The 12-megapixel Olympus PEN E-PL2, $600, appears to fulfill some of the promise of SLR-like cameras. It's lighter than an SLR and, with a large sensor, robust processing power, and the ability to accept interchangeable lenses, it can capture high-quality photos or HD-resolution video.
The PEN E-PL2 is certainly lightweight enough, even with its 14-42mm lens (equivalent to a 28-84mm wide-angle zoom lens on a film camera). One of its strongest features is its balanced design. In SLR-likes or any advanced cameras, I prefer a model that has lots of physical buttons on the body to give me quick access to changing exposure settings and accessing other features. The PEN E-PL2 strikes a nice balance, with controls, including a dedicated video button, but doesn't overdo it.
The large 3-inch LCD has a 460,000-dot count, which appears very sharp at almost any angle. It also seems to have a high refresh rate, which means that when you pan the camera, the image that appears on the LCD is smooth and fluid, not jerky or stuttering. I also like the handgrip on the camera's right front side, which can help steady your hand when you're shooting.
Olympus has redesigned some menus, which it calls Live Guide II. When you set the camera to the iAuto setting, for either still photos or video, you can access several Live Guide II controls: color vividness, color balance, image brightness, depth of field, and subject in motion.
However, instead of "depth of field," which might not be a familiar term to many consumers, Olympus uses the term "blur background" and lets you make the background more or less blurred. In doing so, the company is following Sony's lead in its NEX cameras. [Correction: It appears that Olympus was the first manufacturer to include a feature called "blur background" in its PEN E-PL1; that camera came out before the Sony NEX-5 camera.] Olympus also included a shooting tips section, similar to the tips found on the NEX cameras. I found myself wishing Olympus had overhauled its entire menu system to look as elegant as the Live Guide II section.
I found the PEN's flash system quite versatile, one of the best in its category. It has a standard hot shoe, which can accept an Olympus or third-party flash. (The NEX cameras have only a proprietary hot shoe.) If you stick with an Olympus flash, it will automatically adjust to changes in lighting. But when I used a Canon external flash, I couldn't use E-TTL mode, which automatically adjusts the flash's output depending on ambient lighting. That flash worked fine in manual mode.
The popup flash is a true popup, which means you control when you want to use it. When you pop it open, you'll notice that it's positioned fairly high, which may help reduce redeye in your candid shots or portraits.
As with most onboard flashes, it has Auto, Flash-on and Red-eye reduction modes. But it also has several other settings I don't often see, including several slow-synch modes, which can create cool light-trail effects, and several manual modes, at full, 1/4, 1/16, and 1/64 power. With the last two manual modes, when I shot in burst mode, the flash was able to keep pace with the shutter, fire off most of the time, and not slow the camera very much.
Where the PEN came up short is in its promise to go beyond what most advanced cameras can do. For example, Olympus claims that with an accessory, you can wirelessly transfer photos to your smart phone, for email and sharing. To do this, you need a Bluetooth wireless accessory, the PENPal PP-1 ($80), which slides into the E-PL2's hot shoe. Before using it, you need to pair this accessory with your smart phone. (It works with Android or Blackberry smart phones, but not Apple iPhones.) But after several attempts with different smart phones, I was unable to connect via Bluetooth and to test how well the feature works. Still, this sort of feature is very promising and should be built into all advanced cameras.
Another area where Olympus thought creatively was by including art filters, like those found in image-editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Filters include soft focus, grainy film, and pinhole effects. Some of the filters have additional settings you can play with. I had fun with some of the filters when shooting still images, but they slowed the video capture down, giving it a stuttered appearance. (The normal HD-resolution mode looked quite sharp and played very smoothly. It also looked great on the back of the camera's LCD.)
Aside from a few quibbles, the PEN E-PL2 performed up to my expectations—and it exceeded them in its design. And with a $600 sticker price, I believe this camera will give Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony a run for the money in this category.