Looking only slightly like the original Micro Four Thirds concept design Olympus floated last September at Photokina, the company's retro E-P1 debuts this year to ride the coattails of the 50th anniversary of the company's classic 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 business long before most digital photographers were born.
That said, we think the design works, and if Olympus can pull off decent performance and photo quality, it will probably carve itself a 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, with its DMC-G1, seems to be going for the technologically focused dSLR photographer 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 such as the Canon PowerShot G10 and Panasonic Lumix LX3.
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 such as Grainy Film and the slow frame rate adds to the old-fashioned ambience.
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 on-camera flash or AF-assist light. (Olympus is offering an 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 stabilisation, offering only electronic, and unlike Panasonic's GH1, it doesn't have a mic input. Of course, it'll also be far cheaper than the video-supporting GH1.
The E-P1 integrates the latest generation of Olympus' image processing, TruePic V, which the company claims delivers better purples, an improved noise profile and better sharpness. Olympus is also making a big deal about some of the playback features, including custom background music, as well as some simple operation modes, such as Intelligent Auto.
The E-P1 should be available around July, but UK prices haven't yet been announced. Check back later for some hands-on pics.