This Micro Four Thirds sibling rivalry comes down to features and handling.
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Olympus’s E-M5 OM-D was one of our 2012 Best of Year cameras and it’s still among the finest Micro Four Thirds cameras available today. With the announcement last September that Olympus was bringing the great 16-megapixel sensor and TruePic IV image processor from that model down from the OM-D into its mid-range PEN E-PL5 and low-end E-PM2, it's easy to wonder whether or not the E-M5 is still the king of the Olympus M43 kingdom.
The similarities between the OM-D and the E-PL5 are numerous, but the two cameras provide thoroughly different experiences. Both are fairly compact, have a retro appeal, and provide flexibility through an established lens system. The things that set these two models apart lie in their construction, a handful of features and in what Olympus deemed necessary for each camera’s intended audience.
The "L" in E-PL5 stands for Lite for a reason: In the pursuit of the balance between usability and compactness, the E-PL5 left some things by the wayside. Since the OM-D wasn’t designed under that particular mandate, it has a more substantial build that testifies to its prowess and heritage. For that reason, it's likely that the E-PL5 will always play Jan to the OM-D's Marsha.
While the OM-D is larger than the E-PL5 in every dimension, (in W/H/D: 4.8” x 3.5” x 1.7” vs 4.4” x 2.5” x 1.5”) we found that the extra size translated into a much more comfortable shooting experience. While the E-PL5 feels lackluster with its smallish front grip and flat thumb rest, the OM-D approaches compact camera nirvana. Its lower edge sits nestled nicely in your palm and the thumb rest features a prominent flair to counterbalance fingers wrapped on the subtle bulge around the front.
For tripod shooting, the OM-D is the much better choice for one simple reason: the SD card slot is on the side. When testing the E-PL5 with a tripod, the types of mounts we had all covered the access panel on the bottom where the battery and SD card slot live, making them completely inaccessible for quick changes.
If we had to knock the OM-D for anything, it'd be button feel on the rear of the camera. The awkward, flat power switch sometimes takes a fingernail to push up effectively and the d-pad for menu navigation feels mushy. Things aren’t great around the back on the E-PL5 either. The d-pad and scroll wheel combo is crammed up against the touchscreen, making it difficult to press and the flat preview/delete buttons are less than ideal. The shutter release on the OM-D provides a much crisper, more satisfying feel than the E-PL5's vague, anticlimactic wet thunk. During shooting, we found that the mode dial on the E-PL5 is too easy to unintentionally move. The OM-D doesn't have this issue as the dial has toothier detents, clicking into a mode with utter confidence and none of the slop the E-PL5 exhibited.
Overall, these two cameras are in the same size category but the E-PL5's size and weight savings don't equate to it being more portable. Instead, it ends up compromised and ultimately won’t be more convenient to carry on a strap or in a bag than the OM-D.
It's clear that many things have been left out of the E-PL5 in order to bring its cost down and further differentiate it from the OM-D. The image stabilization system is not as advanced (the OM-D has five axes of stabilization while the E-PL5 has three), it doesn't have an electronic viewfinder (one can be added via the AP2 socket on the E-PL5), and to top it all off, the E-PL5 isn't weather sealed. That last point might not be a deal breaker to some people (we used the E-PL5 in a light drizzle and it didn't drown), but for serious conditions, that means that the OM-D is ready for anything.
The OM-D's promise of serious hands-on shooting is backed up by the great amount of manual controls available. There are two control dials within easy reach and there's a total of nine custom button options that can be set to whatever the user wants. The E-PL5 makes do with five options, which isn't bad but it might be a little limiting for some photographers. One E-PL5 advantage is its yogic 170-degree flipping touchscreen. Because it can pivot to face frontwards, the screen makes taking self portraits or group shots very easy. By comparison, the OM-D's OLED screen is much more conventional with a simpler mechanism allowing vertical tilting only. Both cameras boast 3-inch screens, but the OM-D’s is actually a different aspect ratio, making it much more useful for framing shots.
Both cameras have quick autofocus, some touchscreen controls (tap-to-focus and tap-to-shoot are excellent on both), and manual options for just about everything. Autofocus on both can be a little slow if lighting conditions aren’t nice and bright. The OM-D and the E-PL5 have similar shot-to-shot speed with good burst mode options and a rate of around 8 fps. Both the E-PL5 and OM-D suffer from a critical flaw, though; Because both cameras use the same menu system, they both have a very steep learning curve. Unlocking all of these features takes some patience—even here at DCI it took the work of a couple of editors to unearth the setting for the Super Control Panel, the most straightforward way to change settings while shooting.
Neither camera is exceptional at video capture, an area where Olympus could stand to further differentiate the next revision of the OM-D from the E-PL5. As it stands, for only a few hundred dollars more than the price of the OM-D, one can easily buy the Panasonic DMC-GH3. The GH3 has way more to offer video shooters—it includes a microphone jack as well as 24p and 60p shooting options.
Both cameras have the same 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor inside their bodies. It’s as simple as that. In the real world, they’ll perform identically. In our labs, the two cameras scored a little differently but not differently enough to conclude that one is ultimately better than the other.
The E-PL5 showed better results in a few areas. Color in the most accurate mode on the E-PL5 was better than the OM-D’s, which tended to exaggerate warmer colors much more in the same mode. Color will only be an issue to people shooting JPEG. RAW shooters will probably be leaning towards the OM-D anyway, and color accuracy won't sway them in either direction. We also saw a little bit better sharpness (likely due to the lack of an anti-aliasing filter) with the E-PL5.
As much as the two cameras' user experiences might differ, the E-PL5 offers extremely similar performance for a significantly reduced cost. Shoppers will want to do some soul searching in order to see if they're willing to save a chunk of change by going with the E-PL5 or spring for the premium build, weather sealing, exquisite handling characteristics, and customizable options of the OM-D. But, the price differential means you could buy some great accessories— going with the E-PL5 could mean another lens is suddenly within your budget.
Given that the difference between these two models (with kit lens) isn't insubstantial as of this writing—the E-PL5 right now has been reduced to an MSRP of $599.99 while the OM-D remains $1299.99 with kit lens, you'll save in the neighborhood of $700. For those already in the Micro Four Thirds system, an OM-D body can be had for under a grand, while the E-PL5 goes for $549.99 body only.