True, at first glance the E-400 looks a bit like the Olympus E-500. But when you pick it up you find out just how dissimilar they are. Olympus has indeed succeeded in creating the smallest and lightest digital SLR yet. The Canon EOS 400D is reckoned by many to be just that little bit too small for comfort, but put it alongside the E-400 and it looks like a tank.

To go with the small body of the E-400, Olympus has come up with two brand new lenses - a 4-42mm 'standard' zoom and a 40- 50mm telephoto zoom. These are being offered as a twin-lens kit, though some retailers are also advertising the E-400 with the 4-42mm lens alone.

These new 'ED' lenses are noticeably smaller than their predecessors, the 4-45mm and 'old' 40- 50mm (the new designs are distinguished by a blue ring around the lens barrel). They also have plastic lens mounts, which is a bit disappointing. The eagle-eyed will also note that the standard zoom has seen a slight drop in outright focal range, down from 45mm to 42mm.

Again, you have to put the E-400 next to a rival model to see how compact these lenses are. The E-400 with its 4-42mm kit lens fi tted is almost an inch shorter, front to back, than the EOS 400D with its 8-55mm zoom. Size and handling

All this is great news if you want the smallest digital SLR/zoom combination there is. Olympus has crammed more hardware into a smaller space than anyone else. But this does bring problems. One is the lack of any real grip on the right of the body.

This does contribute to the E-400's exceptionally handsome look, but it makes it diffi cult to grip securely with one hand. Now if you're the sort of photographer who likes to hang your camera round your neck, this won't matter. If you're the sort, though, that prefers not to have straps on the camera but to keep it in a shoulder bag, it's a different story.

The E-400's size, its weight (which is still significant) and its lack of a shaped grip means that you need strong fi ngers for one-handed shooting, especially since you have to shift your grip to get your thumb on the control wheel.

Paradoxically, despite its size, this is really a two-handed camera because otherwise you stand a chance of dropping it. It's nice to see, though, that Olympus has stuck to the graphical user interface seen on the E-500 and E-330. This doesn't just tell you what the camera settings are, it enables you to navigate to them, select them and change them directly. This is much better than a conventional menu system.

There are a couple of other things you don't see elsewhere, too, and you'll fi nd them on the metering pattern menu. In 'HI' spot mode, the camera 'pegs' the area under the metering spot at a maximum highlight value. In 'SH' spot mode, it sets the area under the spot to the darkest tone. These two modes are quite specialised but have a valuable function when shooting high-key, low-key or high-contrast subjects.

Olympus's photographic heritage shows through with features like these. Sports and action photographers will be pleased to learn that the E-400 comes close to matching the continuous shooting/buffer performance of rivals.

It can shoot at three frames per second for 10 consecutive JPEG images, which isn't bad, plus it can shoot five RAW files at that same speed, which is pretty good. With the E-500 particularly, shooting RAW files wasn't a very tempting option because the camera took so long to save them.

While the E-400 matches SLR rivals for outright resolution, the Four Thirds system specifies a sensor size around 35% smaller than that of most digital SLRs. So, all other things being equal, you can expect more digital noise.

This noise/ISO issue was clearly a factor in the design of previous Olympus Four Thirds SLRs, which had 'offi cial' ISO ranges of 00- 400, with ISO 800 and ISO 600 provided as an extended, 'uncalibrated' mode. With the E-400, Olympus quotes a full ISO 00 to ISO 600 range, and has improved its noise reduction system to the extent that even at the highest sensitivities results are pretty good.

The penalty is the loss of some fine textural detail, but it's a compromise most of us would accept. At high ISOs, the E-400 might not quite match the quality you get from other digital SLRs set to the same sensitivity, but the differences really aren't that great.

You might reach the same conclusion about sharpness and detail rendition. Comparisons are a little tricky as digital SLRs apply different levels of internal sharpening. It does seem, though, that the E-400's shots don't have quite the same definition at a pixel level that you'd get from the 400D or the Nikon D80. However, the E-400 we tested was a pre- production model, so our comments are provisional. Production cameras may produce slightly different results.

So how does the E-400 fit in? Can it really take on the EOS 400D, Nikon D80 and Sony Alpha 00? At the moment, it looks a little expensive. Neither its features nor its performance are at all out of the ordinary. In fact its strengths lie in areas that are harder to quantify.

It's unusually small and neat, as are the two new Olympus zooms. It's nice to use too, with an intelligent and sophisticated control layout. Just like the E-500 before it, it reminds you that the camera itself can be part of the pleasure of taking pictures.

Via PhotoRadar