With the introduction of the Alpha DSLR-A550 to its DSLR lineup, Sony's product offerings in this arena take on a fairly distinct hierarchy in terms of a target audience: the A230, 330 and 380 models to entice entry-level buyers; the A500 and 550 for "a higher level of performance" that tops off the consumer line, and the A700 (for "advanced amateurs and professionals alike") leading off the prosumer and beyond class that includes the full-frame sensors of the A850 and flagship A900.
The A550 features two live view modes that include face detection and "smile shutter" technology, an "all-new 14.2 megapixel Exmor CMOS image sensor and BIONZ image processing engine" that "delivers significantly improved image quality with high-sensitivity shooting at up to ISO 12800," two distinct dynamic range management options, an "integrated on-screen Help Guide and Graphic Display," and a 3.0 inch LCD monitor that can be tilted through 180 degrees of movement. There is no video component.
After a quick round of shooting this morning and a brief "getting acquainted" shoot late yesterday afternoon, the A550 so far seems to perform to the norms of the entry level/more advanced consumer class DSLR - AF acquisition speed and shutter lag appear good. Power up time is quick. Default color is good although image sharpness might be just a bit soft for my taste - but the A550 has settings to adjust sharpness, saturation and contrast that we'll be exploring in more detail in the complete review.
The 18-55 f3.5/5.6 kit lens is of average speed for the class, and has some barrel distortion at the wide end; there is also some purple fringing in high contrast boundary areas that becomes noticeable only at extreme enlargements (so far), but overall the lens acquits itself well.
So, after the briefest of trial periods no obvious red flags have popped up with the A550. Our complete review of the camera will follow in a few weeks, but based on my time with it the A550 looks to be a solid performer. Only time will tell if that initial judgment holds up.