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It’s too early to declare it “Steal of the Year,” since production models are just now hitting stores, and we’ve yet to run one through the Pop Photo Lab. But judging from the specs and its well-known DNA, the new Olympus E-520 promises to be a strong contender.

First, the price: $600 (estimated street, body only); $700 with a lens that’s tested extremely well on our optical bench (August 2007), the Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AF (28-84mm equivalent with the Four Thirds system’s 2X 35mm lens factor). Then, the fact that the E-520 packs about as much of the pro-caliber Olympus E-3 ($1,700, street, body only) as can be stuffed into the chassis it inherited from its 2007 sibling, the E-510.

In other words, this new DSLR is as much an E-3 Lite as it is an E-510 upgrade.

The image-stabilization system’s gyro sensor has the same sophisticated pro pedigree. The 10MP sensor rides on an IS mechanism that’s nearly identical to the E-3’s. Besides conventional IS, two modes allow you to pan with the camera held either horizontally or vertically.

The E-520 doesn’t, however, share all of the E-3 computing power, so it may not be as nimble at IS. Our tests show that the E-3 gives you a 2.5- to 3-stop advantage for handholding, and the E-510, 1.5 to 2 stops. So expect 2-plus stops of blur-beating IS from the E-520. And like other sensor-based systems (such as in Pentax and Sony DSLRs), this camera gives you IS with every piece of glass you mount on it.

While the live view on the E-510 was fun and useful, autofocus in live view was slow and clunky. Not this time, says Olympus. The E-520’s contrast-detection AF promises fast focusing via a halfway press of the shutter button. You can also focus with the camera’s regular AF by way of a momentary flip down of the mirror.

The image in the LCD is bigger and brighter thanks to more real estate (2.7 inches vs. 2.5 inches on the E-510 and E-3), as well as a boost in the display’s contrast ratio and color gamut.

The E-520 is bristling with big-league features, including the same battery as in the E-3 (a CIPA rating of 650 shots per charge), wireless flash control via the built-in unit, menu settings for customizing everything from dial rotation to control shortcuts, and a burst rate of 3.5 Fine-quality JPEGs per second, limited only by the capacity of the high-speed CompactFlash card you slip into the slot. (Yes, long-time Olympus shooters, there’s also an xD slot.)

For newbies (and the lazy), there’s such life-made-easy whiz-bang as face detection and Perfect Shot Preview, which uses a grid of photos to show what you’ll get with various settings on such things as white balance and exposure compensation. There’s also the impressive Shadow Adjustment Technology, which pulls up detail and is like a boost in dynamic range.