The New Olympus E-400
An E-500 on a diet?
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Just a few notes on the upcoming E-400 SLR from Olympus, comparing it against its predecessor, the E-500. The camera has been released in Europe in November of 2006; it was never officially sold in the United States.
See also a hands-on preview of a pre-production camera, including samples, by Lukasz Kacperczak.
Just before the '2006 Photokina, Olympus announced their new offering, called E-400.
As with the other brands, the main distinguishing feature is more megapixels; more exactly, 10 MP is fashionable these days, and if you offer less, the measurebators in online discussion forums will accuse your mama of wearing Army boots.
Here are my brief comments on this camera, based on manufacturer's specifications: keep in mind that, living in the States, I've never used the E-400.
See also the E-330/E-400 system chart.
(Picture by Olympus)
Changed from the E-500
While the "official" technical specifications are not as detailed as I would like them to be, combined with my experience with the preceding models they may be enough to derive some expectations and opinions (not to say speculations) on the E-400. As I'm already getting emails asking what do I think about this camera (without even seeing it in flesh), let me share this information with you.
Before going into detailed discussion, here is a table, listing the differences between the E-400 and the E-500. All specifications not listed in this table should be assumed to be the same.
|Body weight||435 g||375 g||60 g does not seem like much, but it does make a difference, especially with lighter lenses.|
|Body size (W×H×D)||130×95×66 mm||130×91×53 mm||Smaller, but just by 3.5 mm in the vertical dimension only. The difference in depth is due to the absence of the protruding grip and battery compartment in the new model.|
|Sensor||8 MP CCD||10 MP CCD||It is unclear who makes the CCD. Obviously, Olympus decided to stick to CCD sensors, not CMOS ones (used in the E-330 only) in their SLRs. For a number of reasons, this is what I prefer. But look: no Kodak this time!|
|The "MP" shown are binary megapixels, with "mega" standing for 220 or 1,048,576, as customary in computer applications. When used with units of measurement, "mega" means 106, or 1,000,000, and the bottom line shows the pixel count that way.|
GN = 13 m|
(at ISO 100)
GN = 10 m|
(at ISO 100)
|The flash light output is proportional to the square of the guide number (GN); therefore the E-400 has a flash providing about 1.7 times less output, more than a casual look at the numbers would suggest.|
|Battery||Li-Ion: BLM-1 (10.8 Wh)||
|The "Wh" (Watt-hour, or Joule) rating shows the total energy stored in the battery. It is more meaningful than the common Ah (amp-hour) value, as it also includes the voltage, by which the Ah rating has to be multiplied to arrive to the energy stored.|
|The remote uses the Video/USB socket on the back (!) of the E-400.|
|Image file formats||ORF, JPG, TIFF||ORF, JPG||I'd not miss the TIFF option, having used it once in the last five years; the 1:2.7 JPEGs are practically as good, saving a lot on card space.|
Is this it? Just 25% more megapixels, 23% less battery juice and smaller size? Well, this seems to be the case: the E-400 looks like the E-500 taken on a diet — in spite of being a totally new model, with very few, if any, subassemblies shared with its predecessor.
There are also some changes in the user interface, but before I get to those, let me comment on some of the differences listed above.
Now let us have a look at the changes in ergonomics and external controls. Some of these were necessitated by the smaller body, others might have been intended as evolutionary improvements.
As I will be referring a lot to the E-500, here is a similar picture, showing control locations for that model.
First of all, the lens in the E-400 is located more towards the center of the body. On the E-500 it was shifted more to the left. I preferred that solution, as with my eye at the viewfinder eyepiece (which has to be aligned above the lens center) my nose does not stick into the LCD monitor. Small joys of life.
The new E-410 has the same body layout, and trying it out confirmed my criticism voiced above.
As in the E-500, the camera back contains most of the external controls except for the mode dial (with the on/off switch lever) and the exposure compensation button, located close (but not dangerously so) to the shutter release.
|(Pictures by Olympus)|
There is now room on the left end of the top deck, so two buttons have been moved there: flash mode/activation and drive mode. These are not used so often anyway, so I consider the change not important. Note that now the aligned buttons at the left all are related to the LCD panel: image review and deletion, menu and Control Panel activation.
The autofocus/autoexposure lock button remains where it was in the E-500: to the right of the eyepiece. This is a good location; easy to reach but not to be pressed by accident.
Two buttons at the top-right corner are now gone. In the E-500 they were used (by default, at least) for reference WB measurement and for AF point selection. I can live without them, or almost so. The reference WB button is nice if you use this function (I do), but it was prone to unintended activation. Oh, well.
The circular arrow button cluster looks similar as on the E-500, with one significant difference: the arrow buttons no longer serve a dual purpose: screen navigation when the menu system is used or Control Panel active, and direct access to some adjustments otherwise. This, being a non-modal design, may be more intuitive and easier, at least until you get familiar with the camera.
The functions which no longer have their own dedicated buttons (these include, in addition to reference WB and AF spot selection mentioned above. four more: white balance, focus mode, ISO, and metering pattern) are now accessible after pressing the FN button to the right of the LCD monitor.
It may sound unexpected, but I'm not missing direct access to these six functions. The excellent Control Panel which can be displayed at the LCD monitor gives not only a quick overview of all settings (at least those likely to be changed from one picture to another), but also any setting can be quickly selected with the arrow keys and then adjusted with the control dial. This is, on the E-500 at least, a better and more complete control interface than in any digital camera I've tried, and I've tried quite a few. Omitting this feature would seriously cripple the E-400, so I'm glad it has been retained. Actually, Olympus could also send the drive mode to the angels, and I would not be complaining. The two basic functions which absolutely have to be accessed externally are exposure compensation and AE/AF lock (well, maybe also flash mode).
Contrary to appearances, the E-400 still retains a quick access to spot-metering mode: it can be combined with the exposure lock. This makes sense: Using spot metering without exposure locking is not really useful: how often do you have an 18% reflectancy point smack in the middle of your frame? Spot metering, by definition, requires choosing a point to meter on, locking the exposure, and re-composing — and this is how it works in the E-400, if you preset the camera this way.
Generally, I consider the streamlined controls in the E-400 a good job: the control access is as fast (or almost so) as in the E-500, but less intimidating for a casual user (or a person who tries the camera in a store). They may look worse on paper, but in actual use the new system may be actually a bit better than that in the E-500.
A tiny but welcome change: the meaningless "HyperCrystal LCD" blurb beneath the monitor has been replaced with the Olympus logo. I've been ridiculing Olympus (and not only) for such practices for a long time, and finally they decided to yield. A small thing? Maybe, but much better now.
The good stuff, retained
OK, so we are done with the changes from the E-500, and I hope the list is complete. Now let me briefly list the most important features which are identical on both cameras.
The bad stuff, still here
This much about the good inheritance of the new model. Now the gripes I had about the E-500 which remain not addressed in the E-400, listed in the order of decreasing importance (at least from where I stand):
The new kit lenses
Together with the E-400 Olympus is introducing two matching zooms, covering 95%, maybe more, of the needs of users likely to buy this camera. Obviously, they can be used with any E-Series body (or with the Panasonic L1 or the upcoming Leica Digilux 3), and any Four-Thirds lens can be used with the E-400.
The two "kit" lenses sold for the previous E-Series models were covering together the focal length range from 14 to 150 mm (equivalent to 28-300 mm in the film SLR terms), but, most probably, Olympus felt that they were too large for the smaller, lighter E-400 body. In a somewhat surprising development, the new duo covers the same range, differing mostly in size and weight.
Here they are, the new zooms compared to the older ones — which, I hope, will remain in production, as they should be slightly better optically (nothing comes free):
|Lens||Focal length||Max. aperture||Min. focus||Size (D×L)||Weight||Filter|
|"New" standard zoom||14-42 mm||F/3.5-5.6||25 cm||66×61 mm||190 g||58 mm|
|"Old" standard zoom||14-45 mm||F/3.5-5.6||38 cm||71×87 mm||285 g||58 mm|
|"New" tele zoom||40-150 mm||F/4.0-5.6||90 cm||66×72 mm||220 g||58 mm|
|"Old" tele zoom||40-150 mm||F/3.5-4.5||150 cm||77×107 mm||425 g||58 mm|
As you can see, the differences in length are considerable, and those in weight — even more so. Also note better close-focusing capability for both new lenses. On the flip side, the new tele zoom has smaller maximum apertures (greater F-numbers), with the disadvantage ranging from 1/3 EV at the short end to 2/3 EV at the long one. Again, nothing comes free.
The reduced weight of the new lenses comes at a price of less robust construction, including a plastic mount. The users who change lenses occasionally only will not see the difference, but others (including myself) may. Still, what I like about Olympus is that they would rather cut down the specs than optical performance; their track record clearly indicates that, and I hope this also will be the case with the new lenses. When and if I use them, I'll be able to say more.
Update of October, 2007: And, indeed, I am — having used both lenses on the new E-410 and E-510 for a couple of months. My general experience supported with two semi-formal tests indicates that both new "kit" zooms provide better resolution than their older counterparts; visibly better. This is quite amazing, achieved in spite of the weight and size reduction; probably helped by use of low-dispersion glass and (in the case of 14-42 mm) aspherical elements. Most impressive.
While some people question the reasons behind duplicating two existing (and good) economy lenses, note that a two-lens E-400 outfit including both "kit" lenses will weigh about 360 g less than a similar E-500 outfit with the two older zooms. This is quite a difference.
Last but not least, it is nice that Olympus did not go the easy way, bundling the camera with the "super-economy) 17.5-45 mm zoom. While, in spite of lightweight construction, and plastic mount, this lens is quite respectable optically (see John Foster's comparison), the 28 mm EFL of the new standard zoom is a significant advantage over the 35 mm EFL of that lens.
My first close look indicates that colors and tonality are accurate, lens sharp enough for the pixel count, too much in-camera sharpening (this can be remedied by tuning it down in the camera settings). Per-pixel noise (especially in the shadows) quite visible at ISO 200 and higher (used in most of the samples), but not disturbingly so; remember that the this will undergo less magnification than in case of cameras with smaller pixel count. On the plus side, unlike in some competing models, I don't see any excessive dynamic noise reduction, leading to the somewhat artificial "Saran wrap look".
In general, something I would expect from the E-500, maybe the saturation is a bit lower, more natural.
Remember that the samples are from a pre-production stage; the firmware is still being tweaked. The final results may be, if anything, only better.
Surprisingly, the E-400 has not been released on the American and Japanese markets, at least not now (and the new lenses were introduced here only with the E-410 and E-510 in 2007). According to Olympus, the E-500 is selling well in the States, and there is no need for a new model here.
This is a strange explanation, as I cannot imagine how a co-existence of two, even similar, models in Japan or in the States could hurt Olympus sales. Is Europe so different? Actually, if there is a difference, it may be in the opposite direction, with the U.S. suffering more of the "if it is more than a year old, it's crap" syndrome.
October, 2007: I just suspect that the real reason was a bottleneck in the production process. In any case, the camera has been replaced with the E-410, available worldwide, using the same form factor (although with an entirely different imaging pipeline).
The proof is in the pictures, and the first samples from a pre-production E-400 look quite good in spite of the firmware still being tweaked. Based on these, I would expect the camera to deliver images as good as these from the E-500. Maybe the colors are a bit different, closer to the Canon flavor and slightly colder, but I would think this can be easily adjusted with WB compensation; also, the samples were shot near noontime (when I usually keep my camera stored in its bag).
Another disclaimer: these are casual observations; I would need to shoot some samples myself, under conditions I'm used to, to voice any stronger opinion.
The chromatic aberration seems to be exceptionally well-controlled, noise at higher ISO settings is moderate if not impressively so (some competing models may have less of it at the expense of more in-camera filtering), and, first of all, the inexpensive kit lenses are much better than their price range would indicate.
Generally, the camera can be described as a smaller, lighter E-500 with just more megapixels and a few simplifications, mostly in the external controls, which I do not find objectionable. I hope it will sell well, as it deserves that.
If you are a current E-500 user, do not be tempted to "upgrade" (assuming you are living where the E-400 will be available); better buy a good lens. If you have another E-Series body and would like to have one more, carefully consider the pros and cons of the E-400 versus the E-500, and make sure to handle both before making a commitment. Depending on your taste and preferences, one or another may be a better choice. A similar advice can be given to those who would like to get an Olympus model as their first SLR. In either case, you will not be disappointed.
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