I've had both the Panasonic GF1 and Olympus E-P1 Micro 4/3rds cameras here for the past several weeks (the Panasonic for longer than the Olympus), so I thought I'd share a few of my reactions. Unfortunately, this post is likely to disappoint to some people because I haven't got much to say about image quality yet, for reasons I'll explain. If you're already deep into the task of learning to eke the best image quality out of one of these cameras, you're way ahead of me, and I won't be of any help to you. Sorry. I've been playin'.
However, on the good side, mine won't be our last word(s) on the subject (maybe not even from me). We've already published a field report of the GF1 written by Edward Taylor, and both Eamon Hickey and Ctein have been using E-P1's and are likely to weigh in on that camera in the near(ish) future (although that's not a promise; whether either of them wants to write about that camera, or any camera, is up to them). Still, I thought I might report a few of my own impressions, such as they are. I have not tested the cameras, merely used them. I'll proceed here by looking at a number of factors and picking which camera I think is better in each category. Then, tomorrow or Friday, I'll write a short summary of what the cameras are like to use and whether they meet my old "DMD" criteria, and talk a bit about my own personal choice between the two.
Warning: bloviation alert. This post goes on for a while.
A note about supply: it seems apparent at this point that Panasonic's camera division has problems fulfilling demand. This has been an intermittent but ongoing issue with the LX3 (which is however now in stock at B&H), and it has so far been a serious issue with the GF1 body and kits, which have been hard to find and are currently being offered at a significant premium on Amazon. I don't want to see that become a trend. (I haven't linked to a GF1 sale page for that reason; do what you want to, but I recommend waiting rather than paying extra. I know new cameras are very exciting and all that, but it's not so great that you should pay an extra $700 for it.) B&H is presently not even listing the body/20mm kit, and the body/zoom kit is listed as "out of stock." It's impossible to predict whether supply is going to be a permanent hassle with the GF1 or indeed with all Panasonic camera products forever, but the outlook for Christmas is not good. Panasonic is giving itself something of a questionable reputation where this is concerned.
Part I: E-P1 vs. GF1
Build quality: To kick things off in dramatically ambivalent fashion, this is a win for Olympus without exactly being a loss for Panasonic. The E-P1 has a gleaming silvery stainless-steel all-metal body like the beloved metal-bodied cameras of years past. Just what photographers have been clamoring for. Of course, now that we have what we've been saying we want, it won't be enough; that's human nature.
There is nothing wrong with the build of the more pedestrian Panasonic, which also uses a lot of metal and falls on the good side of solid, modern camera build quality. Paying a premium price for the GF1 doesn't feel out of place. Smaller cameras tend to naturally feel solid and robust, and both of these do. I have no complaint with the build of either camera.
Strap lugs: Trivial, I know, but I like real lugs rather than the near-ubiquitous slots, because a strap end on a ring through a lug will fall away from the camera more easily and get out of the way when you bring the camera up. Small potatoes, this, but the Olympus gets the nod.
Style: The more utilitarian boxiness of the GF1 is no match for the sleek, more overtly "designy" E-P1, with its historical cues, accent lines, gleaming finish, and elegantly tapered contours. And yet, I have to register a fondness for the pleasingly no-nonsense straightforwardness of the black-box Panasonic, too. Call this one a matter of personal preference. I'm personally not much of a fashionista, so I can do with either.
Autofocus: I used both cameras with a single central focus point, which I prefer. The GF1 focuses remarkably well, and is very satisfying in this regard. It focuses positively and quickly with a minimum of hunting, and it works great in remarkably low light. It does have a focus-assist light, but you'll be hard pressed to get it to come on—it has to be almost pitch dark before it kicks in. The GF1 focuses as fast as my DSLR in good light and faster in poor light.
As for the E-P1, it has been the victim of the internet's echo-chamber effect when it comes to focusing speed. You've read here, there, and everywhere that it's slow, slow, slow. It's simply not that bad. Rather than "slow," I'd say..."a tad slowish," that's all. It's a tick behind the GF1, which is a tick behind a pro DSLR, but what that does it put it into the realm of the noticeable, not into the realm of the irritating. It does "hunt" more than the GF1, although I'm not quite sure that's exactly the right term; rather, it seems to go through a quick, narrow-range in-and-out move as a regular protocol each and every time it focuses. It's quite rapid but does take more time than the GF1 does. But I would caution people interested in the E-P1 not to be put off by all the dire teeth-gnashing on the web. The E-P1 is still a good companion, just one with a somewhat more leisurely pace. I think few actual E-P1 owners are likely to be unable to do what they want with that camera in practice, and I doubt very many people would find the E-P1's operability any sort of ongoing annoyance, although the few who do will be featured online.
Still, a distinct win for the GF1.
Mechanical noise: The E-P1's shutter is quieter. The GF1's shutter sound is a bit on the emphatic side; it's a sharper, more distinct, somewhat cleaner noise. On the other hand, the E-P1 chirps a bit more with grindy AF noises here and there, and the GF1's crisp report contributes to its sense of greater responsiveness. I really can't decide which one I like better, so I'll call this a wash. Neither camera is digicam quiet, both are reasonably unobtrusive out in the wild.
Image noise: I haven't run any strict tests for noise; I'm happy to leave that to people who care about such things. But it bears mentioning that neither of these cameras is a high-ISO champ. Rather than being DSLR-quality, they seem to fall midway between DSLRs and modern up-to-the-minute small sensor digicams in this respect. It surprises me—why aren't they just as good as the sensors in DSLRs? I must say I don't quite buy the manufacturers' explanations as reported in Dan Havlik's article we linked to yesterday, but at the same time I'm at a loss to offer a plausible alternative explanation. Of course, I don't know exactly what the noise is like with, say, an Olympus E-620, or how the E-P1 compares, but I can think of no obvious reason why the E-P1 shouldn't be as good. I'm not a camera engineer, though.
Within the considerable caveats detailed under "Image quality" below, I would say that people should be prepared for adequate but not stellar high-ISO performance; my own tendency with both cameras, for what it's worth, has been to top out at ISO 800 as a regular thing and push it to 1250 or even 1600 when it's really necessary. The JPEGs don't look bad at that speed but they don't hold up all that well to 100% viewing on the monitor, either.
I might mention here a little feature that I've come to like about the GF1. When you push the ISO button, the speeds are arrayed in two rows, and you don't have to scroll through them all to skip from a low to a high setting; you can select vertically and jump from one row to the other. So what I do is switch between ISO 125 and ISO 800, for the most part, only departing from that when I have some special need to. So the same speed change that takes two button pushes on the GF1 takes nine button pushes on the E-P1. Another small thing, but I like it.
LCD screen: The Olympus's isn't bad, by "yesterday's" standards, but the Panasonic's is clearly better. Another unambiguous win for the GF1.
Much has been made on the internet of the lack of body-integral optical viewfinders on these cameras, to which I utter my mousey "meh." They are what they are. You deal or you don't. The live view viewing screens are worse than optical eyelevel finders in bright light, better in low light (except if you're trying to skulk around without disturbing the darkness, when the screen's radiant brightness might call attention to itself). I had trouble seeing the screen image when there was bright slanting afternoon sun behind me, but in most cases, from overcast days to bright indoor light, the viewing screens are fine and I've had no problems. I haven't tried any of the various shoe-mounted finders. I would counsel that if an eyelevel finder is so important to you, get a camera that's designed with one, rather than struggle to bodge and cobble up something usable on a camera intended to be used like a digicam. Up to you.
Responsiveness: Just as the E-P1's AF is just a tick behind the Panasonic's, so the E-P1's overall sense of responsiveness is noticeably not as good. The E-P1's shutter button has just the merest bit longer travel and just a twinge more lag, making it seem more languid. Not by much. I'm not convinced the GF1 is a lot faster, but it feels faster. I think this is more a matter of all of the GF1's various impressions adding up to an overall feeling of greater alacrity than it is indicative of any real weakness on the part of the E-P1. But the GF1 wins here too, no doubt about it. The GF1 might not be the fastest camera you've ever used, but it inspires confidence.
Lenses: Again, this surprises me, because Olympus is a very experienced lensmaker with some truly stellar zooms in its regular 4/3rds arsenal—in fact, the awesome 14–35mm ƒ/2 might well be the best normal camera lens you can buy from any maker, all things considered. So what accounts for the fact that Panasonic, of all companies, has come up with a better Micro 4/3rds pancake lens? I have no plausible explanation here, either.
The M. Zuiko's manual focus feel is nicer, with a more "oily" or "lubricated" damped feel as opposed to the drier, though still smooth feel of the Lumix's manual focus ring.
And yet there's little question in my mind. The 17mm is more petite, and more stylish—prettier. But the 17mm is a stop and a half slower than the Lumix G, and only a little wider. It isn't a bad lens.
The 20mm, on the other hand, fully meets my notion of an ideal lens for this format. It is the right focal length; it is the right speed (truly fast, rather than fast enough); it's the right size; it performs very well wide open, and the corners clean up with just a little stopping down—really, all is well by ƒ/2, and at ƒ/2.8 the lens clearly bests the Olympus offering at its widest setting. Furthermore, it has a nice, smooth tonality, pleasing sharpness, and, in my opinion, extremely good bokeh (out-of-d.o.f. blur), even when "stressed." The bokeh is excellent with the lens wide open and focused close. Nothing about this lens bugs me, and that's saying something. I'll make no bones about it, I love this lens.
One more for the GF1. But wait, I'll have more to say about this in Part II.
Ergonomics: I prefer the GF1, which feels "right" to me. This is somewhat curious, because the cameras aren't all that much different, and I rather like Olympus's captive mode wheel and elegant little thumb roller, which has a luxe feel. But somehow the E-P1's handling doesn't quite gel as well. I like the Panasonic's on-off slider better, its hand position is more obvious and a bit more comfortable, the control wheel doesn't move accidentally like it's possible to do with the E-P1's roller, and if you do video, you're going to love the handy, always-ready video button. I even like the GF1's battery/card compartment door operation a little better, if that's not taking this too far. The GF1 just coheres better, feels more natural and familiar. At least to me. I give it the nod here.
Built-in flash: The GF1, of course, has one, and the Olympus does not. I suppose I need to record this as a win for the Panasonic, even though I don't use flash and don't care either way. Suit yourself on this score.
IS: The Panasonic uses in-lens IS, and the Olympus uses body-integral IS. Panasonic presumably chose the in-lens route because it has a history of making OIS lenses for earlier products. It makes little sense with a Micro 4/3 camera, however. Canon, to name one prominent example, has several good reasons for sticking with in-lens IS: because its IS-equipped lenses can be used on film cameras (and indeed, were originally conceived for film cameras) and Canon needs to make professional superteles, which allegedly benefit from the in-lens strategy. But nobody is going to use a 600mm lens on a Micro 4/3 camera, at least not as a regular thing, and there are no film cameras that Micro 4/3 lenses fit. There's no single advantage I can think of to justify Panasonic's choice here.
Olympus's body-integral strategy is simply the better choice. It's hard enough finding the right lens to use without worrying whether it also has built-in IS. The 20mm ƒ/1.7, for instance, isn't an OIS lens; for OIS, with the GF1, you have to go to the zoom.
Solid win for Olympus, no question.
Software: The Panasonic comes with a app called SilkyPix, and the Olympus with one called Olympus Master 2. May I just stipulate here that I'm an idiot, and don't know what I'm talking about? I'm bad with computer software. I don't cotton to it, nor it to me. Consequently I don't try hard enough to master new programs when I'm supposed to. I especially don't make any effort when I know for absolute certain that an IRS agent with a whip couldn't force me to use the program in question on a regular basis going into the future. So I concede that these two applications just can't possibly be as lame and useless as they appear to be to me based on a cursory and bored first glance and a few petulant half-hearted trials. They can't be—right? Because if faced with a choice of working day in, day out in one of these environments or picking up trash by the side of the freeway with a pointy stick guarded by a fat man with a shotgun and a big wad of tobacco in his cheek, I would need time to decide. They both seem like they'd be torture, but least in a chain gang I'd be outdoors.
Now, as sure as it will rain, there must be legions of people out there who are fully versed in the nuances of each of these programs, and love them like I love my dog, and have used them with great personal, artistic, and commercial success for years, whom I have just wounded with my irresponsible superficial ignorant comments, and who will now write in to inform me how great these programs are and to tell me that I am an idiot and don't know what I'm talking about. Even though I already stipulated that.
Which brings me to...
Image quality. I Don't Know.
Right, I'm sorry, I haven't figured this out yet. This is the most important thing for a camera, but I've just been looking at JPEGs, because I haven't worked out a raw workflow that I'm happy with for either camera. I've been dabbling.
I've also reached a personal philosophical crossroads recently whereby I've realized I need to decide whether I am going to stick with ACR come what may and judge cameras based on how well they work with the Adobe product, or do the work of finding the best raw converter to use in the service of every specific individual camera I try. I've been immersed in investigating raw converters. This side-track does the present discussion no good. I have, however, taken a series of identical shots with both these cameras and carefully filed away the raw files, so I can do IQ comparisons someday.
I will just say that the Olympus E-P1 seems to yield files that are clearly more pleasing than what I'm getting from the Panasonic, with the exception of a distracting purple fringing on objects against bright light, which needs attention in post-processing—which is a bother.
As to whether this is probative I can't say, but I'm guessing not.
Coming soon(ish): Part II: In use, and my pick
(Thanks to Jeff G.)
-Source of the cameras: Panasonic, reader loan; Olympus, manufacturer loan