I mentioned earlier on. Like a movie recorded in Standard mode, a My Colors movie can be up to 1 GB per clip and the size/frame rate is selectable.

Movies are recorded in AVI format, thus the large movie sizes and the reason movies always reach the 1 GB per clip limit! That means the SD550 can only record 8 minutes worth of VGA 30 FPS movie on a 1 GB card. Compare that to the Sony T30 which can do 12 minutes on a 1 GB card using the same settings (MPEG1 format) or the Casio Exilim z850 which can do 30 minutes with stereo sound (MPEG4 format)! The SD550 can use digital zoom while recording a movie since it does not require the lens to move. Digital zoom can cause loss of quality but it's not that obvious in a movie. So it's a personal decision whether or not to turn digital zoom off in movie mode.

Speaking of quality, the SD550's video quality is very good and audio was clear (No "whining" at all!).

Performance

The SD550 starts up in barely a second. It takes more or less one second to focus, making shot-to-shot speeds about 1 shot per 1.6 seconds. Shutter lag is almost unnoticeable, save for several occasions in low-light when the camera couldn't lock focus.

Based on my testing with a 1 GB SanDisk Ultra II SD, the Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH can fill up the memory card with photos at 2.2 FPS in continuous shooting drive. The lens goes from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.3 seconds. When it comes to powering down, the SD550's LCD switches off instantly but expect it to take a while to "defocus" the lens.

Image Quality

The Canon SD550 produces sharp but fairly noisy photos.


ISO 50 (f2.8, 4 seconds)


ISO 100 (f2.8, 2 seconds)


ISO 200 (f2.8, 1 second)


ISO 400 (f2.8, 1/2 second)

Noise is low at ISO 50 and 100 but goes up at ISO 200 and 400. As an SD550 owner, I use ISO 100 in normal shooting conditions and ISO 200 when I want to shoot without worrying about blur. I can bare with it but use ISO 400 "sparingly". Levels of chromatic aberration (Color fringing) were fairly low. Barrel distortion is not very visible, mild in a few photos and can be obvious in macro. Overall, image quality was slightly above average.

 

Photo gallery

Look out for full-sized photos, two more ISO tests and more in the Canon PowerShot SD550 photo gallery.

Playback

In playback, the Canon SD550 can playback stills and movies (With sound) as well as perform these functions: Protect image, rotate, record sound memos (Up to 1 minute), slideshow, print marking, direct printing (The Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH is PictBridge enabled), transfer marking and transition effects.

The transition effects are new to the SD550. You can choose from 2 effects or turn it off. The SD550 also features 3 new slideshow transition effects. While we're at this, I mind as well tell you about the slideshow display option. Choose to play all images in a slideshow or play them by date, folder, movies, stills or 3 custom settings that the camera will remember.

You can also zoom up to 10x into still photos taken and take a look around using the 4 directional buttons. Choose to see no info, basic info or lots of info (Though no shutter speed or aperture value is shown) about your photos. The SD550 has a playback histogram only.

Conclusion

The Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH is probably your average stylish 7 megapixel camera with 3x optical zoom. In my opinion, it shares the flagship position with the SD700 since it has more megapixels, a larger CCD and more powerful flash.

The big things about this little camera include a powerful flash and large LCD. Despite that, the LCD has low resolution. Now, the bad things include below average battery life, no optical image stabilization and no manual controls.

The SD550 has fast unlimited continuous shooting and an excellent movie mode. But the slow autofocus speed means the camera is initially slow. The Canon SD550's movie mode is limited to 1 GB. Overall, image quality was just above average.

Canon offers you two flagship Digital ELPHs: the SD550 and SD700 IS. I wouldn't recommend the SD550 because there are much better cameras out there. And while the SD700 addresses some issues, I would personally wait till Photokina 2006 which is just around the corner.

What's hot:

  • Powerful flash
  • Great LCD performance
  • Unlimited fast continuous shooting
  • Excellent movie mode
  • Fast read/write speeds
  • Improved user interface
  • Above average photo quality

What's not:

  • Below average battery life
  • No image stabilization
  • Easily scratched body
  • No manual controls
  • LCD is lacking resolution
  • Movies limited to 1 GB AKA 8 minutes
  • Red-eye
  • High noise levels at ISO 400, low-light
  • Fairly slow autofocus, shot-to-shot

Recommended accessories

  • Extra NB-3L battery
  • 512 MB high-speed SD card
  • LCD protector

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