Will the Olympus E-1's all-digital design set a new standard?
At first glance, the E-1's black body seems to share a great deal with the older Olympus Camedia E-20n, a 5MP ZLR with a fixed 4X optical zoom now selling for about $1,250. But the E-1 is built with a more durable magnesium-alloy body, and has splash-proof seals on both the body and lenses. So this camera should be able to handle its share of abuse, and while it's heavier than the older E-20n, we found it balances nicely with the 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 lens, one of four initially introduced with the camera. Most buttons were also easy to find, but scattered around the camera as on the E-20n. The locking-mode button situated on the camera's top right sets shutter, aperture, program, and manual modes. The other half of the dial is empty, almost begging to be used for quick access to other controls and presets. However, to the E-1's credit, several control buttons are programmable, and the manual-focus ring can be set to work in either clockwise or counterclockwise direction, depending on your habits. A button on top sets redeye reduction, slow sync, rear-curtain sync, and an optional external flash to auto, but the E-1 is conspicuously missing a pop-up flash like the one on the E-20n and most other digital SLRs in its price class. That may be in keeping with its "pro" designation, but being forced to add an external flash (such as the Olympus FL-50, $499 list) boosts the already high price of this camera system. On the other hand, the E-1 features a regular 1/180-sec flash sync, higher-speed sync with the FL-50, and has a PC flash-sync connector for studio and third-party flash units.
There are several other features that make this camera more valuable to both pros and photo enthusiasts. The neatest of these is the unique Supersonic Wave Filter that shakes dust off the CCD sensor every time you turn the camera on. For digital cameras, even small amounts of dust on the sensor cause black spotting similar to dead pixels (which may also occur as the sensor ages). The Wave Filter rids the sensor of most dust, while a CCD mapping function helps reduce black spotting from dead pixels.
On the performance end, the E-1 has a fast burst mode of up to 12 images at three frames per second in all formats, including RAW. It also features metered shutter speeds ranging from 60 sec to 1/4000 sec. But if you turn on the camera's noise filter (for removing random noise, especially at a higher ISO) the burst rate slows due to in-camera processing. The same happens if you turn on the camera's Shading Compensation, described in the manual as a method of increasing the brightness at the dark edges of the image. We were baffled by that setting, since one of the biggest claims for the E-1's totally digital design is the lack of dark zones at the edges. Go figure.
After being frustrated by the sluggish low-light focusing system on the older E-20n and E-10 models, we were impressed by the E-1's improved AF system. Based on a TTL phase-difference detection system, the E-1 features three AF zones, with a cross-type central zone and two vertical sensors on either side. When all three are activated, the camera chooses the best AF zone and can track a moving subject. AF sensitivity bottoms out at EV 2, not EV 0 as stated in the camera manual (see test results, right). But low-light AF can be achieved with the help of the built-in focus-assist light or one on an external flash unit.