The are really two types of cameras: the camera that can fit in your pocket, and the camera that can take great pictures. The Olympus Air A01 is an attempt to merge both, creating a tool for smartphone photography that doesn't rely on a tiny built-in sensor. Simply put, the Olympus Air A01 is a sensor and interchangeable lens mount that attaches to your smartphone; through both wi-fi and Bluetooth communication, the phone acts as the screen and interface.
While unique, the Olympus Air A01 certainly isn't the only smartphone-attachable camera. The Sony QX line includes both sets with built-in lenses and the QX1 that allows for swapping lenses. So how does the A01 compare, and which option comes out on top?
Unique cameras tend to have odd quirks that can make them difficult to use—I took the Olympus Air A01 out for a test drive to see just how quirky this thing is, and just how much the new device could improve “smartphone” photography.
Body and Design
The Air A01 is far from your traditional camera, starting with the design of the body. The Air looks and feels more like a small prime lens than a camera. The Air is pretty tiny—to get a better idea of just how small, here's the Air A01 with the 14-42mm kit lens sized up against half my lunch:
Tiny, right? The Air weighs about a third of a pound, so you're not really going to notice it in your bag. The largest part of the Air is just 2.25 inches. The kit lens isn't all that big either. The coupling (which attaches the Air to a smartphone) follows that same pattern, maybe adding a quarter inch to the overall height.
The Air A01 is largely metallic and feels well-built. There are some plastic pieces on the back and the coupling is also plastic—pulling off the back had me worried I was going to break it, but so far it's held up.
The coupling actually has two different sizes for attaching to the smartphone, plus one side uses a spring adjustment to hug the phone, which is very nice. I could use the small setting to attach to my iPhone 6 without the case, or the large to attach over top of the phone inside an Otterbox case. The side of the coupling device isn't quite deep enough when my phone is still inside the case, but it still holds on pretty snuggly.
Controls on the Air A01 are almost non-existent. There's an on/off button and a physical shutter release. The only other physical controls are to turn the Bluetooth on and off and the sleek metal controls for releasing the lens or coupling. If you want to take pictures with just the Air A01 you can, but there's no way to adjust your settings (or see what you are actually shooting) without a connected smartphone.
Operating the Air is done almost entirely with the OA. Central app. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see the playback, shutter release and mode controls. Just above that are the options for adjusting the exposure compensation and manual settings, if shooting outside of auto. At the top, there's a number of different settings. The “DISP” toggles the grid on and off while the icon that looks like a grid a few spaces over opens up the sub-menu, which is where you turn on burst or single shooting as well as metering, picture styles, face priority mode, autofocus mode and the aspect ratio. The timer icon activates the self-timer. The magnifying glass adjusts the zoom, which you can also adjust on the lens itself. The last icon on the top right access settings, such as choosing a burst speed and whether to geotag your images with your location.
Inside the playback mode on the app, the options are pretty minimal. You can crop, view and share images, but if you want to do any real editing you'll want to save the photos to your phone and use an editing app. You can automatically save to your phone by turning the feature on in the settings, or save only to a Micro SD card. (That micro SD card is required, since the Air doesn't have built-in memory like a smartphone.)
The design flaws in the Air A01 are pretty minimal. The battery can't be removed and the camera is charged with just a USB cord. Besides the inconvenience of needing to plug it into your computer or a USB converter to plug directly into a socket, that means you can't carry around a spare in case the battery dies (which according to the specs will be after about 320 photos). The small size of the Air also means data is stored to a micro USB, which are much easier to loose track of.
The Olympus Air A01 is pretty well-built. It's small and while the controls are minimal, the app is simple enough to navigate after a bit of exploring. I'd prefer a wall charger and a full sized SD card, but those are rather minor annoyances.
User Experience and Performance
The Olympus Air A01 doesn't ship with any instructions, and since using the Air is quite a bit different from using a mirrorless or point-and-shoot, it really should include at least a quick start guide right in the box. The app goes through the steps of connecting the device, but I actually downloaded the wrong app—the one designed for use with Olympus mirrorless cameras. With the right app though install was pretty quick—there's a QR code when you remove the plastic backing, and scanning the code means you don't have to type in any long passwords.
One of the biggest perks of the Air A01 is that it includes both wi-fi and Bluetooth. Since wi-fi is rather power-hungry, most wi-fi cameras will automatically disconnect after a few minutes of not using the camera. The Bluetooth allows the Air A01 to connect automatically—though I did have to go in and manually select the Air's wi-fi network when I was within range of my default network (a quick phone setting change could fix that). The Bluetooth will also continue to send out a signal even with the device powered off, so that you can actually turn the Air on using your smartphone instead of the on/off switch. If you're going to store the Air for awhile, flip the switch in the back so the Bluetooth doesn't drain the battery while the device is off.
But besides the Bluetooth being a convenience, the Air connects much faster than the wi-fi-only cameras that we've tested. When trying out the original smartphone mounted camera from Sony, there was a rather big delay between pressing the shutter release on the smartphone and when the picture was actually taken, enough so that the camera frequently missed the moment and taking pictures of anything moving or even capturing the perfect smile was rather difficult. The Olympus Air is much faster, with a much shorter shutter lag.
The connection isn't perfect though. The device disconnected once while I was shooting and I couldn't get the connection back until I restarted both my phone and the Air. Because you have to wait for a connection before shooting, the start-up to shoot time is pretty slow, over 45 seconds when I was within range of another wi-fi network and had to manually connect on my phone.But, the Air performed much better on speed tests than I anticipated, thanks largely to the Bluetooth. Single photos were about 2-3 seconds apart. Only about half that was actually taking the photo—there is some delay because a preview of the shot appears and disappears before you can take the next one. Using the manual button and skipping the necessity of a connection to the phone at all and shots are a half second apart. Burst mode is a speedy 10 fps, with a pretty large buffer of 23 shots.
One of the perks of using a smartphone for photography is the touch-to-focus, which works pretty well with the Olympus Air. Once you've tapped a portion of the screen, the camera will continue to focus in that area until you tap the focus box again, even if the composition changes. The focus is pretty accurate and worked well.
The touch-to-focus doesn't work on the extreme edges of the screen though. If you want to focus on something on the edge of the frame, you can use the focus lock by tapping the object and holding until the AEF lock appears, then recomposing the shot.
While the touch-to-focus works pretty well, the Air doesn't have a continuous focus mode. Once you lock focus on a subject, the Air doesn't have an option to follow that subject as they move. If you keep the subject on the same single focus point, the Air will refocus on that area every time you press the shutter release, unless the focus is locked.
The Air is also pretty limited in shooting modes. There's an iAuto or manual modes—no scene modes. But, the Air can shoot in RAW mode, which is a nice feature.
The constant Bluetooth and occasional wi-fi connection does tend to drain the battery a bit. Usually, I can take the number of photos that the camera battery is rated at and only exhaust half the battery. But the Bluetooth drains the battery when you are using the smartphone connection to just frame the shot, not take it. Battery life here is more true to the specs at around 300 photos.
Getting the Air set-up to shoot was a little frustrating with the lack of instructions (though you can find them online). Once set-up though, the Air was very fun to shoot with. The small camera and smartphone connection makes it easy to snap unusual angles or set up the camera on a tripod and use the smartphone as a trigger from a distance. Start-up time is slower than a regular camera, but the Air's Bluetooth connection is much faster and doesn't suffer from the same extreme shutter lag as the Sony QX model we've tried.
The Air uses the same sensor as Olympus mirrorless models, so image quality is quite similar. The larger 4/3 sensor gets you good low light performance, defocused backgrounds and resolution that you simply can't get with a smartphone camera alone.
Color and white balance is pretty accurate. The iAuto mode did have a tendency to underexpose on cloudy days, but that's a simple fix with exposure compensation or manual modes.
The Olympus Air captures very sharp images, even towards the edges. Because of that level of sharpness, the level of detail in the photos is excellent. While not technically a macro lens, the kit lens didn't do too bad with close-up shots, which is one of the things I like about the Olympus brand overall.
Noise reduction is also good. Cropped in close, you'll see some obvious noise coming in at ISO 800 and 1600, but I wouldn't hesitate to push the ISO to 3200 to prevent blur in limited lighting and even 6400 depending on what you want to use that final image for.
That solid ISO reduction is going to be a big help in low light conditions. The kit lens isn't the brightest at f/3.5, but that's the beauty of interchangeable lenses. If you do a lot of low light work , you may want to consider the body-only and a brighter lens with a lower f-number.
The video quality on the Air is okay, with a similar level of detail and sharpness. Shooting on a windy day handheld, my footage was a bit shaky—the Air doesn't have a stabilization system. But, the Air will work for video in a pinch.
The image quality on the Olympus Air is excellent and right in line with their mirrorless options and offers much better photos than a smartphone camera. If you are attached to the convenience of smartphone photography but want higher quality images, the Air will certainly get you that.
Olympus Air A01 Vs. Sony QX1
The Air lines up pretty closely with the Sony QX1 in style, as both options are smartphone-attachable interchangeable lens cameras. The Air offers a Bluetooth connection, however, that's much faster than connecting with wi-fi only (Note that I wasn't able to test a QX camera with NFC). That means you're less likely to miss the perfect moment while the smartphone communicates with the camera. The Air also pairs with the smartphone at a 45 degree angle that's a bit more comfortable for low-angle shooting.
The Olympus is the faster, more convenient option and if I had to pick between the two, I'd pick the Air because I hated the shutter lag when testing the older wi-fi only QX10. The Sony QX1 though does have a larger APS-C sensor and a faster 19 fps burst mode, so you have to weigh that with the lack of Bluetooth.
The Olympus Air A01 is a fun camera to use. The use of Bluetooth really cuts back the shutter lag associated with wi-fi connected cameras. With a 4/3 sensor, the Air offers excellent images, comparable to the manufacturer's mirrorless line. At $300 for the body only or $500 with the kit lens, it's also more affordable than a mirrorless camera.
The Olympus Air is also open source, which means it's hackable. My hacking experience is exactly 0, but that may be another enticing feature for some consumers or even commercial developers.
Personally, I'd pick up an Olympus mirrorless like the E-M10 Mark II over the Air because I prefer the convenience of physical controls and shooting without relying on a Bluetooth connection. But, the Air isn't really aimed at photographers looking to replace their DSLR. For smartphone photographers that want to step-up their image quality, the Air is an excellent way to do that without loosing the smartphone controls and easy sharing. Or, for shooters that already own some Olympus lenses, the Air could be a nice way to make that kit a bit more portable for more casual shooting. The Olympus Air nearly eliminates the shutter lag that's in the wi-fi only Sony QX cameras, and as such, is the best smartphone attachable camera on the market right now.