Overall handling and operation
The user interface is the biggest change between this and the previous PENs - it loses both of the control dials that feature on the earlier models. The result is that you become much more aware of how modal the control system is - the first press of the four-way controller enters a mode, which remains engaged until you press the 'OK' button. (This was the case with many settings on the E-P1/EP-2 but, crucially, not the main shooting parameters, which were directly controlled with the dials).
There are nice additions, though. Adding a separate magnification button offers two great benefits: not only does it make it simple to jump into and out of magnified live view when using manual focus lenses, it also resolves an inconsistency in the Olympus user interface. Until now, magnified live view was one of the live view display modes and the only one in which the function of the controls changed. By making it a separate mode that is toggled on and off using its own button, it is much more apparent that you're in a different mode, meaning it's not so much of a surprise when the OK button zooms in, rather than bringing up the function menu or Super Control Panel.
And, although there are many beginner-friendly touches to the E-PL1's interface, it contains the frankly implausible level of customization that has become standard on Olympus DSLRs as far back as the top-end E-3. These options are hidden by default but can be accessed by switching on the custom settings menu from the setup menu. At this point you gain a 62-option menu separated into ten sections. It will take at least an evening with the manual, to find out all that's in there, but it allows an unbelievable level of customization.
Specific handling issues
In general we quite like the Live Guide - it gives a fairly straight-forward way of adjusting image parameters without having to learn too much about the camera. The inconsistency between the button behavior in Live Guide and the ArtFilter and Scene modes may trip a few people up but the E-PL1 works well as a point-and-shoot camera that you can interact with if you wish.
It's a little disappointing that the camera doesn't hint at what settings it's changing when you adjust a setting in Live Guide, as it means it provides no stepping-stone for users who want to take any more control over the camera. As a simple mode allowing a degree of interaction it does what it's supposed to do - provide access to much of the camera's capability without getting too complicated - and does it well.
Our other concern is the one we've had about Olympus DSLRs and PENs for some time - that some people will find the level of complexity outweighs the advantages of being able to define, in fine detail, almost every aspect of the camera's behavior. The ability to hide the distinctly intimidating settings menu certainly helps but we would highly recommend enthusiast users read the relevant section of the manual and discusses settings with other users to get the most out of their camera.
In general the E-PL1 is a pleasant and responsive camera. There are delays when working with some of the Art Filters (which can give a time-lapse/sped-up effect if used in movie mode), but it's unusual to find yourself waiting for the camera. However the modal, button-based interface does mean that the camera is considerably slower to operate than cameras with control dials, if you want to change shooting settings.
Its continuous shooting rate isn't exactly great, at what would now be considered a fairly modest 3 frames per second. This in itself isn't terrible but there are further problems if you combine continuous AF with continuous shooting - you either get lots of mis-focussed images or, if you set the camera to wait until it's in focus, you don't get many images at all.
Continuous Shooting and buffering
Shot-to-shot speed: in either RAW or the highest quality JPEG mode (SuperFine, accessed via Settings Menu G7), the camera will happily shoot a shot every 0.5 seconds, so long as you pulse your finger on the shutter, rather than releasing completely, which prompts the camera to refocus. This rhythm can usually be sustained for around six or seven shots, which is more than enough for grabbing a couple of shots when you didn't think you needed continuous shooting.
In continuous mode,
- JPEG (Superfine): around 3fps for 16 frames, then 2fps
- RAW: around 3fpd for 10 frames then around 0.9fps
- RAW + JPEG: around 3fps for 9 frames then about 0.5fps
- Recovery time: 9-20 seconds
One of the biggest criticisms aimed at the PEN series of cameras has been the speed of their autofocus. With its most recent firmware updates (version 1.1 in the case of the E-PL1), Olympus has tried to address the issue. Results of our testing were interesting - the E-PL1's speed was around 20% faster
The graphs below show the results of our focus test using the Olympus 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens on the E-PL1, the E-P2 and the Panasonic G1. For comparative purposes, the E-PL1 was also tested with the Panasonic 14-45 F3.5-5.6 OIS. Each camera was timed three times focusing from infinity focus to 10m, from infinity to 1m, then again from closest focus distance to 10m and 1m. These twelve measurements for each camera were combined to calculate an average focus time. The tests were conducted twice, at each extreme of the lenses' zoom range.
The E-PL1 was running firmware v1.1, the E-P2 was running version 1.0 and the G1 was running version 1.4. (We also tested the E-PL1 with firmware 1.0 and found it to be indistinguishable from the E-P2). Graph shows time taken to focus, in seconds.
As can be clearly seen, the E-PL1 can focus the Olympus lens just as fast as the Panasonic G1, and is significantly faster than the E-P2. However, this is still around 15% slower than when it's used with the Panasonic lens (with its lightweight internal focus element design).
There's a similar story at the long end of the zoom (45mm in the case of the Panasonic lens), with the E-PL1 matching the G1 for speed (the difference is likely to be within the error margin of the test), but some 20% quicker than the E-P2. Even so, there's another 20% to be gained by using the Panasonic 14-45mm lens, strongly suggesting the limiting factor for the PEN series is the kit zoom's design, rather than any flaw with the processing or AF logic.
As mentioned further up the page, continuous AF is a bit of a weak spot for the E-PL1 (as it is for all the mirrorless cameras). Unlike the phase-detection AF method that DSLRs can take advantage of, the contrast-detection AF method used in mirrorless cameras cannot establish which direction it need to focus in - instead it has to scan through different focus distances to find the point giving the highest contrast. The result is lots of jiggling about, even if the camera isn't moved in relation to the subject.
Whether for size or cost reasons, the E-PL1 features a simplified IS mechanism, compared to the EP-1 and 2. Olympus claims the camera is able to produce stable shots at shutter speeds 3 stops lower than without it (rather than the four claimed for the other PENs). In use, shake was rarely a problem and the E-PL1 with the stabilization system allowing shots to be taken at least a stop lower than you'd usually expect to be possible.
It's not the most effective system we've come across but is not significantly less effective than the E-P1 and, of course, it's effective whatever lens you choose to put on the cameras.