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Olympus E-PM1 Ken McMahon, January 2012
 
   
 

Olympus PEN E-PM1 verdict

The Olympus E-PM1 is the baby of the 2011 PEN triplets. Nick-named the PEN Mini, the E-PM1 doesn't replace an existing model, but is a new entry in the range designed to appeal to those who want to step up from a point-and-shoot. As such it's smaller, lighter, more accessible and crucially cheaper than its more sophisticated siblings, the E-PL3 and E-P3. Indeed it's one of the most affordable mirror-less ILCs on the market.

Although it lacks the E-PL3's mode dial and flip-out screen as well as some of its other physical controls, the E-PM1 is as capable in most other respects as its larger more expensive sibling, so don't rule it out if you're looking for an affordable DSLR replacement or companion.

It also sports the same stabilised 12.3 Megapixel sensor, the same hotshoe, all the same PASM, auto and scene modes and the same Art filters, albeit without some of the optional settings. It can also shoot 1080i60 AVCHD video with PASM exposure control and has the same fast AF system. So for an 'entry-level' model, the E-PM1 is actually pretty capable. So before my final verdict, how does it compare to its closest mirror-less rivals from Sony and Panasonic?

   
 

 

Compared to Sony NEX-C3

     
 
 
     
     

Compared with the Sony NEX-C3 the E-PM1 is slimmer and, though Olympus is moving away from the retro styling of earlier PENs, looks more conventional. The Micro Four Thirds standard on which the PEN-E-PM1 is based offers a wider choice of lenses and with stabilisation built-in to the E-PM1's body you don't need to worry about it when choosing new lenses. Like the NEX-C3 the PEN E-PM1 comes with an accessory flash, but it's much easier to fit and with a proper hotshoe the PEN Mini provides more options for external flash units.

On paper at least, the E-PM1's best quality 1080i60 mode is superior to the 720p30 on offer from the NEX-C3, and it provides more control over exposure in video modes but the digital movie stabilisation on the E-PM1 can produce distracting visual artifacts.

Advantages that the NEX-C3 can claim include a flip-up screen with higher resolution. Olympus enjoyed a short period when its Art mode filters led the pack, but now Sony has bridged the gap with Picture Effects. In addition, the NEX-C3 outdoes the E-PM1 with a range of composite modes providing enhanced low light performance. Finally, and possibly most significantly, the NEX-5N's larger sensor endows it with low-light high ISO noise performance that's the equivalent of many DSLR's and beyond the reach of smaller sensor ILCs like the PEN E-PM1. When you've weighed up all those factors there's still the price to consider, the PEN E-PM1 is significantly cheaper and therefore more attractive if you're on a budget, or want to expand your lens collection at the earliest opportunity.

See my Sony NEX-C3 review for more details.

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix GF3

     
 
 
     
     

Both the Olympus PEN E-PM1 and the Panasonic Lumix GF3 cameras are built around the Micro Four Thirds standard and both are aimed at the novice end of the market, so what sets them apart? The most significant difference is built-in stabilisation on the PEN E-PM1, which works with any lens you attach. In contrast, the Lumix GF3 relies on optically stabilised lenses, and while all the native Panasonic zooms are stabilised, most of the primes are not.

Both of these models are roughly comparable in terms of size and weight, the GF3 is a little taller and has a built-in flash and its standard kit lens is bigger than the collapsing Olympus model; that said, Panasonic's new 14-42mm Power Zoom with its tiny dimensions and motorised zoom could be a game changer. The bottom line, though, is the E-PM1 gives you stabilisation whatever the lens.

Then there's the Lumix GF3's touch screen. With both Olympus and Sony opting for touch screens only on their higher end 'enthusiast' models, Panasonic's decision to fit the GF3 with a touch screen looks increasingly like the better choice. My instinct is that enthusiasts will find the touch-screen superfluous (though it can't be denied it's great for video focusing). Novices on the other hand will probably feel a lot more comfortable with screen-based controls than a plethora of intimidating buttons and dials whose function can often only be guessed at.

The removal of the GF3's accessory port and hotshoe, not to mention the downgrading of audio recording to a mono gives the E-PM1 an advantage in those areas. Its included accessory flash is more powerful than the GF3's built in one and you can fit a larger one if needed.

See my Panasonic GF3 review for more details.

 

Olympus E-PM1 final verdict

The Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 fills a gap in the PEN range that until now really only catered for enthusiast photographers. Rather belatedly, Olympus has woken up to the fact that equipping it's Micro Four Thirds bodies with auto exposure modes isn't enough to attract point-and-shoot upgraders who want controls they feel comfortable with and understand. The PEN Mini E-PM1 is now that camera. With a slimmer simplified body, but lacking little of the advanced feature set of the PEN Lite E-PL3, it will also appeal to those looking to replace a DSLR with something more compact but just as capable.

This end of the ILC market is however becoming very competitive and although the E-PM1 can hold its own in terms of headline features it looks a little behind the curve when compared with the competition. It lacks the Sony NEX-C3's composite modes, and can't compete with the noise performance of its bigger sensor. And if Olympus had followed Panasonic's example and opted to include a touch-screen on its entry-level model, then the E-PM1's handling would have been much improved.

Despite those reservations, the PEN Mini E-PM1 is a fantastic and very welcome addition to the PEN range and one which will undoubtedly be popular both for the novice upgrader and those who want a portable alternative to a DSLR without breaking the bank. Lest we forget the E-PM1 is the most affordable mirror-less ILC to date, and yet still boasts built-in stabilisation, Full HD video and a hotshoe; Olympus should be commended for achieving this feature-set at a low price point.

 



Good points
Built-in stabilisation works with any lens.
1080i60 movie mode with PASM.
Standard hotshoe with an accessory port.
Fast start-up and quick AF response.

Bad points
Lacks a touch or tilting screen.
Movie stabilisation artifacts.
Incorrect control labels when customised.
Single-use accessory port.



Scores

(relative to 2011 ILCs)

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

Overall:

17 / 20
17 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20

86%


   

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