The E-PM1 is technically the smallest of the PEN series, but only by a thin margin over the E-PL3. In fact, if you looked only at the front of the two cameras you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart. The front of the PEN Mini is formed of completely flat, lacquered metal, without even a semblance of a handgrip. This encourages cradling the camera at the bottom of the lens with your left hand - which is more or less essential to operate a zoom lens anyway.

Overall operation and handling

The lack of a hand grip aside, the E-PM1 is generally a pleasure to use. We find the revised control layout, with significantly reduced external controls, more directly approachable for compact upgraders than what we have seen on previous PENs. The absence of a tiltable rear screen however does have a major impact on usability compared to the E-PL3, especially when shooting from unconventional vantage points.

The E-PM1 fits securely in one hand for shooting, however the proximity of the control dial to the edge of the camera makes it unfeasible to make adjustments without holding the camera in both hands.

The mode dial is equally missed on the Mini, and exposure mode selection is instead accessed via the menu button. Pressing left or right will highlight the mode and a press of the OK button or Shutter will enter it. When PASM is highlighted pressing up or down allows you to choose Program, Aperture, Shutter or Manual mode.

Without an external mode dial on the E-PM1, users must now navigate an on-screen menu to switch between shooting modes. This screen can be accessed quickly by pressing the 'Menu' button below the control dial.

Instead of touting the same high-contrast OLED screen found on the E-P3 the E-PM1 uses a more conventional 460k dot LCD screen. Unfortunately this results in a very noticeable reduction in real-world usability, especially in bright, daylight conditions. Although it's certainly good enough for framing and composition, critical image review may be better achieved after moving your images to a computer. The LCD on the E-PM1 is also prone to ghosting, especially in low light. The physical refresh rate of the liquid crystal is slow enough that when a bright spot traverses a dark screen it will cause a visable trail. Again, this is not terribly detrimental when shooting stills, but can become quite distracting when shooting video.

The 16:9 format of the rear LCD is less than pleasing when shooting stills. With the camera set to its native (and default) 4:3 ratio, this format mismatch results in smaller-sized image views compared to previous PENs. The unusable area (shown below) occupies about 25% of the screen area, with black bars running down the sides of the frame. Olympus has devoted this 'empty' space to displaying camera settings while in live view, which does have the effect of a less cluttered image view. We still find the format mismatch rather awkward, detracting somewhat from the PEN Mini's otherwise straightforward design.

Above, you can see the limited proportion of the PEN Mini's screen (outlined in white) that is available to display a 4:3 image (the red box).

Specific handling issues

We find the control dial on the E-PM1 to be rather small and somewhat fiddly, just as it was on the E-PL3. However, in this respect the lack of an articulating screen actually makes handling the camera somewhat easier. Without the extra protrusion of the movable screen it becomes much easier to utilize the control wheel, and issues with inadvertently activating features on the cardinal points of the controller are not as prevalent as on the E-PL3 either.

The PEN Mini's control dial is small, but the lack of a protruding articulated screen makes the dial easier to use than on the E-PL3. and results in fewer accidental activations of the cardinal controls.

Although the PEN Mini is still an eminently customizable camera, it lacks the programmable Fn button that is available on higher-end PEN models. The 'movie record' button as well as the 'right' and 'down' buttons are still customizable however. It is possible to assign other functions like ISO and WB to the flash and drive mode buttons on the 4-way controller, although doing so results in operation that contradicts button labelling, which can potentially cause confusion. For the entire list of assignable functions, please take a look at the menu page.

We cannot help but feel that at least some of these handling issues could have been addressed with the inclusion of a touchscreen interface. Given the sterling example set by Panasonic's G-series models, not to mention the inclusion of a touchscreen on the E-P3, it seems reasonable to be able to access some settings and controls via the LCD screen.

Perhaps the most annoying characteristic of the E-PM1, though, is the way the user interface relies on multiple screen modes, which are cycled through using the 'Info' button. So rather than being able to turn such things as the live histogram or gridlines on and off as individual display elements, you have to enable them as their own, separate screens, and switch through them one by one.

This irritation is compounded by the fact that live view magnification is yet another display mode, although accessed via its own button. This requires two presses of the button to work - one to activate the display mode, another to actually zoom in to the live view display. Also you can't then exit magnified view with a half-press of the shutter button, you have to press the 'OK' button instead. Overall this is unnecessarily awkward compared to the simpler approaches found on other, similar cameras.

The upshot of this is that you simply can't display combinations of information on the same screen as you might take for granted on other cameras. The gridlines, live histogram and the exposure clipping warning are all mutually incompatible, and if you regularly use more than one of these displays (and part of the problem is that they all useful in their own ways) you'll find yourself pressing the Info button an awful lot to cycle between them.

We concede that these are more likely to count as irritations rather than deal-breakers for most users. They make the shooting process less fluid than it should be, but don't actually prevent you from doing anything you might want to. And in fairness, to some extent they're a result of the PEN Mini offering some features that its competitors don't (such as the highlight/shadow clipping display mode).

The amount of fine-tuning that is possible over the camera's performance will be very welcome to keen enthusiasts, but we do worry that this amount of customization in a camera of this type, and the way in which it is implemented, has the potential to cause confusion for less-advanced users.