Digital Cameras Guide

Olympus' New E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds and Tough Cameras

Introducing the Olympus PEN E-PL1

Olympus sure isn't letting up on its Micro Four Thirds offerings. The E-P2 came five months after the release of the E-P1 in June 2009, and three short months after the E-P2 comes the brand new E-PL1, announced today. Read on for the full details and our first hands-on impressions.

 

Why Another E-P Micro Four Thirds Camera?

The main difference between the E-P1 & 2 cameras and the E-PL1 is its more aggressive price. Antonio Lei, Olympus Singapore's Marketing Director, has told us that the E-PL1 with 14-42mm kit lens will be priced near to but "less than S$1000."

Readers familiar with our reviews of the PEN E-P1 , the E-P2 (in our print magazine HWM) and the Panasonic GF1 will know that while we've been enthusiastic about the image quality coming out of these cameras, we've been lukewarm about their prices. Quoting the suggested retail prices, the E-P1 was released at S$1298 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens), S$1,448 (with 17mm f2.8 pancake lens) and S$1,598 (both lenses). The Panasonic GF1 shipped at S$1299 for the 14-45mm kit and S$1499 for the 20mm kit. The E-P2 went even higher, at S$1598 (body only), S$1698 (with 14-42mm lens), S$1698 (with 17mm pancake lens).

We wrote in our Panasonic GF1 review that: "It seems clear that while the Micro Four Thirds manufacturers say they're marketing these cameras to consumers who'd like to own a DSLR but are scared off by a DSLR's size, weight and complexity, they clearly want those consumers who aren't scared off by a DSLR's cost, and are setting the bar for their exclusive technology at premium prices." The release of a sub-S$1000 Micro Four Thirds might change that and help to make the standard even more popular with people who're looking for a trade-off between quality, portability and price.

What's New with the PEN E-PL1

Besides the more affordable price, the Olympus PEN E-PL1 brings some new features to the PEN table.

Most noticeable will be the addition (finally) of an on-board flash. This marks the first Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus to feature a built-in flash, so you won't have to buy the additional flash accessory for shooting in low-light.

Like the PEN E-P2, the E-PL1 has an accessory port to fit an electronic viewfinder. It can fit the VF-2 Live Viewfinder or a SEMA-1 Stereo Microphone Set 1 for better quality movie recording.

Another new feature is the dedicated Movie mode button, which lets you record movies immediately at the press of a button, no matter which mode you're in. It's the round red button on the upper left corner of the camera back. The E-PL1 records HD movies at 720p.

Another new feature is the Live Guide user interface, which lets you adjust brightness, hue, background defocusing and other settings. Six Art Filters are available, including a new Gentle Sepia mode, and the Diorama mode which was introduced in the E-P2. The i-ENHANCE Picture Mode originally introduced on the E-P2, which does automatic re-touching of your photos, is also included.

Other than that, the E-PL1 includes the same note-worthy features of its higher-priced predecessors. The 4/3-inch, 12MP Live MOS image sensor and TruePic V image processing engine from the E-P cameras are here, which means we'll be getting the same image quality at a lower price. The E-PL1 also includes the continuous-AF tracking that was introduced in the E-P2 and the in-camera image sensor stabilization which comes with the E-P1 and E-P2.

All this is very exciting news indeed, but how can the PEN E-PL1 sell for a lower cost while offering nearly the same features? Surely there must be some drawbacks?

Hands-On Impressions with the Olympus PEN E-PL1

We had a chance to handle the E-PL1 for a brief time together with the PEN E-P2 during a discussion with Olympus. The E-PL1 feels and looks immediately different from the E-P camera series in a way that might not be obvious from the product shots here. The E-PL1 feels like a blend between an E-P camera and a lower-end compact. While the E-P cameras are made of solid metal and feel like they could take a few hard knocks, the E-PL1's body is made of plastic and feels, well, 'plasticky.'

 

The LCD screen at the back is smaller (we don't have the exact measurements yet) and makes the preview look cramped. As a result, on-board menus also feel less accessible, although we have to mention that we haven't had enough time with the camera to form a strong opinion on that. The E-PL1 lacks the 'scroller' that controlled the aperture/shutter settings on the E-P cameras, and the buttons on the back also felt harder to use at first impression.

Not all's bad though; the handle grip on the front of the E-PL1 is higher than the grips on the E-P cameras, making it a more comfortable camera to hold.

Overall, while the inside of the E-PL1 might pack the same powerful innards as the E-P cameras, it's immediately apparent at first touch that the E-PL1 is a less solidly built and less easily accessible camera. But there had to be trade-offs for its power price, and there it is.

New Olympus Micro Four Thirds Lenses

New lenses will also be introduced for the Micro Four Thirds system, a M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 14-150mm F4.0-5.6 (35mm equiv. 28-300mm) and a M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 9-18mm F4.0-5.6 (35mm equiv. 18-36mm) ultra-compact and lightweight lens.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 Accessories

A range of new accessories are launching with the E-PL1, including genuine leather front and body cases (in black or wine red), genuine leather body jackets (in white, black or brown), a casual camera bag and a wrapping cloth.

A more interesting accessory will be an underwater case for the E-PL1. The PT-EP01 will be the first underwater case released for a Micro Four Thirds camera and offers waterproof integrity up to 40m deep. It'll be compatible with the Olympus wireless remote control flash system using the UFL-2 dedicated underwater flash unit.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 Availability

If you can't wait to get your hands on an E-PL1 for yourself, it's slated to go on sale in March 2010, official pricing to be announced at that time.