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Olympus E-PM2 and E-PL5: Will the Smallest Cameras Continue to Get the Older Sensors?

Discussion in 'Micro 4/3 News and Rumors' started by Amin Sabet, Jun 20, 2012.

  1. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    It's no secret that the smaller, less expensive, non-SLR-styled Micro 4/3 cameras are the best selling ones. The discounted Olympus E-PL1 and E-PL2 have been at or near the top of the selling charts in Japan for a long time, and from what I have been able to tell from several unofficial sources, the GF2/3, E-PM1, and E-PL3 have also sold well.

    A key factor in the high sales of these cameras has been their relatively low price, presumably made possible in part by the use of the first generation 12MP Micro 4/3 sensor (the sensor found in all Olympus Pens plus the Panasonic G1/2/10 and GF1/2/3). There is no explanation other than price for the fact that Panasonic put the 1st gen 12MP sensor in the GF3 despite the fact that the GF3 was introduced after the G3, which featured a newer 16MP sensor.

    As a GF3 user, I'm perfectly happy with the image quality I get from this camera, but all things being equal, I would prefer to have the better performing, newer sensor. I don't mind paying extra for it either. What I don't want is the size of a G3 or GH2. The GF3 is my coat pocket camera, so I'm unwilling to go larger to get a different sensor.

    When Panasonic announced the GF5, the press release indicated that the new camera featured a "newly developed 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor and redesigned Venus Engine". The Venus Engine is the in-camera JPEG processor and therefore not relevant to me as a RAW shooter, but a new 12MP sensor sounded like good news. DPReview's GF5 preview noted: "Under the hood, the GF5's newly developed 12MP CMOS sensor is an evolution of the one used in the GF3, but with improved circuitry that doesn't block as much light entering the photosite, giving better low light performance".

    Sadly, the RAW samples provided by Focus Numerique show that the GF5 sensor offers little improvement over the GF3 sensor and doesn't come close to the level of the G3. Here are a couple representative ISO 6400 Lightroom 100% crops with default color noise reduction (NR) only:

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    Compared to the GF3 file, the GF5 file is slightly less noisy but also less detailed, suggesting the possibility of on-chip luminance NR (although we cannot rule out a combination of slight misfocus and improved noise handling).

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    Note that the G3 is disadvantaged in the above comparison since we are comparing at 100% view rather than matched output size. Nevertheless, it is clearly superior to the GF5 in the level of detail relative to noise.

    Panasonic's sensor stratification strategy to date has been as follows: The flagship (at least for video) GH series gets its own sensors. The other high-end cameras (G3 and GX1) get a different new sensor, and the smaller and less expensive cameras (GF3, GF5) get a less expensive, lower performance sensor.

    With the exception of the newest model (OM-D E-M5), all of the Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras to date have used the same 1st gen sensor. Before long, we are sure to see replacements for the smallest Olympus bodies, the E-PM1 and E-PL3, and as I read the forums, I can see that many people are counting on these replacements to use the higher performance sensor from the OM-D E-M5. I hope that this will be the case, but it will be a break from Panasonic's strategy if Olympus chooses this route.

    The Micro 4/3 system is not about having a cheap alternative to larger systems. Rather, the system exists for those of us who want a smaller, yet still highly capable alternative to larger systems. As such, I hope that the manufacturers will avoid strictly associating "small" with "low end", something which most DSLR makers (excepting perhaps Pentax) have been doing for a long time.

    While it's true that many enthusiasts find the smallest of Micro 4/3 cameras to be uncomfortable or cramped, there are others of us who love a very small camera and want the most capable tool possible in that form factor. Of course there needs to be a tiny and inexpensive body for "point and shoot" upgraders, but I believe there is room in the market for an equally tiny and more costly model for enthusiasts.

    Panasonic and Olympus would also do well to mind the competition. The entry level Sony NEX cameras use sensors which are only slightly if at all behind the sensors used in their flagship models. In fact, the lower end NEX-C3 and F3 sensors outperform the high end NEX-7 sensor when it comes to edge performance with certain wide angle lenses including the Sony 16mm pancake. The fact that entry level Micro 4/3 cameras offer significantly worse sensor performance than high end models would not be lost on reviewers and could lead to the perception that our system as a whole is more disadvantaged in terms of sensor performance than it actually is.

    I hope Olympus kept all of this in mind when choosing sensors for the next generation of their coat-pocketable Micro 4/3 cameras.
    • Like Like x 12
  2. WT21

    WT21 Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Feb 19, 2010
    Perhaps it's just my hope, but I'm sticking with it as a prediction:

    Panny makes the sensor, and can play sensor games. They (stupidly) reserve the high-end sensor for the GH series only. They would have a lot more sales, IMO, if they included that sensor in at least the G3, and also GX1.

    Oly doesn't own the sensors, so buying in bulk will be an important part of their consideration. Also, parts list, managing the different boards and workflows, etc.

    I think there's a possibility the EPM2 could have the same old sensor, but if it did, then they need not up-rev it. There is nothing more to add to the EPM1 before it's no longer the EPM1 (i.e. if you add tilt screen or in-built EVF, then it's no longer that tiny little camera). Maybe a touch screen. So, if there is an EPM2, I think it should have the new sensor, but it wouldn't have everything else (new IBIS, tilt screen, IBIS in video, 9 fps, etc.)

    Now, Oly would be REALLY dumb to leave it out of a new EP5, IMO. If they want to keep a high price point on the EP5 series, then they need the new sensor. IMO, the EP5 should add new sensor and tilty screen. Also, a new shutter. It can keep out the weather sealing, built-in EVF, maybe even IS during movie mode.

    The EPL series is an odd tweener, and even more so if tilty screen comes to the EP5.

    So, I think they have to, I think they will, though if they do keep the old sensor for any camera, it would be the EPM1 (to justify a very low price), but then I'm not sure why you would need to up-rev the EPM series, other than marketing.

    IF there is no new sensor in the EPM2, then I'll end up with an EP5 + EPM1. If they uprev the sensor in the EPM2, then I'll get two EPM2s.
  3. Aegon

    Aegon Mu-43 Veteran

    Nov 3, 2011
    Portland, OR
    I took that to mean that the GF5 has gapless microlenses on an otherwise GF3-like sensor.

    The GH2 was said to have gapless microlenses. When the G3 (and later GX1) came out there were a few people asking whether the new sensor had gapless microlenses and the answer wasn't clear, but the GH2 retained about a half stop advantage in dark settings suggesting that the G3 sensor wasn't using all the tricks.

    The sample photos show about a half stop advantage for the GH5 over the GH3, too. So again I'm thinking gapless microlenses.

    I wish I had citations but this is all from my (occasionally faulty) memory.
  4. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    I'd be happy with that if it brought the GF5 sensor performance close to the G3 performance, but it doesn't seem to be.

    I don't think this is right. If anything, the G3 is a hair better at light collection (based on both DxOmark data translated into QE by sensorgen.info as well as personal experience processing RAWs), whereas the GH2 seems to have a bit cleaner shadows and therefore slightly better dynamic range.
  5. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    I would line up to buy an E-PM2 that was is exactly the same as the E-PM1 other than the addition of the new IBIS, sensor, and touch screen from the E-M5.

    Agree, and I don't think there's much chance they would be that dumb.
  6. hkpzee

    hkpzee Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 5, 2011
    Hong Kong
    I sure hope they use the same sensor of the E-M5 on the new PENs. When I looked for a second body along side my E-P3, I picked from between the E-PL3 and the E-PM1 because I liked the fact that they are more compact than the E-P3, but have the same focus performance and sensor output, so I can pretty much slap any lens on either camera without worrying about different focus performance or image quality... Now that I got the E-M5, the PENs became primarily back-up bodies because of the different sensor performance. I am hoping the next gen PENs will have the same sensor with the E-M5 so that they can legitimately become a second body again, rather than just a back-up. Otherwise, I will seriously consider getting another E-M5 as a second body, although I hate to add more bulk to my camera gears...
    • Like Like x 1
  7. Steven

    Steven Mu-43 All-Pro

    May 25, 2012
    That's a big question right now. I was holding out for a smaller Olympus Model with new sensor but gave up when gx1 prices Went down. I would suspect that lower priced models like Epm Would get the new Gf5 sensor. What happens in the in between territory between that and Omd. ? It would make sense to use Omd sensor in EP but I suspect it would be priced pretty high lest it cannibalize Omd sales.
    My hope is to see a lower priced viewfinder model from Olympus like G series from Panasonic.
  8. Linh

    Linh Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Apr 14, 2009
    Maryland, US
    Why oh why is Panasonic wasting resources pumping out the old 12MP sensor. If they wanted to keep market differentiation, they should have just taken the tech on the 16MP and bring it back to 12MP.

    Better yet, as said, tool everything to the new 16MP sensor. Make a whole bunch, differentiate on what the cameras already do..
    GX high end compact
    GF entry compact
    G mid range catch all
    GH high end

    Have all the same sensor except maybe the GH to really put it out there... everyone wins. Though, this doesn't help if they are purposely holding oly back as well =/
    • Like Like x 2
  9. MrKal_El

    MrKal_El Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Mar 24, 2011
    Totally agree... A PM1 sized body, with no image compromise would be perfect as a second body to my E-M5...
    • Like Like x 2
  10. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    That's pretty much exactly what I had in mind when I wrote this post :2thumbs:. Of course, you said it in about 800 fewer words than I :rofl:.
    • Like Like x 1
  11. Jonathan F/2

    Jonathan F/2 Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Aug 10, 2011
    Los Angeles, USA
    Panasonic probably has an excess of 12mp sensors. We probably won't see the 16mp sensor until the GF6!
  12. Ninja

    Ninja Mu-43 Regular

    Jan 30, 2010
    As an E-PL2 user, I am not going to say that the sensor is "bad", but its high ISO performance is really pretty grim. I will say that the sensor was "OK" in its time, but time has moved on. If Olypmus and Panasonic continue to put out "the same old sensors" I think there will be other competing cameras which will prosper at their expense.

    There are certain fixed costs involved in sensor production which will not materially change from one generation to the next unless there is a major change in yields as a result of changes in fab technology. As I see it, the major cost differential between an old sensor and a new one is the R&D expense, the expense of new masks for use in the steppers and the development of better ASICs and associated firmware. Any company that does not have an well funded, ongoing R&D program will soon be left behind. As quickly as the mu43 segment arose it can decline if development stagnates. The Nikon 1 series, which is due for an update before too long, and cameras sure to follow its model represent a very real threat to the mu43 segment. The 1 series is "almost pocketable" and is most certainly good enough for web base work and may actually exceed the performance of most of the current mu43 sensors.

    Did I mention Fuji? The X-Pro 1's sensor performance is rather remarkable. Though rather more expensive than mu-43 bodies, it is still reasonably small. If Fuji chose to move down in size from the X-Pro 1 I would expect it to represent a very real threat to Olympus and Panasonic.

    While the mu43 systems have a greater selection of lenses than the X-Pro 1 at the present time there are bound to be more lenses on the way from Fuji.

    Apart from a convenient size, the mu43 format has a number of reasonably priced lenses, though more recent introductions are dramatically changing the price point of lenses. I question that this is the direction the format should take. Some of these lenses are more expensive than their APS-C equivalents which makes little sense to me. There are some very fine APS-C DSLRs which are price competitive with some of the mu43 offerings with superior sensor performance. If Panasonic and Olympus fail to keep up and fail to maintain price points that have brought them success the mu43 movement can disappear as quickly as the netbook market segment has.

    • Like Like x 2
  13. Biro

    Biro Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    May 8, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    That's right... I have no problem with a 12mp sensor - particularly on the smaller :43: cameras. Just use all of the latest technology.

    Here's another thing that's been nagging at me: Just how far behind is the first-generation :43: sensor compared with the competition? For example, could it be that the one-inch sensor in Sony's new RX100 fixed-lens digicam is better? Never mind things like better life depth-of-field control with larger sensors. I'm talking about noise, high-ISO performance and overall image quality. If that's the case, Panny and Oly had better move fast.
  14. PointZero

    PointZero Mu-43 Regular

    Apr 28, 2011
    I would not care if the sensor was still 12 MP, so long as the high ISO performance matches the G3 and EM5. Also, focus peaking - please focus peaking!
  15. G.Sal

    G.Sal Mu-43 Regular

    Jul 4, 2011
    The Philippines
    ^I agree with PointZero. I'm happy with 12MP sensor - a significant improvement in noise reduction and high ISO performance should still make the cameras attractive. For an everyday camera and a casual shooter, the 20+ MB file and the extra resolution are not really necessary.

    I know that the higher pixel count is great marketing tool but we know too well that image quality and over-all performance matter most.
  16. jyc860923

    jyc860923 Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Feb 28, 2012
    Shenyang, China
    I'm carrying exactly the same hope and opinion since now I hate that the camera I love (gf3) doesn't satisfy me with IQ as much as it does with the compactness and ease of use, the smallest camera doesn't necessarily have to aim low, but OTOH it's also reasonable for Panasonic's market segmentation.

    There's another thing quite bothering me if I want to make an upgrade purchase in the future, P&O both like to sacrifice details for smoothness on the latest models!!!
  17. Ross the fiddler

    Ross the fiddler Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    When Olympus brought out the 12MP sensor in the E30 & E620, they also added the E450 to follow on from the E420 with 10 megapixels, 3 Art Filters & 18 Scene Select Automatic Exposure Modes. It may be possible the E-PM2 will have the 12MP sensor with some additional improvements to allow it to be available at a low price & if they keep the E-PL & E-P models (or maybe combine them?), then I would imagine they would have the 16MP sensor with appropriate level of inclusions for their price point. I am still puzzled why the E-PL3 had the faster shutter speed (sequential) when the E-P3 didn't. :confused: 
  18. WT21

    WT21 Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Feb 19, 2010
    Olympus had to redesign the shutter mechanism for the smaller bodies of the EPM1 and EPL3, and clearly took advantage of the redesign to up the fps.

    If the Pen EP5 is to exist, I am guessing it, too, will receive a new redesigned shutter, as 3fps is looking dated, and would look VERY bad between 9fps on the top and 5 on the bottom of their product groups.

    I am hoping the OMD shutter might make it to the EP5, as it seems that it's a bit quieter. They could ratchet it back in firmware to, say, only 7fps, and a smaller buffer would also keep the OMD/EP5 differentiation.

    On the EPM2, I am beginning to fear you are right -- that it will have the same old sensor -- but I really, really, really hope not! I love the EPM1 form factor, but I need the new sensor!
  19. BAKatz

    BAKatz Mu-43 Veteran

    Sep 9, 2010
    Riverdale, NY
    Did I miss an EPL-4 somewhere along the line ?
    Seriously though, at what point do these companies stop selling older versions of their cameras ? Why are the EPL-1,2, and 3 all available new ? Well, ignore the 3, that's obvious.
    If it wasn't confusing enough before, it seems to be getting worse.
    I was hoping to upgrade either around the holidays or by early next October ( before I go on vacation again ). Do I stick with Oly, or switch to Pany ?
    At least time is on my side. Who knows, the next OM-D may be out by then.
    I'll keep an eye out around here to see the reviews of whatever comes out.

    I think what all of us want, is for the price of lenses to come down.
  20. Liamness

    Liamness Mu-43 Veteran

    Apr 20, 2011
    Given that they produce the sensors themselves, it is not like they have outstanding orders which they then have to include in their own products. It it not like they have a load of sensors that they have already produced lying around either, that is not how consumer electronics works. They make the stuff and they ship it. Anything that stays in a warehouse for any length of time is losing them money.

    More likely they don't want to pay the expense of upgrading current production lines, while sales are still good. I am as surprised as anyone that the GF5 seems to have the old sensor, as I though the 16mp one was the new 'volume' sensor. Clearly Panasonic believe it will sell anyway. I think they might regret that, because the budget competition from Sony and Samsung have much better image quality. They run the risk of consumers beginning to associate sensor size with image quality, when the OM-D has shown that does not need to be the case.

    They'll stop selling them when they stop selling, if that doesn't seem too circular. It's for the same reason Nintendo still produced the DS Lite until recently, despite the fact that there were several new iterations. It may be obsolete in some respects, but they have a production line to make these cameras that cost millions to set up, and would cost millions again to transition to a new product. It is better that they keep their production output as high as possible using their current lines, rather than spend loads converting them to a newer model, and potentially have lower output.
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