Olympus PEN E-PL3 interchangeable lens compact camera to ship in September

Olympus announces pricing and availability for the impressive PEN E-PL3, which might just give big brother E-P3 a run for its money.

Though it was announced last month along with two other new cameras in Olympus' PEN series of interchangeable lens compact (ILC) cameras, the Olympus PEN E-PL3 is just now getting pricing and a ship date.  Olympus announced today that the E-PL3 will hit U.S. store shelves in September and will be priced at $699.99, bundled with either a 14-42mm, f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens or a 17mm f/2.8 prime lens.

The E-PL3 is a successor to the E-PL1 and E-PL2, Olympus' "PEN Lite" cameras that offer a lower-priced and easier to use interchangeable lens option for users upgrading from point-and-shoot cameras.  Olympus broke new ground with the E-PL1 when it was announced in February of 2010, being the first ILC vendor to offer a lower-end model, and I actually found the E-PL2 more satisfying to shoot with than its higher-end siblings the E-P1 and E-P2, so I'm not so surprised that the E-PL3 is looking like it might be a better deal than the E-P2 and even possibly the recently announced E-P3.

With the E-PL3, Olympus appears to be further differentiating the Lite line from the high-end line in terms of overall design and feature set, while still drawing on many of the strengths of the new E-P3. Most obviously, the more compact body styling moves away from the retro look of its predecessors (and the higher-end line), and looks much more like a point-and-shoot (perhaps taking a page from Sony's NEX line of ILCs). In fact, the E-PL3 is 25 percent smaller than the E-PL2. It's also the first of the PEN line to sport a tilting LCD (a 3-inch,

460,000-dot, widescreen beauty) -- a great addition. Olympus did sacrifice the built-in flash to keep the body so compact, but bundles an external flash that mounts via the camera's accessory port. It's a convenient way to lighten your load if you don't need it, but it's kind of ironic since the inclusion of a built-in flash in the original E-PL1 was widely regarded as a reaction to criticism of the E-P1's lack of one.

Apropos to its role as a more casual and compact shooter, the E-PL3 offers faster burst-mode shooting of up to 5.5fps (compared to 3fps burst-mode in the E-P3 and the E-PL2). Like the E-PL2 before it, the E-PL3 only offers six art filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone) while the E-P3 adds four others to the mix (Pale & Color, Light Tone, Gentle Sepia, and Cross Process).

Still, the E-PL3 has been upgraded with several specs that are closer to the E-P3's than the E-PL2. For instance, the faster autofocus system offers 35 focus points like the E-P3 (vs. 11 for the E-PL2), and the sensitivity range has been boosted up to ISO 12,800 like the E-P3 (vs. 6,400 in the E-PL2). Likewise, the E-PL3 matches the E-P3's 1080i AVCHD video recording capabilities, besting the E-PL2's 720p AVI Motion JPEG.

Unfortunately, all the high-end features come at a price: The E-PL3 camera kit has been bumped up to $699.99 (whereas the E-PL1 and E-PL2 were both priced at $599.99 when they launched). Still, even at a $100 premium, it's a pretty compelling camera and I'm not convinced the higher-end E-P3 is a better deal at $899.99.  With the E-PL3 packing such a punch, and being smaller and sporting the tilting screen to boot (though the E-P3's is a higher-resolution model with touchscreen capabilities), it's arguably the better camera to snap up.

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