There are currently only four manufacturers producing APS-C format digital SLRs. In order of their respective market shares they are Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax. While Pentax seems content to plod along with its two percent share of the market and its small but excellent range of entry-level and semi-pro models, the other three brands are involved in a cut-and thrust battle, launching new cameras into ever smaller niches, seeking to fill every possible gap in the market. The past year has seen Canon's leading share of the DSLR market drop from around 50 per cent to just over 40, while rivals Nikon and Sony are gaining ground with some very strong products such as the D5000, Alpha A500 and A550.
Canon's response has been to expand its range of consumer cameras especially in the mid-range area, launching the 15-megapixel EOS 500D towards the end of last year, and now following it up with a new mid-range model, the EOS 550D. With a newly designed 18.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, 1080p HD video recording and the sharpest monitor of any current DSLR it has an impressive specification, handily trumping the D5000 and Alpha A550 in all the crucial areas except price. The Nikon D5000 is currently selling for around £500 body-only, while the Sony A550 is around £550. The EOS 550D is available for just under £700 body only, or around £750 with the kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S image-stabilised lens.
In terms of overall design the EOS 550D is, unsurprisingly, very similar to the EOS 500D. The body is the same light but tough polycarbonate plastic over a steel chassis, and the physical dimensions are almost identical at 128.8 x 97.3 x 62mm. The 550D is approximately the same weight too, weighing 526g body-only but including battery and memory card, making it quite a bit smaller and lighter than the either the Nikon D5000 or the Sony A550. The handling and balance of the camera are as good as you'd expect from Canon, with a large rubber-coated handgrip and a large thumb-grip area on the back. There are a couple of minor differences to distinguish the 550D from the A500, but they are mostly cosmetic. The shape and layout of some of the rear panel controls has been changed, in my opinion for the better, and the main mode dial is now black rather than silver. It's not much, but every little helps.