If you've been looking into upgrading your camera recently, then chances are you will have come across the seemingly baffling phrase "Micro Four Thirds".
Retailers and tech websites have been throwing the three-word moniker around with gay abandon, apparently under the misguided impression that anyone actually knows what they're talking about. So, what the hell is it?
Well, it might sound like a tiny version of a fraction, but Micro Four Thirds is actually a rather clever camera standard created by Panasonic and Olympus that makes it possible to dramatically reduce the size of digital interchangable lens cameras while still retaining picture quality. This is made possible because, unlike DSLR cameras, the Micro Four Thirds system doesn't use a mirror to take pictures which in turn means that the camera chassis can be made much smaller.
Micro Four Thirds has the same image sensor size and specification as its established predecessor - the Four Thirds system. Whereas the older Four Thirds system could only offer pictures of a 4:3 aspect ratio (the same shape as a pre-widescreen TV display), Micro Four Thirds cameras offer this along with the 3:2 ratio of conventional 35mm films, as well as 16:9 widescreen. With a bigger sensor than compacts, comes better image quality and better performance in low light which, of course, means less time having to rely on the flash. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is still not as large as DSLRs though, so you're unlikely to get quite such top-of-the-line-results.
On the outside, the most obvious characteristic of Micro Four Thirds cameras is that they're svelter than Four Thirds and DSLRs, but are still chunkier and heavier than compact cameras. Still with us? Good. So, what you're getting is something closer to the size of a point and press, with imaging power nearer a full-on DSLR.
As it happens, Panasonic and Olympus aren't the only companies that make mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but they are the only ones using the patented Micro Four Thirds system. Both Sony with its NEX cameras and Samsung with its NX versions also work on the same principles, but with slightly different bits and bobs.
There are plenty more advantages and disadvantages of Micro Four Thirds-type cameras compared to both compacts and DSLRs which we can bang on about at length in an article which offers more depth and probably a few more pictures as well. To cut an extremely long and convoluted story short though - if you're after top, top notch photo quality, then a DSLR is your best bet.
However, if you find those too expensive or cumbersome to carry around, or you just want something better at taking photos than a compact, then a Micro Four Thirds camera offers a you a way to do that. It's significantly higher quality and for only a slightly higher price.
Get it now? Is there anything else you want unravelling? Let us know in the comments.