Joining the ranks of Sony and Kodak, Olympus is releasing the Air, a lens-style camera that uses your smartphone as a viewfinder. This compact device, which has a micro four-thirds sensor and can work with a wide range of lenses, will go on sale in July for $299 ($499 with a 14-42mm lens). I had a chance to test out the Olympus Air and came away impressed, even if these types of devices have their share of limitations.
The barrel-shaped Air is about the size of the kit lens that comes with any Olympus mirrorless camera. The front has a bayonet-style lens mount, and the back has a detachable fold-out bracket to hold your iPhone or Android device. The bracket is adjustable, so it can accommodate a wide variety of smartphones. Unlike Sony's lens-style cameras where your phone sits perpendicularly to the lens, on the Air, your phone sits at an angle. Olympus says that this makes it easier to see your phone's display if you're holding it above or below your head. Indeed, it was easier to frame a shot with my hands held high, but it also meant turning the whole device upside down.
There's a shutter button on the side of the Air, in case you don't want to, or can't, press the button on your phone's screen. Also on the device, which comes in white or black, is a tripod mount.
The Air has the same 16.1-megapixel image sensor as found in the Olympus E-M10, which we found to take excellent photos. The Air also has an electronic shutter capable of taking up to 10 photos per second, 81 focus points, contrast detection autofocus, and shutter speeds from 4 seconds to 1/16000 of a second. There's also a micro SD card slot, but the Air lacks image stabilization. Olympus says that the Air's rechargeable battery is good for about 320 shots.
The Air connects to your smartphone via Wi-Fi; the Olympus Air app (which much be used with the lens) not only allows full manual control, but also has a number of filters and tools. OA Genius analyzes the subjects in your photo, and suggests six alterations and how it got there. It will also learn your preferences over time, basing its suggestions on that.
At $299, the Air is about $100 less than the Sony QX1, a mirrorless lens-style camera that has a 20.1MP APS-C Exmor APS HD CMOS Sensor, a BIONZ X Image processor and can shoot in RAW, but can only accept Sony lenses.
Overall, I find these type of devices intriguing. However, as a concept, it's a tough sell. While lens-style cameras offer great image quality, they're not as fast on the draw as either a smartphone or a dedicated camera. And, as with other smartphones that allow manual control over their cameras, it's a bit tricky to quickly adjust settings on the fly using just a touchscreen. Still, for those looking to travel as light as possible, but who still want to take high-quality pictures, devices such as the Air are very compelling.