With a more affordable price tag, many of you may be wondering "What has Olympus changed to make the E-PL1 less expensive, while still offering most of the same features?" Well, first off the new body design features an all aluminium construction, compared to the full metal/stainless body on past models. The VF-2 is now an optional accessory, instead of being included. They've removed the handy sub control dial, decreased the size of the LCD (2.7 compared to 3.0), and taken away the two new Art filters we saw on the E-P2. However, they've added a few features that make the E-PL1 really shine. These include a new Live Guide exposure control option, three body color choices (Champagne Gold, Black, and Slate Blue), and of course something that past PEN models were missing; a built-in, pop-up flash unit.
While the E-PL1 still offers a retro PEN look, its body boasts a slightly smaller profile. One thing they've added is a nice "fat" hand-grip, which makes this a very comfortable camera to hold and operate. The placement of the camera controls on the back have also been simplified, reminiscent of a point-n-shoot more than a dSLR. I feel the new control layout and button type Olympus used on the E-PL1 work extremely well, all of which are located in comfortable positions. The only exception to this is the placement of the Power button. It's located very close to the shutter release, and due to its position, I found myself thinking it was the Shutter release itself. This is a small issue I had, which was quickly resolved once I started using the camera and got use to this placement. One feature I miss from it's E-P1/P2 brothers is the sub control dial. This was a very handy feature that allowed for quick and easy changes to Aperture and Shutter Speed when using the more advanced exposure options. That said, the operation of these options on the E-PL1 is now handled by the directional buttons on the 4-way controler, which still allow you to easily change these values. Like I mentioned earlier, the E-PL1 uses a smaller 2.7-inch LCD screen. While .3 of an inch doesn't seem like much, you will notice the difference if you have both models side-by-side. However, I found the LCD was still very usable, with a good view of subjects when shooting stills or video. The display gains up well when shooting in marginal lighting conditions with light graininess, and outdoors the coating does well to help keep reflections down. The menus offer large text and icons, making them legible and very easy to navigate. The shortcut menu that is accessed via the Start/OK button was very useful, and allowed me to quickly make changes to settings like Picture mode, ISO, White Balance, etc. The separate Movie shutter release is also a nice touch, allowing you to start recording video no matter what mode you have the dial set to. Overall, I found holding and operating the E=PL1 was a breeze. This is a very comfortable camera that just fits nice in my large hands. There's no better way to put it.
Shooting performance was on pair with past PEN models. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 2.1 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused, and averaged 4/10 of a second including autofocus time; which is an improvement over the E-P1 and E-P2. Rapid shooting in single shot mode allowed me capture images every 1.7 seconds. You can also choose burst mode, which performed very well. Using it, I was able to capture 10 Large/SuperFine JPEGs in 3.0 seconds; supporting Olympus' claim of 3.0fps. Once I got to about 15 frames, I did notice a slowdown in burst speed to about 2fps. Switching over to RAW mode will slow the camera down slightly, however the only real decrease you will notice is in frame depth in burst mode shooting. Instead of being able to capture up to 15 frames at 3fps, you'll only be able to shoot about 10 before it starts to slow down due to processing these huge RAW files. Our tests were done using a Lexar Professional (133x) 4GB SDHC memory card, the kit M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f2.8 lens, iAuto or Program mode, ISO Auto, Preview on, Large SuperFine JPEG image quality, and all other settings a default unless noted. Times may vary depending on camera settings, media, and lighting conditions.
The E-PL1's image quality results were similar to what we saw with past PEN cameras, awesome. This is mostly due to the fact that all three of these models feature the 12.3-megapixel Live MOS imager and TruePic V imager processor. When I received my E-PL1 evaluation unit from Olympus, I was challenged to use iAuto and the new Live Guide for most of my shooting. At first, I was a bit hesitant as I usually like to be in control, however I went with it. What I found was surprising; I really like using iAuto on this camera. Not only does it produce the most vibrant photos thanks to using the iEnhance picture mode by default, but it allowed me to focus more on framing and composition, rather than what exposure settings I need to use. In short, it allowed me to have more Fun taking photos. In fact, the entire time I had the E-PL1 in for review, I found myself grabbing it over my personal cameras and other review models that were in whenever I left the house. The new Live Guide function is a really neat option that helps users with less experience capture better photos with options for Color Saturation, Color Image, Brightness, Blur Background, Express Motions, and Shooting Tips. Now these users have the tools they need to capture photos that look more closely to the professional photos they see on the web and on TV. Again, this is a really great feature that I can see getting used a lot by those who have made the jump from a point-n-shoot type camera.
When reviewing our sample photos, I found the E-PL1 captures beautiful photos both indoors and out. When shooting in bright sunlight, the camera was able to handle exposures well, and colors can look either vibrant or natural, depending on which Picture mode is being used. Since I mostly used iAuto, colors really jumped out at me due to the iEnhance setting which makes colors more vibrant. When switching to Program mode using the Natural Picture mode setting, colors took on a more "real" look. Meaning, the photo I just captured looks much closer to what I actually saw. No matter what mode you use, the camera is going to produce very pleasing images; it just depends on what type of look you are going for. I tested the E-PL1 with both the kit zoom (14-42mm F/3.5-5.6) lens and the 17mm F/2.8 pancake lens. Both produced tac sharp photos when connected to the camera, with very few distortions. The zoom lens offers the most versatility, however I truly enjoyed using the 17mmm fixed unit as my "go to" option for general picture taking. Like it's predecessors, the E-PL1 captures photos with very little noise. By looking at our M&M man ISO series, you can see for yourself that this camera can produce usable photos all the way up to it's maximum ISO 3200 setting. In fact, the E-PL1 has exceptional high ISO performance, which rivals many entry-level dSLR models.
The E-PL1 boasts the same 6 Art Filters offered by the E-P1 (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale and Light Color, Grainy Film, Light Tone, Pin Hole Camera filter). For some reason, Olympus did not include the two new filters we saw on the E-P2 (Diorama and Cross Process). These Art filters really allow you to have "fun" with your photos by exploring your creative side. Like iAuto, I found myself using these filters quite often. You can see an example of each on our Sample Photos page.
Finally, Olympus has heard our cries! They've added a feature to this new PEN model that really adds to its versatility and appeal; a built-in flash unit. This is something we truly felt was missing from the E-P1/P2, and we are very thankful they included it on the E-PL1. With a guide number of 10 at ISO 200, this unit offers an effective range that should be compared to higher end point-n-shoot or super-zoom model. This range will be sufficient for a good amount of flash photography, including macros, close-up portraits, etc. However, it lacks the power one would need for large group shots or illuminating larger rooms. This is where the flash hotshoe comes into play. Now, you can mount any of Olympus' powerful external units, like the FL-14, FL-20, FL-36, FL-50, FL-36R or FL-50R. Overall, this unit is a welcomed addition, which makes this camera a more feasible option for the average consumer. It allowed me to capture well lit close-up portraits from about 5-7 feet away without any problems. If you don't plan on upgrading to an external unit and need more power, rest assured that you can bump up the ISO to help increase the usable range of the built-in unit; and since this camera does so well at the higher ISO settings, your photos will still look quite good.
The video options have not changed much on the these Digital PEN models. The E-PL1 offers the same settings we saw on its siblings, with options to record video at either HD (720p) and SD (640x480) resolution. There are also various settings available, like white balance, IS mode, focus mode, AF target (Single or Multi), AF Tracking, and exposure control mode. A feature that was added on the E-P2 was full manual exposure control, on top of the Program AE, Aperture, and Art filter mode options. This feature was thankfully carried over to the E-PL1, and will allow you to be a lot more creative with your videos than possible with just about any other digicam or dSLR on the market. Overall, the E-PL1 records good smooth video with decent Audio. I did find that the microphone picked up even slight breezes as well as a good amount of background noise that you may not notice while recording. If you are looking for an awesome HD camera, the E-PL1 might not be the camera for you; you'll want to look at a digital camcorder. However, if you are looking for an awesome camera that can capture usable High Definition video with lots of creative control, the E-PL1 is just the ticket.
Battery life from this camera was also excellent. It uses a powerful PS-BLS1 7.2v 1150mAh battery pack, which Olympus boasts will allow you to capture up to 290 frames on a single charge. I found this was a very accurate claim as I was able to shoot well over 250 frames and record several short video clips with power to spare. While this is great news, I still want to recommend you pick up a second battery pack if you are planning a vacation or you shoot more than 300 photos in a single season. Since the battery is charged out of camera, you can charge one pack while using another.
Bottom Line - I really enjoyed using the E-PL1. In fact, this is my favorite EVIL model to date (4/2010). Not only does if offer great performance and image quality, but the E-PL1 is simply Fun to use. If you're in the market for a powerful, yet affordable, micro 4/3 camera or you want to step up from your consumer point-n-shoot, I strongly recommend taking a look at the Olympus E-PL1 Digital PEN. With a street price of $599 with the kit 14-42mm zoom lens, the E-PL1 is the most affordable m43 model on the market, and is sure to please.
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