As one half of the Micro Four Thirds consortium, Olympus was one of the originators of the mirrorless interchangeable lens or system camera. In a little under two years, this new breed has established itself as a credible alternative both to compact cameras and DSLRs. However, while manufacturers regularly talk to us about watching and wanting to exploit the gap between these two established types of cameras, all the models released so far have tended towards the DSLR-end of that space. So far we've seen models from both Panasonic and Samsung that have aped the functionality, handling and even appearance of entry-level DLSRs, while the small, rangefinder-styled MILCs (The E-P1 and GF1) have still behaved like DSLRs without mirrors, rather than compact cameras with large sensors.

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Stepping in to fill this void is the Olympus E-PL1, a camera that brings a stripped-down body and simplified interface to the Micro Four Thirds format. This means no control dials (and therefore an awful lot of button-pressing the further away from the automated exposure modes you venture), but it also brings a simple results-orientated 'Live Guide' interface to allow you take control of the i-Auto for people happier to point-and-shoot (sorry Mr Spacey).

Its simplified, button-press based interface dictates that it'll be best suited to compact camera users who want to get better photos straight away and learn about things such as apertures in their own time. Experienced users who regularly want to take control of individual shooting parameters are likely to find themselves frustrated by the sheer amount of button-pressing induced by the loss of control dials.

The cost savings, which extend to a lower-cost, plastic mount version of the collapsible 14-42mm kit lens, means the E-PL1 comes to market with a suggested selling price some $200 (or €150) below that of the E-P1. The body manages to maintain styling cues from the E-P1, mixing them with hints of the company's fondly remembered 'C' series of high-end compacts. The I.S unit has also been simplified, with the company claiming only 3 stops of compensation, rather than the 4 ascribed to the E-P2.

However, it would be a mistake to assume from this that the E-PL1's specification is commonplace - although the body, screen, lens and interface have been pared-back, there are a couple of areas in which this entry-level/beginners model trumps the more stylish, more expensive PEN models. Most obvious is the addition of a built-in flash, which was one of the most glaring omissions from the E-P1 and EP-2. There's also a revised version of the TruePix V image processor, that's been tuned to take account of the lighter low-pass/anti-aliasing filter fitted in this model. The L1 also features the EVF/accessory port under the flash hot-shoe - a feature it shares with the E-P2 but absent from the E-P1.

Key features

  • 12 megapixel Four Thirds sized sensor
  • In-body image stabilization (with claimed 3-stop effectiveness)
  • Simplified 'Live Guide' interface
  • 2.7" LCD screen (230,000 dots)
  • Built-in flash
  • Direct record movie button
  • 720p HD video (MJPEG compression)
  • ISO 100-3200
  • 6 'Art Filter' creative effects
  • Accessory port for add-ons such as electronic viewfinder

E-PL1 vs E-P2: Key differences

Although the EPL-1 is a less expensive camera than the E-P2 that sits above it, it doesn't give much ground to its big brother in terms of specification. The biggest differences are the more compact-camera-like interface (and loss of control dials), the simplified construction, less sophisticated image stabilization system and the addition of the built-in flash.

  • No control dials vs. 2 on the E-P2
  • Built-in flash (external flashes only on E-P2)
  • Mainly plastic body with aluminium skined front (Stainless steel and alloys for E-P2)
  • Image stabilization with claimed 3 stop benefit, vs. 4 stops for E-P2
  • Direct record movie button vs. movies as position on E-P2 mode dial
  • Mono mic with option to add stereo using adapter vs. built-in stereo mics
  • Maximum shutter speed 1/2000th sec, vs. 1/4000th.
The E-PL1's design is consistent with the classic looks of the E-P1 and the latest EP-2 (seen here), but is simplified and less stylized than its more expensive cousins. It's also smaller than the previous PEN models, losing a bit of width and gaining a little height. The front panel is still metal but doesn't share the bigger PENs' polished finish.
The back of the E-PL1 is simpler than the E-P2 - with fewer buttons, no control dials, a smaller screen and cheaper-feeling plastic construction. But as well as these losses, it gains a dedicated movie REC button and, most significantly, a catch to release its pop-up flash.