For its E-PL2, Olympus makes some design and feature enhancements, as well as performance tweaks, to its PEN E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds camera. The result is a noticeably better camera, delivering better photo quality and an improved shooting experience than its predecessor. The most obvious functional differences to this consumer-focused interchangeable-lens camera (ILC) include a larger LCD, multiple variations for some of the Art Filters, support for the new accessory connector, and redesign of the buttons. It also supports an extra stop of sensitivity, up to ISO 6400.
While ISO 6400 may be mostly unusable--typical of most consumer cameras, the top ISO sensitivity is more of a marketing feature than a real tool--the E-PL2 has a very nice noise profile. It's not quite as good as the Sony Alpha NEX-5, but that seems to be because the lower-resolution images lose sharpness more quickly rather than higher noise incidence. You can shoot pretty comfortably up through ISO 800. At ISO 1600 things start to soften and detail starts to degrade, and color artifacts become readily apparent at ISO 3200. Nor does it clip the shadows as much as a lot of other cameras at higher ISO sensitivities.
Overall, the E-PL2 delivers very nice photo quality, in cases noticeably better than the E-PL1. Olympus seems to have tweaked its default noise reduction parameters: you lose a little sharpness, but the results look more natural. As long as you don't have small details in the image, photos shot even at ISO 3200 can be quite usable. The color rendition remains excellent--what little color I could find in the February New York City landscape--and it seems as if the metering has been improved to produce slightly brighter exposures under similar lighting conditions.
The video quality remains satisfactory, but not great; there are a decent set of manual controls for shooting movies, as well as Art Filter support, but there's considerable rolling shutter wobble in all but stationary scenes. The kit comes bundled with a new version of the 14-42mm lens, dubbed MSC, which is designed to operate more quietly when shooting video--it doesn't use any fancy new technologies, just internal focus. And it is quieter. But the continuous autofocus is only a bit less inconsistent than the system of older lens and PEN cameras, with a tendency to continue hunting even on stationary subjects. The lens has a bayonet mount on the front as well for filters and add-ons; Olympus will be adding a line of these types of accessories.
The performance improvement was one of the E-PL2's nicest surprises, especially given how little the inner hardware has changed. Though I still wouldn't say the camera's fast, Olympus has brought its autofocus speed up to where it should be; unfortunately, the image processing still bogs it down somewhat, keeping shot-to-shot times in passable-but-annoying territory. It's relatively zippy on start-up--0.8 second to power on, focus, and shoot--and its shot lag of 0.4 second in bright light and 0.7 second in dim brings it right into line with the faster cameras in its class. But while it's faster than previous PEN models at firing two sequential shots, its 1.3-second shot-to-shot time (1.7 seconds with flash) is still on the high side. And despite a respectable 3.1fps burst rate, the autofocus system hasn't improved enough to keep up satisfactorily with a moving subject.