A year after the launch of the 15.1-megapixel EOS 500D, Canon has updated it with the EOS 550D. Now you get 18 megapixels and, more importantly, the high-definition movie mode at last comes with a proper set of frame rates. Canon's also hiked the sensitivity up to ISO 6,400 in its aim to 'redefine the boundaries of the consumer digital SLR'. At around £700 for the body only, and about £800 with the 18-55mm kit lens, the 550D might redefine the boundaries of your wallet, too.
Is there anything this camera doesn't do? Its resolution is the highest of any non-full-frame dSLR, and Canon's 1,920x1,080-pixel HD movies trounce Nikon's 1,280x720-pixel flicks.
The problem with the 500D was that it could only manage 20 frames per second at a 1080p resolution, which is rather like having a three-cylinder Ferrari, but the 550D offers 30fps, 25fps and 24fps, making it much easier for serious film-makers to match the frame rate to the medium the footage is going to be used on. You can use auto or manual exposure controls in the movie mode, and there's a socket for an external mic, to bump up the sound quality.
Stills photography's not been neglected either. There's the boost in resolution, as well as the extra-high ISO, which can be specially extended past ISO 6,400 up to ISO 12,800. Increasing the resolution and maximum ISO at the same time is a bold, and perhaps dangerous, move. Technically, it means the individual photosites should be smaller and the noise worse, but Canon's done some clever stuff with on-chip noise reduction and produced a rather exceptional level of image quality at these high ISOs. It looks like this is one boundary the 550D really has redefined.
It's a great camera to use, too. The diminutive plastic body isn't really in the same league as that of the more expensive EOS 50D or EOS 7D, but it's cheaper, lighter and very well designed. Beginners can use the LCD's interactive interface, while more experienced photographers can adjust the white balance, drive mode, metering pattern and ISO with buttons on the body and a spin of the control wheel. No consumer dSLR is better designed than the 550D.
Megapixels aren't everything
That jump to 18 megapixels may mean the 550D has between 4 and 6 megapixels more than most of its rivals, but image quality isn't just about megapixels. Maybe it's Canon's low-cost 18-55mm kit lens, or maybe it's the way EOS consumer cameras process JPEGs, but the 550D's fine detail has a slightly soft look that undermines its technical advantage. The extra resolution's probably worth having just for its own sake, but don't expect to see much of a real-world advantage.
The 18-55mm kit lens is also something of a weak link. It suffers more than most from edge softness, chromatic aberration and distortion, and the 3x zoom range is pretty restrictive for movies. You can get the 550D with the same 18-135mm lens supplied with the 7D, but this pushes the price up to around £1,000, which dumps the 550D in the middle of some pretty serious competition.
A longer zoom range is certainly a better solution than the 550D's new 'movie crop' mode (a first for EOS dSLRs), which gives you a 7x digital zoom function but uses just a 640x480-pixel area in the middle of the sensor.
The Canon EOS 550D is a great little camera to use and, on paper at least, it blows the competition away. Its HD movie mode and high-ISO performance are especially impressive. It's not cheap, though, and that 18-megapixel sensor might not give you the boost in definition you're hoping for.
Edited by Charles Kloet