Digital single-lens reflex cameras aren't exactly mass-market yet, but they're getting there rapidly. A little over a year ago, Canon shipped the first affordable digital SLR: its breakthrough sub-$1000 EOS Digital Rebel. Nikon followed with its slightly more expensive D70--a great boon to every longtime Nikon film SLR owner with a bag full of lenses. Now Olympus and Pentax have joined in.
The Olympus EVolt E-300 Digital SLR ($1000 with lens) and the Pentax *ist DS ($900 with lens) both come with a slew of creative controls and can take dazzling images. Digital photographers looking to move beyond a simple point-and-shoot model likely won't be disappointed by either camera, but each one has distinct strengths and weaknesses.
The Olympus is easily the more eye-catching of the two. There's no hump on the top of the camera because Olympus repositioned the viewfinder's optical path to the left side of the body, which makes the E-300 slightly shorter than most other digital SLRs. Our shipping unit has a polished look and feel. Its solid, bricklike body feels as though you could pound nails with it. The dials turn easily, and the body fits firmly in two hands.
The Pentax has a more traditional SLR shape, though its overall body is smaller than those of most digital SLRs. For any photographer who already owns a Pentax film body and late-model lenses, the unit provides an obvious transition to digital. Our shipping model isn't as finely finished as the E-300 (its dials are stiffer and its controls aren't as sophisticated, for instance), but its black body looks more professional than the silver Canon EOS Digital Rebel's casing.
The Olympus has the edge on specs: It includes an 8.1-megapixel CCD, whereas the Pentax, like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel and Nikon D70, has a 6.1-megapixel CCD.
Both cameras will serve photographers of any skill level--convenient on occasions when you have to hand your camera to someone who's comfortable only with point-and-shoot controls. In addition to offering full-automatic exposure mode, both cameras have a selection of preset scene modes that quickly adjust your settings to specific situations. The Pentax has seven on its mode dial, while the Olympus provides five on the dial and another nine in the menus.
In the past we've praised Olympus cameras for their intuitive menus, but the E-300 takes a slight step backward. The submenus are not as well labeled as those of the Olympus C-8080 we've tested previously, and working out the location of the camera's many settings takes some time. Unfortunately, the menus on the Pentax aren't much better--there are just fewer of them.
On the plus side, the Olympus responded more quickly while we used it. Many of the key exposure controls change rapidly with the press of a dedicated button and a spin of the camera's selector dial. We especially liked the status screen on the E-300's 1.8-inch LCD. Its blue letters on a black background were easy to read, and Olympus tied the display in nicely to the camera controls.