I had the opportunity to handle an Olympus E-P1 camera at Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto. There has been quite a bit of excitement on sites like Rangefinder Forum and many were expecting this to be the first pocketable camera that could compete with SLRs in image quality.

The Sigma DP1 and DP2 were actually the first cameras with large sensors and reasonable pixel counts, bucking the marketing-driven trend towards too many pixels squeezed onto too small a sensor chip, with horrible noise as the result. I own both, and their image quality is indeed stunning, but they have one Achilles’ heel — speed, or the lack thereof.

The E-P1 is very compact, almost the same size with the 17mm as the Sigma DP2 (some photos released suggested it was closer to the Leica M8). The build quality is fine, and it is nowhere near as heavy as some early users suggested it was. They probably compared it to a plastic fantastic compact rather than a more substantial camera like a Leica or a DSLR.

I was surprised to find the 17mm AF hunted quite a bit, overshooting and then backtracking. Oddly, it did this even on the next shot when the lens was already in focus. I don’t know if this is specific to the 17mm lens, but it is certainly not encouraging.

From my test shots, I was also distinctly unimpressed by the optical quality of the lens, or the noise performance at ISO 1600. The Four-Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats are hobbled by sensors one half the size of the APS-C used in most entry-level DSLRs, with predictably higher levels of noise and limited dynamic range. I had to go back to 2003 and my then Canon EOS 10D to find similar levels of noise. The Canon Rebel XT was definitely superior in high-ISO performance, let alone current SLRs. Olympus fanboys seem to be in denial about the limitations of Four-Thirds sensors, but you cannot fight against physics and expect to win.

The other disappointing thing about the 17mm lens is that it is not particularly sharp, specially for a prime lens of relatively modest maximum aperture. The pictures were nowhere near as crisp as the lovely Sigma lenses on the DP1 and DP2. This is all the more a let-down as Olympus was renowned for the quality of its miniaturized prime lenses in the days of the ground-breaking OM system. I wasn’t expecting Pentax SMC Limited pancake lens levels of performance (we are talking of a lens one third the price, after all), but there is no point in having 12 megapixels (at least 6 too far in my book) if the lens can’t actually exploit them.

I had preordered an E-P1 with the 17mm kit lens and viewfinder from Amazon. After handling the E-P1 and taking a few test shots, I canceled my order.