Cameras

Hands-On Preview: Olympus E-PL1

Hands-on Preview: Olympus E-P2

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February 3, 2009 – Olympus today announced the E-PL1, the company’s third Micro Four Thirds camera, and the first to offer built-in flash and a direct-access video recording button. Probably the most striking development, though, is what’s been taken away: the E-PL1 is priced at $599.99 with 14-42mm lens. which is $200 lower than the original E-P1 and $500 less than the E-P2 (which includes both the lens and an electronic viewfinder).

The E-PL1 does not come with the electronic viewfinder, but it does have the port required to connect a viewfinder if the user chooses to invest an extra $200 (the E-P1 isn’t compatible with the electronic viewfinder at all). The same port can be used to connect the optional SEMA-1 stereo microphone adapter ($89.99), which is scheduled to ship within a month and also fits the E-P2.

A few features have been scaled back to accommodate the lower pricing. While the E-P1 and E-P2 have full metal bodies, the E-PL1 has an aluminum shell. The new camera’s LCD is a 2.7-inch screen versus 3 inches for the earlier models (though the 230,000-dot resolution remains unchanged). While all three cameras shoot 720p video, the E-PL1 records a mono soundtrack instead of the stereo supported by the E-P1 and E-P2. The rotating four-way controller dial and the sub dial used on the E-P1 and E-P2 has been eliminated, meaning manual exposure adjustments and some navigation chores are handled with the four-way controller instead. And the on-screen level gauge, a useful if rarely used feature, didn’t make it into the E-PL1.

In most key categories, though, the three are far more alike than different. They all use the same 12.3-megapixel sensor, 324-point metering system, in-camera image stabilization, TruePic V processor and 720p video recording with HDMI output, and are roughly the same size and weight. Olympus claims the autofocus system is faster on the E-PL1 than its predecessors, which would address a key concern with the previous models. The burst speed spec has also been boosted slightly here, from 2.5 shots per second to 3, but we couldn’t test performance with a pre-production camera.

The E-PL1 will be available in Black, Champagne Gold and Slate Blue, with initial shipments scheduled for March.

Olympus also announced two new Micro Four Thirds lenses, a 9-18mm f/4-5.6 (18-36mm equivalent) priced at $699.99, and a 14-150mm f/4-5.6 (28-300mm equivalent) priced at $599.99. Both should be available in early June.

We had the opportunity to work with a pre-production version of the E-PL1. Since this was not a final version of the camera, Olympus asked us not to publish any sample shots or draw conclusions about camera performance. We can give you our hands-on first impressions of what it feels like to shoot with theE-PL1, though, including photos of the camera body and screen captures of the interface.

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Hands-on Preview**


Considering the similarities between the E-PL1 and the earlier E-P1 and E-P2, we’re going to focus here on what’s new and different. For a more complete picture of the Olympus approach to Micro Four Thirds photography, you’ll find our complete review of the E-P1 here, and a hands-on preview of the E-P2 here. The other important camera to consider in this mix is the Panasonic GF1 (see the full review here), which is nearly identical in size to the three Olympus models and includes the pop-up flash missing until now from the Olympus line, plus the electronic viewfinder compatibility found in the E-P2 and E-PL1, at an $899.95 price.

The E-PL1 is slightly wider, taller, narrower and lighter than its predecessors (the move from stainless steel to aluminum body would account for the weight loss).

The E-PL1 has a stubby raised grip on the right camera front, and a slightly beveled spot on the back as a thumb rest (you put your thumb right over the speaker). It makes for a slightly cramped handhold on the right side, and if you slide your hand to the left a bit to get more comfortable, your index finger drifts past the shutter. Of course, this reviewer does have relatively large hands, which aggravates the problem.

 

The loss of the rotating control dial and distinctively barrel-shaped sub dial used on the E-P1 and E-P2 in favor of step-by-step four-way controller presses for navigating menu choices and manually adjusting shutter speed and aperture definitely slows down camera operations a bit. Not a deal-breaker, but a reason to consider the step-up model.

On the other hand, previous models had the mode dial recessed in a compartment under the top camera surface, on the left side, making it accessible only by running your thumb across the back of the dial. The E-PL1 goes for a more traditional top-of-the-camera spot on the right, with a knurled metal knob you can grab with two fingers and move quickly. We found this much easier to handle. And the E-PL1 introduces a convenient dedicated movie record button, so you can start shooting video without fumbling with mode dial changes.

The full auto mode, called iAuto here, incorporates a new approach to providing creative freedom to those who don’t know their apertures from a hole in the lens, called Live Guide. Pressing the Start/OK button on the 4-way controller brings up a side menu on the right of the screen, with five adjustment options: Change Color Saturation, Change Color Image, Change Brightness, Blur Background and Express Motions. The sixth choice here is a rudimentary selection of Shooting Tips for child photo, pet photo, flower photo, cuisine photo and framing.

After choosing an adjustment category, an on-screen slider is displayed, with fourteen potential settings. For the Change Color Saturation option, for example, the settings range from "Clear & Vivid" at the top to "Flat & Muted" at the bottom. What makes this work is the fact that the on-screen image updates as you move the cursor, so you can try out a look before clicking the shutter (or take several shots at different settings and sort ‘em out later). Change Color Image runs a scale from Warm to Cool, Brightness is self-explanatory, and Blur Background is an effective way to control depth of field without first learning the aperture/depth of field linkage. We focused on a desktop holder filled with pens and pencils, with a busy, distracting background in the distance and, by simply moving the slider down all the way, turned a mess into a well-composed shot. Finally, Express Motions offers a live preview of the level of sharpness or blur you’d get shooting at the current shutter speed and lets you adjust it, though your choices range from Blurred Motion to Stop Motion rather than displaying actual numeric shutter speed settings, which would have some educational value.

All in all, the Live Guide feature works reasonably well. It’s a more time-consuming approach to depth of field and shutter speed adjustments than changing the settings directly, but it gets the job done for newbies, and the live on-screen preview is very useful. The option to adjust saturation and hue without digging through menus could actually be useful for a broader audience: we would have included Live Guide in  Program mode as well.

Olympus continues its Art Filter feature here, with effects that dramatically change the visual style of an image while shooting (i.e., not as in-camera editing effects applied to existing images). There are six offerings, carrying over five filters from the E-P2 (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole and Diorama) and adding Gentle Sepia. The sepia is actually a bit more sophisticated than the usual brown wash, since it maintains blacks as solid black while tinting the lighter areas to an orange/brown. Unfortunately we can’t show you samples here, but we like the effect.

The Bottom Line


The Olympus E-PL1 is the fourth crack at delivering an interchangeable lens camera that approaches the pocketable size of a compact camera but with a sensor roughly eight times larger than your typical point-and-shoot. The headline feature here is indisputably affordability: the E-PL1, priced at $600, is only slightly more expensive than advanced compact models like the Canon G11 and Panasonic LX3 (each at a $500 list price). We didn’t find the cost-cutting steps taken here impair shooting capabilities in major ways; controls aren’t as easy to use as the EP1/E-P2, and the screen is a bit smaller, but it’s not a big deal. And the fact that Olympus is delivering a Micro Four Thirds camera with pop-up flash is a major improvement over previous models.

The most direct head-to-head comparison is not really with the other Olympus models, but Panasonic’s GF1, which incorporates both built-in flash and optional electronic viewfinder compatibility, priced at $900 versus $600 for the E-PL1. When we compared the GF1 against the Olympus E-P1, we found the Panasonic superior in resolution, noise, dynamic range and shot-to-shot speed, and equally important, had a far speedier autofocus system than the pokey Olympus (see the comparative review here). The $300 question, then, is whether the E-PL1 eliminates its predecessors' performance shortcomings, which we can’t answer based on the pre-production model in hand today. Given the rich feature set and steep price drop, we’re very eager to get this one into the lab for a comprehensive review.