There was a disturbance in the force today. Olympus disturbed it in a big way by managing to produce a solid, if not outright high-quality advertising campaign and supporting website called The Pen Ready Project, with the slogan "Pack Small. Shoot Big."
The site is there to promote Olympus' latest µ4/3rds camera, the E-PM1. As I wrote about in an earlier blot post this particular model is another example of refining the camera down to its essential essence, an image capturing device small and light enough to carry discretely yet with a large high-quality sensor (very much larger than the overwhelming majority of fixed-lens point-and-shoots over which it sits) and the critical ability to change its lens.
What makes this remarkable is the price of the camera plus kit zoom lens, an M.Zuiko 14-42mm 1:3.5-56 Mk 3: $500 ($499.99 if you insist). Price-wise this slots neatly right on top of the classic digital point-and-shoots. For $500 you can get a very well appointed point-and-shoot, with long zoom lenses (20-to-1 and more), movable LCDs, and more, but they all fall short in two critical areas; the sensors are very tiny compared to the E-PM1s and the lenses are fixed.
There's only two competitors on the market for this camera right now at this price point; one from Panasonic and one from Sony.
The Panasonic entry, the GF3, is diminutive and capable like the E-PM1, and has a 12MP 4/3rds sensor just like the E-PM1. The fatal problem with the GF3 is the price; it's $200 more with the same type of kit lens.
The Sony entry, the NEX-5n, is far more interesting. It sits at $700 ($200 more, just like the Panasonic) with its own 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 Sony E-Mount lens. I should note that the Sony focal length matches the Olympus focal length (35mm equivalent of 28mm-84mm for Olympus, 27mm-83mm for Sony).
The NEX-5n has a 16MP sensor, which on paper looks more and better than the E-PM1's 12MP, but when you do the simple math, you find the pixel pitch between the Olympus and the Sony are the same. And in spite of the claim that Sony has better pixie dust sprinkled on its sensor, that means the performance of the sensors are essentially the same. Which, from what I've seen, is excellent on both counts.
What do you get for the additional $200 required to get the Sony? A bigger sensor (APS-C), a tiltable LCD, and a bit of magnesium across the top of the body. There are additional built-in features such as a focus peaking aid for manual focus lenses (a feature we've been asking Olympus forever for), 24p video (for those who want that 'cinematic' look in their videos), and a possibly interesting HDR capability (note that I'm no fan of HDR).
You also get very big lenses to go on the front. APS-C sensors seem to demand glass every bit as large as what you find on the front of APS-C DSLRs. There's a reason the body looks so small in comparison to the lens, the lens is that big. And if you want fast glass, the lenses get even bigger and heavier than equivalent µ4/3rds lenses.
The Sony and the Olympus provide true choice at this price level in the current crop of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The Sony NEX-5n is a strong competitor, one that Olympus will ignore at its peril. The Panasonic, however, is not. Due to the GF3's much higher entry price (equal to the NEX-5n) it is dead on arrival. The Olympus and Sony are both exciting models, and you the consumer have to do your homework to deterimine which model will satisfy your particular needs.
But what I like about the E-PM1 is that for once, finally, Olympus has truly nailed a camera spot. They nailed the size, they nailed the overall design and feature set, they nailed the price, and they nailed the marketing promo. This may be an example of the law of averages finally coming out on their side, but I won't be that cynical. I really think somebody at Olympus is finally thinking and executing. For once. And it's refreshing and enjoyable. I don't know if this is the kind of camera I would buy, but it's certainly the kind of camera I could recommend without reservation.
Well done, Olympus!