Several smaller digicam players debuted mirrorless or advanced compacts at CES 2011. (Trying to catch some of the spotlight while Canon and Nikon laid low, perhaps?) Fujifilm teased a prototype of the X100 and Samsung showed off the NX11. But Olympus arguably had the best showing, unveiling not one, but two of the weekend's most exciting cameras: the mirrorless PEN E-PL2 and the XZ-1 advanced compact, both of which we got to check out for a few minutes. (Kudos also deserved for the coolest press kit at the show. It's a PEN-shaped USB drive!)
The XZ-1 advanced compact is easily the more exciting of the pair. It's Olympus' first crack at the digital compact prosumer market. It looks and acts like a PEN-ified Canon S95 or Panasonic LX5; the dimensions are more compact than the PEN line, yet the design is still based on the rangefinder aesthetic, like a sleeker counterpart to the new E-PL2 (see below). It's a fixed-lens (f1.8, 28-112mm) model with a 1/1.6" sensor, which puts in firmly in advanced-compact territory, but it supports all of the latest PEN accessories, so it's a bit more customizable than its peers. These are untested waters for Olympus, so it'll be interesting to see how the XZ-1 works out, image-quality and handling-wise, as well as what kind of photographers it will catch on with.
The E-PL2 is basically an aesthetic update to the E-PL1 (which will remain in production as the entry-level PEN), with improved ergonomics, softer edges, and some added functionality. It's much more modern looking and comfortable to hold. The shooting capabilities are pretty much the same, but the E-PL2 adds new art filters (and the ability to use two art filters at once) and an updated Live Guide, which previews the effects of setting adjustments in still image and and now video modes. The kit also includes a new and improved 14-42mm Zuiko lens with a much quieter motor. Its simple interface and built-in flash will appeal to casual users.
It's a conservative update, and we had hoped to see some more significant performance upgrades. But it's still a solid camera, and we can understand that Olympus is hesitant to change too quickly. They have a good thing going with the PEN line: buyers seem to like them due to their retro rangefinder looks, but they're also strong cameras with fair price tags. The E-PL2 kit will hit shelves later this month for $599.
We suppose that the "headline" feature for those models is the 3D image capture. It works a lot like panorama assist: The photographer takes one shot, the camera ghosts an overlapping shot for the photographer, and software (hopefully) blends the two into a believable 3D image. We didn't get to try it ourselves, but Olympus' reps demonstrated it for us. The process seems confusing, and you'll still need a 3D TV or computer monitor to view the shots. We'll leave the griping about 3D imaging aside for another article (Olympus is not the only guilty party), but the good news is that you can also ignore that feature.
We noticed that Olympus announced fewer compacts than in years past. They could announce a new batch next month, but does this signal a move away from the point-and-shoot space? They haven't had much success with cheap cameras in recent years, so we won't be sad to say goodbye.