Now here's a camera that really makes sense. Olympus has just announced its latest Micro Four-thirds Pen camera, the Olympus Pen E-PL1. The beauty of Micro Four-thirds cameras has always been the fact that they offer an SLR-sized sensor and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a much more compact body than a traditional dSLR. I always thought that made them perfect for the less-experienced photographer who craved SLR-level image quality and performance, but was intimidated by/not ready for an SLR. But the advanced feature sets and high price points of the only Micro Four-thirds cameras on the market (the Olympus Pen E-P1 and Pen E-P2, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, -GF1, and GH1, ranging in price from $799.95 to $1,499.95) meant that they really made more sense for experienced photographers that were looking for a compact second alternative for their high-end dSLRs.
Enter the Olympus Pen E-PL1. Olympus is billing it as a Micro Four-thirds for consumers and after a very brief hands-on look at a pre-production model, I think it's on the money. First of all, the price is right -- at $599.99 (including a 14-42mm -- 28-84mm equivalent -- f3.5/5.6 zoom lens), it's just $100 more than high-end point-and-shoots like the Canon PowerShot G11 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which have a much smaller sensor. And though it's not quite as retro-cool looking as the E-P1 and E-P2, the compact body is lighter and relatively pocketable at 4.51x2.84x1.63 inches and roughly 12 ounces including battery.
But what really makes it a great solution for consumers is the numerous ease-of-use features built in. The new Live Guide interface will be a hit with folks that want the flexibility of full manual controls, but don't want to have to learn what aperture, shutter speed, or white balance mean. By using English-language descriptions and slider bars for adjustment, the Live Guide mode lets amateur photographers manipulate photographic settings (and preview them on the LCD before shooting) without having to learn take Photography 101 first. It's perfect for folks who like to use scene modes, but want more control.
Another nice touch is the dedicated 720p HD movie-capture button, which lets you flip back and forth between shooting stills and videos with a press of a button.
Like the E-P2, the E-PL1 includes an accessory port that accepts the optional VF-2 detachable electronic viewfinder, as well as a new stereo microphone adapter set which also adds a 3.5mm external microphone port (useful since the E-PL1 only records mono audio). And while the accessory port and hot shoe will also accept an external flash unit, Olympus has also added a built-in pop-up flash to the E-PL1, which was missed in the E-P1 and E-P2 by those who got used to seeing them in entry-level dSLRs. In fact, that's exactly who I'll be recommending this camera to: Everyone who has been telling me they want an SLR, but doesn't really need one. The E-PL1 promises to deliver the image quality and speed they're craving, without the steep learning curve and larger body.