The Olympus OM-D is a new line of Micro Four Thirds cameras, pitched above the current Pen line. The E-M5 is the first model in this new range, which Olympus is pushing out with the tagline "the beginning of something new".

But how new is it? Importantly, how distinct does this new OM-D camera feel from the existing, and cheaper, Pen models? Is Olympus bringing enough to these new models to justify the price and should you be exciting about getting one? We spent the day with a pre-release model to get a thorough preview of what it offers.

The original Micro Four Thirds Pen camera, the E-P1, brought retro camera design back into the mainstream in 2009. Whilst the Pen line of cameras has divided, offering smaller and more modern models, the new OM-D sticks to the looks of the original OM models.

Claudia Bähr, Olympus Europe senior product manager, told us that using the OM name came about partly because once the new camera had been designed, the similarity to the OM-4 was undeniable. Unfortunately for those with old glass, it has nothing to do with the existing OM lenses and is only an adoption of the name.

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But at the same time, this is every inch a mini SLR by design. It's conventional (but retro) looking, running up against the likes of Panasonic's ageing GH2, or the Sony NEX-7. The inclusion of the viewfinder is a first for an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera and one of the points of distinction from existing Pen models.

The construction makes plenty of use of magnesium alloy, so this diminutive camera is solid and there is a nice feel to the buttons and controls. There is enough grip too, with a lip for your fingers at the front and a rubber ramp on the back to keep your thumb in place.

The controls are relatively conventional in their layout, although you have both a wide selection of buttons and a full touchscreen too. There are two control dials, one surrounding the shutter button and a second on the rear of the top plate. These controls can be used in tandem to change settings easily, aperture and shutter for example, with the front dial changing exposure compensation by default in most shooting modes.

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Housing the electronic viewfinder on top of the camera is a box that looks as though it contains a pentaprism like a true SLR. It doesn't, of course, but it does give you a hotshoe on the top for mounting accessories. There is no built-in flash, which we feel could be something of an oversight, as this camera offers pretty much everything in one package - except for that elusive flash.

But cramming all these things together on a compact body that's still small enough to slip into a handbag or large jacket pocket leads to one of the problems that the E-M5 exhibits. The viewfinder is great, but accessing all the controls whilst using the viewfinder is a little more tricky.

On a conventional DSLR this is second nature: you can keep the camera against your face while making adjustments. On the E-M5 this is more difficult because of the close positioning of the controls on the back to your cheeks and the top dial to your eye socket.

If you are using the viewfinder in manual mode and need to move both dials while keeping a check on the exposure meter display, you'll find you have your thumb in your face as you click through the changes. Of course, you can make these changes using the live view on the display, but we still think it's a little too tight for those who are going to be using the viewfinder a lot.

However, we much prefer the viewfinder to previous accessory viewfinders on Olympus MFT cameras, as it feels more substantial and complete, and more comfortable to use (with the caveat that changing settings can be a pain). The technology here is the same as the VF-2, so you get a nice sharp 1440k-dot viewfinder with 100 per cent field of view. Changes appear in real time through the viewfinder and you can also view all the menus through it, should you be so inclined. 

Sitting beneath the skin of the new OM-D is a 16-megapixel sensor. It's a new sensor for Olympus and with this not being final firmware, we can't judge the quality just yet, but the test shots we've taken have produced some great results. 

We're impressed by the 5-axis image stabilisation that comes with it, however. Having sensor shift stabilisation means that you get the benefits no matter what lens you strap on the front. We tested the E-M5 with Olympus' new M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm, more on which later.

We found the image stabilisation to be very effective, especially in video. Because we shot the sample footage on a pre-release camera using beta software, we're not able to show you this footage, but you'll have to take our word for it when we say it looks nice and smooth, with shake removed from walking to give a much more pleasing result.

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The variangle 3-inch OLED display on the rear isn't as versatile as those that offer a side-swivel arrangement, but it does make it easy to take high and low angle shots, without straining to see the screen. It's a nice bright screen too, although it attracts fingerprints easily, especially when you start using it as a control mechanism. 

Olympus has designed the screen to control everything. Not only can you make menu selections, but you can also touch to focus or touch to capture. It's very sensitive and we found that when touch to capture was selected we took a lot of accidental shots. The shutter button is rather sensitive too and doesn't need much of a press to get it rattling off shots, so during the day we spent with the camera we got a lot of shots of our feet.

As mentioned, we tested the new OM-D with a new lens. The ED 12-50mm offers manual and powered zoom. The powered zoom (operated by the same zoom ring on the barrel of the lens as manual zoom) is smooth and quiet and we found that it worked really well for video. A manual focus ring then sits on the end of the lens, activated when you select manual focus in the camera, although we found it to be rather indistinct - better for setting up static shots than manual focus pulls in live video.

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The interesting thing about the lens is the control. The zoom ring on the barrel is also a switch. Slide it forwards and it will move to powered zoom, pull it back and it turns into manual. It's a neat way of avoiding a chunky switch, although we did on occasion find ourselves jumping the lens out of powered zoom and into manual by twisting too hard. 

This is a macro lens too. There is an additional button on the barrel, and holding this down will let you engage macro mode with another slide of the zoom ring. It's a neat all-in-one solution, although we can't help wishing that the macro focus just worked anyway, without having to engage a separate specific mode.

Controlling the Olympus OM-D E-M5 can take place, as we've mentioned, through the screen or through the various buttons and dials. The shooting mode dial is nicely placed on the left-shoulder of the camera and we much prefer this arrangement to the menu-based offering of the Sony NEX line. 

But, just as you'll find on other cameras of this ilk, there are more settings than you probably know what to do with. Not only do you have the usual run of manual controls, and nice extras like horizontal and vertical level indicators, but you also get 9fps shooting and ISOs up to 25600.

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On top of those types of features that you'd expect on a mid-range enthusiast DSLR, you then get all the digital magic that compact system cameras have become known for. So you get a full range of Art Filters, easy access to shadow and highlight levels whilst shooting and all sitting on a very fast autofocus system.

There are some clever new additions to this model too. Livebulb is a highlight for us as it takes some of the guesswork out of long exposures. As the name suggests, it is effectively bulb shooting, but with a live view on the display at the back. Where you'd normally be sitting next to a dark screen, waiting for what you'd guess was the right moment to close the shutter, Livebulb will show you. It's great fun. 

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Another new feature is called echo, which is like a ghost trace you can toggle in video. It is very clever, letting you add an effect to a moving subject. It's seamless and so simple to use that it should be a popular feature. 

But with all these features comes all the controls that go with them and there is a mine of menus to root through to find every detail. If you are familiar with Olympus' Pen cameras then much of the menu will be familiar and getting around isn't too hard, but on more than one occasion, we found ourselves diving off into some feature or another and then returning to take a shot, only to find the aspect was still 1:1 or we'd left the levels all out of kilter. At times, the struggle might be undoing some of the changes you make so you can return to normal shooting.

We got about 400 shots from our first battery (which is good going) but bear in mind that this was a pre-production model and not with the final firmware. We found the writing speed to the SD card was rather slow, especially when using some of the more sophisticated features, but Olympus tells us that this will be dependant on the card used and the firmware, so it's something we'll have to look at when we get the camera in for a full review.

Price when reviewed:

First Impressions

We leave the Olympus OM-D E-M5 feeling a little overwhelmed. There is so much on offer in this mini DSLR-alike body that it puts many "proper" cameras to shame. But at the same time, there is plenty here to confuse. As a camera designed to appeal to the more advanced photographer, but not foregoing any of the automated fun features, it's easy to get distracted. 

But that said, once the dust of novelty settles, there are some really useful features here. Livebulb really appeals to us, the image stabilisation looks great and being able to tweak the levels for an instant result has provided us with plenty of fun. 

Of course, during our day with the first Olympus OM-D we haven't had the chance to judge the quality properly to determine whether this camera truly sets itself apart from its Pen siblings, or from its Lumix cousins. And can the asking price of £1129.99 be realistic? Will it give the Sony NEX-7 a run for it's money? Would you buy the OM-D over a Nikon D7000? Such questions will have to wait until we get a retail camera for a full review.

Until then, the new OM-D certainly looks to offer plenty to get excited about.

Read more: Olympus OM-D: Five hot features of the E-M5