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Instant Love, Followed by a Letdown

Technology is like romance. When everything clicks, you’re on top of the world — but every now and then, your heart gets broken.

Like when your hard drive dies, or your new gadget becomes obsolete after two weeks, or you find out that that gorgeous iPhone runs only on AT&T .

Well, prepare yourself for camera heartbreak this time, thanks to the new Olympus EP-1 Pen.

The breathlessly awaited EP-1 is, according to Olympus, the smallest interchangeable-lens digital camera on earth. It’s an ambitious, 50th-anniversary update of the Olympus Pen camera, which shook up the industry of its day by building the optics of a pro model into a pocket-size body. Over the years, 17 million fans bought the Pen and its variants.

Olympus EP-1
Photo:Olympus
Olympus EP-1

Above all, the EP-1, which will be available next month, is supposed to be the hybrid the whole world has been waiting for: the guts of a single-lens reflex camera in the body of a pocket cam.

An S.L.R., of course, is one of those big, black, bulky cameras that take magazine-quality photos. Professionals tolerate the weight and size because they have to.

Amateurs generally choose smaller, cuter cameras — but they make profound sacrifices in the process. The photos rarely look as good as S.L.R. photos, especially in low light. Far too many pictures come out blurry, because the sensor inside is so tiny. And shutter lag — the delay after you press the shutter button — is enough to drive you into therapy.

But oh, man: S.L.R. quality with the size of a pocket cam? Be still, our beating hearts!

This love affair begins at first sight. The EP-1 ($800 with a 3X zoom lens) looks and feels like nothing else on the market. Its heavy, silver metal body and black textured handgrip strongly echo the classic looks of the family film cameras of the 1950s. It’s not some little shirt-pocket doodad, mind you, but it’s far smaller than the smallest S.L.R. At 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.4 inches, it’s a hair bulkier than three iPhones stacked.

(The E-P1 is the third camera, and the smallest yet, to result from a Panasonic-Olympus collaboration known as the Micro Four Thirds format. In these pseudo-S.L.R. cameras, a series of breakthroughs work together — eliminating the prism box, shrinking the lens diameter — to permit a big sensor in a compact body. There are only four Micro Four Thirds lenses available so far; with an adapter, you can also use the more numerous, but larger, Four Thirds lenses.)

The E-P1 has every manual control under the sun; you make adjustments by logrolling an unusual vertical, ribbed cylinder with your right thumb. You can customize the camera to a fare-thee-well — you can control aperture, shutter speed, ISO (light sensitivity), manual focus, white balance, exposure compensation, bracketing of every kind, what the buttons do and even how soon the low-battery warning appears. There’s even a two-axis plumber’s level built in, so you can make sure your camera’s set up straight.

You marvel at the way the Intelligent Auto mode switches automatically to the proper scene mode without your lifting a finger. Nuzzle up close to a flower, and the camera switches to Macro mode and beautifully blurs the background. Frame a friend’s face, and up pops Portrait mode. Or dial up one of the 14 presets (Fireworks, Snow, Children and so on).

You take a few pictures, and now you’re certifiably in love: they are spectacular. There’s a clarity of light, an almost molecular level of detail, a perfection of color in some of the shots that make you giddy. The camera does just incredibly well with skin tones, close-ups, nature colors — these photos knock your socks off. (Sample photos accompany this review online at nytimes.com/personaltech.)

Then you try movie mode, and the perfection of the camera’s 720p high-definition video blows your mind. Especially when you realize that all of your lenses, and all of your photographic settings, and even some of the special effects, can be applied to video as well. You can even refocus while filming, albeit a little unsteadily, which most real S.L.R.’s can’t do.

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The E-P1 can be playful, too; its six “art filters” add Photoshoppish effects to any shot, like moody, grainy black-and-white, or softened pastel colors, or wrinkle-smoothing Soft Focus.

And so, at the end of the first date, your mind is racing. You think maybe you’ve found The One.

But then you start to notice things.

You were so dazzled, for example, that you didn’t notice at first that there’s no flash.

No flash?

“Oh, come on, you don’t need a flash,” the camera seems to say. “You have my gigantic sensor! Use natural light! Besides, if you’re such a wuss, you can always buy the optional $200 external flash.”

Can you live with it?

You murmur, “Yes, dear.” But in your head, you’re bummed about the hassle of packing and attaching another piece of equipment. Wasn’t the E-P1’s slender, svelte body part of the initial attraction? You also suspect you’ll miss the convenience of a quick fill flash when your subject’s face is in shadow.

Maybe you decide you can live with that — but then you realize there’s no optical viewfinder to peer through, either. You have to frame your shots using the 3-inch screen. And it’s not a great screen, at that. It’s hard to see in sunlight.

“Viewfinder, schmiewfinder,” the camera chides you. “If it makes you happy to hold something up to your eye, buy the snap-on external viewfinder for $100!”

Now you’re getting annoyed. The snap-on viewfinder is just a piece of glass. It doesn’t show any status indicators, and your view doesn’t change as you zoom or adjust focus. You may as well make an O with your fingers and peer through that.

But hey — you wanted petite. Something had to go, right? As long as you’ve got that big sensor in a little body, you’re set, right?

Except that in all the hoopla over the E-P1, one little spec is overlooked: the sensor inside (12 megapixels) isn’t actually that big. Oh, at 0.85 inches diagonal, it’s much bigger than the 0.4-inch sensor that’s typical in a pocket camera. But it’s nowhere close to the 1.12-inch sensor on the similarly priced Nikon D5000 S.L.R., let alone the 1.7-inch chip in full-frame pro cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II.

You discover that fact as soon as you take pictures indoors, at dusk, or anywhere else but in broad daylight. It’s the old compromise all over again: you get either blur or, if you goose up the ISO, graininess. Less blur or less graininess than you’d get on a shirt-pocket cam, for sure — but more than on an S.L.R.

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There are other problems, too. The characteristics you first admired as refreshingly different now strike you as eccentric, even weird. The E-P1 offers four different, redundant menu systems, activated by four confusingly similar buttons (labeled OK, Menu, Fn and Info). There’s an HDMI jack for easy connection to a hi-def TV — but would it have been so much trouble to build in a standard mini-U.S.B. jack, like every other camera in the world?

Finally, the final straw: the E-P1 is slow to focus. Horribly slow — sometimes two seconds. Its shutter lag is so bad, photos of athletes, passing cars and magical cute-kid shots are almost out of the question. Olympus explains that the E-P1 doesn’t have a dedicated autofocus chip, as an S.L.R. does, so it uses the same “contrast-detection” scheme as point-and-shoot cameras. Heartbreaking.

In the end, you’re sadder but wiser. So much beauty, such glorious pictures in good light, so much potential — but also so many eccentricities, lapses and misfires. You’ll fall in love with everything the E-P1 stands for — but you’ll mourn what might have been.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.