The Micro Four Thirds "semi-compact" digital camera system is catching on, accounting for more than 10% of interchangeable-lens camera sales in December last year, according to market research firm GfK.
No surprise, then, that barely eight months after Olympus' maiden Micro Four Thirds-based, retro-styled PEN E-P1 comes a new variant. This model complements the existing E-P1 rather than replacing it, but it's a very similar design indeed, albeit 72g lighter.
The most useful addition is an integrated flash. While not hugely powerful, it pops up on a well-built, double-jointed arm that moves it well away from the centre line of the lens to keep the dreaded red-eye at bay. A touch of fill-in flash can also work wonders for shots such as outdoor portraits in strong sunlight, so it's a useful addition.
A proper viewfinder hasn't made it onto the feature list, though. The E-PL1 eschews the optical type in favour of an electronic LCD version, which plugs into its "accessory port". As with the Ricoh GXR's LCD viewfinder, it's outrageously expensive: in this case, around $300. Fortunately, the 2.2in LCD has an excellent refresh rate so framing shots is a smooth process.
The design has taken a backward step: both the rear settings dial and the sub-dial have disappeared. This means that in aperture priority mode, for instance, adjusting the aperture is done using the up/down buttons in the four-way cluster.
It's a clumsy system: to increase aperture you press the up button to get the camera into aperture adjustment mode, and then the down button to make the adjustment. Legions of photographers accustomed to flicking a wheel on their DSLR for this setting are unlikely to take this kindly.
The issue around the performance of Micro Four Thirds cameras also remains. The fastest time we managed from switch-on to taking a shot was 2.5 seconds, which in comparison to a DSLR is positively treacly. The contrast-detect autofocus is the main culprit, taking a second or so, and this also increases shot-to-shot time to about two seconds unless you switch to manual focus.
For leisurely holiday landscapes it's fine, but it does condemn the E-PL1 to a life of playing second fiddle to DSLRs.
On the positive side, the standout aspect of the E-PL1 is the quality you get for its size. With its large sensor - about ten times the surface area of that of a typical compact model - photos are excellent. Dynamic range is impressive, and high-ISO shots seem even better than those of the already fine E-P1.
In fact, when we first looked at our ISO 3200 test shots we had to check the file metadata to make sure we hadn't made a mistake with the settings. At high ISO, a fair amount of detail is lost and tonal gradation is coarse, but noise levels are well controlled and way beyond a standard compact camera. ISO 3200 is genuinely usable, which has never been the case with any digital compact.
The E-PL1 has a fair bit going for it as a camcorder too. At its maximum 720p/30fps setting, video is a little soft but still excellent, and in video mode you have the option of single-shot, continuous or manual focus; because the focus is electronically linked, though, it's audible on the soundtrack. The shutter button remains active too, so you can take full-resolution stills while recording.
We reviewed the E-PL1 with the standard 28-84mm equivalent kit lens, which manually retracts to a fairly compact 45mm when not in use. But for aftermarket add-ons, the compact (22mm deep) 34mm equivalent fixed "pancake" lens has now been joined by superzoom 28-300mm and wide 18-36mm equivalents. Quality from the 28-84mm isn't perfect, with noticeable edge softness at wide angle and some fringing in the test shots we took in bright sunlight, but it's far from ruinous.
A big point in its favour is the price. The E-P1 cost more at launch than the E-PL1. Prices tend to drop a few months after launch, at which point we'd consider the PEN range to be good value. Even at the lower price point, however, it's unlikely to be your first choice when higher-quality, easier-to-use DSLRs such as the A-Listed Nikon D5000 cost less.
As a luxury second or holiday camera for an enthusiast, the E-PL1 has a lot going for it. If you were thinking about buying a high-end compact you should consider paying the extra for one of these instead.