Olympus launched its Micro Four Thirds range with the prestigious Pen E-P1 and Pen E-P2 models, which traded heavily on the company's film-camera heritage. The new, 12.3-megapixel Pen E-PL1, however, is the version for the man and woman on the street. It's more cheaply made, so it's less expensive, at around £550 with the 14-42mm kit lens. It's also more basic -- or is it?
Cheaper but more cheerful
You might imagine that Olympus would have dropped a few features with its lower-cost Micro Four Thirds camera. A quick check of the exterior reveals fewer controls and a more plasticky finish.
But, when you actually look at what the camera has and what it does, a different picture emerges. In fact, the E-PL1 does everything the others do, as well as offering a built-in flash. The flash isn't that powerful compared to a digital SLR's, but it's as good as anything you'll find on a compact camera, and it's always good to have one for emergencies, even if you don't use it that much.
The E-PL1 really does feel quite different to the E-P1 and E-P2. The plastic construction is initially rather disappointing, but the camera is lighter, narrower and taller, and handles rather better than the other two.
It's the same story with the controls. They're more basic and more cheaply made, but they're actually much more efficient. Olympus has ditched the two rather awkward rotary controllers seen on the E-P1 and E-P2 and used straightforward, four-way navigation buttons instead. They're clear and simple, and work better. Changing the shutter speed and aperture in manual mode, for example, means pressing buttons instead of spinning dials, but that's no great hardship.
The 720p high-definition movie mode is rather good too, because it offers full manual control over shutter speed, aperture and focusing. You have to remember to set the autofocus to continuous mode before you start shooting if you want to use it, and you have to dip into the menus to choose the exposure mode, but all that's quickly learned. The result is an excellent stills camera that's also an HD camcorder suitable for seasoned video enthusiasts. You can shoot full-resolution stills in the middle of a clip, too.
The E-PL1's stills are excellent too. Micro Four Thirds sensors have come a long way since the early days, but more through evolution than revolution. The E-PL1's 12.3-megapixel sensor and 14-42mm kit lens match the best APS-C-format dSLRs for image quality. The camera's pictures are rich, saturated and sharp, and it has one of the best kit lenses around.
Gripes of wrath
This kit lens is the source of one of the E-PL1's few irritations, though. When it's 'folded', it looks great, but you have to unlock it with a catch to start shooting, which is a drag. It also extends to twice its folded length and looks like a pile of pants. Still, it works, and it takes extremely good pictures.
The other annoyance is that you have to press the zoom button repeatedly in playback mode, instead of just holding it down. But this is a very minor complaint.
So what if the Olympus Pen E-PL1 looks rather plasticky compared to its predecessors? In terms of design, features and everyday functionality, it makes the E-P1 and E-P2 look over-engineered, over-designed and overpriced. If only Olympus had built the E-PL1 right at the start.
Edited by Charles Kloet