Olympus Master — Better, but Still not There

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

This is a brief review of, or rather a few remarks on, the Olympus Master software, included with the Olympus E-300 camera. The review may become more detailed in time, but only if the software improves to a significant degree; as of now, I feel, this would be a waste of effort.

(Because I'm quite critical in this write-up, you may want to check my credentials: I've been programming computers since 1967, for the last 20 years making a living out of it in the U.S. software industry as a programmer, software designer, and project team leader. There is a chance I can tell a good program from a lemon; not everything is just a matter of taste.)

Introduction

The Olympus Master is really a revamped version of the Camedia Master, which was included with previous Olympus models, and which it replaces. The program is supposed to provide five major functionalities:

  • Transfer of images from the camera to a computer;
  • Image cataloguing and management;
  • Basic image editing and correction;
  • Raw file processing, i.e. translation into an RGB image, with any applicable corrections;
  • Updating camera and/or lens firmware via the Internet.

Being familiar with the Camedia Master up to the latest version 4.3, I wasn't too willing to try the Olympus Master, as for each of the three first tasks I'm using another software which does by far a better job. Those programs, however, do not give me a possibility of "developing" raw images, and that's why I gave Olympus Master a try.

In addition to these five tasks, the program can perform some additional ones: sending images to be printed by OFoto, emailing them, setting up "albums" to be viewed with a camera, and more — but these I consider mere trinkets.

Good news and bad news

The good news is that there seem to be only three things which can be improved with Olympus Master: functional specifications, design, and implementation.

The bad news is that these three things cover just about everything about the program.

I believe that the problems begin from designers' inability to define the user the program is aimed at. The only people who would need three first areas of functionality are total beginners, who do not know how to copy files from an external drive (which the camera pretends to be when hooked up to a computer), who do not have and do not plan to have any image viewing/cataloging software, and who do not use any image-processing program. These users, by the way, are very unlikely to do any raw image processing. Well, I doubt if they are likely to buy a camera like the E-300.

The first function (image transfer) is a non-issue. The camera is a storage-class device; with that it presents itself to your computer as an external disk drive, so that you can copy, move, and delete files at will, using any file manipulation software (starting from the Windows Explorer and ending with a number of programs which do a better job).

Regarding the second and third functions, I believe that most of the third-party image browsers and editors (at least all I have tried) do a better job in image cataloguing, browsing, and editing. Any semi-serious photographer most likely already has such applications he or she uses, and therefore is not going to switch to Olympus Master just because it comes free with the camera (unless it is significantly better, which is not the case).

On a positive note, the program is improved compared to the Camedia Master it replaces. The user interface now follows the Windows conventions more closely, being easier to use and less confusing, and the general feel is better, too. Display of the EXIF information embedded in images is complete, no items are missing or misinterpreted like in most other applications I've tried.

Raw image development

This leaves me with the fourth major function: raw image processing. In principle, this is a well-defined functionality:

  • Convert it into an RGB image by applying the interpolation from one-color photosites to RGB pixels;
  • Apply any image corrections in that transformation which you can apply in-camera (sharpness, contrast, etc.);
  • Save the image in one of standard RGB formats (like JPEG or TIFF).

Items [1] and [2] on this list work just fine. Item [3], however (actually performed together with [2]) remains a not-quite-implemented feature, suggesting that the program was rushed into distribution before it was really ready. Some features are simply missing: while you can adjust the sharpening, contrast, and saturation, there is no adjustment for image gradation, no color emphasis (ditto), no way to disable or adjust the dynamic noise reduction, and no lens correction options (distortion, image fall-off).

Actually, a possibility to save RGB images in 16-bit color depth would be nice, too, allowing you to take advantage of the extra four bits in an image editor of your choice, like PhotoShop or Photo-Paint, without having to depend on the rudimentary built-in editor.

Correcting for lens flaws is a painful omission: the "standard" E-300 zoom shows some distortion at the wide end, and Olympus is quite vocal about E-system lenses providing a remedy for this. I think they should put a disclaimer in their promotional materials: "Does not work on the E-300" or "Requires optional Olympus Studio software available at $150 or more". This, however, would look bad in advertising.

Design and implementation

The program is not too well thought-out. It has a lot of small, irritating quirks and glitches. The workflow is awkward. Some functions open a new application window; closing it brings you back to the main one. Some, with a similar look, stay within the main window, which then you may accidentally close. Increasing and decreasing image magnification requires choosing another tool from the toolbar: better-designed applications allow you to that by left- or right-clicking, respectively, with just one tool; one of seemingly minor things which make a difference. The preview of edit changes is shown in a tiny thumbnail of image; there is no way to do a quick before/after comparison. And if you accidentally activate the "camera album" feature, there seems to be no easy way to exit it, except for closing the program.

The program defaults to storing and accessing images in branches of just one directory, chosen as the camera's image repository. (It took me a few sessions with the program to notice that you can also access the whole directory tree by clicking on a small tab above the "calendar", what a relief!)

Another example; this time of a seemingly small, but really annoying "feature": the basic screen of the program is partly (1.5" on the right) occupied with buttons, providing links to, among others, Olympus Web store and OFoto printing service. True, you can go to the menu (if you know where to look) to remove this wasteful "feature" from the screen and to reclaim the wasted real estate, but when you exit the program and re-run it, it will be there again, and your window pane settings will have to be adjusted every time. What is it, a "sponsored mode"?

When I started using the program, I kept a list of design quirks, glitches, and other small irritabilities noticed in the process. After the first hour it grew to more than fifty items, and then I gave up — why bother? And, unfortunately, Olympus Master cannot be customized to any noticeable degree to make it more to the user's liking.

Even the camera registration feature available upon installation does not work at all: it asks you to choose the product to register from a list, but the list does not even include the E-300 (or E-1, for that matter). Shabby. The registration from within the program, however, works just fine.

On the positive side, the program includes a tonal curve-adjusting operation (the only thing separating Adobe Photoshop Elements from becoming a genuinely useful program), but access to it is similar to that provided to other features, i.e., not too convenient. My major complaint here is that the histogram is not updated in real time, what limits the usefulness of this function.

Actually, the range of available image adjustments ("filters") is quite good, but it is hampered by unpolished user interface.

Installation problems

Actually, my problems started earlier: with the product installation. There is a box showing up with the process where you have to enter your name, CD serial number, and choose your country from a drop-down list. On my laptop, running Windows XP SP2, the list was empty, and the installation would not proceed without knowing my country. Tough.

I called Olympus tech support (first such need since I started using Olympus digital cameras almost five years ago). I've got a live person on the other end in just two minutes, which is very good, and the representative was knowledgeable, nice and patient, but after a few attempts (including install in safe mode) he had to give up, promising to call me when he's able to reproduce the problem. Two days later I was still waiting for that.

Note of July, 2005: I am still waiting — after six months. Looks like the tech support uses the "out of sight, out of mind" approach. In the meantime, I've received three emails from other users who experienced exactly the same symptoms, never being able to resolve the problem. Come on, is it so difficult to write an installation program?

This occurred on my laptop computer; I was able to install Olympus Master on my home PC and, just to try the process out, on my office desktop machines without any problems.

After installation I discovered that yet another application has been silently installed on my system without my knowledge or consent: the Pixela Image Mixer which looks like a low-end video editing and CD/DVD writing utility and has nothing to do with the or the E-300, taking more than 100 MB of my drive space (100 megabytes? This is sick!). Plus, you also get in your Start menu a link to the Pixela Web site, in Japanese. This seems to be an attempt to push a "lite" version of a third-party application in order to tempt you into buying the "full" product. This should be, at least, an install-time choice; after all, this is my computer and I should decide what applications I want to have installed.

These two problems make me quite unhappy; while first one is technical (things happen, but should be fixed), the second one is quite outrageous. What next, adware? Thumbs down, Olympus.

Problem Solved! (August, 2005) A fellow user sharing the same problem reported that updating the MS Windows Installer helped. I downloaded Version 3.1 of the Installer, and, indeed, the problem disappeared. (Thanks to John Kruiniger of New Zealand for the information!)

I'm using Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and all current updates, but MIcrosoft does not treat the Installer as a part of Windows (although it does treat its games as such, locking them with Windows File Protection). Microsoft download can be found here, but the page activates the Windows Authentication script; this, in turn, attempts to use Active X, which I have disabled for security reasons (there is an option without Active X, but it did not seem to work). A no-hassle download of the Installer can be found at Softpedia.

Anyway, the problem has been solved, and, most probably, the last people to learn about the solution will be the Olympus technical support. Oh, well... Now I have to remove the Pixela application which Olympus has put on my hard drive without even asking if I want it. Disgusting.

(The program is listed in the Add/Remove Programs applet as Image Mixer, not Pixela Image Mixer; it took me a while to find it.)

Possible improvements

The best remedy would be to split Olympus Master into two applications: the entry-level do-it-all program (image management, rudimentary editing), which could be safely discarded by 90% of E-300 users, and the ORF-processing one.

The ORF-processing part has to be enhanced to include the functionality left out in the current version.

Last but not least, dozens of minor, but irritating, user interface issues have to be resolved, and the silent installation of Image Mixer has to go, or at least become optional. (Besides, I believe Pixela has been sold to Google now and became a free application.)

The verdict

As it is, the Olympus Master is a bit disappointing, to say the least.

You may still have to put it on your computer if you want to take advantage of the raw ORF format, and if you cannot use the (new) PhotoShop ORF plug-in (which I haven't tried yet), Olympus Studio, or a third-party application.

You also have to install the program (or the Olympus Studio) in order to upgrade the firmware in your camera body and lenses via the Internet. Having to install a huge (100 MB) application just to update the camera firmware seems to be excessive. (The Internet-only upgrade process is another issue I would argue against, but this is another story.)

Did I mention the installation takes about 100MB of your disk space (with Pixela doubling that amount)? This is software bloat at its worst. For comparison, a more powerful and advanced program, Olympus Studio took about 25 MB on my drive.

Olympus Master Plus

For $20 you can upgrade to Olympus Master Plus. It is not quite clear what you really get for your money; all I was able to dig up was a piece in Olympus Master FAQ, stating that "Improved features in the Plus version of the software will include: CD/DVD creation, templates, movie editing, and file converting."

Why not an address book and MP3 player? People, do fewer things, but do them right. As things stand now, even at $5 the Plus version would be a waste of money and disk space.

Olympus Studio

I've also done some experimentation with a trial copy of the $150 Olympus Studio v.1.2; not really a close scrutiny but enough to get the general idea.

This is a better program than Olympus Master, but still leaving some to be desired. True, it has fewer intelligence-offending design quirks, but the user interface is still, I would say, clumsy, and some of the raw image processing functions (like color enhancement) are not implemented at all. (On the positive side, the dynamic noise filtering can be adjusted).

While the documentation and help refer only to the E-1, the program recognized my E-300 and I experienced no problems controlling the camera remotely from the computer via the USB cable.

The Olympus Studio has a potential to become a good program one day, but this will take time end effort. As it is, it does not seem worth the price asked for it.


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

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Posted 2004/12/16; last updated 2005/08/14 Copyright © 2004-2005 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak