Record Mode displays and operation
The E-P1 is a live-view only camera (obviously, having no viewfinder), and in use it operates in much the same way as all the other current models in the Olympus range. You can change the image overlay by pressing the INFO button. The custom functions menu allows you to enable or disable any of these views.
The E-P1 has no mirror and therefore, like the Panasonic G1/GH1, relies purely on contrast detect autofocus (using the LiveMOS sensor) - exactly the same system used on compact cameras, and increasingly offered as an option on live view capable SLRs (including recent Olympus models).
For the G1 and GH1 Panasonic developed an incredibly fast new imager AF system and has been praised for getting contrast detect AF speeds up to near those offered by entry-level phase detect focus systems (as used on all SLRs). Unfortunately Panasonic didn't share that technology with Olympus, and the E-P1 uses essentially the same focus system as cameras such as the E-620, meaning that it feels sluggish compared to any SLR, and is measurably slower than the best compact cameras (though not by a wide margin).
The focus speed certainly feels a little (but not a lot) faster than the CD-AF on, say, the E-620, thanks we'd imagine to the faster TruePic V processor and optimized lenses, but it's not a patch on Panasonic's system, and in low light at the long end of the zoom is pretty painful, often giving up altogether. You get autofocus with Four Thirds lenses too (using the optional adaptor), and we're assured there won't be a single Four Thirds Zuiko that won't AF.
In our tests focus with Four Thirds lenses was even slower, with the 50mm F2.0 macro, for example taking up to 2.0 seconds to focus on the E-P1, though the SWD lenses do slightly better.
In normal shooting the E-P1 uses 11 large focus areas (which can be chosen manually or automatically), but if you switch face detection on this increases to 25 (across a wider area of the frame). If you switch to Magnified View mode you can pick a focus point anywhere in the frame (well, there's 225, but you can essentially put it anywhere).
Live view video (14-42mm lens)
The video below shows the E-P1's focus in action in our studio and should idea the kind of speed the lens moves at. What you're seeing is the focus being activated by a half-press, followed by focus acquisition and locking, then a full press to take the picture (at which point the screen goes blank). Finally the instant review appears (this is optional). For more on AF speed check out the performance page later in this review.
Art / Scene Modes
The E-P1 features the same six Art modes first seen on the E-30 (click here to read all about them). Unlike the E-30 you can preview the effect of each filter without having to return to the main menu. The E-P1 also has a grand total of 19 scene modes (accessed by turning the dial to SCN), including the new 'skin smoothing' e-Portrait mode.
The E-P1 features magnified preview in all focus modes, simply press the INFO button until the green focus box appears. You can reposition the box anywhere in the scene then press OK to magnify. Select between 5x and 10x view by turning the main dial. Moving the focus box defines the AF point.
Depth of field preview
The E-P1's Function button can be assigned to depth of field preview. Although the display gets pretty noisy in low light with the lens stopped down, in decent light you get a good idea how much of the scene will be in focus.
Digital Level Gauge
As we've seen with other recent Olympus SLRs (particularly the E-30), the E-P1 has a plethora of novel - and in some cases very useful - features. These include a level gauge, multi aspect ratio shooting and multiple exposures.
Overall handling comments
The challenge for Olympus with the E-P1 was to offer SLR-like operation in as compact a body as possible (as, unlike 'enthusiast' compacts, it's likely to actually be used with at least some manual control). The result is surprisingly successful, and aside from the over-complicated menu system (which you're not going to be using that often anyway), it feels incredibly well thought out. Sure, the controls are a bit small and a bit cramped together, but that's the price you pay for a smaller camera, and I had no problems using it in aperture priority mode (which is where it stayed most of the time).
Our biggest complaint, mentioned elsewhere, is with the EP-1's menu system, which is not only complex and unintuitive, but is often inconsistent and illogical too. There are too many ways to change the same setting and many of the menu items are effectively redundant (since they can more easily be controlled using the shooting mode interface). You can't help feeling that this is a camera that is crying out for a firmware update.