The digital SLR market is a divided into three main strata, separated by price, specification and target audience. At the lowest end you have the entry-level models such as the Nikon D40 (£244 inc. lens), the Sony A200 (£300 inc. lens), the Olympus E-420 (£305 inc. lens), the Pentax K-m (£370 inc. lens), and the Canon EOS 1000D (£470 inc. lens). At the top end of the market you find the serious professional cameras such as the Olympus E-3 (£1,115 body only), the Sony A900 (£1,688 body-only), the Nikon D3 (£2,830 body-only) and the Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III (£5,300 body-only).
It's in the middle ground, in the "semi-pro" area of the market that things start to get complicated, with strata within strata at a number of different price points, but here too there are key models from each manufacturer. One of the best bargains is the excellent Pentax K20D (£560 body-only), Sony has its impressive Alpha A700 (£565 body-only), Nikon has the gorgeous D300 (£770 body only), and Olympus has the under-rated E-520 (£354 body-only). It is into this highly competitive area that Canon has recently launched its new EOS 50D at a price of £830 body-only, or £1,040 with the 17-85mm IS lens. Even with a 15.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, live monitor view and 6.3fps continuous shooting speed, at a time when camera prices are rising and consumer's belts are tightening, the 50D is going to have to be very, very good to succeed against such strong competition.
Based on first impressions alone, it certainly looks and feels like it's in with a strong chance. The 50D's body is basically the same as its immediate predecessor, last year's EOS 40D, and like most semi-pro models the 50D is a big, heavy camera. It measures 145.5 x 107.8 x 73.5mm and weighs approximately 730g body-only, exactly the same size as the 40D but 10g lighter. It's slightly smaller and lighter than the Nikon D300 (825g), but larger and heavier than the Sony A700 (690g). The weight reflects its build quality, which is, as one might expect, outstanding. The body is made from magnesium alloy, and feels immensely solid, as do all the controls and fittings. The only slight weak point id the plastic hinge of the battery hatch, but even this is far from flimsy.
The memory card and battery hatches have rubber O-ring seals, and are described as "water resistant", which means light rain or splashes, not a good soaking. Although the camera is reasonably well protected against dust and moisture, Canon does not make the same environmental protection claims for the 50D as it does for its full-frame cousin the 5D Mk II (which I hope to be reviewing next week). In this respect it is inferior to the Pentax K20D