Built like a tank
When you first hoist this 2.5-plus-pound camera, you might start wondering exactly how much a 15MB file weighs. But the aluminum body and 3-inch, 35mm to140mm (35mm camera equivalent) zoom lens deliver benefits that make them worth the weight. According to Olympus, the body dissipates noise-causing heat that can plague hi-res cameras (as we've seen with the Minolta Dimage 7), and the large, f-2.0 lens allows better light capture and the ability to accept 62mm lens add-ons. And even though it's heavy, the E-20N stood up to months of physical abuse at our hands.
Like the E-10, the E-20N surfaces all-important camera functions into button-dial combinations: you press the button to access a setting and use a dial to scroll through all of the options. Though the buttons all lie in the places where your fingers naturally rest while shooting, they seem to be randomly scattered around the camera: exposure compensation and macro on the left of the body, timer and metering to the left of the eyepiece, exposure lock in the back right behind the control dial, and so on. It takes repetitive use to be able to make adjustments without looking. However, Olympus has made playing back images more convenient on the E-20N by adding a quick-review function. By tapping twice on the display button you enter playback mode, but you return immediately to the previous shooting settings when you touch the shutter release. The LCD flips up for added shooting flexibility, though it's not nearly as useful as the fully rotating designs on cameras such as the Nikon .
We like the lithium CR-V3 batteries that ship with the camera; they last a long time, and you can pick them up at a corner drugstore (at least in New York City). In a pinch, the E-20N will take four AAs, or you can invest in one of the rechargeable options. The batteries can be awkward to replace since they slide into a holder that goes into the camera body. But you can easily change the batteries, as well as the CompactFlash or SmartMedia card (the camera ships with a 32MB version of the latter) while the E-20N is mounted on a tripod.
Two cameras in one
In addition to the standard interlace-scan shooting mode offered by all 5-megapixel cameras, the E-20N provides a progressive-scan mode. Though it limits your images to a maximum of 2.5 megapixels, it allows you to obtain shutter speeds up to 1/18,000 of a second--faster than what's available on any 4-plus-megapixel consumer camera. This greatly increases the variety of scenes that you can capture. Unfortunately, the E-20N limits you to a macro focus distance no closer than eight inches.
The rest of the camera's features match those of the E-10 and other high-end consumer digital cameras. They include four shooting modes, exposure bracketing, one-touch white balance, raw and TIFF file output, and a static histogram view during playback. Since the camera appears as a hard drive when it's hooked up to your computer via USB, you need only use the Camedia Master software for image management, viewing extended file properties, or working with the proprietary raw ORF files that the E-20N produces. Otherwise, you needn't even install it and can stick with the bundled copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Like its 5-megapixel competitors, the E-20N has a noise-reduction mode, which kicks in at shutter speeds of 1/2 second and slower. Though useful if you shoot long exposures, it doesn't address the more common problem of noisy shadow areas in daylight scenes. Overall, however, we were satisfied with the camera's image quality. Although the E-20N lacks the color clarity of the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F707, it delivers relatively accurate colors, flesh tones, and exposures, as well as sharp pictures. Images display less noise than we've seen with some other 5-megapixel cameras and less frequent color fringing than we'd anticipated. But we still think that Olympus's flash is too harsh and that the standard multipattern metering (Digital ESP) tends to underexpose backlit images more than other manufacturers' methods.
As long as you're shooting compressed images, the camera's buffer can handle between three and five shots before you have to stop and wait for the image to finish writing. This gives the E-20N's operation a smooth, fast feel. In addition to the ubiquitous flashing "busy" light, there's a gas meter that shows you how much buffer is available. Shooting uncompressed images, however, requires a pause of almost 40 seconds between shots for disk writes, which is unfortunately not extraordinarily long for this camera's class.