While not as flexible a design as a flip-and-twist articulated LCD, Sony's tiltable displays are good for shooting at odd angles. The A550's display is otherwise pretty comparable with those of the competition. If you frequently use live view, you'll appreciate the A550's fast live-view autofocus, as well as the 'MF check LV' mode, which not only magnifies the focus area but also adjusts the displayed exposure so that you can actually see what you're doing. While live view displays only 90 per cent of the scene -- that's even less than the optical viewfinder -- the MF check LV mode displays 100 per cent.
Shoot to impress
While not bursting with novel features, the A550 does have a couple of interesting capabilities. 'Auto high dynamic range' is a variation on the company's 'hand-held twilight' mode, one of the few things we liked in the company's Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 superzoom. Auto HDR snaps two sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with 'optimal' highlight and shadow detail.
Auto HDR doesn't offer quite as much control as we'd like, though. You can manually select the amount of the bracket at up to 3 stops in 1.5-stop increments, or leave it in auto, but the feature's limited to two shots and doesn't save the individual frames -- just the combined result and only as a JPEG. But it does seem to work better for extending the dynamic range than Sony's D-range optimizer, and the fully automatic setting doesn't override your ISO sensitivity setting, as we'd expected it would. It adds a couple of seconds onto the shot-to-shot time, however, as it processes and saves the image.
The camera also includes a 'speed priority continuous advance' mode, which forgoes continuous focus and exposure adjustments -- they're fixed on the first shot -- to boost the frame rate to 7 frames per second, up from the rated 5fps. While it makes the camera sound like it outclasses the competition on a features chart, this mode has pretty limited usefulness. To stay in focus, the subject needs to either be moving in such a way that it always remains the same distance from you, or always be beyond the lens' infinity-focus distance, and the lighting on the subject needs to be consistent as well.
The shortcomings of the special speed mode don't seem very important, though, because the A550 does pretty well without it. It powers on and shoots in 0.4 seconds. To focus and shoot in good lighting takes about 0.3 seconds, and it's still a pretty zippy 0.7 seconds in dim light. Two sequential shots run at about 0.7 seconds -- a hair slower for raw--which rises to about 0.9 seconds with flash enabled. Burst shooting runs at about 4.3 frames per second.
Although the A550 has the same 14.2-megapixel resolution as the cheaper Alpha DSLR-A380, the A550's Exmor CMOS sensor delivers much cleaner images at all ISO sensitivities than the CCD used by its sibling. They're sharp with solid exposures, at least until ISO 400. ISO 800 looks very good on our high-end, colour-calibrated monitor but slightly noisy on our cheap, standard-issue display.