the Contestants

In the category of Most-useful Compact Camera with Interchangeable lenses in a Personal role, we now have three* possibilities.

the Big Little Three: EM5, ePL5, NX300 (clockwise from top). Image taken with K-01.

Samsung NX300. Largest sensor, most pixels (20M), a few great little lenses.. and a system whose future is in doubt. Samsung has gone totally silent, and no rumors suggest that another brand is picking up the tech.  Nobody wins with this: bad Samsung PR, poor user comfort even if they own great gear. They still have nice small primes (16, 30, 45, 60 macro), the compact 16-50 with optical stabilization and very few telephotos that are either massive (50-150/2.8) or the 50-200, a decent but not amazing lens.  So Samsung has chosen to take itself off the radar.. too bad as the NX300 is a really nice camera.

Olympus ePL5. The best micro4:3 sensor to date (this is the 16Mpix sensor, the new 20Mpx has not been reviewed much), NX size or a bit smaller, all necessary controls and an option to add a viewfinder. Very comparable to the NX300 but with a future that's more visible and reasonable.

Olympus em5. A bit larger than the ePL5 but same imaging pipeline (sensor, processing, options).  A bit taller since the eVF is built in, and weather seals too. Two control dials for easier adjustments while preparing to shoot. And at some point one might be able to see the 5-axis stabilization win out over the ePL5 and its lesser axes of correction. I don't plan to actively seek out the difference so I'm not greatly concerned.

*The fourth possibility is the Pentax K-01 that took these photos. Far larger than any, another great 16Mpix sensor but APSc / NX300 size. Also white like the NX300, curiously enough. It uses a bunch of lenses that I already own, has focus peaking (the Olympi do not) and can take decent movies.  Here's the K-01 and ePL5 matched up, the 28mm f/2 Kiron is on the K-01.

*Might as well include the fifth option, which is/was the Oly ePM2.  The red one I briefly owned was great fun and smaller then the PL5 but it has no tilt screen. The VF option is there though, and that does tilt - and images equal those from the em5 and PL5. So the PM2 is still a decent choice, really, and the bargain of the bunch. The shot at right compares the PM2 and NX300.

So how do they all compare in the real, non-laboratory world?

All are quite good at what they do, and any differences in image qualities would not impact me. I owned the Pentax and Samsung first so they are more familiar to operate, and in many ways do things in similar ways. I do wish Pentax could take over the NX technology but no news of that = no more time spent on that dream. The Olympus menus are a bit more dense than the others, but worse than that is their cryptic, non-traditional references to what is actually being adjusted.  Irritating, but ultimately one can adapt.

Having seen the various results I'd say the most recent Micro4:3 and APSc sensors are quite evenly matched - it took a few years to get there but with Sony making sensors for both sensor types that's not a great surprise.  No doubt shots above iso6400 will reveal differences, but one can fine-tune the camera before the shot and mess with images later with desktop software. Therefore the differences aren't sufficiently relevant to me that any of these cameras is rejected or required.

For basic zooms the kit 14-42mm is much smaller than the Pentax 18-55, though Pentax now has a retractable 18-50 kit zoom which I have not tried. I've found that the NX 16-50 is pleasantly small and images with it are quite nice. As to primes, all three systems make excellent primes and the 'larger' Limited lenses from Pentax are easily as good as the others. So the wider end is not as big of a deal using any of these systems for lenses that I tend to choose; it's the telephotos that show the most difference.

The Olympus 40-150mm and Samsung NX or Pentax-DA 50-200s (all 80-300mme) do similar work, but the Oly is much less bulky and therefore more likely to come along. If one must have f/2.8 telezooms those lenses for all systems will be large, and I would want a large body to hold such lenses; however I am not interested in shooting at f/2.8 above 100mm so it's not relevant to me.

Given similar enough results and both lens sizes and Samsung's uncertain future, I feel that the micro4:3 gear will serve me/us best going forward. My wife and I can enjoy the ePL5 and em5 with pretty much identical results. The issues between them are small but could become nagging, as they use different batteries. I'm tempted to seek the em10 as a swap for the em5 - I would lose the weather seals but gain a match for power source and get a slightly smaller camera as well. We'll see about that. Or the ePM2 could make a return visit and go along with either of these. In any case images will be more than sufficiently excellent for my needs and uses, and I will dare to say for my wife as well.

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