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The Olympus E-P1 Is Sexy, But Is It Worth the Hype?

What it is:
The Olympus PEN E-P1 is the company's first Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera -- a miniaturized alternative to a digital SLR (DSLR) based on a tech standard developed in cooperation with Panasonic. The physical design and name are throwbacks to the half-frame film cameras Olympus produced from the '50s through the '80s. The E-P1, priced at $799, includes a 14-42-millimeter, f3.5-5.6 zoom lens (equivalent to 28-84 mm on a traditional film camera).

Why it's different: The E-P1's retro styling stands out among other DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras. The compact body is a result of the MFT system, which reduces bulk by forgoing an SLR's internal mirror and prism for through-the-lens viewing. The result is a camera significantly smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and the photo quality that comes from a large image sensor. The only other MFT cameras on the market are Panasonic's G1 and GH1, which boast similar size reductions, but have a traditional DSLR shape.

What we like: We simply love the E-P1's vintage looks. And since it easily fits inside a coat pocket or small bag, we're more likely to take the camera out and about. Another benefit of its condensed size is that the E-P1 is far less noticeable in public, enabling you to inconspicuously capture slice-of-life moments. Sure, you could say the same about a point-and-shoot camera, but in terms of image quality, the E-P1 is definitely a step up.

The E-P1's 12.3-megapixel sensor produces images with natural colors and fine details. At higher ISO (light sensitivity) settings, images do exhibit some noise, but it has a very film-like grain quality, and is comparable to that of entry-level DSLRs like the Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000. Having used both the 14-42mm kit lens and the short, 17mm pancake lens ($299) for hundreds of shots, we have very little to complain about in terms of image quality.

The E-P1 also includes several "art filters" that let you apply post-processing effects to your images in-camera or on your computer using the included software (if you shoot in the RAW, or unprocessed, file format). It may sound like a novelty feature, but some of the effects (pinhole and grainy black-and-white, in particular) produce wonderful results. Best of all, these effects, as well as a live preview of your exposure, can be seen in real time on the camera's three-inch LCD screen.

Lens selection is another high point for the E-P1. Though there are only two official Olympus lenses, Panasonic's four MFT models work on the E-P1, as well. Additionally, numerous adapters allow you to use lenses made for the more traditional, Four Thirds-format SLRs from Olympus and Panasonic. Other adapters support the Olympus OM-mount lenses and Leica M- and R-mount lenses -- though only in manual-focus mode. Third-party adapters are also on the way for Canon and Nikon lenses, making the E-P1 one of the most compatible cameras out there. (Check out the lens-matching simulation here.)

Among its features, the E-P1's sleeper hit is the sound quality when recording movies. The 720p HD video (at 30 frames per second) looks great, but the sound is hands-down the best we've heard recorded with a built-in mic (check out some sample videos at Vimeo). We recorded a live (and extremely loud) music concert less than five feet from the main speaker. Not only was there no distortion, but each instrument on stage sounded crystal clear. It seems that for the E-P1, Olympus has leveraged its years of experience making quality audio recorders.

What we don't like:
The E-P1 lacks both an optical viewfinder and a built-in flash. Composing images on the LCD screen isn't a problem, but not being able to turn it off and use a viewfinder to conserve power is somewhat of a downer, especially given the mediocre battery life (rated for roughly 300 shots per charge). Also, the 230,000-pixel screen resolution is lower than on the latest batch of DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras, but still usable.

The missing flash is a bigger disappointment. (As with other advanced cameras, you can attach a large external flash.) Granted, most built-in flash systems aren't really that great, but the extra light for filling in shadows during the day or taking a casual snapshot at night is great to have in a pinch. Also, without a flash, the camera can't provide illumination to assist the auto-focus system in low-light situations, though manual focus is always an option.

Actually, the camera's focusing ability is its biggest weakness. In general, auto-focus can feel painfully slow, regardless of lighting conditions. This is fine for still photography, but capturing moving subjects requires a bit more ingenuity on your part. We found that using a mix of manual and pre-focusing techniques worked quite well; but this is far more effort than it should be, especially for the person stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera.

Also frustrating is the in-camera menu system -- one of the worst we've ever used. Some features that should be front and center, such as the "Super Fine" jpeg setting, are completely buried. Other menu choices are worded in such a way that you may never really know what they do without looking them up -- such as "Gradation – High Key," which acts as an auto-brightness setting despite your exposure. And then there's the baffling difference between "RLS Priority S" and "RLS Priority C" (ways to manually take a picture before the single and continuous auto-focusing have completed, respectively).

Similarly, the two programmable buttons on the camera cannot be set to initiate auto-focus (a common feature on DSLRs), and the dedicated exposure compensation button, which lets you override the set exposure by small increments, cannot be reassigned to control any other functions. Given its convenient location near the shutter button, we'd love to use it as a quick one-touch button to switch between auto- and manual-focus modes.

A firmware update could fix the menus, and possibly improve the auto-focus, as well. But as is, the E-P1 seems like it was rushed out the door a bit too early.

Is it worth they hype?
Sandwiched between a bulky DSLR and a higher-end point-and-shoot, the Olympus E-P1 is in a class of its own. It's a fantastic camera for advanced users who want a more portable alternative to their DSLR. The camera definitely has some quirks, but if you're comfortable using manual controls and external flash units, there's nothing here that you can't work around in order to produce stunning results. Those weaned on point-and-shoots but looking to graduate to something more sophisticated may be better off with a camera like the Canon G10 or the Panasonic LX3 -- at least until Olympus can smooth out the menu and focus issues.

Regardless of the shortcomings, Olympus should be commended for creating such a fascinating, groundbreaking camera. From its unique art filters to striking retro looks to impressive video capabilities, the E-P1 is hard to put down.

Cost/Where to get it: You can get the Olympus EP-1, $799, here.

Tags: features, hypecheck, mft, micro four thirds, MicroFourThirds, olympus, olympus e-p1, OlympusE-p1, photography, top

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