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Olympus 'PEN' E-P2 Gordon Laing, February 2010
   
 

Olympus 'PEN' EP-2 verdict

The Olympus E-P2 is an enhanced version of the original E-P1, and as such its core performance and capabilities remain unchanged. Like that model, the E-P2 packs a DSLR-sized sensor into a relatively compact body, with the added bonuses of interchangeable lenses, built-in stabilisation and HD video. The advantage of using a DSLR-sized sensor is much lower noise, higher dynamic range and a potentially shallower depth-of-field than a typical compact can offer – and in use the E-P2, like other Micro Four Thirds models before it, delivers all of these benefits.

Sharing the same sensor as the E-P1, the image quality of the E-P2 is unsurprisingly identical, at least when using the same shooting parameters. As such you can expect much lower noise than a typical compact, although not quite in the same league as the best APS-C DSLRs like Nikon’s D5000 and D90.

In our High ISO Noise results page you’ll see the E-P2 holds it together very well between 100 and 400 ISO and still looks good at 800 ISO. Between 1600 and 6400 ISO, the camera unsurprisingly suffers, but throughout the range it’s a big step-up from a typical compact. So while a good DSLR with an APS-C sensor will beat it on noise and dynamic range, the fact it’s so much better than a traditional compact will be all some buyers need to know. With the right lens, you can also enjoy a much shallower depth-of-field than a conventional compact.






The HD video quality also remains unchanged from the E-P1: on the whole it looks pretty good with detailed results, albeit slightly over-sharpened like the still images. The Motion JPEG format allows easy editing, although the 2GB limit per file restricts you to around seven minutes of HD per clip. The built-in stabilisation was also the same as the E-P1, achieving around two stops of compensation in our tests. This may not be up to the three or four of the best optical systems, but the fact it applies to any lens you attach to the E-P2 is a major advantage.

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So far, so similar to our verdict for the E-P1, and again this shouldn't be surprising given it's effectively the same camera with a few minor tweaks. So what about the new features? The most important is of course the accessory port which at the time of writing allowed you to mount either the supplied electronic viewfinder or the optional external microphone adapter.

The VF-2 viewfinder is a technological triumph, with the same 1440k dot resolution as those in the bigger Panasonic G1 and GH1 cameras, delivering a large, detailed and cohesive view. In short it looks fantastic and is a huge step-up in quality over the optional LVF-1 for the Panasonic GF1, while also avoiding the rainbow tearing artefacts we experienced with the G1 and GH1 – see our main review for a detailed report.

The microphone adapter may not have been available at the time of writing, but by allowing you to connect an external microphone, it promises to significantly improve the audio quality of movies. So with a far superior electronic viewfinder and the opportunity to connect an external microphone (albeit with an optional adapter), the E-P2 neatly addresses two criticisms facing the E-P1, while also leap-frogging its rival, the Lumix GF1.

Beyond the accessory port though, the other enhancements of the E-P2 are less significant. The older E-P1 and Lumix GF1 both offered control over the depth of field in their movie modes, but the new E-P2 now also adds a full Manual exposure option. The E-P2 additionally offers AF tracking of any subject you place the cross-hairs over, just like the Panasonic GF1. There's two extra Art Filters for those who like to apply special effects in-camera, although to be fair, the new Diorama option really does deliver a convincing tilt / shift effect. Anyone upgrading from a compact will also enjoy the new i-Enhance Picture Mode which selectively boosts certain areas of the image without going over the top, and by supporting CEC over HDMI, slideshows can now be controlled with a compatible TV and remote.

These are all nice updates, but the accessory port is the only new feature which really addresses existing concerns with the E-P1. A such the E-P2 inherits most of the frustrations facing the E-P1, most notably the continued absence of a built-in flash, modest autofocus speed and a screen with average 230k resolution, not to mention HD videos restricted to around seven minutes per clip. Revealingly these are all aspects which are already addressed by the Panasonic GF1.

In fact it's fair to describe the E-P2 as a firmware-updated E-P1 which now has an accessory port and comes bundled with an electronic viewfinder – so if you can live without the viewfinder and the opportunity to connect an external microphone, you could save yourself money by going for the E-P1 instead.

And it's not an inconsiderable saving either. The VF-2 viewfinder has a list price of $279 USD, which coupled with the other updates and the fact the E-P1 is now an 'older' model, means you could be looking at a difference of $400 USD at the time of writing. The VF-2 viewfinder may be gorgeous but you seriously have to ask yourself if you absolutely need it and the chance to connect a microphone. Those two benefits along with a handful of software enhancements could just about buy you a Canon PowerShot G11 instead.

Further confusing the decision is the recent announcement of the third Olympus digital 'PEN', the E-PL1. Olympus may be pitching this at a lower-end beginner audience with its simplified controls and smaller screen, but it shares the same sensor, stabilisation and HD video as the E-P1 and E-P2, along with sporting the E-P2's accessory port allowing it to use the viewfinder and microphone accessories in the future if desired. The E-PL1 also becomes the first digital 'PEN' to feature a popup flash and crucially it's the cheapest model too.

Sure it's annoying for an enthusiast to go for a downgraded screen and controls, but by delivering the same core proposition at a lower price with the port and a flash, the E-PL1 is sure to tempt a broader audience than just beginners. It also can't help but draw away potential buyers from the E-P2 and frustrate early adopters who invested in it, not suspecting a cheaper model with a flash would only be launched just three months later.

So before our final verdict, how does the E-P2 compare to key rivals?

 

Compared to Olympus E-P1

 
 
     
 

The original Olympus E-P1 is of course the closest model to the E-P2, as both are essentially the same camera with a few enhancements made to the new version. Other than a lower price, there's no benefit to the E-P1 over the E-P2, unless of course you prefer its silver or white finishes.

So in the E-P2's favour are the following: an accessory port which at the time of writing could accommodate the supplied electronic viewfinder or an optional external microphone adapter, the addition of Manual exposures in the movie mode, an AF tracking option, two new Art Filters for in-camera special effects, an i-Enhance Picture Mode which selectively boosts portions of the image without looking too unnatural, and CEC support for the HDMI port which allows control with a compatible TV and remote.

As discussed in detail above and in the main review, the accessory port is by far the most important addition, and the supplied VF-2 viewfinder certainly delivers a gorgeous image that's large, detailed, accurate and cohesive. Movie makers will also appreciate the ability to connect an external microphone (albeit with an optional accessory) for improved sound quality.

But again as discussed above, if you can live without the VF-2 and the option to connect an external microphone for movies, then you could make a considerable saving by going for the original E-P1. The E-P2's other new features are nice to have, but far from critical. See our Olympus E-P1 review for more details.

 

Compared to Olympus E-PL1

 
 
     
Announced just three months after the E-P2, the E-PL1 is pitched as the entry-level mode in the range. It's certainly a lower spec in some respects, but in others it actually becomes the best-featured of the range so far – and the cheapest too.

The E-PL1 shares the same lens mount, sensor and HD video as the E-P1 and E-P2, and like those models has built-in stabilisation (see note below). It also sports the same accessory port of the E-P2, allowing it to use the VF-2 and (S)EMA-1 accessories, while additionally including the i-Enhance and AF tracking options introduced with the E-P2. Impressively it also becomes the first model in the range to feature a popup flash, and best of all, it's the cheapest too. Oh and the flash also means it supports the Olympus wireless remote control flash system.

Surely this makes it a no brainer, right? Well not quite, as Olympus has ensured the E-P2 and E-P1 retain some high-ground over this new model. Most obviously the E-PL1 employs a more basic control system which lacks the twin dials of the E-P2 and E-P1, although it does have a dedicated record button that's missing from the older pair. The screen remains 230k in resolution, but shrinks from 3in to 2.7in, and the user interface is simplified, although it does gain a new Live Guide system to help beginners. The E-P2 also has a maximum shutter of 1/4000 to the E-PL1's 1/2000, a slightly quicker flash sync of 1/180 compared to 1/160, a virtual level display, and stereo microphones, although remember you can always fit the (S)EMA-1 for $89 USD to equip it with stereo capabilities or the opportunity to plug-in an external model.

So the E-P2, and the original E-P1, are more sophisticated models, targeted at enthusiasts who demand full control, both physically and electronically. There's other differences too, such as the E-PL1 'only' having six Art Filters compared to eight on the E-P2, despite the E-PL1 targeting the kind of people who'd probably use them most. The E-P2 also offers an optional wireless remote, and some may prefer its retro styling and superior build over the more modern and basic appearance of the E-PL1. And finally, while Olympus quotes the E-PL1's stabilisation as having three stops of compensation compared to the four on the E-P2 (and E-P1), we wouldn't be surprised if this is just a more honest way of describing the exact same system. After all, we rarely enjoyed more than two stops from the E-P2 and E-P1.

There's simply no getting away from the fact the E-PL1 includes the most important aspects of the E-P2 at a lower price and throws a flash in too. You could even buy a VF-2 at the same time and still come in around 20% cheaper than the E-P2, or delay the purchase of the viewfinder until you can afford it. This makes the E-PL1 arguably the most compelling model in the range so far, and unless you really, really want the full controls, bigger screen and retro styling of the E-P2, it'll make more sense for most people. Look out for our review of the E-PL1 in the future.

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

 
 
     

Olympus isn't the only company making Micro Four Thirds compacts: Panasonic also offers its Lumix GF1, which shares a lot in common with the E-P2. They’re essentially the same size, they both sport 12 Megapixel sensors, 3fps continuous shooting, 3in screens with ports for electronic viewfinders, flash hotshoes, 720p HD video recording capabilities, HDMI ports, and as Micro Four Thirds cameras, they can also use the same lenses. At first glance then, you could be mistaken for thinking the choice boils down to preferences in styling and any difference in pricing, but look a little deeper and significant differences emerge.

In its favour, the Lumix GF1 has a screen with double the resolution (460k pixels vs 230k), it features a popup flash (unforgivably missing on the E-P2 and the original E-P1), faster auto-focusing with superior face detection, and the choice of Motion JPEG or AVCHD for movie encoding, the latter allowing you to record until you run out of memory (or reach 29:59 for European models).

Sounds like a slam-dunk for the Panasonic, but the Olympus E-P2 has some key advantages of its own, most notably built-in image stabilisation which works with any lens you attach. This is a major advantage for the E-P2 since the Panasonic relies on lenses with optical stabilisation, and already there’s several compelling options – including Panasonic’s own 7-14mm and 20mm pancake models – which aren’t stabilised. Pop them on the E-P2 though, and you’ll enjoy up to four stops of compensation. Not bad considering the camera is about the same size as the GF1 and only 39g heavier. The E-P2 can also autofocus (albeit not continuously) with full-sized Four Thirds lenses via an adapter, whereas they become manual focus only on the GF1.

The Olympus also has twin control dials, an electronic levelling gauge, boasts greater compatibility with legacy lenses, includes the company’s Art Filters for in-camera special effects, and has a screen which suffers from fewer reflections in bright light. In-camera JPEGs using the default settings were also preferred. And while both models can slide electronic viewfinders onto their hotshoes, the VF-2 supplied with the E-P2 boasts considerably higher resolution. Finally, while the GF1's accessory port could only support an optional electronic viewfinder at the time of writing, the E-P2's allows you to optionally connect an external microphone adapter.

A lot will also still boil down to which model you prefer the look of, with many enthusiasts falling for the retro styling of the E-P2 over the modern look of the GF1. And if you buy them in their respective zoom kits, the Olympus lens features a cunning design which allows it to fold down to just 44mm thick, compared to 60mm for the standard Panasonic 14-45mm in its shortest position.

It's a tough choice and the Olympus E-P2 is certainly a compelling option with its built-in stabilisation, far superior electronic viewfinder and the chance to connect an external microphone. But then others will prefer the more detailed screen, popup flash, faster AF and longer recording times of the GF1, not to mention its cheaper price. Check out our Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 review for more details.

Olympus E-P2 final verdict

The Olympus E-P2 takes the already compelling E-P1 and equips it with the ability to connect an external microphone via an optional adapter or fit a supplied electronic viewfinder. And it's not just any old electronic viewfinder either. Unlike the disappointingly average LVF-1 offered for the Panasonic GF1, the VF-2 supplied with the Olympus E-P2 delivers a superb-looking image that's large and highly detailed. It really is an absolute joy to use, and with the optional microphone adapter, the E-P2 addresses two key aspects missing from the E-P1, while also leap-frogging the competition.

So a great camera's become even better, right? Sure, but the VF-2 employs pretty sophisticated technology which significantly adds to the price of the E-P2. This coupled with the 'age' of the E-P1 means the E-P2 package at the time of writing could end up costing over 50% more than the original model when both are bundled with the same lens. That's a hefty premium, and a total price which could alternatively buy a capable mid-range DSLR like the Nikon D90. We know a traditional DSLR is a completely different proposition, but it's important to illustrate what else your money could buy.

Had the E-P2 also addressed some of the E-P1's other concerns, such as fitting a popup flash, improving the screen resolution, accelerating AF performance or lengthening video recording times, then the price difference would be easier to justify. And lest we forget, each of these concerns has already been addressed by the Panasonic Lumix GF1.

It also doesn't help the E-P2's viewfinder and external microphone adapter can also now be fitted to the newer and cheaper E-PL1 model, which also features a built-in flash. Yes, it's a 'beginner's model, with basic controls and a smaller screen, but with the same core benefits of the E-P1 and E-P2 along with the E-P2's accessory port and a new flash, it's a pretty compelling proposition.

Prior to the E-PL1's announcement, this would have been an easier review to conclude. It would have read something like this: while the software enhancements are nice to have, the real benefits of the E-P2 over the E-P1 are the viewfinder and the ability to connect an external microphone adapter. If you've already decided you like the E-P1, then it simply boils down to deciding whether you're willing to pay for these extras. Like other high-end goods, we can assure you the viewfinder is very nice indeed, but only you can decide if it's worth splashing-out on. Simple as that: if you love the viewfinder and can afford it, then go for the E-P2, otherwise go for the E-P1.

But the E-PL1 announcement has put a real spanner in the works. Its recommended price is almost half that of the E-P2 kit, and while it doesn't come with the VF-2 viewfinder, you could buy this accessory at the same time and still come in at around three-quarters of the price of the E-P2. In fact there'd just about be enough remaining to also buy the 17mm f2.8 pancake prime to complement the 14-42mm zoom for a nice twin lens kit. Indeed that's a good way to look at the decision: are the bigger screen and greater sophistication of the E-P2 worth the price of another lens? And of course by going for the E-PL1, you could delay the purchase of the VF-2 until you can afford it or really know it's a necessity.

So while the E-P2 is a really nice camera to use and one we can recommend, you've got to really want its bigger screen and more sophisticated controls to buy it over the E-PL1. It'll certainly be interesting to see how many E-PL1's end up being bought by enthusiasts and fitted with VF-2's.



Good points
Compact body with DSLR-sized sensor.
Built-in stabilisation which works with any lens.
Accessory port and superb EVF supplied.
HD movie mode and HDMI port.

Bad points
Leisurely AF system and so-so face detection.
No built-in flash and average resolution screen.
Superb EVF adds considerably to cost.
Newer E-PL1 a compelling alternative.



Scores

(relative to 2009 budget DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

17 / 20
17 / 20
16 / 20
18 / 20
15 / 20

83%


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