A great LCD for live view makes stepping up easy.
The heavy action in DSLRs lately has been in the step-up category. These cameras take entry-level models a notch further with improved imaging performance and extra capabilities, notably video capture. The Canon EOS Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000, for example, are aimed at buyers who want more capability than a basic DSLR offers, but don’t want to spring for the prices of a Canon EOS 50D or Nikon D90.
Sony’s new 14.2MP Alpha 550 ($950, street, body only) takes a different tack to attract these photographers. While it doesn’t offer video, it does give the competition a run for the money with other features, notably a faster burst rate (5 frames per second, versus 3.4 and 4 fps respectively for the T1i and D5000) and a greatly superior live-view system.
But this new Sony comes in at a steep (more than $300) price disadvantage to its Canon and Nikon counterparts, and couldn’t quite match their performance in other areas like low-light AF speed and ISO range.
Shines In Bright Light
Not that the A550 didn’t perform well in our tests in the Pop Photo Lab. In AF speed, it beat the competition in bright light. At the brightest part of our test, its 9-point AF system focused in a scant 0.28 second, slowing a bit to 0.48 second at EV 6, about the same as a brightly lit living room. Below EV 6, though, it trailed the Canon and Nikon, and could autofocus down to only EV 0, while its rivals made it down to the moonlit level of EV –2.
As far as ISO sensitivity goes, the A550 fared fairly well. It reaches up to ISO 12,800, though noise was Unacceptable in our test at that setting—even after Sony’s aggressive noise reduction, which ate up more than 500 lines of resolution compared with lower ISOs. Of its competitors, only the Canon goes up as high as ISO 12,800, where noise is also rated Unacceptable but to a lesser degree, while retaining hundreds more lines of resolution than the Sony.
At the other end of the sensitivity scale, the Alpha 550 bottoms out at ISO 200, while its competitors reach down to ISO 100. The T1i showed lower noise than the A550 at every ISO they have in common except ISO 6400, where they tied.