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The Olympus PEN Lite/E-PL3 is identical in terms of output to the recently reviewed Olympus E-P3. We have tested to verify image quality (and of course include these tests in the review). Where appropriate, you will find our comments and judgements identical to those expressed in our in-depth review of the Olympus E-P3. Much of the original content in this article then is devoted to assessing features and functionality unique to the E-PL3.

From the outset, Olympus has positioned its E-PL lineup as a simplified, lower-cost alternative to its higher-end E-Px cameras. The release of the third generation Olympus PEN E-PL3 (dubbed PEN Lite) continues this tradition while sporting much of the functionality and nearly all of the performance gains of its big brother, the Olympus E-P3. One difference this time around, however, is the simultaneous arrival of the E-PM1/PEN Mini, which now becomes the entry-level model in the PEN lineup. The PEN Lite sits between the PEN Mini and Olympus' flagship E-P3, offering a combination of external control points and compact-camera-like handling that may appeal to those who want high image quality in a small package, and are ready to move beyond an 'auto everything' experience.

The PEN Lite introduces handling and operational changes from its predecessor, the Olympus PEN E-PL2. Among the most obvious of these are the lack of a hand-grip along the front plate, the addition of a tilting 16:9 format LCD screen and a clip-on flash unit that occupies the hot shoe and rear accessory port (in contrast to the E-PL2's built-in flash). While it shares a sensor and image processing engine with the higher-priced E-P3, the PEN Lite has more distinct styling and better feature differentiation from the high end model than we've previously seen. As such, the E-PL3 is a very different looking camera than its predecessor, the E-PL2. In fact, the design aesthetic and reduced size of the E-PL3 point more closely to that of the Olympus XZ-1 compact camera; a none-too-subtle hint perhaps at Olympus' intended target audience.

Make no mistake, however, the E-PL3 does not skimp on features. External control points, a mode dial, hot shoe and accessory port all carry over from the E-PL2. And, as we've come to expect from a PEN series model, the E-PL3 offers a high degree of customization over camera operation along with a variety of art filters and effects that can be applied to JPEG image captures. We're also pleased to note that, like the E-P3, the PEN Lite has an AF illuminator to assist low-light focus acquisition.

Having regularly acted as a trailblazer (Olympus was an early exponent of DSLR live view, in-camera image stabilization and art filters), and subsequently watching other manufacturers adopt similar features, the E-PL3 sees Olympus taking the opportunity to borrow ideas for a change. There's something decidedly NEX-like about the E-PL3's protruding lens mount and tilting LCD screen, not to mention its separate clip-on flash.

Curiously, the PEN Lite's flip-out screen is in the 16:9 aspect ratio - well suited for shooting HD video but much less so when shooting stills in the camera's native 4:3 format. This format mismatch leaves black bars down both sides of the screen, areas which are then solely devoted to displaying camera settings.

Olympus PEN Lite key specifications:

  • Updated 12MP Live MOS sensor
  • 120 Hz 'Fast AF' focus system with 35-point area AF
  • Clip-on flash (included)
  • Built-in autofocus illuminator light
  • 460,000 dot tilting LCD screen (16:9 aspect ratio)
  • Dual-core TruePic VI processor
  • 1080i60 movies in AVCHD format
  • Shadow tone adjustment control
  • Revised and expanded Art Filter mode (with quick preview option)

Compared to the Olympus PEN E-P3

The E-PL3 has undergone a makeover - slimming down by swapping its built-in flash for a clip-on unit and adopting a flattering, NEX-like extended lens mount. The result is a svelte and elegant appearance. However, when placed next to the solid-looking E-P3 the PEN Lite reveals itself to actually be slightly deeper due to the added dimension of the protruding lens mount and tilt/flip LCD screen.
From the front, the most obvious distinction between the PEN Lite and its big brother, the E-P3, is the lack of a hand-grip. The PEN Lite is significantly less wide and a few millimeters shorter, yet does manage to include an AF-assist illuminator (a welcome addition for both PEN models).
The PEN Lite sports a tilt/flip 16:9 format LCD. The added width of the LCD has necessitated repositioning the Record, Magnify, Fn, Playback and Delete buttons along the top edge of the rear plate above the screen. Sadly, the PEN Lite's LCD is not touch-sensitive.

Differences between the PEN Lite E-PL3 and PEN E-P3

  • Faster continuous shooting: up to 5.5fps vs. 3fps
  • Tilt/flip LCD display vs. fixed OLED screen
  • Lower resolution screen (460,000 vs. 614,000 dots) in 16:9 vs. 3:2 aspect ratio
  • No thumb dial
  • No orientation sensor
  • Slower flash sync speed of 1/160th vs. 1/180th of a second
  • Four fewer Art Filters (Loses Pale Light & Color, Light Tone, Gentle Sepia and Cross-Process)
  • No built-in flash (clip-in unit included)
  • No level gauge