If the compact E-600 Four Thirds system digital SLR from Olympus has crept in under your radar, that's because it's basically an E-620 "lite", on sale exclusively through the Currys electronics group in the UK, and also on general release across North America.
Like its E-series siblings the E-600 is an attempt to deliver DSLR quality and handling without the physical bulk usually associated with such a device; that said the E-600 doesn't come anywhere close to being a pocket model. This still looks, feels and handles like a traditional DSLR in most respects with a myriad of small if well-labelled and laid out buttons.
The build quality is impressive however, putting plastic-y competitors from Canon, Nikon, Sony et al in this price bracket to shame. Our only gripe is that we could have done with a slightly larger, rounder grip than the one provided - obvious corner cutting to reduce bulk, as are its sprinkling of smaller than average back plate buttons.
In terms of whether you should buy this as a cheaper alternative to Olympus' own E-620, the obvious initial question regards which of its sibling's features are missing from this new pared-down version. And are any serious omissions?
For the photographer trading up from their very first DSLR this camera is aimed at we'd argue not. While it's a shame that the E-600 does away with three of the E-620's heavily promoted Art Filters - Grainy Film, Pale and Light Colour and Light tone all get the boot - the more visually arresting three in Pop Art, Pinhole, and Soft Focus are kept. Absent too are the E-620's multiple exposure and multi aspect ratio shooting options, such as the ability to shoot in 16:9 ratio as well as 4:3. Though nice to have, arguably none of the above is going to be seriously missed by anyone who hasn't already had direct experience.
While it looks a dead ringer for the E-620 from the outside, so it continues on the inside. Present and correct are the same 12.3 million effective pixels maximum resolution from a 13.1MP Live Mos sensor as found within the E-620, RAW and JPEG capture, optical viewfinder offering 95% field of view, 2.7-inch, 230k dot resolution "free angle" monitor with Live View that can be flipped out from the body and rotated to achieve a great variety of compositional angles than the traditional fixed screen.
We also get the E-620's lightning fast 7-point twin AF system, three-mode in-body anti shake courtesy of a sensor shift mechanism, plus protection for the E-600's Live Mos chip when swapping lenses courtesy of the magnificent sounding Supersonic Wave Filter system. In terms of image stabilisation/anti shake we get the three options of stabiliser on, active when panning horizontally, or active when panning vertically.
For those looking to forego use of the E-600's built-in pop-up flash (with additional vacant hotshoe), ISO 100-3200 light sensitivity is offered, with the ability for users to fine tune their options further courtesy of 15 selectable incremental steps between the lowest and highest ISO options.
In terms of performance we were sent the camera not with the 14-42mm zoom included in the current Currys body and lens bundle, providing an equivalent 28-84mm in 35mm terms, but the marginally broader 14-54mm 1:2.8-3.5 II, equivalent to 28-108mm, which retails for around £350 when bought on its own.
With a thumb flick of the on/off switch encircling the obvious shooting mode button on the E-600's top plate, in approximately a second and a half you're ready to begin shooting, the rear LCD providing an at-a-glance overview of currently selected shooting settings and the AF lightning fast in determining a target.
Shooting options can be scrolled or tabbed through using the arrow key pad at the E-600's rear, or the "grown up" command/control wheel top right of the top plate. Whilst the visibility provided by the optical viewfinder is perfectly adequate, a press of the dedicated monitor icon button on the E-600's back plate activates Live View to the sound of the camera's mirror mechanism flipping out of the way and the tilting LCD, which can be rotated through 270 degrees, immediately comes into its own.
While use of the LCD as an electronic viewfinder obviously eats up battery power in the long run, Olympus claims battery life is good for a respectable 500 shots if using optical viewfinder rather than LCD as a compositional tool. Across a fortnight we found ourselves recharging the E-600's lithium ion cell once.
Running the circumference of the DSLR's shooting mode dial are 11 options, including full auto and the regular quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes. Indicating the E-600 is a different beast to all the standard APS-C sized sensor clones, Art Filters get a dedicated setting shared with regular scene modes. There are further pre-optimised settings for shooting portraits, landscapes, close ups, sports/action and night scenes as we'd expect.
As with all of the E-series models incorporating Art Filters, these perform most effectively on the E-600 when used sparingly. It's worth also mentioning that using them does elongate writing times, as the effects are applied to the image immediately after it has been captured, the camera freezing and a progress bar appearing on screen as the magic is taking place.
Photographs are written to either Compact Flash or xD-Picture Cards, slots provided for both with the ability to transfer files between them if so desired. Including an SD /SDHC option rather than xD might have made more long-term sense if Olympus didn't have a vested development interest in the unloved xD format.
So, are said images any good? With our 14-54mm test zoom bolted onto the front of the E-600 the answer is an emphatic yes. Photographs display impressive edge-to-edge sharpness and even exposure for the most part. The three effects filters are fun with us using the pinhole option the most in practice, crisp wintry days delivering the desired moody results.
Perhaps inevitably pixel fringing is evident when examining straight edges such as the outline of a building or even the branches of trees when set against a bright sky, but it's hidden much better than we'd normally expect at this price and only truly visible when greatly magnifying detail.
At the time of writing Curry's online store was offering the E-600 and lens at a knock-down price of just £399, a saving of £150 on the full £549 recommended cost. If the offer still holds by the time you read this, you're basically getting a mid range model at an entry-level price: a great deal.
That's important, because with hybrid cameras in the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 "Pen" utilising the even smaller Micro Four Thirds format, currently being pushed as the next evolutionary stage of the original Four Thirds, there's a danger that Olympus' more traditional looking models such as the E-600 and its ilk may be overshadowed by their sexier, shinier and even smaller cousins.
That said, at present the E-600 is a robustly constructed, responsive and reliable performer that won't disgrace any enthusiast or beginner photographer's camera bag. Indeed it will give its recipient's photography a very welcome boost with the minimum of fuss and the gentlest of learning curves.
£549 with 14-42mm kit lens