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Olympus PEN E-PM1

  • Category: Digital Cameras
  • Review Date: 09/20/11
  • Bottom line:

    The Olympus E-PM1 may be the smallest member of the Micro Four Thirds PEN family, but it delivers the same solid build quality and good-looking images as its larger siblings—and it’s lightning fast.

  • Pros:

    Fast autofocus system. Extremely compact. Accessory port for optional EVF. In-camera art filters.

  • Cons:

    High noise at ISO 1600 and above. No built-in flash. Fixed rear LCD.

Editor Rating:

4.00

By Jim Fisher

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 ($499.99 direct with 14-42mm kit lens), nicknamed the PEN Mini, is the smallest, lightest and least-expensive entry in the current Olympus Micro Four Thirds lineup. This compact interchangeable-lens camera is designed to be easy for photography novices, but also offers more advanced menu options to satisfy experienced shutterbugs. It doesn’t offer the best image quality in its class, that honor goes to the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 ($649.95, 4.5 stars), but there is a lot of value to be found when you consider its cost—and its small size.

Design, Features, and User Interface
The 12-megapixel PEN Mini is strikingly simple in its design. Its aluminum body is finished in black, silver, white, brown, pink, or purple, each offset with a chrome lens mount and top plate. You don’t get a front hand grip, but a rubber thumb grip is located on the rear right to help you get a good grab on the small camera. Measuring 2.5 by 4.3 by 1.3 inches (HWD), the camera is close in size to the 2.5-by-4.3-by-1.5-inch PEN E-PL3 ($699.99, 3.5 stars). But it weighs just 7.7 ounces without a lens, compared with the E-PL3’s 9.3 ounces. The included 14-42mm M. Zuiko zoom lens adds about 3.9 ounces of weight and 2 inches of depth to the camera. The lens has a locking mechanism that allows you to collapse the barrel for storage, making it easier to squeeze into your camera bag. The Editors’ Choice Sony NEX-C3’s body is about the same size as the PEN Mini, but its larger kit lens doesn’t collapse, making the E-PM1 a more compact option for travel. Like the E-PL3, the PEN Mini lacks a built-in flash. To compensate, an external pop-up flash is included with the camera. This only adds a little bit of bulk to the body, and it’s quick to attach and can be stowed easily in an accessory compartment in your bag. The flash occupies the Mini’s accessory port, so you won’t be able to use it at the same time as an electronic viewfinder or another accessory like the Penpal Blueooth module ($79.99, 3 stars). If you opt to just leave the flash on the camera, you can enable or disable it by raising or lowering it.

The camera offers few physical controls: The On/Off switch and shutter release are located on the top panel, with a dedicated Movie Record button placed on the top right of the rear plate. Three buttons (Info, Menu, Play) and a four-way jog wheel with a center OK button are positioned on the right rear. Advanced users will appreciate the ability to remap the buttons on the camera via the Setup Menu, although that ability is limited to the Movie Record button and the up and right directions on the 4-way jog wheel.

The rear 3-inch LCD is very sharp thanks to a high 460k-dot resolution. You’ll be able to use it on bright days without a problem. It is fixed to the body, which is limiting when compared with the tilting LCDs featured on the E-PL3 and Sony NEX-C3. Unless you opt to purchase the optional electronic viewfinder, you’ll have to use the camera like a point-and-shoot, raising it to eye level, extending several inches from your face to confirm framing and focus in the LCD.

The menu system differs from that of the Olympus PEN E-P3 ($899.99, 4 stars) or E-PL3. Hitting the Menu brings up a colorful, bright screen that is divided into six columns: Art, iAuto, Scene, Movie, P/A/S/M, and Setup. The Art mode allows you to choose from one of six creative effects (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone), making it easy to shoot photos with a unique look and feel, without having to labor with Picasa or iPhoto filters.

iAuto mode is perfect for photography newbies. You won’t have to worry about adjusting settings, as the camera handles everything for you. If you do opt to fine-tune your shots, the PEN Mini’s Live Guide makes it possible to do so without having to understand any technical terms. Would you like to blur your background? You won’t have to know that opening the lens to a wider aperture will do so—simply move the slider for this function from sharp to blurry. Shutter speed is controlled via the Stop Motion setting and exposure is referred to as Brightness. There’s also a menu of shooting tips, identical to those on the E-PL3, but the information contained within is very, very basic.

The Scene menu will be familiar to point-and-shoot users. You can optimize camera settings for a variety of situations, including sunsets, fireworks, portraits, and many more. The Movie mode allows you to switch the camera to record HD movies, which is necessary if you choose to remap the dedicated Record button to control another function. The P/A/S/M mode is present for shutterbugs looking for more control over the camera. And you can control virtually any aspect of the camera via the Setup menu.

I experienced the same frustrations with the Menu system as I did with the E-PL3 when using the camera in Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual modes. You need to first hit OK to access settings and then use the Up/Down buttons on the jog wheel to scroll through the options. Animated transitions slow the use of these menus, further hindering their use.

Performance and Conclusions
The PEN Mini delivers impressive speed performance, especially when you consider its price point. The camera can boot up and shoot an image in about 1.2 seconds and averages only 0.2-second from shutter press to image capture. When set for high speed burst mode, you can shoot 12 images with 0.25-second recycle time before the buffer starts to fill. Afterwards it slows to about 0.45-second recycle time. Its low speed burst mode grabs 17 images with 0.33-second recycle time, slowing to 0.53-second after that. These numbers are nearly identical to the results produced by the E-PL3. The NEX-C3 also posted good numbers in performance with 0.1-second shutter lag, 1.5-second boot, and 0.33-second recycle time for up to a six-shot burst.

Using the Imatest suite, I measured the sharpness of images captured with the PEN Mini’s kit lens at 14mm, 28mm, and 42mm, the wide, middle, and long end of its zoom range. The camera performed its best when the lens was at maximum aperture in all cases, recording the best numbers at its widest. A score of 1,800 lines per picture height is considered a sharp image and at 14mm the lens recorded 2,186 lines, while it softened to 1,738 lines at 28mm, and 1,508 lines at 42mm. It is common for zoom lenses to soften at the longer end of their range, the 18-55mm lens included with the Sony NEX-C3 showed similar results.

You can crank the ISO setting all the way up to 12800, which matches the low-light capabilities of the Editors’ Choice Sony NEX-C3. Despite supporting the same maximum sensitivity to light, the PEN Mini doesn’t come close on image quality at high ISO settings. Images with less than 1.5 percent noise are acceptable, and the Mini just crosses this line at ISO 1600. At the same setting, the NEX-C3 recorded less than one percent noise. When I set the E-PM1 to its maximum setting of ISO 12800, images showed 4.5 percent noise, which means seriously grainy photos.

Video is recorded at 1080i60 resolution in AVCHD format. Some home theater devices will read AVCHD natively from a memory card, but you’ll need to import the video into editing software in order to view it on your computer or share it on YouTube. The camera can also record 720p30 video in Motion JPEG format, which is saved as an AVI file that can be easily played on a computer or other device. The camera’s HD video quality is very good, putting it on the same level with that of the NEX-C3 and other Micro Four Thirds cameras.

The built-in mic picks up sound from all directions, recording the sounds of your hands holding the camera and the sound of the lens zooming in and out. The autofocus mechanism, on the other hand, is nearly silent. Olympus’s External Microphone Adapter Set ($89.99), which includes a stereo microphone and a 3.5-mm stereo minijack adapter that plugs into the accessory port, will give you higher-quality audio.

A micro HDMI port lets you connect the camera to an HDTV for HD image and video playback, and a proprietary USB interface allows you to connect the camera to a computer or to a standard-definition television via included breakout cables. You can use SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory cards in the camera.

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 is an impressive camera given its under-$500 price. Its image quality and performance are on par with the more-expensive PEN E-P3 and E-PL3. And the camera is as easy to use as a point-and-shoot thanks to its iAuto mode and Live Guide menu system. More advanced photographers will still be able to take control of all of the camera’s settings, but if you fall into this category it might be worth the extra money to step up to a camera with a tilting LCD and a more physical controls. The E-PL3, which sells for $200 more, fills this bill, but it’s a little bit larger than the PEN Mini. Our Editors’ Choice in this category, the Sony NEX-C3, is priced $150 above the E-PM1 and performs much better in low-light situations. The NEX’s body is about the same size as the E-PM1, but the 18-55mm lens included with the NEX is larger than the 14-42mm bundled with the PEN Mini. Even though the lenses have different focal lengths, they actually cover an equivalent field of view because of the larger APS-C image sensor that is packed into the NEX. Overall, the NEX-C3 is a better camera, but for the price, the PEN Mini is tough to beat.

More Digital Camera reviews:
Olympus PEN E-PL3
Sony Alpha NEX-C3
Pentax Optio WG-1
Olympus PEN E-P3
Casio Exilim EX-ZR100
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