Review Date: September 28, 2015
This Olympus AIR A01 Review is based on a production model. All sample images are unretouched, except where specified.
Let’s get the most important question out of the way: how is the image quality? Since the AIR A01 is a mirrorless camera as good as any that Olympus has made, retaining the same image sensor and image processing in other Olympus mirrorless cameras, you can expect the same great image quality.
However, if you only shoot for Instagram, YouTube and other social sites, you may not notice much difference in image quality whether you shoot with your smartphone or the AIR A01. That’s because, at that small image size, you may not notice the many defects from the tiny image sensor in your smartphone. But the A01’s ability to add all kinds of specialized lenses for macro, landscape, portrait and telephoto shooting does extend your creative capability immensely.
The second most important question is: how is the user experience? Your experience with the AIR A01 will depend on the power of the processor in your smartphone. On my basic smartphone, it’s painfully slow and the image freezes far too often for a pleasant user experience. Switching to my iPad mini, the user experience is much better, though there is still a slight display lag, probably due to the Wi-Fi transfer of high resolution images from the camera to the tablet display. Autofocus is precise and fast in good lighting, but hunts a bit in very low lighting. So, the more powerful the processor in your smartphone/tablet, the better the user experience.
Your satisfaction with the AIR also depends on your expectations. The AIR A01 does not replace a dedicated mirrorless camera which delivers much better handling and performance. It is, however, a blast to use once you get familiar with its handling and operation—and opens up creative avenues for those willing to focus on its strengths and capabilities. Like any camera, it has shortcomings, but these will surely be addressed in subsequent versions.
Though the AIR A01 is cylindrical in shape, bear in mind that it still has a portrait and a landscape orientation. In other words, you have to hold the AIR at the right angle if you want your horizon to be level and vertical to be upright. You can also just pick up the AIR, point and shoot and have lots of fun with unusual framing. But if you are thinking careful traditional composition, you will find that composing with the AIR can be mighty frustrating, especially on first use.
Who’s the AIR A01 not for?
If you are satisfied with the images that your smartphone captures, you don’t print big—perhaps haven’t printed a photo in ages—and sharing the small images (“improved” by filter effects) on social sites are all you care to do, the Olympus AIR A01 is not going to do much for you.
Also, if you need a quality camera that will be your main camera to learn and grow in photography, the handling of the AIR will interfere in that learning process. Stick to a dedicated mirrorless camera.
So, who’s the AIR A01 for?
If you only shoot with a smartphone camera now, are dissatisfied with the quality of the images, but don’t really want to walk around with a dedicated camera with knobs and switches and lots of other functions that you don’t really care to learn about, you may be really interested in what the Olympus AIR A01 has to offer.
If you already shoot with Olympus or Panasonic mirrorless, don’t want to bring them to certain casual events, and want a camera for fun times, definitely check out the AIR.
If you are a journalist/reporter and want to discreetly record stills and movies without anyone thinking that a “lens” left on a table may be recording images, video and sound in stereo, check out the AIR.
If you are an enthusiast photographer and want to explore more creative avenues, the AIR opens up a whole new creative ways of looking at a scene.
I would guess movie directors will have no qualms mounting the relatively affordable AIR A01 on speeding cars on their way to spectacular crashes.
If you compare the AIR A01 with other dedicated mirrorless cameras, you will get stuck with the handling, the built-in battery, the use of a microSD card, the lack of image stabilization. You can’t get it all and to fit a quality mirrorless camera in the body that is as small as a lens adapter, you have to make compromises. I believe Olympus has made thoughtful compromises in the AIR A01, not skimping on image quality and shooting features.
In the final analysis, the Olympus AIR A01 is a new concept (though following after the Sony QX1) that may well introduce a new way of thinking about the camera. It’s first generation, so expect teething problems. And, depending on your expectations, you may decide to wait for a more mature version, or you may dive in now and find, like we did, that it’s LOTS of FUN already!