Sitting in the middle of Sony's somewhat overcrowded digital SLR line-up, the Alpha DSLR-A550 is available without a lens (£550), with an 18-55mm lens (£620), and with both an 18-55mm and 55-200mm lens (£760). The A550 has a slightly different and less-expensive sibling, the Alpha DSLR-A500. As well as a resolution of 14.2 megapixels, rather than 12.3, the A550 has a higher resolution LCD -- the same one used on the Alpha DSLR-A700 and Alpha DSLR-A900 -- and a faster burst option.
The A550 is heavier and bulkier than its lower-end siblings, although it's still lighter than the competition. It also has a much better grip design than its stablemates. Its brethren are about three-quarters height, which feels much less secure than the A550's full-height grip.
While the A550 feels solidly built, its plastic housing gives you a cheaper impression than similarly priced models like the 50D did. Sony doesn't make good use of the extra space either, with too many buttons and labels unnecessarily crowding the body. For instance, the 'smart teleconverter' -- digital zoom -- doesn't belong on a mid-range camera like this, and the 'D-range optimizer' doesn't really require a dedicated button. They just get in the way when you're trying to identify the drive-mode, ISO-sensitivity, exposure-compensation and exposure-lock buttons, which all feel identical.
Usually, more buttons make for a more streamlined shooting experience, but the A550 seems designed for LCD-based shooting, rather than viewfinder shooting. On one hand, the viewfinder displays the image-stabilisation status -- bars show how close to steady the camera is -- and will indicate if the lens is in manual-focus mode. But it fits that information in by trading off more traditional elements, such as ISO sensitivity. That means you have to look at the back display to change it.
The viewfinder prompts mixed reactions as well. On one hand, it displays the focus indicators as large boxes, which is a welcome switch from the tiny dots favoured by viewfinders on cameras that are a step down in price. But the viewfinder is small with a low magnification factor. And, since the LCD extends out slightly past the eye cup, you actually have to cram your face up against the camera to see through it. We've left cheek prints all over it. No, not that kind of cheek -- behave yourself.
Usually on dSLRs with buttons on the top right, they're placed sufficiently far forwards to be easily reached with your forefinger. On the A550, they're set closer to the camera's back, where you can't comfortably reach them with either your thumb or forefinger, unless you lower the camera. On its cheaper models, Sony puts controls for the ISO sensitivity and drive modes on the navigation switch on the back of the camera. We think that placement works better than the three hard-to-reach buttons on the top of this one.
The 'Fn' button on the back pulls up drive mode, flash settings, autofocus mode, autofocus area, ISO sensitivity, metering, flash compensation, white balance and other settings. But the switch you use to navigate them feels slightly too flat, and lacking in tactile feedback. We frequently ended up pressing the autofocus button while moving around the options.