There's lots to like about Olympus' Micro Four Thirds cameras--the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1--but their seriously slow autofocus performance, most notably with nonprime lenses, can be a significant drawback for many casual users who rely on AF. The firmware update released this Thursday is yet another attempt on Olympus' part to bring performance for its entire PEN series into line with competitors from Panasonic and Samsung.
In addition to addressing AF speed for still capture for all the models, the firmware upgrade also tries to get a handle on the E-P2 and E-PL1's AF tracking accuracy--that is, the tendency for the autofocus in those models to lose lock when they're supposed to be tracking, which is especially painful when shooting movies. That fix seems limited to the newer, as yet unavailable 9-18mm (read about it) and 14-150mm internal-focusing lenses. (A third new capability allows E-P2 and E-PL1 shooters with the EVF to use the LCD and EVF simultaneously, a much-requested feature according to Olympus.)
Olympus sent us an E-P2 body with a beta version of the firmware to see for ourselves. The results? In our Labs tests, the new firmware did deliver about a 22 percent improvement in shot lag--the time it takes to focus and shoot--under optimal, high-contrast conditions. However, that drop went from 0.9 second to 0.7 second, in a class of products that routinely take 0.5 second. We saw no improvement in low-contrast (dim) light. (Tested using the 14-42mm kit lens.) And according to Matt Fitzgerald, who does our labs testing, it's still inconsistent, taking varying amounts of time to lock on a subject during repeated trials.
In practice, and with the faster 9-18mm lens, the E-P2 did feel zippier, with more decisive autofocus. But it still hunted more than I'd like.
If you've already got a PEN camera, the firmware update should offer a definite improvement over your camera's current performance. But based on the beta's performance, I don't think it will significantly improve Olympus' performance standing relative to its competitors, though I suppose every little bit helps. Olympus doesn't plan to release the upgrade until April 22 (from http://www.getolympus.com/penupdate), so maybe there's some room for more tweaking. On the bright side, Olympus has overhauled its firmware upgrade process so you no longer have to boot up the Olympus Master software you probably never installed; it will do it directly via the Web instead.