While trying to decide on how best to describe the S550, the word that kept coming to mind was "likeable". It's a relatively simple camera, and the design reflects this. The overall style is very unassuming, a simple rectangular shape with a minimum of extraneous decoration. The body is made of aluminium, and finished in a pleasant brushed texture. It is available in silver, dark blue or the gunmetal colour of my review sample. It is a very small camera, measuring just 90 x 53.5 x 22 mm, and weighs only 135g including the battery.
The control layout is very simple, with just a D-pad and four buttons on the back panel. Thankfully Nikon has opted for a normal four-way pad this time, rather than the unwieldy rotary control found on the S600 and S500. It is a lot less fiddly and frustrating to use than either of those models, and despite the small size it is very comfortable and easy to hold. Another welcome difference to some of the other S-series models is that the S550 has shooting priority, which means that half-pressing the shutter button cancels the menu and returns the camera to shooting mode, so you're far less likely to miss a spur-of-the-moment shot.
The controls are also quite straightforward, with a Mode button that selects between the various basic shooting options, including the smile-detection shutter, a high-ISO mode, movie mode, sound recording and a 15-program scene mode, as well as the basic set-up mode.
The main shooting menu is also very simple, with only seven entries over two pages, but it does include some useful and novel items, such as an interval timer, manual focus point selection, and a new feature called Distortion Control, which digitally corrects lens distortion at wide-angle zoom settings. I've seen this before on a couple of camera, particularly some recent Fujifilm models, but it's new to Nikon. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to work terribly well in this instance, over-correcting wide-angle barrel distortion at close range and producing pincushion distortion instead.
The Electronic Vibration Reduction system on the other hand works extremely well. This is a genuine digital image stabilisation system, rather than other "digital shake reduction" modes which just increase the ISO setting. Similar systems have been used on digital cameras for a while now, and the technology is quite well developed. It does result in a slight reduction in overall image quality and slower performance, but I found I was able to take blur-free shots at some very slow shutter speeds, as low as 1/15th of a second even at longer focal lengths.