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Cameras

Olympus' hackable phone-connected lens camera comes to the US

A competitor for the Sony QX1, Olympus' lens-style camera is designed to be customized.

Unlike the Sony QX1, you can rotate the phone mount on the A01. Lori Grunin/CNET

It feels like Sony's QX1 has been around forever, but that's probably because it shipped in the UK last September, while it didn't debut in the US until November. An interchangeable-lens model of the company's connected cameras , stripped-down models without an LCD that you operate via apps on your phone, Sony broke new ground in an attempt to work out a solution to the how-do-I-get-better-images-with-my-phone problem. In February, Olympus announced its similar but slightly more refined design in Japan; now it's finally made its way to the US and Canada -- sorry, no UK or Australia yet.

Slated to ship in July, I find the Olympus Air A01 less interesting as a consumer product than as a hackable camera. Formerly dubbed the Open Platform Camera, both the design specifications and the software developer's kit are publicly available for people to create custom solutions, going even further than Samsung's offering an application programming interface for its cameras. (Imaging Resource has a great discussion of the A01's Open Source aspects.)

As a camera, it improves on some of the design flaws of the QX1. For instance, the camera mounts to your phone with a spring-loaded plastic clamp like the QX1, but Olympus' holds the phone at an angle, and can rotate, while the QX1's similar clamp affixes in a rigidly vertical position. It will work with phones up to the size of the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Since it's based around a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mount rather than Sony's larger APS-C E-mount, the A01 is smaller both by itself and with a lens mounted on it (MFT lenses tend to be smaller than their APS-C equivalents'). Smaller is better, because I find connecting and configuring these types of devices akin to juggling. However, the trade-off is the smaller Four Thirds sensor in the A01 and a nonremovable battery that you charge via USB.

Otherwise, they're remarkably similar. The A01 incorporates the same 16-megapixel sensor that's in the OM-D E-M10, with mostly comparable specs. The A01 lacks image stabilization, another trade-off for size -- Olympus uses sensor-shift stabilization technology -- but Panasonic's compatible optically stabilized lenses should work with it.

Like most cameras it connects to your phone via Wi-Fi. The A01 has a QR code under the back cap which you photograph with your phone and the software handles the connection setup. There's a big (big!) thumb-operable shutter button on top, and you can use it detached from the phone, either simply separated or without the phone at all; it records to the internal microSD card and transfers JPEGs automatically when connected.

Olympus offers an assortment of apps that mimic the features in its standalone cameras, including the Color Creator app from the OM-D series.

The A01 will cost $300 for the body or come in a kit with the compact power zoom 14-42mm lens for $500. Thanks to a series of price drops, Sony's QX1 is only $200.

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