Hands-on preview: Olympus E-PL1

We take a look at the E-PL1, Olympus' latest Micro Four Thirds interchangeable-lens camera. It offers an aggressive price and newbie-friendly features designed to attract point-and-shoot upgraders.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first round of interchangeable-lens cameras offered a lot to appeal to enthusiasts, but at prices upward of $800, not quite a no-brainer for point-and-shooters in search of an upgrade. The bigger sensors in these models can generally deliver better photo quality at somewhat higher ISO sensitivities than the smaller snapshot models and they support video capture, but the alternative has been the moderately larger dSLRs with action-friendly optical viewfinders and kit prices starting at a significantly lower $600. Even the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, which delivers the right set of performance and features for these folks in a compact, attractive design, comes in at an ouch-worthy $900 or so. Olympus' sleek E-P1 and E-P2 have attracted a lot of attention, but without a built-in flash they're simply not the right camera for snapshooters, especially at their relatively high prices. So Olympus is trying again to lure this lucrative audience to its Micro Four Thirds camp, this time with the more consumer-friendly designed and priced E-PL1.

At $600 for a kit with the 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) lens, a boxier but not unattractive aluminum body that's definitely smaller than a dSLR and this time with a pop-up flash, this latest model might just be a contender. (Unfortunately, I only had a preproduction model to play around with, so I can't address key aspects like performance and image quality.)

If you're one of the crowd attracted by the low price, though, keep in mind that even though both Olympus and Panasonic make compatible lenses for the system, because it's much newer there are still a lot fewer choices in Micro Four Thirds lenses than for dSLRs, and they tend to be more expensive than their SLR-compatible counterparts. For example, Olympus' 14-42mm lens lists for $299, while both Canon and Nikon's staple dSLR 18-55mm lenses run $199. The Micro Four Thirds lenses and bodies are more compact, though, and people are historically willing to pay more for less bulk.

While the elder E-P models mimic a traditional film design, the E-PL1 takes its design cues from digital cameras like the Canon PowerShot G series and Panasonic Lumix LX models. It will come in blue, champagne gold and silver and black, and the black and silver model still has a somewhat retro look. The plastic and aluminum body doesn't feel quite as tanklike as the E-P models, but it feels sturdy, with a relatively large, comfortable grip. Still, I found it just a tad slipperier to hold than I'd like, especially with winter-dry hands.

Some basic specs compared to its linemates:

 Olympus E-PL1Olympus E-P1Olympus E-P2
Sensor (effective resolution)12.3-megapixel Live MOS12.3-megapixel Live MOS12.3-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm17.3mm x 13mm17.3mm x 13mm
Color depthn/a12 bits12 bits
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 - ISO 3,200ISO 100 - ISO 6,400ISO 100 - ISO 6,400
Focal-length multiplier2x2x2x
Continuous shooting3.0 fps
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
ViewfinderOptional plug-in articulating EVFOptional optical with 17mm lensBundled plug-in articulating EVF
Autofocus11-area contrast AF11-area contrast AF11-area contrast AF
Metering324 zone324 zone324 zone
Shutter60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Wireless flash controllerYesNoNo
LCD2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps)1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI
Battery life (CIPA rating)n/a shots300 shots300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches)4.5 x 2.8 x 1.64.7 x 2.8 x 1.44.8 x 2.8 x 1.4
Operating weight (ounces)12.4 (without EVF)13.913.8; 14.9 (with EVF)
Mfr. Pricen/a$749.99 (body)
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)

$1,099.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
n/a$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)$1,099.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens)

Though it uses the same TruePic V processor and sensor as the other E-P models, Olympus says it's tweaked the noise reduction tradeoffs to produce cleaner-looking images, but at the expense of sharpness. One notable difference in addition to the pop-up flash include mono audio.

Like many of Olympus' other cameras, the E-PL1 includes the Art Filters, though this camera substitutes in a couple of new ones. Gentle Sepia is a tweak of the sepia filter, but Diorama is a new one which simulates the miniaturize and blur effect of a tilt/shift lens.

The control layout and operation will be familiar to anyone who's shot with one of the advanced Olympus cameras, like the megazooms, and it's got the full manual and semimanual feature set that enthusiasts are used to. If you're into HDR, though, keep in mind that it's limited to the typical three-frame bracket.

Comparison: enthusiast compact modelsOlympus E-PL1Canon PowerShot G11Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sensor (effective resolution)12.3-megapixel Live MOS10-megapixel CCD10.1-megapixel CCD
17.3mm x 13mm1/1.7-inch 1/1.63-inch
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 - ISO 3,200ISO 80 - ISO 3,200ISO 80 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier2xn/an/a
Continuous shooting3.0 fps
2.5 fps
4 JPEG/3 raw
ViewfinderOptional plug-in articulating EVFOpticalNone
Autofocus11-area contrast AFContrast AFContrast AF
Metering324 zonen/an/a
Shutter60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes15-1/4000 sec; n/a60-1/2000 sec; n/a
LCD2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
2.8-inch articulated
461,000 dots
460,000 dots, 3-inch fixed
Video (max resolution at 30fps)1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI640x480 H.264 MOV848x480 Motion JPEG MOV
Battery life (CIPA rating)n/a420 shots380 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches)4.5 x 2.8 x 1.64.4 x 3.0 x 1.04.3 x 2.3 x 1.1
Operating weight (ounces)12.4 (without EVF)14.3 (estimated)9.1
Mfr. Price$599.99
(with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
(integrated f2.8-4.5 28-140mm-equivalent lens)
(integrated 24-60mm f2.0-2.8 lens)

Though models like the G11 and Panasonic's LX series may be similarly priced, Olympus is more overtly targeting those who aren't quite ready to leave the comfort zone of a point and shoot. In one of the features intended to attract a less experienced photographer, Olympus includes Live Guide in iAuto mode. It includes Shooting Tips, which provides general photographic advice. For instance, the tips for photographing children include "Talk to a child and take a picture from his/her eye level" and "Take many pictures by continuous shooting mode, and select good picture later." Similarly, to reduce the fear factor of playing with more advanced settings, you can use sliders to adjust background blur (aperture), exposure compensation (brightness), express motions (shutter speed), saturation and image warmth, all with live preview. I like the idea of this interface, but the implementation is slightly annoying, especially if you want to change multiple settings--there's too much jumping around. And it's kind of hard to see differences with some of the previews, in part because the 2.7-inch LCD is a pretty low resolution 230,000 dots.

That isn't to say that the PL1 doesn't have all the manual and semimanual features of those models. It does, and compares reasonably well on a feature basis with inexpensive dSLRs:

Comparison: Similarly priced dSLRsOlympus E-PL1Olympus E-620Pentax K-xSony Alpha DSLR-A330
Sensor (effective resolution)12.3-megapixel Live MOS12.3-megapixel Live MOS12.4-megapixel CMOS10-megapixel CCD
17.3mm x 13mm17.3mm x 13mm23.6mm x 15.8mm23.5mm x 15.7mm
Focal-length multiplier2x2x1.5x1.5x
Color depthn/a12 bits12 bitsn/a
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 - ISO 3,200ISO 100 - ISO 800/1,600 (expanded)ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6,400/ISO 12,800 (expanded)ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Continuous shooting3.0 fps
3.5 fps
53 JPEG/6 raw
4.7 fps
5 raw/17 JPEG
2.5 fps
ViewfinderOptional plug-in articulating EVFOpticalOpticalOptical
Autofocus11-area contrast AF9-pt phase detect AF (contrast AF in Live View)11-pt phase detect AF (contrast AF in Live View)
9-point phase detect AF (contrast AF in Live View)
Metering324 zone49 zone16 segment40 segment
Shutter60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes1/6000 sec. to 30 sec.; bulb 1/4000 sec. to 30 sec; bulb
LCD2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
2.7-inch tilting
230,400 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps)1280x720 Motion JPEG AVINoneNo 30fps mode; 1280x720 24fps Motion JPEG AVINone
Battery life (CIPA rating)n/a500 shots1100 shots510 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches)4.5 x 2.8 x 1.63.7 x 5.1 x 2.44.8 x 3.6 x 2.75.0 x 3.8 x 2.8
Operating weight (ounces)12.4 (without EVF)18.920.419.2
Mfr. Price$599.99
(with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
(with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
(with 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
(with 18-55mm lens)

The Olympus E-PL1 is slated to ship in March, while the f4-5.6 9-18mm ($699.99) and f4.0-5.6 14-150mm ($599.99) lenses announced in November 2009--which Olympus claims provide faster, quieter autofocus than the older lenses, but have awfully narrow maximum apertures for the focal range and price--are targeted for the end of April/beginning of May.

I had issues with the focusing system on the E-P1, but still haven't gotten an E-P2 to check out the "improved" continuous autofocus with tracking, which Olympus carries into the E-PL1. Obviously that, along with general performance and photo quality, will be important considerations for this model when I finally get a testable unit. Nothing about the model I used seemed to be egregiously lacking with regards to the design and feature set, but nothing screamed "must have!" either. What does your gut say?

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