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The Micro Four Thirds system turned two years old last October, and a lot has happened since Panasonic debuted the DSLR-inspired, but mirrorless Lumix DMC-G1. What was then a brand new system has had time to mature, and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) now make up one of the fastest-growing and competitive segments of the consumer digital camera market.

Although the Micro Four Thirds system got in first, Panasonic and Olympus haven't had everything their own way. After a decent head start, Panasonic's G-system and the Olympus PEN-series have been joined by Samsung's small-but-growing NX range, and Sony's innovative NEX-3 and NEX-5. All this competition has resulted in a rash of new releases from both 'original' mirrorless ILC manufacturers in recent months, as Panasonic and Olympus attempt to consolidate their early lead and grab as much market share as possible.

Part of that strategy is to aim lower, at novice rather than solely enthusiast consumers. The Olympus E-PL1, released in February 2009, was designed to appeal to precisely this market, filling the gap between high-end compact cameras and enthusiast-oriented, mostly DSLR-inspired, ILCs. The E-PL1 dispensed with the control dials of the E-P1 and E-P2, but retained the same sensor (albeit with a lighter AA filter), in a smaller, considerably more compact-like body. It also boasted - gasp! - a built-in flash; something which Olympus opted to dispense with in both the E-P1 and E-P2.

The E-PL2 has the same sensor as the E-PL1 and doesn't officially replace it, but sits above it in the product line, beneath the E-P2. As well as a physical makeover (the E-PL2 reminds us slightly of the rather beautiful Stylus Verve) its ergonomics have been refreshed too. The all-button operation of the E-PL1 has been ditched, in favor of a more conventional combination button/dial approach, with a rear plate that's much closer in design to the E-P2 than the E-PL1. The LCD screen is better too - its size has increased to 3 inches and it doubles in resolution, topping out at 460K dots. Indeed with its 3:2 aspect ratio and deep blue anti-reflective coating, it bears a startling resemblance to the unit used on Panasonic's DMC-GF2, although without that model's touch-sensitivity.

There are a couple of specification and firmware tweaks, too. The available ISO range now covers 200-6400, with the low-noise but limited-dynamic range ISO 100 option dropped. There's also an intriguing extension of the familiar face-detection AF mode, in the shape of 'iDetect' that aims to focus specifically on your subject's eyes. Some of the Art Filters gain a number of variations, plus the ability to add a stylized border.

The E-PL2 also comes with a new kit lens, that made its debut alongside the Japan-only E-PL1s late last year. The collapsible M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II MSC is 25% lighter than the previous generation, but boasts three aspherical elements rather than two. Its mechanism has also been modified, with one extending barrel section rather than two, making for a more solid construction than its notoriously-wobbly predecessor. It also gains a bayonet fitting at the front which can accept not only a lens hood, but also a new series of add-on lens converters - fish-eye, wideangle and macro.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the lens now gains the 'Movie and Still Compatible' (MSC) designation, signifying a much faster and quieter internal-focus design. According to Olympus, this makes the AF speed of the E-PL2 and 14-42mm II combination on a par with the best cameras in its class. However it does come at a slight cost to the lens's macro capability, with a maximum magnification of 0.19x rather than 0.24x.

It is worth noting that E-PL1 users will see a significant leap in AF performance from the new 14-42mm II. With the new lens mounted, we found that AF acquisition is typically around 0.2secs faster than when using the original kit zoom. This amounts to an increase in AF speed of almost 30% in some circumstances - a substantial boost. Back to the E-PL2 though, and the impression of better AF speed is aided by the silent focusing of the 14-42mm II. Not only does this make the lens feel swifter in use, but crucially it also means that movie footage from the E-PL2 is not marred by the sound of the lens' AF motor racking back and forth.

As you can see, the revised 14-42mm MSC lens grows significantly when extended for use, but its overall dimensions are virtually identical at its widest and longest focal lengths (it gets shorter in between). When retracted for carrying it's about 2" / 50mm long, making it a bit larger than its predecessor.

Key features

  • 12 megapixel Four Thirds sized sensor
  • In-body image stabilization
  • 'Live Guide II' interface works in still and movie capture modes
  • 3" LCD screen (460,000 dots)
  • Built-in flash
  • Eye-detection AF
  • Direct record movie button
  • 720p 30fps HD video (AVI Motion JPEG format)
  • ISO 200-6400
  • Accessory port for add-ons such as electronic viewfinder and new 'PENpal' bluetooth transmitter

E-PL2 vs E-P2: Key differences

Although the E-PL2 is a less expensive camera than the E-P2 that sits above it, it gives very little ground to its big brother in terms of specification, and is better specified than the E-PL1. The biggest differences between the E-PL2 and E-P2 are in fact cosmetic and ergonomic: the E-PL2's more compact-camera-like interface, the simplified construction and of course the slightly more compact, more 'styled' body shell.

  • One control dial (vs. 2 on the E-P2)
  • Built-in flash (external flashes only on E-P2)
  • Compatible with PENpal PP-1 bluetooth accessory (the E-P2 is incompatible).
  • 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
  • No orientation sensor on E-PL2
The E-PL2's design is consistent with the 'classic' looks of the original E-P1 and the newer E-P2 (seen here), but the sloping top plate and remodeled hand grip make it (in our opinion) a better looking camera.
The back of the E-PL2 is very similar to the E-P2 - gone is the dial-less interface of the E-PL1, but the E-PL2 lacks the uppermost dial of the E-P2, making do with just one, around the four-way controller to the right of the LCD screen. The E-PL2's anti-reflective screen covering is larger than the E-P2 but the 'active' screen area itself is the same size.

The omission of the uppermost control dial and the addition of a direct video recording button, plus (of course) the flash release catch are the only differences between the two cameras in terms of physical control points, but although we're looking at the same number of buttons in more or less the same place, their functions have been shuffled around a bit. Perhaps most significantly, the E-PL2 sports a magnification button (for both image review and manual focus) in place of the E-P2's dedicated AEL/AFL button.