Olympus PEN E-PL1 review: Olympus PEN E-PL1

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. For a complete accounting of the E-PL1's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Performance. Sigh. The E-PL1's lack of speed simply makes me sad; the whole Pen series does in that respect. If you're a manual focuser it's much less depressing, though there are still non-focus aspects of the camera's performance which disappoint as well. It wakes and shoots in about 1.8 seconds, which isn't bad. But in optimal conditions it takes 0.9 second to focus and shoot, and it takes 1.4 seconds in low-contrast conditions--slower than all but Olympus' other models, and just slow by any absolute measure. Shot-to-shot time is about 2 seconds, sluggish in comparison to all but the Canon PowerShot G11, but not as problematic in practice as the slow autofocus, and it bumps to 2.7 seconds with flash enabled. Though the burst performance is a quite class-competitive 3.3 frames per second, the autofocus system can't keep up, and, like with the E-P2, just isn't very good for shooting basic kids-'n'-pets-type action.

As with the E-P2, I'll issue the caveat that it could very well be Olympus' current generation of Micro Four Thirds lenses that are the problem, as they feel slow and hunt focus excessively (unfortunately, I don't have any Panasonic lenses to try out on the Olympus cameras). However, in the case of the E-PL1, most people will buy it with the kit lens and it's kind of budget-defeating to require another lens purchase to make the AF usable.

Also like the E-P2's, the low-resolution LCD is just OK (but smaller). It seems good enough for manual focusing in conjunction with the magnification (though it blows out highlights, which makes focusing in bright areas difficult), but not as useful for judging sharpness for photos you've shot. The optional and unfortunately expensive EVF does make a big difference when shooting in especially bright or dim light, or when you need to hold the camera extra steady. It's also got the same short battery life as its siblings.

And though the Art Filters are nice, some of them--notably Pin Hole and Diorama--slow the LCD refresh down so much that they're pretty much unusable unless you're on a tripod and your scene is stationary.

I've got no complaints about the photo quality, though. The E-PL1 delivers noise performance on par with most similarly priced dSLRs, though it doesn't match the noise leader, the Pentax K-x. You can shoot pretty comfortably up through ISO 800; at ISO 1600 things start to soften and detail starts to degrade under color noise. Like most in its class, ISO 3200 is really an emergency option. 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. Interestingly, I found the noise profile of the E-PL1 better than that of the more expensive E-P2. Olympus' default noise reduction for its JPEGs is pretty good and tends to be a little sharper than its default settings for raw (using its mediocre bundled ib software), which errs on the side of too much color noise.

Like its line mates, the E-PL1 has quite a good dynamic range and delivers excellent color accuracy; though a bit overly saturated, there's little hue shift. With sharpness set to normal--the setting in the default Natural picture mode--the E-PL1 renders crisp, but not oversharpened, details.

The video quality and manual shooting features are pretty typical for its class--you can't set shutter speed, but you can set aperture manually--but its easily confused continuous autofocus (and loud lens) makes shooting more of a project that most point-and-shooters will probably like.

Olympus positions the E-PL1 as an alternative to an entry-level dSLR for people who want to step up from a point-and-shoot. But one of the main reasons those people want to upgrade is because most snapshot cameras aren't speedy enough to photograph kids and pets, and if that's your reason then this camera's sluggish performance precludes me from recommending it. If, however, you're among those who want the better image quality that comes from a larger sensor or the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a relatively compact design, the Olympus E-PL1 is certainly priced right compared with its siblings; mostly, it's a great alternative for people who want the E-P2 but don't want to spend the money. But it's also got two potentially strong competitors that we haven't yet tested: the Samsung NX10 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Canon PowerShot G11
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Olympus E-P2
Olympus E-PL1
Olympus E-P1

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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