By Eamon Hickey
First, a tiny bit of background: Like many, many others (notably, the publisher of this very website), I've been pining away for a small but serious digital camera for a decade or so now. (Yeah, a decade. Shame, shame on you, camera companies.) By "small but serious," I meant coat-pocketable or smaller, with DSLR-like image quality and, equally important, real responsiveness and controllability.
I've expressed this strong desire—I prefer not to describe my behavior as begging—to nearly all the big camera makers in one meeting or another over the years, and the nice folks at Olympus America, apparently remembering my ravings, gave me a short briefing on the new E-P1 a couple of weeks back. I only had it in my hands for about 15 minutes—nowhere near long enough to come to any conclusions about it—but I do have a few impressions, for whatever they're worth.
With the 17mm ƒ/2.8 pancake mounted, the E-P1 should be conveniently coat- or cargo-pocketable for most people (not pants pocketable). I wish it were 15% smaller yet (and told Olympus so), but with the 17mm, it's definitely in a different class of portability than even the smallest current DSLR. With the 14–42mm zoom, I think most people would say it's not conveniently coat-pocketable anymore, but it's still a fair bit more compact than a DSLR.
Made of stainless steel and aluminum, it feels polished and solid—what marketing folks like to call "premium"—but not Leica-premium. That's not a criticism—it's very well finished for a camera that sells for under $1,000. Though it uses a somewhat unusual dual thumb wheel control layout, rather than a thumb and forefinger wheel system, I think the E-P1's layout won't be meaningfully slower for manual operation (at least for me). I'll have to use it more, but my initial impression of the camera's magnified manual focus assist was also largely favorable—I think I could focus manually quite quickly in most conditions. I didn't check all the things I'd need to check to be able to tell whether some form of zone focusing is possible, so can't comment on that important issue.
I'm actually quite happy that the E-P1 includes reasonably sophisticated video capabilities. (Though I am no more young and was weaned on an old Minolta SRT-101, I'm a big fan of still/video convergence and have it in mind to write an essay explaining why, if I ever find the motivation.) Olympus showed me a fair bit of E-P1 video footage, which was very sharp, but I won't be able to know much else of significance until I can shoot my own footage under carefully controlled conditions.
Responsiveness is something that takes some reasonable amount of use to really suss out, but I'm initially optimistic. Olympus made a special effort to get shutter lag down into the range of a typical DSLR (i.e. under 100 milliseconds). Praise be to the camera gods, you can shoot raw images at three frames per second for ten shots before buffer stall. All very encouraging. My time with the camera was too limited to say anything concrete about the autofocus system, except that it was not obviously slow in any way. More testing definitely needed there.
On a matter of much smaller note, I thought the silver and black version was handsome. The beige version does not look better in person, in your humble reporter's completely subjective opinion.
My biggest concern with this camera is how well I will get along with using mainly the LCD for framing. (The optional OVF is perfectly okay, but I doubt I'd use it much—hinders pocketability.) I've been framing with LCDs for years, of course, with many point-and-shoots, but my expectations of those cameras were very much lower. Time will tell.
I could do a lot of the things I like to do with a camera with this little guy and just the 17mm. I'd be equally happy with a 14mm pancake. If Olympus (or Panasonic) also makes a thin normal or short tele—anything in the 25-to-35mm range—that opens to ƒ/2, they've made me happy. Maybe I'm just too easy. They revealed nothing of future plans, so I'm just singing in the wind here. I see this camera as an adjunct to my DSLR(s), not a replacement. For some things, the DSLR(s) will always be better.
So is the E-P1 my "small but serious" ideal, or Mike's DMD? Well, I don't know yet (and wouldn't begin to dare to speak for Mike), but I'm much more optimistic about it than about anything else I've seen before. Olympus has told me they'll try to get me a review sample as soon as circumstances allow. Can't wait.
Featured [partial] Comment by David Dyer-Bennet: "...We do not all agree. In particular, some think the lack of viewfinder is a killer, and the rest of us think the lack of viewfinder is fine. So which of us should Olympus listen to? (Yeah, I know, 'my' faction, for each value of 'my'....)"