The E-420 is an upgrade of the E-410, boasting a larger, better, 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD, improved autofocus in live view mode, face detection and slightly faster continuous shooting. It's Olympus' entry-level dSLR, slotting in just below the E-520, and tested here with the usual 14-42mm kit lens. It's available now for around £330.
Olympus claims the E-420 is the world's smallest and lightest digital SLR, and this is pretty obvious when you put it side-by-side with its rivals. The body's smaller than even the Nikon D60's, and the 14-42mm kit lens on the Olympus is way shorter than the rest. And if you buy it with Olympus's new 25mm f2.8 'pancake' lens, you could even slide the E-420 into a jacket pocket.
And it's such a sweet little camera to use. The live view activates with a delicate little 'snick' rather than the thumps and clanks you get on other dSLRs. That's because Olympus' Four Thirds system uses a smaller and lighter sensor/shutter/mirror assembly. You get a live histogram too, so it's easy to get the exposure spot-on.
The E-420's far from being a cute little toy, though. There's more here for keen photographers than you'd expect on an entry-level camera. For example, two additional spot metering modes ('HI' and 'SH') make it easy to set your exposure for the lightest and darkest parts of the scene respectively, and the exposure compensation control offers 5EV compensation rather than the usual 2EV.
Best of all, though, is the interactive display. It shows all the shooting and camera settings as you'd expect, but when you press the 'OK' button you can use the directional buttons to highlight any option and adjust it directly with the control wheel.
While Olympus may crow about how small the E-420 is, this does make it a little tricky to handle, even with its newly reprofiled grip. It's a weighty bit of kit to have wedged between the base of your thumb and your fingertips, so unless you want to keep carrying out drop tests on its glass-reinforced plastic body, you might want to consider using the strap provided.
And while the live view mode does now incorporate the same kind of contrast-detection AF system used on compacts, it's so slooooow it could drive you mad. Thank goodness Olympus has kept the standard phase-detection AF system as an option in the live view mode. It's less elegant, but faster and more positive.
The picture quality is good, and the 14-42mm kit lens is sharp, even to the edges of the frame. But the smaller size of the Four Thirds sensor does make a difference to the noise levels and the dynamic range. The E-420's shots are noticeably noisier than those from other dSLRs, even at low ISOs, and it does tend to clip highlight detail fairly heavily if you're not careful with the exposure.
The E-420 is a great little SLR with excellent controls and some smart features. Some may find it too small, though, and the improvements to the live view are underwhelming. Picture quality? The lens is very good but the sensor is a tad noisy, so it evens out.
Edited by Marian Smith