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Olympus PEN E-PL7 review: Olympus E-PL7 proves itself a quite likeable camera

The overall package makes an attractive alternative to an advanced compact and offers quite a bit as a first interchangeable-lens camera.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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9 min read

Olympus' replacement for the 2-year-old PEN E-PL5 may look similar to its predecessor, but Olympus made a lot of significant changes for the E-PL7, mostly to incorporate newer technology that's since debuted in its OM-D line of interchangeable-lens cameras. (Asia and the UK got a very minor update a year ago, the E-PL6.) And though I may quibble with some of the individual parts, I like the whole camera in general, and enjoy shooting stills with it for all but action.

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7.7

Olympus PEN E-PL7

The Good

With its flexible display, great set of controls and generally streamlined design, the Olympus PEN E-PL7 hits quite a few high notes.

The Bad

It might be a little too complicated for newbies, and the grip could be bigger.

The Bottom Line

A likeable interchangeable-lens model, the Olympus PEN E-PL7's overall package makes an attractive alternative to an advanced compact and has quite a bit to offer as a first ILC.

Enhancements include an updated autofocus system and imaging engine, a better LCD that flips down, broader remote control options, two new art filter effects and a tweaked design.

Note that the available kits differ depending upon region: the US gets the old 14-42mm collapsible lens (28-84mm equivalent), while the UK gets both that and a kit with the newer 14-42mm power zoom lens, which makes it a more compact overall camera. Olympus Australia still hasn't posted official price on its website, but it's available for preorder in a kit with the power zoom lens for AU$800. Also, the US only has the black or black and silver models, while white is an option in some other locations, including the UK.

In the US, the kit runs $700 and $600 for the body. In the UK, it's £500 for the pancake zoom kit, £400 for the larger lens kit and £350 for the body.

Image quality

There are really no surprises in the E-PL7's photo quality; it uses the same sensor and image processing as the E-M10. As you'd expect, the photos are noticeably better than a 1-inch sensor, like that of the Canon PowerShot G7 X , but not quite as good as ones from a comparably priced APS-C ILC like the Sony A6000 . (Caveat: I haven't got any directly comparable test photos yet for the latter, but I've seen enough photos from them all to make an educated extrapolation.)

Olympus PEN E-PL7 full-resolution photo samples (pictures)

See all photos

If you peer really closely at the images, you can start to see some mushiness set in at ISO 400, but for the most part the JPEGs look clean up and sharp through ISO 800. That said, they stay reasonably good through ISO 1600; after that out-of-focus detail looks degraded rather than blurry. Processing the raw version only really changes the look of the artifacts -- grainy instead of smeary.

In addition, the E-PL7 seems to clip highlights much more than expected. For instance, drops of water completely blew out to white in many of my test photos, in conditions where you wouldn't expect that to happen (moderate, even lighting at several low ISO sensitivities).

On the other hand, the rendered color and white balance of JPEGs is quite good -- almost dead-on neutral -- in part because the camera defaults to a neutral color profile. If you want more saturation, pop and contrast, those options are available as well.

The video quality is just OK, however. It's fine for short vacation clips and other casual movies, but overall it's got more artifacts than I like.

Analysis samples

(Unless you view the samples at their full 770-pixel width they won't look right.)

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Low ISO sensitivity JPEGs look fine, though you can see just a little detail start to degrade starting at ISO 400. Lori Grunin/CNET

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Depending upon the subject, lighting, and how large you're viewing it the photo, you can still get away with using ISO 25600. Lori Grunin/CNET

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The E-PL7 defaults to a neutral color profile, and the automatic white balance is very good. Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance

Note: We recently changed our testing methodology so the results aren't comparable with previous testing. Until we have more cameras tested under the new system in this category, we won't be posting performance charts.

Overall, E-PL7 turned in some pretty good performance scores, although it didn't seem quite as fast in practice. It takes 0.8 second to power on, focus and shoot, and that is how it feels in normal use. In good light, it takes 0.3 second to focus and shoot and 0.4 second in dim. The focus lock didn't feel quite as zippy when latching on to a moving target, however. Two sequential shots, either raw or JPEG, run 0.3 second, though that rises by 2 seconds with the slow flash recycle.

With autofocus, the camera manages about 3.6fps in burst mode, for a solid depth of 37 shots. The tracking AF isn't really up to quickly moving subjects, however.

Design and features

The camera feels quite well built and nicely designed, both aesthetically and functionally. While it has a similar feel as the E-PL5, the E-PL7 has a more retro-type two-tone look than its predecessor and redesigned controls that have a more enthusiast-oriented feel. The grip's now permanently attached, but it's still relatively shallow; that's not a big problem with small, lightweight lenses, but if you're planning to use some of the faster, heavier pro lenses they tend to overbalance the camera.

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Olympus has moved the back dial to the top, where most advanced photographers prefer it. Sarah Tew/CNET

On the top left sits the power button, hot shoe, mode dial and adjustment dial. The mode dial includes the usual manual, semimanual and automatic modes, plus a manual movie mode and Art, Olympus' great set of special-effects Art filters. There's also Olympus' Photo Story mode, which essentially places photos into a selected layout as you shoot and saves the composite as a single image when you're done (in addition to the individual images).

Moving the adjustment dial from the back to the top vs. the E-PL5 was an interesting decision. In cameras with a viewfinder, that's a much better location, and it's more convenient there when you're shooting high or low via the LCD. But when you're holding the camera straight out in front of you, the back is a better placement. Optimally, the camera should have dials in both locations. Nevertheless, it's not horribly awkward, and you get used to it.

On the back is the tilting LCD that flips down for selfies and groupies. It's a great design -- most cameras that offer flip-up displays sacrifice a lot of the tilting. There's just two caveats. First, if you use a sling strap (or anything that attaches to the tripod socket) it hangs down, blocking the display.

The flip-down LCD doesn't sacrifice tiltability the way many do. Sarah Tew / CNET

And while the display may be optimally placed for eye contact, with touchscreen controls for snapping photos, if you use the 14-42mm kit lens, the 28mm-equivalent angle of view is too narrow for handheld selfies. Unless you have freakishly long arms or small heads. You need a lens at least 12mm wide for that, and with the exception of the cheapo 9mm body cap lens Olympus' lenses that wide will run you upwards of $500, £350 or AU$500. It's notable that in the manual the example screen for this use case is not a selfie.

On the right side is a small thumb rest with the movie record button inset to it. Above that you'll find a programmable function button and a zoom button; below is the standard menu/info/delete/playback quartet with four-way navigation buttons that control exposure compensation, focus area, drive mode and flash. Note that there's no flash built in. Olympus bundles a small hot-shoe flash with the camera.

The OK button in the center brings up the on-screen access for frequently used settings, such as metering, white balance, ISO sensitivity and so on. In auto mode it brings up Olympus' Live Guide, a slider-based, friendlier touchscreen interface for newbies. There are four slots of custom settings, though you have to go into the menus to switch among them, which is suboptimal.

The E-PL7 has plenty of options as well as a lot of automation. I'd say a few too many options. For instance, there are four different choices for face-detection autofocus: on; face and eye, which selects the pupil of the eye closest to the camera to focus on; face and right eye, which selects the pupil of the eye on the right; and face and left eye. I'm guessing most people will just turn it on or off.

Olympus' Wi-Fi doesn't use NFC to initiate connections with mobile devices, but still uses the clever QR code. When you bring up the connection on the camera it presents a QR code that you capture with the OI.Share app on your device, and the app automatically configures the connection. It's a clever, inexpensive solution to setup on devices without NFC, it's more reliable than it used to be and does a good job of keeping cell service connected during Wi-Fi operation.

Plus, in addition to downloading, geotagging and some basic editing, the app now offers a reasonable set of remote control options, including shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed and white balance plus updates like longer movie recording, large file transfer from camera to phone and sequential shooting options. It does make you agree to all sorts of invasive permissions in exchange, however.

For a complete overview of the E-PL7's features and operation, download the manual.

Conclusion

At its price, for what it offers, the E-PL7 compares quite well with advanced compact alternatives at the same price. It performs better, has comparable or better photo quality, offers a broader feature set and supports swappable lenses. However, the kit lens that ships with it isn't nearly as fast as the lenses that come attached to the compact cameras.

As an alternative to an APS-C ILC, it's not quite as compelling, though the Micro Four Thirds system offers some smaller lenses for a more compact overall package -- and many of the lenses slip more easily into a jacket pocket, or sometimes a jeans pocket, than those of the bigger-sensored systems, so you're more likely to take them with you.

Comparative specifications

Olympus PEN E-PL5 Olympus PEN E-PL7 Samsung NX300 Sony Alpha A5100
Sensor effective resolution 16.1MP Live MOS 16.1MP Live MOS 20.3MP Hybrid CMOS 24.3MP Exmor HD CMOS
14-bit
Sensor size 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.5mm x 15.7mm 23.5 x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 (exp)/ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Burst shooting 3fps
19 JPEG/15 raw
(8fps with fixed focus and exposure on first shot and IS off)
3.5fps
unlimited JPEG/20 raw
(8fps with fixed focus and exposure)
8.6fps
n/a
6fps
56 JPEG/23 raw
Viewfinder
(mag/ effective mag)
None None None None
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes No
Autofocus 35-area contrast AF 81-area
Contrast AF
105-point phase-detection, 247-point contrast AF 179-pt phase-
detection; 25-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity n/a n/a n/a -1 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync 30-1/6000 sec.; bulb to 4 minutes; 1/180 x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Shutter durability n/a n/a n/a n/a
Metering 324 area 324 area 221 segment 1,200 zone
Metering sensitivity 0 - 20 EV -2 - 20 EV 0 - 18 EV -1 - 20 EV
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p @ 20Mbps H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p @ 24Mbps H.264 MPEG-4
1080/60p
XAVC S
1080/60p/30p/25p/24p; 720/120p
50Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo Stereo Stereo
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time per clip 29 minutes 22 minutes 29:59 minutes 29 minutes
IS Sensor shift Sensor shift Optical Optical
LCD 3-inch/7.5cm
Tilting touchscreen
460,000 dots
3-inch/7.5cm
Flip-down touch screen
1.04m dots
3.3-inch/84mm
AMOLED tilting touchscreen
768,000 dots
3-inch/7.5cm
Flip-up touchscreen
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1x SDXC 1x SDXC 1x SDXC 1x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi via bundled FlashAir card Wi-Fi Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC
Flash Bundled optional Bundled optional Bundled optional Yes
Wireless flash Yes Yes No No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 360 shots 350 shots 330 shots 400 shots
Size (WHD) 4.4 x 2.5 x 1.5 in;
110.5 mm x 63.7mm x 38.2 mm
4.5 x 2.6 x 1.5 in;
114.9 x 67 x 38.4 mm
4.8 x 2.5 x 1.6 in;
122 x 63.7 x 42.7 mm
4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in;
109.6 x 62.8 x 35.7 mm
Body operating weight 11.5 oz (est.)
325 g (est.)
12.9 oz
364 g
10.9 oz (est.)
310 g (est.)
10 oz (est.)
283 g (est.)
Mfr. price primary kit

$600,
£350 (est.),
AU$700,
(with 14-42mm lens)
$700,
£400,
(with 14-42mm II lens),
£350 (body only),
AU$800 (est.)
(with 14-42mm PZ lens)
$800 (with 18-55mm lens),
£450 (with 20-50mm lens),
AU$800 (with 16-50mm PZ lens)
$700,
£530,
AU$700
(with 16-50mm PZ lens)
Release date October 2012 September 2014 March 2013 September 2014
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7.7

Olympus PEN E-PL7

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 7
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