Conclusion - Pros
- Very compact and lightweight digital SLR, especially when combined with the 25mm pancake lens
- Comfortable to hold despite the lack of a 'real' grip
- Control panel display allows quick access to most important shooting parameters
- Generally snappy performance (but slow start-up time due to SSWF)
- Low noise levels across the ISO range (but loss of detail)
- User control over ISO noise reduction ('Noise Filter')
- Choice of AF mode in Live View
- Up to ten times magnification in Live View (useful for manual focus)
- Supersonic Wave Filter ensures no dust on sensor
- User interface and operation is highly customizable
- Kelvin white balance option, all white balance presets fine tunable
- Fully customizable RAW+JPEG (many competitors have fixed JPEG settings)
- Mirror lock-up with custom delay
- Good Compact Flash write performance with fast CF cards
- In-camera JPEG image editing
- Wireless flash control
- Good value for money
Conclusion - Cons
- LCD could be a little brighter for outdoor shooting with live view and is prone to smearing
- LCD turns monochrome and noisy in low light
- Auto white balance and presets not brilliant (but there is a white balance fine tune option)
- Image parameters only offer limited latitude around the default settings
- Menu structure a little longwinded (especially the setup menus)
- Comparatively soft image output in JPEG and RAW
- Less Dynamic Range than competition (highlights by between 0.7 and 1.0 EV)
- Limited RAW headroom
- Unreliable flash exposure
- Small viewfinder
- Battery life not brilliant (especially when you use live-view a lot)
- Slower than average startup due to the SSWF (should be at power-off / intervals)
- Auto focus provides only three focus points, although AF performance good
- Flash must be raised for AF assist
Olympus claims the E-420 is the smallest and lightest (only its predecessor is a few grams lighter) DSLR on the market and there is no doubt that this is true. The E-420 - especially in combination with the new 25mm F2.8 pancake lens - makes an extremely compact package. If you want a truly pocketable camera without losing DSLR image quality the E-420 should be right at the top of your shortlist.
Despite its small dimensions the camera is surprisingly well specified; even more so when considering its price point. You won't find live view and the E-420's level of customization on other manufacturers' entry level offerings (at least not if they're in the same price bracket). In fact, the E-420's spec sheet looks more like something we'd expect from a mid-range SLR. Apart from live view you get bracketing, customizable mirror lock-up, wireless flash control, a dust reduction system, control over high ISO noise reduction and a highly customizable user interface - an awful lot of camera for your money.
Live view on the E-420 sports a new feature - Contrast detect Auto Focus. This was clearly designed for former compact camera users and in contrast detect AF mode the E-420 actually behaves very much like a compact. AF in this mode is very slow though and for general shooting you would probably want to stick to using the viewfinder. Having said that we found the E-420's live view implementation very useful for macros and shooting in the studio on a tripod. You can magnify the live view image up to 10x which allows for very accurate control of the focus (something that is very difficult to achieve with the E-420's comparatively small viewfinder).
The Control Panel Display let's you quickly change the most important shooting parameters and the user interface is in general well designed and logically structured. It is also highly customizable and while that is certainly a good thing it's sometimes quite easy to get lost in the 'mazy' settings menus, especially if you're new to the E-420.
The camera's TruePic III processor does a good job and the E-420's performance is snappy and responsive in most situations. The shutter lag is short and focus is quick, only the start-up time could be a little faster (the SSWF system cleans the sensor first each time you switch the camera on) and - as mentioned above - contrast detect AF is pretty slow.
Let's have a look at the cons then. Unfortunately the first thing that springs to mind here is image quality. The E-420 appears to use a stronger anti-alias filter than its predecessor, and while this results in admirably 'clean' images, it also robs the resultant images of fine detail. Other cameras in this class will no doubt produce output with more per pixel detail. And since this softness is created by the E-420's hardware and not by in-camera software, reverting to raw-shooting won't improve the issue. Of course this comment has to be taken in context; you need to be regularly printing at large sizes or zooming in to a pixel level to see the difference once you've added a bit of sharpening.
High ISO performance is far from class-leading, but for most users producing normal prints it won't be an issue. Dynamic range, however, is worth mentioning. The E-420's DR is not quite up to par with the competition which can offer up to a whole stop more highlight range. So you'll find a washed out sky or unattractively blown highlights in your images a little more often when shooting with the Olympus. Admittedly when talking about the E-420's image quality issues we are - to a certain degree - nitpicking. The camera's output is not bad at all (in fact contrast and colors in the default settings are very appealing), but it's not quite up at the same level as some of the competitors.
In conclusion, the E-420 is an ideal walkaround camera with a great feature set and unrivalled customizability. The image quality issues described above very slightly tarnish the positive overall picture but if compact dimensions and pocketability are high up on your list of buying criteria the E-420 should still be one of your favorites. I certainly found myself sticking it into my pocket even on occasions when I would not usually have taken an SLR with me and anything that gets you to take more images can only be a good thing.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.0|
Highly Recommended (just)