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DCRP Review: Olympus E-420
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 27, 2008
Last Updated: February 2, 2009
The Olympus E-420 is a compact digital SLR that offers a host of nice features, despite being priced at just $599. This camera is the follow-up to the venerable EVOLT E-410, offering these new features:
That's in addition to the features that haven't changed since the E-410. They include a 10 Megapixel "Live MOS" sensor, live view, full manual controls, dust reduction, dual memory card slots, and more. And did I mention that it's the smallest digital SLR in the world?
The E-420 has a close relative -- the newly announced E-520, which sports a larger body and sensor-shift image stabilization. If those features interest you, you can have them for $100 more than the E-420.
If you're ready to learn more about this "go anywhere" D-SLR, then I'm ready to tell you. Our review starts right now!
What's in the Box?
The E-420 will be sold in three kits: body only ($499), with a 14 - 42 mm lens ($599), or with the new 25 mm "pancake" lens ($699). Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those:
The E-420 with the 25 mm pancake lens. Image courtesy of Olympus.
There are two lenses that you can get along with the E-420. The first is the F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens, which has a field-of-view of 28 - 84 mm. By kit lens standards, this one is pretty good -- it's well built, and photos are sharp. The other available lens is the new F2.8, 25 mm "pancake" lens. When attached to the E-420 (or any FourThirds camera for that matter), you get an effective focal length of 50 mm -- all in a lens just 0.9 inches thick. The 25 mm lens produced photos with good sharpness from one end of the frame to the other during my time with it.
Digital SLRs never come with memory cards, so if you don't have an xD or CompactFlash card already, you'll have to buy one. The E-420 has two slots: one for xD and the other for CompactFlash. The CF slot supports Type I and II cards, including the Microdrive. I'd suggest starting with a 2GB, high speed CompactFlash card.
The E-420 uses the same BLS-1 rechargeable battery as its predecessor. This battery packs 8.3 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which isn't bad, considering the size of the camera. Here's what kind of battery life you can expect from the E-420:
The E-420 has the same battery life as the E-410 before it. In the group as a whole, the E-420 comes in about 10% below average. Keep in mind that these numbers don't take live view into account -- if you're using that feature, expect a 40 - 50 percent drop from the above numbers. Since neither a battery grip nor an AC adapter are available, what you see above is the best you'll get out of the E-420.
I feel compelled to mention a few issues about the proprietary battery used by the E-420, and most of the cameras in the table above. First, they're expensive -- an extra will set you back at least $45. Secondly, if the battery runs out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day. The only camera on the above list that takes AAs straight out of the box is the Pentax K200D, so it's a fairly uncommon feature these days.
When it's time to charge the BLM-1, just pop it into the included charger. It takes a rather lengthy 3.5 hours for the BLS-1 to charge fully. The charger doesn't plug directly into the wall, either -- you must use a power cable.
You shouldn't be surprised to hear that the E-420 supports plenty of accessories. Here's a quick summary of what's available:
As I mentioned earlier, there's no battery grip or AC adapter for the E-420 (or the E-520 for that matter). One thing that you can get by stepping up to the E-520 is an underwater case.
Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X
Olympus includes version 2 of their Olympus Master software with the E-420. Olympus Master is pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about everything you could ever want.
After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders on your hard drive) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related newsfeeds, if you're interested.
Here you can organize photos, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a bunch of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.
Editing JPEGs in Olympus Master 2
Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.
Editing RAW images in Olympus Master 2
Olympus Master also features a basic RAW editor. It lets you adjust exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, noise filter, and more. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master shows you the results after a few seconds of grinding away. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.
Olympus Studio 2 for Mac OS X
If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider Olympus Studio 2 ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, and batch processing.
Olympus Studio 2 - Camera Control Feature
Olympus Studio also lets you control the camera over a USB connection. You can adjust all the settings on the camera, and the images are saved right to your Mac or PC. Unlike with some other D-SLRs, you don't get live view on your computer here. You can get a quick still-image preview, but that's about it.
Oh, and if you have no idea what RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.
Olympus includes a nearly 140 page-long manual with the E-420. While it's fairly detailed, it's not exactly what I'd call user-friendly. You'll get your question answered, though you'll have to sift through confusing charts and lots of fine print to find what you're looking for.
Look and Feel
Unless you're looking really carefully, you'll be hard-pressed to see a difference between the E-420 and its predecessor. While the most obvious change is the larger LCD on the back of the camera, there have been some useful changes to the right hand grip, as well:
Image courtesy of Olympus
Previously, the E-410 had just a small "notch" for your fingers on the grip. That didn't give me a whole lot of confidence when the camera was in my hands. Olympus made that notch into more of a "ridge" on the E-420, which definitely helps. Still, if I was shopping for a D-SLR, I'd personally choose something with a more substantial grip.
In terms of build quality, the E-420 is very good, especially considering its $499 starting price. While the body is made mostly of plastic, it doesn't feel "cheap" like some of its competitors. The camera does have more than its share of buttons, though it's not quite as confusing to figure out as the E-520.
Now, here's a look at how the E-420 compares to other cameras in its class, in terms of size and weight: