So far, Micro Four Thirds cameras have been priced for the early-adopter crowd, with the first models from both Olympus and Panasonic debuting at about $800 (street) with their respective kit lenses. Now, the new Olympus Pen E-PL1 brings the entry price down to a more manageable $600 (street) with a 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 collapsible kit lens. And without compromising on performance.
In the Pop Photo Lab, we rated the E-PL1’s image quality Very High from ISO 100 through its penultimate sensitivity of ISO 1600—quite an impressive feat for such a small camera.
Some of the credit goes to the LiveMOS sensor, which boasts about six times the surface area of the sensors found in most compacts. At 12.3MP, it doesn’t match the pixel count you can get from a mid-level DSLR, and the next round of entry-level DSLRs will likely offer more, too.
Still, the E-PL1 earned a Very High rating in our resolution test, nearly identical to the more-expensive Pen E-P2. That still leaves Olympus trailing Panasonic’s 12.1MP Lumix DMCG1 and DMC-GF1 in resolving power, but it’s no slouch.
Colors proved accurate and rated Excellent, with exactly the same average Delta E, a measure of the difference between colors, as the Panasonic GF1. (All Micro Four Thirds cameras have scored Excellent in color accuracy.)
Where the E-PL1 most excelled in our tests was its ability to control noise. At ISO 1600 and under, it kept noise to a Low or better rating. At ISO 3200, its score of 3.2 proved far lower than the GF1’s 5.9 at ISO 1600 and 9.7 at ISO 3200. Even at ISO 800, the difference is just as stark, with the Olympus delivering a score of 1.5 for a Very Low rating, while the GF1 hit 2.9, just maintaining the Moderate level.
When you consider that the Olympus costs $200 less, this becomes still more significant.
We do not test contrast-based AF systems (the type used in all non-SLRs) for speed. But in side-by-side comparisons in the field, the E-PL1 proved to be on par with the earlier E-P2 in terms of focusing speed, and both trailed the Panasonic GF1 slightly.
No contrast-based AF comes close to the phase-detection systems in DSLRs, but we expect to see a fair amount of improvement in the coming year or two.
And because contrast-based AF relies on sampling the sensor over and over again to home in on the target, this is one area where the larger sensors in Micro Four Thirds cameras work against them compared with compacts. Not only is it faster to sample the data from a smaller sensor, there’s also less data to process.