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

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The Good Excellent build quality; very good photo quality; can shoot raw+JPEG in every mode, including Art Filters and iAuto.

The Bad Slow, with sluggish autofocus; short battery life; low-resolution LCD.

The Bottom Line Reasonably priced for an interchangeable-lens model, with the same high-quality photos of its siblings, the E-PL1 nevertheless suffers from slow performance that makes it a poor choice for snapshooters looking to upgrade.

7.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 8

The first round of interchangeable-lens cameras offered a lot to appeal to enthusiasts, but at prices upward of $800, they weren't 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.

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, whereas 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.

  Olympus E-PL1 Olympus E-P1 Olympus E-P2
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Color depth n/a 12 bits 12 bits
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 2x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/ 10 raw
3.0 fps
12 JPEG/ 10 raw
Viewfinder Optional plug-in articulating EVF None Plug-in articulating EVF
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF
Metering 324 area 324 area 324 area
Shutter 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Flash Yes No No
LCD 2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
Image stabilization Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio I/O Mic None Mic
Battery life (CIPA rating) 290 shots 300 shots 300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4
Weight (ounces) 12.4 (without EVF) 13.9 13.8; 14.9 (with EVF)
Mfr. Price est. $549 (body only) est. $599.95 (body only)
$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 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. 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. It outdoes its sibling models by adding a dedicated video-record button, though there's also a movie mode on the dial.

The control layout and operation will be familiar to anyone who's shot with one of the advanced Olympus cameras, like the megazooms. Along the right side of the LCD run playback, info delete, and menu buttons. Above 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, duplicate the function of the movie record button, waterproof protector attachment toggle, 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 you do it; unless you know to program the function button for it first, you'll never figure out how to set the manual white balance. A traditional four-way arrow-plus-OK setup includes direct-access buttons for autofocus area selection, drive mode, flash, and exposure compensation. You adjust aperture and shutter via the arrow buttons.

It's got a few different interfaces, two of which are identical to its E-P siblings. An info button cycles through a few display choices: detailed current settings, basic settings plus a histogram, selectable thumbnail previews of exposure or white-balance compensation, scale/grid display, or image only. In the menus you can choose to suppress any of these options to more quickly cycle through them. You can also pull up Olympus' typical Super Control Panel, an overstuffed display from which 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).

Since Olympus is more overtly targeting those who aren't quite ready to leave the comfort zone of a point and shoot, the company adds a third operational interface in iAuto mode. Rather than simply disabling all adjustments, as many cameras do, you can use sliders to adjust background blur (aperture), exposure compensation (brightness), express motions (shutter speed), saturation, and image warmth, all with live preview. It bolsters this feature with 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."

I like the idea of this interface, but the implementation is annoying, For instance, to change brightness, you must do the following: press Start/OK; arrow down to brightness; press OK; arrow up/down to adjust; press OK. And you can't have multiple settings adjusted simultaneously; in order to get into the saturation settings, for instance, you have to cancel the changes you've made to brightness.

  Olympus E-PL1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 Samsung NX10
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.4mm x 15.5mm (est)
Color depth 12 bits n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
18 JPEG/ 10 raw
3.2 fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.0 fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
Viewfinder Optional plug-in articulating EVF EVF EVF
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment
Shutter 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes
Flash Yes Yes Yes
LCD 2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
614,000 dots
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG MOV 720p H.264 MPEG-4
Audio I/O Mic None n/a
Battery life (CIPA rating) 290 shots 380 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.9 x 3.3 x 2.9 4.8 x 3.4 x 1.6
Weight (ounces) 12.4 11.9 (est) 14 (est)
Mfr. Price est $549 (body only)
tbd n/a
$599 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
tbd (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
est. $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
tbd n/a

Despite its entry-level leanings, the camera does offer a complete manual, semimanual, and preset auto feature set, as well as the full set of capabilities you'd expect for the price. Some highlights include separate vertical-and horizontal-pan optimized image stabilization options; the ability to capture raw+JPEG in every mode including iAuto (with intelligent customized overrides); and upper bound and default settings for auto ISO. If you're into HDR, though, keep in mind that it's limited to the typical three-frame bracket.

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