E-300 and E-500 Firmware Upgrades

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

Firmware?

As I could see in some online discussion groups, some camera users are not sure what exactly firmware is. Just in case, a brief reminder.

Your camera is a computerized device; it contains a digital processor which executes program instructions to perform almost all camera functions, including, but not limited to, exposure determination, autofocus, and, above all, the initial manipulation of the captured image. As a matter of fact, the processor in a typical digital camera of today is more powerful and more capable than the mainframe computer I've used in physics research thirty-something years ago.

The software performing all these functions within the camera (or a refrigerator, DVD player, microwave oven, or Cruise missile) is usually referred to as firmware or embedded software. This usually implies two things:

  • The software functionality is matched and limited to performing a series of well-defined tasks of controlling the hardware it is embedded in;
  • It is persistent, i.e., not erased by powering the device off or even removing the batteries.

The first point is obvious: you will not use your camera for word-processing (although I wouldn't be surprised to see that one day). The second is usually implemented by storing the firmware in flash memory, the state of which is not lost when the power supply is interrupted (batteries taken off the camera). Some cameras may use EPROM (erasable, programmable read-only memory), but these need special reprogramming devices if the firmware is to be replaced with a newer version, so this alternative is less practical.

Anyway, you may think of your camera as a dedicated computer, capable of running just one program, with firmware being that program.

If your firmware gets lost or corrupted, your camera is dead, and requires the firmware to be reinstalled by the manufacturer.

Updates and upgrades

Any non-trivial software has bugs and glitches, not to mention room for improvement. The more complicated the software is, the more of those will show up. The firmware in digital cameras is at least two orders of magnitude more complex than the firmware in film cameras (assuming the latter use it).

This is why many manufacturers release updates or upgrades (depending on the scope of changes) to their cameras' firmware. In recent years these new versions are often user-installable. Olympus was one of the last big makers to allow for that; back in '2001 I had to send my E-10 to their repair center to have the firmware upgraded.

A new version may, in addition to fixing bugs, optimize and speed up some functions, adjust parameters (and therefore change behavior) of some others, or even add some entirely new functionality or options.

NOTE: Upgrading the firmware will revert all your camera settings to factory defaults! If you've invested in customizing your camera, you will have to do it again after the upgrade.

Upgrades for the E-500

Although the original firmware in the E-500 seemed to have no visible problems, Olympus keeps updating it on a quite regular basis. At this moment I may say that both available updates are of rather minor importance, though.

Version 1.1

Two months after the camera release, Olympus offered an upgrade to the firmware, Version 1.1.

This version, installable (as usual) via the Olympus Master application, introduces some small improvements; according to Olympus, these are:

  • The Reference WB button, in addition to being re-assigned to other functions, can now be totally disabled. Frankly speaking, I would prefer to see an option to re-assign it to some other function.
  • The control dial time-out, adjustable from the Settings menu, can be also set to a new value: 8 seconds (in addition to 3 and 5 available in the original version). Fine, although I keep my time-out at three seconds anyway.
  • An additional confirmation is required when raw and JPEG files (if saved from the same picture) are about to be erased. This I couldn't care less about.

These changes are of tertiary, not even secondary, importance; I doubt Olympus would release an upgrade just to introduce them. I suspect some quiet tweaks and/or fixes have also been introduced; this was the reason I decided to upgrade.

The procedure went smoothly, and I wasn't able to see any changes in captured images or in camera's behavior (except for those listed above).

I could, however, see one significant change not documented by Olympus: the sleep mode power problem seems to be fixed! Originally, forgetting to turn the camera off and letting it enter the sleep mode (followed by the four-hour turn-off) would result in the battery almost completely depleted. This happened to me a number of times in the past, and the problem was easy to reproduce. With the new firmware the battery is still in the green the next day.

Version 1.2

This update was introduced in the first days of April. It contains only one feature instantly visible from the camera settings menu:

  • An option to swap the functionality of the exposure/focus lock (AEL/AFL) button with that of the Reference WB one.

    This is done via a new menu option, added at the end of the Settings 1 menu. Whether you would like to use it, depends on your personal preferences (mostly driven by the size of your hands and the way you hold the camera).

According to Olympus, two more improvements are present in this release:

  • Improvements in autoexposure using the built-in flash with some lenses (unspecified which ones);
  • Proper transfer of maximum aperture from certain Sigma lenses: 18-50mm F3.5-5.6 DC, 18-125mm F3.5-5.6 DC, and 55-200mm F4-5.6 DC.

I wasn't able to verify these two changes. In the latter case (maximum aperture transfer) the EXIF data is still showing the maximum aperture of the lens at any focal length, not the length used (e.g., F/4 at 200 mm, where F/5.6 is maximum aperture), so I have no clue what Olympus is talking about. Oh, well.

Interestingly enough, the 1.2 update is, as of April 16, still not listed on the Olympus USA Web site. It is, however, accessible, probably from Olympus Japan, via the Web-based upgrade option in Olympus Master (although the server was experiencing problems for the first week or so; what a wretched way to upgrade your firmware!).

Upgrades for the E-300

The E-300 is a really great camera, not just for the price, but I suspect it was rushed to the market to make it in time for the '2004 Christmas shopping season. Working myself in the software industry, I know what it means: the software may be not as clean or as efficient as it should, and some functionality may be omitted just to meet the deadline. I was expecting to see new versions of firmware to follow soon, and I was right.

Each new version usually incorporates all changes from the previous ones, but I'm listing them all, just for the record of what's new.

Version 1.1

Announced on February 14, 2005, this was a minor update; the main improvement was (according to Olympus) better auto white balance in subjects containing yellows. Battery drain in sleep mode has been reduced, and a small glitch in highlighting the out-of-range areas during image review was fixed. These are the officially announced changes; I may suspect dozens of minor, undocumented ones.

Version 1.2

This version was announced on March 28, 2005 (please note the "announced" word in my dating; this does not mean "available"). It looks like a significant upgrade; let me show here the listing of changes as provided by Olympus.

  • Lens vignetting compensation. This feature, introduced with the E-1 and originally omitted in the E-300, adjusts the image for light fall-off visible towards the corners in some lenses, especially wide-angle, at wide apertures. It is applied when the captured raw image is being converted into the JPG or TIFF format, therefore being not available in the raw (ORF) image storage mode. In the latter case it can be applied in postprocessing, if you are using the Olympus Studio.

    Olympus refers to this as "lens shading compensation"; even with my limited English skills I find this hard to digest.

    Why was the feature omitted in the original release? Three explanations, applicable also to other cases, come to mind: (a) to keep the E-300 less well-specified than the E-1, so that it is less competitive against it; (b) there was not enough time for implementation before the shipping deadline; (c) other parts of the code were not space-optimized (for the same reasons), and there was not room enough in the firmware memory. Whichever the reason was, I'm glad the upgrade provides this functionality.

    The feature is activated from the settings menu, and it does not seem to affect the capture speed.

  • Mirror lock-up. Another menu option allows you to set the delay between the moment the mirror goes up (oops! this is the E-300, it goes to the side!) and the shutter actually opens. This reduces or eliminates any image blur caused by vibrations due to mirror movement or pressing the release button. Although useful only in critical work (especially with the mirror being so much smaller than in film SLRs), this is a welcome feature. The delay can be set to anywhere between 0 and 20 seconds, although the interface to do it is rather clumsy.
  • Release priority choice. With the original firmware the shutter would not fire if the focus was not achieved in the single AF mode, but it would in the continuous AF mode (focus versus release priority). With this update, you can set your preferences for either AF mode, like in the E-1.

    I consider this to be of minor importance, as the original defaults is what is usually needed. Still, it is good to have a choice.

  • Faster writing speeds with the new generation of fast CF cards. I wasn't able to verify this claim, as all my cards are more than a year old (and fast enough for my needs).

Once again, I am sure that there were many smaller changes, not acknowledged by Olympus.

On the flip side, I could notice that the v1.2 still did not solve occasional problems with auto white balance outdoors, with lots of green in the frame. This happens rarely, but when it toes, it looks ugly. I'll be investigating this problem further.

Version 1.3

This version was announced in July, 2005, and became available without delay (hallelujah!). It introduces the following improvements:

  • Improved ESP (pattern) light metering. Olympus refers to this as "improved stability" which in the software industry (where I work) really means "we fixed some problems", without providing any further explanation. Anyway, I wasn't able to notice any changes in the metering.
  • Control dial time-out: An option to set the time within which you have to start turning the control wheel after any of the buttons was pressed. There are three choices now: 0, 3, or 5 seconds, with zero really meaning "infinity" (the camera waits for the wheel until you press the button again). The previous timeout was at three seconds, which was fine with me.
  • Two specialized programs for underwater photography: Underwater Macro and Underwater Wide. To avoid clutter, these are accessible only if activated from the Settings menu (the same way as the ISO 800 and 1600 settings). As I usually try to keep my head above the water, I'm not in a position to comment on these modes.

Version 1.4

This is the first time Olympus officially released a firmware upgrade after the camera was taken off the market; an encouraging sign of continuing support. Version 1.4 became available in June, 2006.

What's new? According to Olympus, not much: Improved exposure precision when taking pictures in the macro mode using SPOT [sic!] metering. Still, I believe there may be a number of smaller fixes and touch-ups in this version, so why not update your camera?

Other firmware upgrades

The E-System lenses, flashes, and some other accessories may also have their own firmware which talks to the one embedded in the camera body. It would be meaningless to list all updates available for these; let me refer you to the Olympus Japan Web site (which seems to be more up-to-date than the Olympus US one, in addition to not offending your intelligence).

Let me only mention that as of this writing the firmware for the ZD 14-45 mm zoom is still in its original Version 1.0, while that for the ZD 40-150 mm lens has been updated to Version 1.1.

Upgrade procedure

With the E-1 and E-300 Olympus introduced a new procedure of upgrading the firmware. The new procedure is not an improvement, at least not from where I stand. It is supposed to be totally automated and Web-based, but I do not like the way it works.

You have to connect your camera to a computer and run the Olympus Master (or Olympus Studio) software. This is the first problem I have with this approach. Why do I have to install the whole big application if I only want to use one feature — firmware upgrading? This is my computer and I should have the right to choose, especially if I do not like the Olympus Master — and I don't. Some people may also prefer to keep their images on a computer different from the one used to connect to the Internet, for any of different reasons possible, including security. Last but not least, the Olympus Master installation program stubbornly refuses to do its job on some Windows XP computers, see my review), and Olympus technical support is not able to help.

While Olympus Master is running and the camera hooked to the computer via the USB cable, you choose the Upgrade camera operation from the main menu. The program will then connect to the Olympus server, check for availability of a new firmware, and offer you an option to install it by just clicking on a button. Simple? Yes, but too many things may go wrong, and all details of the process are hidden from the view.

If everything works (and it usually does), fine; you are done in three minutes or so. Problems begin if anything goes wrong. Your firewall may be not set up to allow Olympus Master to access the network, the Olympus server may be overloaded or down, whatever.

The Olympus Master reacts to most of the unexpected problems by going belly up, i.e., freezing — the only way out is to use the infamous three-finger salute (Alt-Ctrl-Del) and kill the program by hand. Not really a polished application, I would say. This was as far as I got for the first two days of trying to upgrade my E-300, two weeks after the new version was announced on March 28, 2005. Obviously, the server was down, because on the third day the connection was established, but only to diagnose that no new version is available.

I can only guess that my Olympus Master was checking the U.S. Olympus server, and the upgrade there was delayed. There seems to be no way to point the process to another server.

Finally, on April 21 (or 22?) a new version was found on the server, and installed. It looks like it took three weeks to put the file there, and in the meantime nobody knew what was going on.

Update of April, 2006: The newer version of Olympus Master (I'm using v.1.41 now) no longer freezes experiencing connection problems. Instead, it repeatedly shows the "we've got problems" dialog box, without any way to cancel the process. Again, a three-finger salute (Ctrl-Alt-Del) seems to be the easiest way to exit the program. Not very professional.

What was wrong with the upgrade process used on the C-5050Z? Was it considered too complicated for us little people? What's wrong with the three-step process: (1) download the firmware file from Olympus Web site using any Web browser; (2) hook up the camera and copy the file to the memory card; (3) turn the camera on and press Yes when asked. If the task of copying a file or creating a directory is beyond you, so are all tasks related to digital photography!

The process used on the C-5060WZ was also somewhat better: (1) download the self-install update program; (2) hook up the camera; (3) run the program. Better does not mean safer, though; see the next section below.

I believe the manual installation should be at least available as an option for those who prefer it, as I do. Besides, if Olympus goes out of business tomorrow, any Web-based firmware updates will be unreachable. I'm not saying this will happen and I believe it won't, but I like this warm and fuzzy feeling of security.

Things do happen

Yes, they do. I recently received an email from an European user of another Olympus model, where the upgrade process, although different, also requires the camera to be hooked up to the computer until done. He experienced a power outage in the middle of upgrading, rendering his camera as dead as a brick. The local Olympus repair center requested a flat fee of more than €200, or about $300, to reinstall the firmware.

This would have never happened with the three-step procedure I'm describing above. The only thing which may go wrong in that method is running out of battery, but this is easier to avoid, and entirely under your control (unlike power outages).

In any case, if you want to play it really safe, use a laptop, which will keep going on battery power if an outage happens. If, like I, you don't want to have a copy of Olympus Master on your laptop, tough: you've got to. Olympus made this decision for you, and who are you to argue?


My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2005/04/26; last updated 2006/07/03 Copyright © 2005, 2006 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak