As the compact digital cameras market become commoditized, it puts a tight squeeze on the margin of manufacturers. Consequently, manufacturers bring their battle to dSLR market where there is a little more room for differentiation and the margins are, well, marginally better. Traditionally, the best selling dSLRs are the entry-level models. Growth in this segment, however, have been stifled by the complexity, bulk and weight of dSLRs.
Despite manufacturers' efforts to shrink the size of these cameras, the mirror boxes and minimum flange focal distance limits the amount of shrinking that can be done.
A year or so ago, Panasonic and Olympus jointly developed a class of warriors in this segment, the micro fourthirds (or m43 as some calls it). They basically redefined a standard for interchangeable lens cameras without the mirror box and a flange focal distance which is 20mm, shorter than most flange focal distances out there.
Panasonic released their first m43 camera last year, the G1, and their second with video functions this year, the GH1. Both models were excellent cameras. The autofocus speed (the main concern with cameras without a mirror box) was on par with many entry level dSLR and they are feature packed. However, the G1/GH1 was broadly criticized for not making full use of the m43 specifications to shrink these cameras.
Then came the Olympus E-P1, the camera tipped to deliver the m43 promise to the fullest at least in terms of size. While the image quality of the E-P1 has been nothing short of stellar so far, some tests show the autofocus speed of the E-P1 to be sub par even when compared to some compact cameras. That has generally been the Achilles Heel of the E-P1. The lack of a built-in flash has also been a shortcoming for some photographers.
So on one hand, you have a camera with a fast AF and great features but needs intense dieting. On the other hand, you have a camera that is a little more petite but is slow in AF and lacks a few key features. Why merge these two together and get a winner?
Well, this is what the rumored Panasonic GF1 plans to deliver. The leaked picture above showed a camera in a very similar dimension to the E-P1 but has a built-in flash and a possible electronic viewfinder. Some say that the dimensions might be a little smaller than the E-P1. Given Panasonic's excellent track record in m43 AF speed, I believe this camera will be as fast as the G1/GH1 in AF.
The rumor for the launch of the Panasonic GF1 on the 1st/2nd Sept has been going so strong that a rumor site have given this rumor a 'It's done' or 'confirmed' rating.
So if the GF1 did indeed come true, do we have a perfect m43 now?
Nope, according many Olympus fans. They accuse Panasonic of applying too much in camera processing to the images. Reviewers have found that Panasonic corrects CA, distortions, vignetting and other image issues either in camera or by default when using the Silky Pix and Adobe RAW file converters. Many Olympus users also like the color rendition and texture of the E-P1 better than the Panasonic line up. I believe many E-P1 users will feel that GF-1 will not be the ideal answer to their prayer.
So is the GF-1 is the "last hope" for m43? As Yoda said, "There is another one."
A new rumor has surfaced that the E-P2 is on the horizon. The rumored date of release is some time in December 2009. Personally I don't care for an EVF or any other new features. All I am hoping for is for them to shrink the size a little and I really really hope they will speed up the AF considerably. A built-in flash may also be useful for emergency situations.