Sound Advice: Olympus beats Sony in this camera race

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2011 - 3:46 PM

Answers to your multimedia questions.

Q I'm buying a compact interchangeable-lens camera. The Olympus PEN and Sony NEX look good, but I am leaning toward the Sony. Which would you pick?

A I love this class of camera, which combines the image quality and much of the flexibility of a digital SLR with small size and portability that make them perfect for travel.

I own the Olympus and Sony systems and have used them extensively, coming to love them for different reasons. Both have advantages and make a great choice for anyone, but if I could have only one, I would choose an Olympus PEN camera, specifically the $449 E-PL1 or the $599 E-PL2. They are the latest models and provide the best value and performance.

There are reasons some might want to choose the Sony NEX system. Its larger sensor has higher resolution and more surface area than the Olympus cameras, so it performs better in low light. If you are doing a lot of video, the $699 Sony NEX-5 is probably the best choice because of its ability to record 1080i video and the optical image stabilization of the two available zoom lenses. (The Olympus models and Sony NEX-3 record 720p video.) The Sonys also have an excellent night photography mode and create superwide panoramic images easily, even in 3-D if you want.

If you simply want to enjoy taking pictures and create memorable images, the nod goes to the Olympus PEN cameras. The system is much more extensive and the cameras have a familiar form factor that handles well and reminds me of using a classic, high-quality rangefinder camera.

Despite the somewhat smaller sensor, the PEN models simply deliver better looking images straight out of the camera. This is due to the optical quality of the Olympus lenses and the cameras' superior image processing. The in-camera image stabilization helps deliver sharp results regardless of the lens used.

Olympus leads in available lenses and accessories. This will change as Sony fleshes out its NEX system, but for now it isn't even a race. Olympus has an optional electronic viewfinder and twice as many dedicated lenses available. Most lenses are affordable, and optical quality is excellent throughout.

I saw some neat new Olympus accessories at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There is the $80 PEN Pal, a Bluetooth module that sends pictures from a PEN camera to your cell phone for sharing, and the $60 MAL-1, a close-up lighting attachment.

Sony doesn't sit still, though, especially in the advanced camera market, where it is thinking outside the box and making mighty strides.

There might come a day when my answer is different, but for now I prefer the Olympus PEN system.

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