HandlingWith a slim body and an all-metal casing, the Olympus E-PL3 is a sleek-looking camera with a reassuringly sturdy build. On first contact, the camera feels robust and pleasant to handle. However, after using the compact for a few minutes, we really started to notice the lack of grip handle—a feature that's been ditched in this new model. We therefore found it difficult to keep hold of the E-PL3, as with only one small rubber grip pad, the smooth metal finish makes the camera feel like it's slipping out of your hands.
The main controls can be easily accessed and the click-round scroll wheel makes changing the settings quick and easy. This is particularly handy in PSAM modes. We do, however, think it's a shame that the customisable Fn button still offers a rather limited choice of options: for example, you can't set it for direct access to ISO settings. However, the corresponding menu is a model of simplicity. It allows you to change the camera's settings very easily, as when you choose a setting from the list, you to adjust its value in a pop-up box.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to be quite so enthusiastic about the graphic user interface and the layout of the general menus. Some of the abbreviations can be hard for beginners to understand and, while there's now an in-camera help function, the pop-up bubbles containing hints and tips cover up the list of options. All this makes the interface quite hard to read and it generally just look confused.
Like its predecessors, the E-PL3 has an easy mode (Live Guide) to help novice users adjust things like the depth of field or the white balance (only one can be changed at once) by giving each option a name that's easier to understand. Plus, the E-PL3 still comes with a good choice of creative filters (pinhole, miniature, pop art etc.) to help users take more creative pictures without having to post-edit them on a computer.
The tilt LCD is pretty good. Although the 460,000-dot resolution is nothing revolutionary, it's good enough to display sharp, detailed images. In full sunlight the screen is shiny and rather prone to reflections, but good contrast levels mean that it's still easier to see what's going on than with most other cameras. In low light the onscreen image isn't quite as smooth and we noticed a strong ghosting effect. Colour fidelity isn't up to much, with a very cold colour temperature, a gamma (accuracy of the grey scale) that tends to wash out light greys to white and a DeltaE 94 of 11. In other words, don't rely on the camera screen to check the colours in your photos! Note that the screen's aspect ratio of 16:9 is ideal for video but means that you get black bands down the sides of the screen in photo mode (3:2, 4:3 etc.).
Although the E-PL3 doesn't have a built-in flash, an external flash (the NG7) is supplied as standard and hooks up to the accessories hot-shoe. This flash illuminates a distance of up to 2 metres from the camera at 100 ISO. Plus, it can be used to control remote external flashes for users looking to create more advanced lighting techniques. There's also a separate camera communication port for accessories like the electronic viewfinder, the Bluetooth module, a stereo microphone etc. all of which seriously boosts the camera's potential.
ResponsivenessThe new MSC autofocus motorisation system and upgraded image processor make the E-PL3 very fast indeed when focusing in good light conditions. Things aren't quite so impressive in low light, however. The E-PL3 is a little slow to start up and it's noisy too, as the mechanical shutter does a rather strange back-and-forth movement when you switch on the camera. Otherwise, the burst mode is pretty fast at over four frames per second (with stabilisation) even though the buffer memory can only handle around seven images at a time.
Picture QualityWe've seen this sensor, processor and 14-42 mm lens combo before. In fact, it's the same set-up as the E-P3 so it's no surprise to see similar picture quality in the two cameras (the same can be said of the E-PM1 too).
In other words, JPeg shots give results that are flattering and visually pleasing, with good colour saturation and an overall accentuation that keeps things looking crisp. Pictures can therefore be printed straight away with no need for editing or retouching on a computer. For RAW shots, the E-PL3 still uses a proprietary format (.ORF) but software is supplied to help you deal with it.
Electronic noise is handled in a pretty typical way, with good image processing up to 1600 ISO but a noticeable drop in dynamic range. The 14-42 mm kit lens is reasonably good, built with decent optics that really aren't bad considering the camera's price and position in Olympus' range.
VideoThe E-PL3 films 1080 HD video. Videos are recorded in an interlaced AVCHD format (derived from Blu-ray disc architecture). The interlacing isn't noticeable at all when playing videos back on an HD TV or a computer. Picture quality is generally good but in low light fuzzy noise soon becomes a problem. The continuous autofocus works well in video mode too, staying smooth and quiet at all times and, on the whole, the E-PL3 records decent-quality sound. However, the digital stabilisation does lead to some distortion, mainly with rolling shutter effects. That's a shame too, as when shooting without a tripod and with no effective stabilisation system, camera shake is only too visible in videos.
It's also disappointing to see that taking a photo cuts off video recording, which then starts up again after the photo has been taken. As well as chopping up your films, this in turn pushes up the number of video files stored on the memory card.