Olympus E-P1 review: Olympus E-P1

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Striking design; excellent build quality; impressive photo quality; interchangeable lens support.

The Bad Sluggish autofocus; short battery life; low-resolution LCD; lacks on-camera flash and viewfinder.

The Bottom Line The Olympus E-P1 is an otherwise excellent enthusiast compact camera hampered by some performance problems and the lack of a viewfinder and built-in flash.

7.1 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 5.0
  • Image quality 8.0

Editors' note: In light of the growing number of more feature-rich interchangeable-lens models on the market since the E-P1 was initially reviewed, we've revised the camera's features rating, bringing it to a 7 from an 8.

Looking only a bit like the original Micro Four Thirds concept design Olympus floated last September at Photokina, the company's retro interchangeable lens E-P1 debuts this year to ride the coattails of the 50th anniversary of the company's PEN film camera. From the name, to the design, to the tagline etched on its top--"Olympus PEN since 1959"--it feels like a cross between an homage and a desperate reminder that Olympus was in the camera biz long before most digital photographers were born. That said, the design works, though the company sacrificed some important features to implement it, and the photo quality should satisfy anyone shopping in its price class. Unfortunately, the E-P1's performance fails to live up to the promise of the rest of the camera. Still, the overall shooting experience is probably good enough to deliver Olympus a nice-size niche among style-, but not budget-conscious, enthusiasts.

Though they all include a full set of manual and semimanual exposure modes and other advanced features, Panasonic and Olympus have taken very different approaches to their Micro Four Thirds products, implicitly appealing to two diverse types of shooters. While Panasonic seems to be going for the technologically focused dSLR shooter looking for a more compact model, Olympus seems to be targeting the more aesthetically driven enthusiast who wants--and is willing to pay for--the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system in the more compact design of models like the Canon PowerShot G and Panasonic Lumix LX series. That explains some of the features Olympus sacrifices, including a viewfinder--electronic or otherwise--as well as on-camera flash. Olympus is offering an optional, low-profile hot-shoe flash and a hot-shoe direct viewfinder with the 17mm pancake lens. Though it offers miniHDMI out, it doesn't have a mic input or headphone jack for video as the GH1 does. If those are deal-breaking capabilities for you, you may want to wait for Olympus' subsequent products in the E-P line, though who knows when they'll appear.

Comparison: Micro Four Thirds models Olympus E-P1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Sensor (effective resolution) 17.3mm x 13mm 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 17.3mm x 13mm 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 17.3mm x 13mm 12.1-megapixel Live MOS
Color depth 12 bits n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 2x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
Viewfinder None Electronic Electronic
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF
Metering 324 zone 144 zone 144 zone
Shutter 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes
LCD 230,000 dots, 3-inch fixed 460,000 dots, 3-inch articulated 460,000 dots, 3-inch articulated
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI None 1280x720 AVCHD
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 300 shots 300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8
Weight (ounces) 13.9 15.1 15.2
Mfr. Price $749.99 (body)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
$799.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$1,499.95 (with 14-140mm f4.0-5.8 lens)

Though it's retro from the front, in back it's all digital, with a pretty typical control layout. Along the right side of the LCD run AF and AE lock buttons, playback, delete, and menu. To their right sits a user-definable function button, which you can assign to invoke face detection mode, provide a depth-of-field preview, set manual white balance, reset the AF area to its home position, use manual focus, override raw settings, take an unsaved test picture, pull up MyMode custom settings, toggle the LCD backlight or disable the button entirely. As we've seen with other Olympus models, this method of setting the manual white balance is confusing, especially the first time; unless you know to program the function button for it first, you'll never figure out how to set the manual white balance. A back dial includes direct-access buttons for ISO sensitivity, white balance, focus mode and drive mode. There's also a vertical subdial; the combination of the two dials is nice, and both feel relatively responsive and comfortable to operate.

The prettily inset mode dial atop the left side of the camera offers the standard manual and semimanual PASM modes, plus movie capture, a variety of scene modes, intelligent auto and access to the 6 Art Filters. Next to the shutter is a dedicated exposure-compensation button.

An info button at the bottom right cycles through a lot of (some might say too many) display choices: a two-axis digital level, detailed current settings, basic settings plus a histogram or AF area, selectable thumbnail previews of exposure or white-balance compensation, scale/grid display or image only. You can also pull up Olympus' typical Super Control Panel, an overstuffed display where you can adjust most frequently needed shooting settings plus some not-so-frequently used ones, like white-balance compensation, sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation, black and white filter and Picture Tone. There's a much more useful simplified version in which you cycle around the outer edge of the display to adjust shutter speed, aperture, white balance, drive mode, image stabilization mode, aspect ratio, image size and quality, flash options, ISO sensitivity, metering, autofocus, face detection, and AF target (auto using all 11 AF areas or user selectable).

Comparison: enthusiast compact models Olympus E-P1 Canon PowerShot G10 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sensor (effective resolution) 17.3mm x 13mm 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 1/1.7-inch 14.7-megapixel CCD 1/1.63-inch 10.1-megapixel CCD
Color depth 12 bits n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x n/a n/a
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
2.5 fps
4 JPEG/3 raw
Viewfinder None Optical None
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF Contrast AF Contrast AF
Metering 324 zone n/a n/a
Shutter 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 15-1/4000 sec; n/a 60-1/2000 sec; n/a
LCD 230,000 dots, 3-inch fixed 461,000 dots, 3-inch fixed 460,000 dots, 3-inch fixed
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1280x720 Motion JPEG AVI 640x480 H.264 MOV 848x480 Motion JPEG MOV
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 400 shots 380 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.3 x 3.1 x 1.8 4.3 x 2.3 x 1.1
Weight (ounces) 13.9 14.1 9.1
Mfr. Price $749.99 (body)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
(integrated f2.8-4.5 28-140mm-equivalent lens)
(integrated 24-60mm f2.0-2.8 lens)

For such a compact model, the 14-42mm (28mm-84mm equivalent) kit lens can be pretty sharp. It does a lot better at macro distances--and can focus pretty close--than at traditional ones, however. Overall, it delivers about the same shooting experience as the 18-55mm lenses from Canon and Nikon, with the exception of manual focus. Though the manual focus rings on those lenses don't feel particularly fluid, they at least use a traditional geared mechanical operation. Like its Micro Four Thirds counterparts from Panasonic, the Olympus uses a servoelectronic ring, resulting in the infinite rotation experience; it's not bad, just relatively loose and imprecise and takes some getting used to. The way you can retract the lens into itself when not in use is quite ingenious, however, and makes the difference between being able to slip the camera into a large jacket pocket and requiring a carrying case. Of course, if you're looking for the most compact solution, you'll have to opt for the aforementioned 17mm lens, which also has the advantage of a wider maximum aperture.

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