Review: Olympus Pen E-PL1

Our score: 4/5
Reviewed: April 11, 2010 11:00 PM
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Published: April 11, 2010 11:00 PM
By Franck Mée
After the success of its E-P1 and E-P2 cameras aimed largely at the specialist market, Olympus is targeting a broader base with its new Pen E-PL1, an entry-level micro four-thirds camera.

That said, the newcomer doesn't need to feel embarassed by its older siblings: they share the same stabilised sensor and have very similar electronics, while the latest version gets a built-in flash and separate video controls, both of which were disappointingly absent from earlier versions.

Handling

Both the Pen E-P1 and E-P2 stood out because of their retro styling and high-end finish, but you can't say the same about the new E-PL1.  It feels much less carefully put together and has a much less attractive style.  But there are no real constructionproblems, either: the new camera is still solid and although the buttons aren't the best we've ever seen, the memory card slot cover and the flash don't wobble.

And the presence of a built-in flash is one of the PL1's biggest improvements.  It's not really that powerful, and its two clips are much less classier than those found on the Panasonic GF1, but at least it's there are will be enough to fix a difficult shadow or light up an interior.


The first thing we noticed in the interface was the lack of a scroll wheel where the previous versions had either a click wheel or a vertical dial.  The E-PL1 is for beginners who don't want to get involved with complicated settings, so Olympus has redesigned the interface (see inset).  It's a shame that the onscreen menus weren't updated at the same time, because they're just as complicated and illogical--not to mention ugly--as they were before (clicking on the 'down' button at the bottom of one page sometimes takes you back to the top but other times takes you off somewhere else. 

Olympus still hasn't managed to master the art of choosing somewhere sensible to attach a strap: here the loop sticks right out and juts into your index finger when you're trying to take a photo.

Responsivenss

Overall, the E-PL1 is a pretty responsive camera.  It starts up in just over a second, the autofocus is a touch faster than on the earlier generations--although we're sure whether that's down to the camera itself or new firmware for the lens--and the time you have to wait between two photos is minimal, and is more a question of checking the focus than saving the photo.

There is one weakness though: the autofocus can't handle subjects without much contrast when light levels are very low.  It still works quickly though, and will let you know that it's out of its depth in under a second.

Image Quality

Although we're very tempted to say we weren't at all surprised by the results here, but we won't.  The E-PL1 takes most of the same elements as its predecessors, so logically enough, the differences are fairly minimal.


We already know the 14-42 mm kit lens well: it's good in the centre of the frame at every focal length, but is less accurate around the outside and leaves a few traces--but nothing too major--of chromatic aberration in wide-angle.  The image treatment produces excellent results up to 800 ISO, at which point a little bit of blur creeps in.  Noise is very visible at 1600 ISO, but is still not too much of a problem to prevent A4 prints.  Panasonic's micro four-thirds cameras are a little better, but the quality produced by the PL1 is still much closer to an SLR than a point-and-shoot.

Video

The PL1 films in 720p HD, but don't expect anything exceptional: it's not going to replace a dedicated camcorder any time soon.  Video is recorder as an M-Jpeg, an undemanding codec that doesn't produce the best results as it relies on heavy compression to save space.  Only mono sound is available and the mic is very susceptible to feedback.  Fortunately, though, the autofocus works while you're recording.  In short, it's good for a still camera, but still not as good as a Panasonic GH1.
4/5 Olympus Pen E-PL1 DigitalVersus 2010-04-12 00:00:00

Pros

  • Compact size handles well
  • Innovative simplified interface
  • Generally responsive
  • Good quality photos up to 800 ISO

Cons

  • New interface limited to one setting at a time
  • No scroll wheel
  • Only mono sound for video
  • Menus still confusing

Conclusion

The Olympus E-PL1 is a very attractive entry-level micro four-thirds camera with a compact body, easy interface and eye-catching price tag. Its built-in flash makes it the first member of the family that's ready to use straight away, but it might leave more advanced photographers feeling neglected because of its emphasis on accessibility.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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