Olympus' E-P1 message: It's not your father's Olympus, but remember that he had one

Olympus channels the ghost of cameras past to launch its first Micro Four Thirds interchangeable-lens compact.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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Looking only a bit like the original Micro Four Thirdsconcept design Olympus floated last September at Photokina, the company's retro interchangeable lens E-P1 debuts this year to ride the coattails of the 50th anniversary of the company's PEN film camera.

From the name, to the design, to the tagline etched on its top--"Olympus PEN since 1959"--it feels like a cross between an homage and a desperate reminder that Olympus was in the camera biz long before most digital photographers were born. That said, after a few days with a preproduction model, I think the design works, and if Olympus can pull off decent performance and photo quality (you can never tell from an early unit), it will probably carve itself a nice sized niche among style-, but not budget-conscious, enthusiasts.

Though they all include a full set of manual and semimanual exposure modes and other advanced features, Panasonic and Olympus have taken very different approaches to their Micro Four Thirds products, implicitly appealing to two diverse types of shooters. While Panasonic seems to be going for the technologically focused dSLR shooter looking for a more compact model, Olympus seems to be targeting the more aesthetically driven enthusiast who wants--and is willing to pay for--the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system in the more compact design of models like the Canon PowerShot G and Panasonic Lumix LX series.

Some key comparison specs versus the other two Micro Four Thirds models:

 Olympus E-P1Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Sensor (effective resolution)17.3mm x 13mm 12.3-megapixel Live MOS17.3mm x 13mm 12.1-megapixel Live MOS17.3mm x 13mm 12.1-megapixel Live MOS
Color depth12 bitsn/an/a
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 - ISO 6,400ISO 100 - ISO 3,200ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier2x2x2x
Continuous shooting3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
ViewfinderNoneElectronicElectronic
Autofocus11-area contrast AF23-area contrast AF23-area contrast AF
Metering324 zone144 zone144 zone
Shutter60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes
LCD230,000 dots, 3-inch fixed460,000 dots, 3-inch articulated460,000 dots, 3-inch articulated
Video (max resolution at 30fps)1,280x720 Motion JPEG AVINo1,280x720 AVCHD
Battery life (CIPA rating)300 shots300 shots300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches)4.7 x 2.8 x 1.44.9 x 3.3 x 1.84.9 x 3.3 x 1.8
Weight (ounces)11.8 (approx.)15.115.2
Mfr. Price$749.99 (body)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
n/a
$799.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
n/a
$1,499.95 (with 14-140mm f4.0-5.8 lens)

The E-P1 also includes Olympus' Art Filters, which in this camera you can apply to videos, as well as apply after shooting, to raw files as well as JPEG. Some of the filters will drop the video frame rate drastically because of the processing overhead--to as low as 10fps--but that tends to happen with filters like Grainy Film and the slow frame rate adds to the old-fashioned ambiance.

From a competitive standpoint, however, there are some big holes in the E-P1's feature set. For instance, low-light shooters should note there's no oncamera flash or AF-assist light. (Olympus is offering an optional, low-profile hot-shoe flash.) It lacks a viewfinder, optical or otherwise, and the add-on viewfinder only works with the 17mm lens. In movie mode, it lacks mechanical image stabilization, offering only electronic, and unlike the GH1 doesn't have a mic input. The lower-resolution LCD did seem a bit coarse, but some final tweaking of the firmware might ameliorate that. Of course, it's also available in a far cheaper configuration than Panasonic's video-supporting model.

The E-P1 integrates the latest generation of Olympus' image processing, TruePic V, that, according to Olympus, delivers better purples, an improved noise profile, and better sharpness. Olympus also makes a big deal about some of the playback features, including custom background music, as well as some simple operation modes, like Intelligent Auto.

On the flipside, the E-P1 is a lot more expensive than the current crop of cameras enthusiasts use to supplement or replace bulky dSLRs. Here's how it stacks up against those:

 Olympus E-P1Canon PowerShot G10Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sensor (effective resolution)17.3mm x 13mm 12.3-megapixel Live MOS1/1.7-inch 14.7-megapixel CCD1/1.63-inch 10.1-megapixel CCD
Color depth12 bitsn/an/a
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 - ISO 6,400ISO 100 - ISO 1,600ISO 80 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier2xn/an/a
Continuous shooting3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
1.3fps
n/a
2.5 fps
4 JPEG/3 raw
ViewfinderNoneOpticalNone
Autofocus11-area contrast AFContrast AFContrast AF
Metering324 zonen/an/a
Shutter60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes15-1/4000 sec; n/a60-1/2000 sec; n/a
LCD230,000 dots, 3-inch fixed461,000 dots, 3-inch fixed460,000 dots, 3-inch fixed
Video (max resolution at 30fps)1,280x720 Motion JPEG AVI640x480 H.264 MOV848x480 Motion JPEG MOV
Battery life (CIPA rating)300 shots400 shots380 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches)4.7 x 2.8 x 1.44.3 x 3.1 x 1.84.3 x 2.3 x 1.1
Weight (ounces)11.8 (approx.)14.19.1
Mfr. Price$749.99 (body)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
$499.99
(integrated f2.8-4.5 28-140mm-equivalent lens)
$499.95
(integrated 24-60mm f2.0-2.8 lens)

Because these models have lenses that completely retract into the body, they still have a size advantage over the E-P1 even equipped with a pancake prime like the 17mm. But there's the big advantage of the interchangeable lens system. Shooting with the camera feels very similar to photographing with both the LX3 and the G10, but you simply feel a bit cooler holding the E-P1. And Olympus is stressing that aspect by offering retro accessories for the strap and lens cap.

We expect to see a production-level model in July, about the same time it's expected to appear in stores.

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