Olympus PEN firmware update improves AF speed, tracking accuracy

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Olympus announces a new firmware update today for its Digital PEN Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1. The new firmware aims to increase auto focus performance. Among other improvements, Olympus claims that the update will increase auto focus speed of all PEN cameras by 15%.

Those models with auto focus tracking capability, the E-PL1 and E-P2, should also see an increase in tracking accuracy. Those two cameras also get an update for the electronic viewfinder attachment. When using the EVF with new firmware, users will be able to see menus and recorded images displayed through the viewfinder rather than having to switch back to the LCD.

Olympus provided us with an E-PL1 loaded with a beta version of the firmware update. We tested the auto focus acquisition speed with three different Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses: the 17mm pancake, 14-42mm zoom, and the new 9-18mm wide angle lens. While Olympus claims a gain in AF speed with the new firmware and any of its lenses, the new M. Zuiko ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 and 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 lenses use a new AF mechanism that Olympus claims will be faster, more accurate and less noisy in operation.

The 9-18mm and 14-150mm lenses are what Olympus calls MSC, or Movie and Still Compatible. With fewer moving elements, the lens is lighter in weight and zooming from wide to telephoto more smoothly. A new motor cuts drastically down on noise as the camera locks in on a focus target, an advantage for anyone using the lens to record video with an audio track. In our testing, the AF motor was barely audible in near-silence, and the sound is much reduced compared to the previous generation of Olympus MFT lenses.

We pitted the E-PL1 with new firmware against the E-PL1 with the original firmware and found a considerable gain in press-to-capture speeds (with a full press of the shutter – no pre-focusing the camera). All of the recorded times in the table below are measured in seconds.

14-42mm 9-18mm 17mm
New firmware Beta 0.81 0.47 0.69
Original firmware 0.91 0.55 0.84

When we posted our full E-PL1 review, we used the 0.84 second time with the 17mm pancake lens. Upgrading the firmware would bring the AF acquisition time down closer to 0.70 seconds. That’s not a drastic improvement, but it’s noticeable in the lab and in the field. A similar 0.10 second gain was seen using the 14-42mm lens. It was the 9-18mm lens, though, that felt like it offered the greatest improvement. The motor is virtually silent and AF acquisition times are much faster, with or without the firmware update. The new lens coupled with new firmware brings AF acquisition time under a half second. It feels even faster than that in the field.

Still, it doesn’t outpace entry-level DSLRs like the Pentax K-x, or even the compact Canon G11 in our studio tests. Those who need speed should still look to a traditional DSLR. However, it’s encouraging to see that Olympus is moving the PEN series in the right direction and addressing one of the loudest complaints from reviewers and users.

The new firmware will be available starting April 22, 2010. It can be downloaded for free from Olympus’s website. The M. Zuiko 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 lens will be available in May, with the 14-150mm following in June.

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