DCRP Review: Olympus E-20N
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Monday, November 26, 2001
Last Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2001

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For the most part, I was a big fan of the Olympus E-10 (see our review). In fact, I liked it so much, I bought it for my own use. When you read the reviews on this site, more than likely the E-10 is the camera that photographed that other camera. The E-10 had it's issues, the most frustrating of which was the stuck/hot pixel problems. For those of you who missed it, many E-10's had bad pixels on the CCD, which ended up as colored dots in the photo. I exchanged my E-10 for another one, and while it still had some bad pixels, I found it acceptable.

The new 5 Megapixel Olympus E-20 ($1999) has a feature called Pixel Mapping which can remove these bad pixels. I'll have more on this later in the review.

The E-20 has two names: the E-20N in countries that use NTSC video (the US being one of them), and the E-20P in countries using PAL.

Is the E-20 a worthy successor to the E-10? Can you do just as well with cheaper camera? Find out in our review!

Since the E-10 and E-20 are so similar, this review is largely based on the E-10 review.

What's in the Box?

The Olympus E-20 has an average bundle, with almost everything you need right in the box. It includes:

  • The 5.0 (effective) Mpixel Olympus E-20 camera
  • 32MB SmartMedia card
  • Two CR-V3 lithium batteries (non-rechargeable)
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • Lens hood
  • Lens cap
  • Remote control
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Camedia Master software
  • 211 page manual (printed)

The three big issues I have with the bundle are:

1) Olympus is no longer including rechargeable batteries with their cameras. I remember when they used to throw in a NiMH charger and 4 batteries -- but those days have passed. Now, you get two CR-V3 "Long Life" lithium batteries. While they do last quite a well, they end up in the trash after a few days. I suppose Olympus wants you to buy their optional battery grip, but it costs over $600. My advice: get yourself a few sets of NiMH batteries and a fast charger.

2) The 32MB SmartMedia card would be very nice on a 2 or 3 Megapixel camera. But on a 5 Megapixel camera, it's tiny. Olympus should include at least a 64MB card. You'll want to buy a larger card, or maybe even an IBM Microdrive.

3) Just like the E-10, the E-20 lacks a strap to keep the lens cap safely tethered to the camera. Go pick one up at your local camera store, because you're bound to lose it otherwise.


E-20 shown with remote control and lens hood.

Two nice bonuses include a lens hood, and the now familiar RM-1 remote control. Please note that the remote cannot control the zoom on the E-20.

I've covered Olympus' Camedia Master software before, so see the C-3030Z review for more on that. I'd imagine, however, that most E-20 users will be relying on more sophisticated image editing software, such as Photoshop.


The TCON 300 Tele Extension lens gives you serious zoom power (shown on E-10; Photo courtesy of David Weikel)

Olympus sells a ton of accessories for the E-20, ranging from battery grips to lenses to flashes. If the 4X optical zoom isn't good enough for you, then try the TCON-300 3X extension lens. The lens is threaded (62 mm) so you can use anything that size, as well.

The E-20 manual is the best one I've seen from Olympus. Everything is clearly labeled and instructions are easy to follow -- and best of all, there aren't a lot of "notes" at the bottom of each page. There's even a section on shooting techniques that is sorely missed in most consumer digital cameras.

Look and Feel

The Olympus E-20's body is definitely "professional". It feels as nice as the professional cameras I've used, and looks just like an SLR film camera. It has a solid aluminum body that feels strong, without being too heavy. All the components on the E-20 feel "well made", from the notchy feel of the switches, to the "action" of the shutter release button.

The E-20 is a big camera, and won't be sliding into your pocket anytime soon. Then again, how many SLR cameras do that? While I suppose you could use it with one hand, you'll get better pictures if you hold it with two hands. The dimensions of the E-20 are 5.0 x 4.1 x 7.0 (W x H x L), and it weighs 1050 grams (2.3 lbs) empty. That's two or three times heavier than most cameras, but again, this isn't "any" camera. Let's being our full 360 degree tour of the E-20 now.

And where better to being our tour than with the "star" of the E-20, the lens. This F2.0 - 2.4 lens has a 4X zoom of 9 - 36 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm on a 35 mm camera. According to Olympus, this is the first lens 100% designed for a digital camera. This lens is not removable -- you'll need a "real" pro camera for that -- but for most uses, the 4X zoom is more than adequate.

Another important thing about the lens is that it's fully manual. There is no "power" zoom like on most other digital cameras. The motor is your hands. You can also focus manually with a electronic focus ring, around the lens barrel.

The pop-up flash is well away from the lens, which should help reduce redeye. The flash has a working range of 0.6 - 6.3 m at full wide-angle and 0.5 - 5.2 m at full telephoto. If you require a more powerful flash, the E-20 has a hot shoe for that purpose. I'll have more about external flash options in a bit.

Other items of note on the front of the camera include an infrared Auto Focus transmitter, remote control receiver, and a button for manual white balance (hidden behind the lens here). The shutter release button is also visible towards the left.

Here's an angled look at the back of the E-20. While the LCD can't flip out and rotate like on some Canon and Nikon cameras, you can swivel it up to get a better look at it. I find this handy when I'm shooting the other cameras, for example.

Here is the camera from behind. The LCD, while average-sized (1.8"), is of a surprisingly low quality for a camera with this price tag. The refresh rate is slow, edges of objects appear jagged, and they cutoff the bottom of the LCD with exposure information (you can turn that off though). I'm not sure if the first two problems are a result of the E-20's unique (for an SLR digital) ability to have a live preview, but it really needs work. As for the third issue -- this could easily be rectified by overlayed the information on the LCD.

Just above the LCD is the optical viewfinder. It's nice and large, and has diopter correction for those of you with glasses. The viewfinder extends far enough from the body to prevent nose smudges on the LCD.

The buttons below the LCD are for:

  • Info - toggles what is shown on the LCD
  • Protect - protect an image in playback mode
  • Delete photo

To the right of the LCD there are a number of other controls:

  • Secondary command dial - for changing manual settings, as well as zooming in/out in playback mode
  • Display - toggles LCD on/off
  • Menu
  • Four-way switch - for menu navigation
  • OK - for menus

Just right of the OK button is the release for the memory card compartment. At the top right of the photo is the AE Lock button, which locks the exposure settings for as long as you hold it down.

Now, here's a look at the top of the camera (that cork thing is only to hold up the camera). The hot shoe allows you to use the Olympus FL-40 external flash. You can use other flashes, if you meet the requirements given by Olympus. With the FL-40, the flash and camera communicate seamlessly. On other flashes (I tried a Nikon SB-28DX), you'll have to set the flash up for each shot, to match the camera settings.

The buttons on the top include: SM/CF (chooses between the SmartMedia and CompactFlash slot), flash, quality, and white balance settings, and a very nice "light" feature.

This is one feature that I wish every camera had -- the backlit LCD info display. Now if they could only light up all the controls like this!

The LCD shows information such as shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, quality and flash settings, which memory card is being used, and the shots remaining on that card.

I'll touch on the image quality choices later in the review. But first, white balance. The E-20 has a ton of choices available for white balance -- more than most cameras. You can choose a setting by the type of lighting (e.g. fluorescent) or by color temperature (e.g. 4500 °K). You can also use "One Touch" white balance to shoot a piece of white or gray paper to use as white. The WB choices are:

  • Auto
  • 3000 °K - incandescent
  • 3700 °K - incandescent; "preserves the mood of the lighting"
  • 4000 °K - white fluorescent
  • 4500 °K - daylight w/ white fluorescent
  • 5500 °K - sunlight; good also for sunsets and fireworks
  • 6500 °K - cloudy
  • 7500 °K - shade
  • Quick reference / manual WB

Also on top of the camera is the second command dial. At this point, I should bring up an interesting note about changing settings on the E-20. Unlike most cameras where you just hit, say, the flash button repeatedly to change the setting, on the E-20, you must hold down the button, and use one of the dials to move between settings. This prevents accidental setting changes, and it's nice after you get used to it. One thing I didn't like about this function dial was that it's too close and too similar to the mode wheel. In the dark, I found myself changing modes, instead of settings.

Speaking of the mode wheel, here are the various modes you can choose from:

  • PC Connect
  • Printer connect
  • Playback
  • Program Mode
  • Shutter Priority Mode
  • Aperture Priority Mode
  • Full Manual Mode

In the manual modes, you have the following choices:

  • Shutter Priority: 2 - 1/640 sec (up to 1/4000 or 1/18000 in PS mode -- more later on this)
  • Aperture Priority: f2.0 - f11, depending on zoom setting
  • Full Manual: Same aperture choices; Shutter choices of 60 - 1/640 sec (up to 1/4000 or 1/18000 in PS mode); Bulb mode also available (up to 8 minutes!)

I'm not sure why Olympus won't let you do longer exposures in shutter priority mode. If you can do 8 seconds in full manual, why not in shutter priority mode?

If you like buttons, there's even more on the left side of the camera. Here we've got buttons for exposure compensation, macro, "drive", and metering. There's also a button to pop up the flash, and a switch to toggle between auto and manual focus. If you switch to manual focus, you use the ring at the end of the lens to focus. Do note that this is an electronic "fly-by-wire" focus ring -- it's not mechanical.

A few details on some of these:

  • Exposure compensation: -3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV steps
  • Drive: switches between the following:
    • Single Shot
    • Continuous shooting - up to 4 photos in a row in IS mode and 7 in PS mode @ 2.2 frames/sec
    • Self-timer
    • Remote control
  • Metering: switches between the following:
    • Digital ESP (matrix)
    • Center-weighted
    • Spot

Above the focus switch are ports for a flash sync cable and a remote shutter release cable. Towards the lower right of the photo, there are various I/O ports. Here's a close-up:

That's a power port to the lower left, and USB and video out in the center. I've uncovered the remote shutter release (top) and flash sync (bottom) ports as well.

Here's a quick look at the other side -- not much to see here. What you will find though is the memory card slots.

Behind a plastic door, you'll find one of the E-20's nicest features: dual memory card slots. You've got your SmartMedia slot, which is normal for Olympus cameras, and you've also got a CompactFlash Type II slot. The E-20 officially supports the IBM Microdrive now, but Olympus says that you need the $650 Li-Po battery pack "due to power requirements". I think that's a bit extreme... it's not that you can't use it with regular AA batteries -- it's just that the battery life won't be as good as with a regular memory card.

And last but not least, the bottom of the camera. Down here you'll find the battery "cage", a metal tripod mount, and a speaker to produce a phony "shutter click" sound if you'd like.


Battery cage with the two CR-V3 batteries installed

Just like with the E-10, I was very impressed with the layout, design, and feel of the E-20. Now how well does it perform?

Using the Olympus E-20

Record Mode

The E-20 starts up in about four seconds. The LCD is off by default, which helps extend the battery life. When you depress the shutter release halfway, the camera usually locks focus very quickly -- well under a second. The big "deprovement" on the E-20 is the shot-to-shot speeds.

The LCD shows exposure info, or focus distance. (Note that the subject is not in focus on the left which is why it appears blurry.)

Back when I bought the E-10, it was a leader in shot-to-shot speeds. Unfortunately, that's not the case anymore. When you take one HQ picture, it will take 10 seconds to write to the memory card. The buffer only holds four pictures, which you can take pretty quickly -- as fast as you can compose them. But be prepared for a painful wait to empty the buffer where you can't change options, open the menu, or view the LCD.

If this was the only 5MP camera on the market, I'd say "well, they're big files, that's life". But the $999 Sony DSC-F707 blows the E-20 away in terms of shot-to-shot speed. One nice thing with the E-20 is that it won't lock up the camera after recording a TIFF image -- you can go ahead and take another right away (until the buffer fills up, of course).

Since you control the zoom with your hand, it's as smooth as you want it to be. The amount of control you get with a true manual zoom is wonderful, compared to the button mashing you must do on most cameras. Then again, that's why this one's aimed towards professionals.

The E-20 has a decent amount of resolution and quality settings, though interestingly fewer than some of the cheaper Olympus cameras! The chart below describes them (IS mode only):

Quality Resolution Compression File Size Images on 32MB card
RAW 2560 x 1920 1:1 10 MB 3
TIFF 2560 x 1920 1:1 15 MB 2
SHQ 2560 x 1920 1:2.7 3.9 MB 8
HQ 2560 x 1920 1:8 1.5 MB 21
SQ 1280 x 960 1:8 320 KB 99

The RAW mode saves raw, unprocessed CCD data to the memory card. In order to view it, you must use the Olympus software. You can then save it into more familiar graphic formats. The RAW format only saves about 33% over TIFF on the E-20. On the Canon PowerShot G2, it saves more like 70%.

It's time to address the IS and PS thing I've been alluding to so far in this review. IS stands for interlaced scan, which is the old fashioned, normal photo-taking system. Progressive Scan (PS) chops the vertical resolution in half, shrinking the file size, and letting the camera shoot more images continuously. It also increases the maximum shutter speeds to 1/4000 or even 1/18000. Sound too good to be true? Take a look at what it does to your images.


Interlaced Scan mode


Progressive Scan mode

While my cropping isn't the best, hopefully you can see the difference. Check out the gallery for some full-size samples where you'll get a better idea of what PS mode does to your images.

Update 11/29/01: I will add that the jaggies in PS mode are reduced if you use a lower resolution. Try 1792 x 1344 or 1280 x 960.

Most of the important settings on the E-20 are changed via buttons, rather than menus. Here's what you'll find in the still sluggish menu system:

  • Card Setup (Erase All / Format)
  • ISO (Auto, 80, 160, 320)
  • Auto Bracket (On/off, with +- 1/3, 2/3, and 1EV increments)
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV steps)
  • Sharpness (Hard, Normal, Soft)
  • Contrast (High, Normal, Low)
  • Quality edit - you determine what TIFF, HQ, SHQ's resolution and compression settings are
  • Interval - take a shot every 1 minute to daily
  • Sound settings - menu beeping, phony shutter sound
  • Rec View (Off, Auto, 5 sec) - show photo just taken on LCD
  • Shooting Mode (IS, PS, Noise Reduction)

If you put the mode wheel into PC connect mode (why it's there is anybody's guess), you can invoke another menu:

  • Macro setting (normal, with conversion lenses)
  • Date/time
  • File naming (auto, reset)
  • Brightness adjustment method (Manual, Auto) - whether the LCD brightness varies with shutter speed/aperture
  • Histogram (in playback mode)
  • Pixel Mapping
  • Sleep (Off, 1, 2, 5, 10 min)

The Pixel Mapping feature helps reduce bad pixels. Olympus recommends doing this at least once a year.

Now, more about photo quality!


Click to view with noise reduction OFF

The night shot test looks very good, thanks to the excellent lens and manual controls on the E-20. In this sample, the noise reduction feature is on. There's still a bit of noise in the shot though.

The E-20 did a fine job with the macro test as well. I had to boost the exposure compensation a few stops, but otherwise the color is fine and the subject is sharp. You can get as close as 20 cm from the subject while at full telephoto. If you want to get closer, Olympus sells the MCON-35 Macro Extension Lens ($140), which lets you get as close as 12 cm.

The E-20 doesn't record any sound or video. Which is not surprising, considering the target audience here. Professional photographers don't want/need gimmicks.

Overall, the photo quality on the E-20 was excellent. Some people have commented on a lot of noise in the images, especially in the sky. Some have said that a "professional" camera shouldn't have this much noise. The noise doesn't seem much worse than the other 5MP cameras, but then again, this one costs twice as much (see this page on DP Review for more on the noise issue). I noticed chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) in a few shots, but it's nothing major. Check out the extensive photo gallery and judge the quality for yourself.

Playback Mode

The E-20's playback mode, though on the slow side, is very complete. The basics are here: slideshows, protection, DPOF print marking, and thumbnail mode. There are a few other features worth mentioning as well:

By using the dial on the back of the camera, you can either zoom into your photos, or zoom back out to thumbnail modes of various sizes. The "zoom and scroll" function was painfully slow, and I found myself rarely using it. I realize these images are large, and perhaps I've been spoiled by the ultra-fast Canon PowerShot cameras, but this feature is just too slow to use regularly.

The E-20 is also a bit slow at moving between photos. It takes about two seconds from one photo to the next.

You're able to get quite a bit of information about your photos in playback mode. From exposure data to a histogram, it's all here (see above).

The E-20 has the ability to copy photos between the two memory card slots. I've never used this feature, but I suppose if you have a CompactFlash card reader and have photos on the SmartMedia card, you would need to copy the images over first.

How Does it Compare?

When the Olympus E-10 was announced, I ran out and bought one for my own use. I don't feel the same way about the E-20, though. While it's an excellent camera, the E-20 seems more like a downgrade than an upgrade to me. The main problem is the incredibly slow write times. Cameras like the Sony DSC-F707, also a 5 Megapixel camera, blow the E-20's shot-to-shot speeds out of the water. If this is a "professional" camera, it needs to act like one. That's my main complaint -- otherwise, the photo quality is excellent, the feature-set huge, and the lens very nice -- just like on the E-10. If you're an E-10 owner who was thinking about upgrading to the E-20... I probably would hold off for now. For folks looking for a very nice 5 Megapixel camera, I'd consider the E-20... carefully.

What I liked:

  • Very sturdy, well designed body
  • All the manual controls you'll ever need
  • Excellent photo quality
  • SmartMedia and CompactFlash Type II slots
  • Handy backlit LCD info display and swiveling LCD
  • Ability to preview shots on LCD as well as viewfinder
  • Pixel Mapping removes bad pixels

What I didn't care for:

  • Slow write / shot-to-shot speeds
  • Somewhat sluggish in menus and playback mode
  • Disappointing LCD quality
  • Expensive

Some other high-end cameras I would consider include the Canon PowerShot G2, Casio QV-4000, Fuji FinePix 6900Z, Minolta DiMAGE 5 and 7, Nikon Coolpix 5000, Olympus C-4040Z, and the Sony DSC-F707 and DSC-S85.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the E-20 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a few more opinions?

Be sure to read the reviews from Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review!

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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