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(Pocket-lint) - The entry-level Olympus Pen sees a new update for 2018: the E-PL9, which is aimed at newbies and smartphone users looking to upgrade to a user-friendly mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for the first time.  

The E-PL9's pared-down design should be approachable to first-time users - but also those familiar with this type of camera - who want to make the most out of the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which has more than 20 proprietary lenses and twice as many third-party lenses in its range.

We've had our hands on a full production E-PL9 ahead of its official unveiling. Is it a case of modest update compared to its predecessor, or a mirrorless revelation?

New Features

  • 4K video up to 30fps
  • 5-axis image stabilisation
  • True Pic VIII processor
  • 121-point AF system with group focus

Olympus hopes that the Pen E-PL9 will provide advanced photography features in a simple-to-use and compact form factor. The key features found in the earlier E-PL8 remain, but there's plenty new besides.

There's now 4K video recording up to 30fps with an option to extract still images from the video files. The E-PL8 is restricted to 1080p Full HD up to 30fps. Neither camera offers faster frame rates than 30fps for video.

Video footage and still images can be stabilised using Olympus's 5-axis in-body imagestabilisation system. The E-PL8 features a more basic 3-axis stabilisation. We haven't had an opportunity to test the real-world difference between these stabilisation systems, but would expect a difference of around 1.5 f-stops in effective stabilisation.  

There is also the latest processor, the True Pic VIII, as found in the latest round of Olympus cameras like the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Without changes to still image resolution or burst shooting modes, this new processor presumably handles the improved video recording capabilities. 

Indeed Olympus has not made much noise about any improvement in, ahem, handling of image noise. Therefore expect a similar low-light performance to the previous model.  

The E-PL9's autofocus system has been enhanced to a contrast detection 121-point array that covers most of the frame. Focus points can be individually selected using the touch pad on the rear of the camera or by touching the LCD screen. It's supposedly a faster AF system than before, too.

New Interface

  • Advanced Photo (AP) mode
  • Two more art filters: Beach Bypass and Instant Film
  • 'How To' guides now included in the free 'O.I Image Share' app 

An Advance Photo mode finds its way onto the shooting mode dial and is presented in a new graphical interface. Within this menu there is direct access to a few creative shooting modes, including Multiple Exposure, Live Composite, HDR (high dynamic range), Sweep Panorama and Focus Bracketing. 

In use, the AP Mode cuts a few corners to get those creative modes in play more quickly - minus the menu scrolling. In Live Composite Mode, you can opt between one, two and four minute exposures and manually stop the exposure when it looks as you want it on screen. As there's an accumulative real-time exposure which updates it takes the guess work out of long-exposure photography.

In Multiple Exposure Mode you can combine two pictures, with the first one overlaid on the live view display for composition of the second picture. These two pictures are not stored separately, however, so you don't want to get it wrong. We took pictures in Multiple Exposure Mode with the screen rear facing for a selfie and then in flipped it around to the regular front facing set up and the combined two images. They were uncorrected, despite appearing to be corrected before capture. It's a bit of a minefield switching the screen around between two exposures so it's easiest to keep the screen facing the same way for both captures.

Improved Handling

  • Built-in flash
  • Larger grip and dials
  • Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections

Body wise, the E-PL9 adds a built-in pop-up flash, which was not featured in the Pen E-PL8, with the full array of flash modes. There is still the hotshoe in case you would like to attach an optional external flash gun. 

The body design is largely the same layout as the earlier Pen model, although it has been tweaked. The hand grip is now more pronounced, although in our opinion it's still not completely comfortable to hold - a few added ridges for the fingers would help. Body dials are chunkier than before, too, so should be easier to get ahold of - in our brief hands-on time with the camera the dials handled really well. 

As well as the 14-42mm kit lens available at the preview day, we put our own 45mm f/1.8 lens onto the E-PL9, which is a great combination. This is a camera best suited to Olympus's more compact and lightweight lenses such as this.

Just like the E-PL8, the E-PL9 can be wirelessly connected to your smart device by Wi-Fi for sharing of images on the fly. In addition an always-on Bluetooth connection is also available, which is a far more power-conserving method of wireless connection. It is possible to wake up the camera from your smart device via the app - even when the camera is asleep. 

The E-PL9 may be a camera aimed at beginners, but these kind of features are fun for a photographer of any level.

Worth the upgrade?

  • 16.1MP CMOS sensor
  • Tilt-angle touchscreen
  • 8.5fps burst mode 
  • No viewfinder
  • Hotshoe

Ultimately, the E-PL9 isn't dramatically different from its predecessor. So what remains in the new camera that we've seen before?

Well, a heck of a lot. Unless any of the above changes are really important to you, then there is no real reason to fork out the extra cash for the E-PL9 over the E-PL8.

Olympus hasn't made a song and dance about the new processor improving still image quality. So no jump there. The camera's overall handling feels much to same too, with the more pronounced grip practically making little difference. 

Then there's the touchscreen. Again it's a case of "as you were", with a vari-angle (fold-out and down) design, where it's possible to flip the screen 180 degrees to the underside of the camera for a selfie shot. 

First Impressions

The Olympus Pen E-PL9 is what we would describe as a modest refresh over its predecessor. You can expect the same still image quality and familiar handling - and we were expecting that something extra from the company's latest entry-level mirrorless camera.

Sure, 4K movie capture, improved image stabilisation, neat new Bluetooth features, plus a fun new AP mode, each add their own thing - but it's not a great deal of inspirational newness.

We have some qualms about the design, too. It's about the same size as other Olympus mirrorless cameras, so it's a little too box-like for us, although the new dials do feel great.

Ignoring the boxyness, in use the E-PL9 put a smile on our face. Whether you're experienced or newbie, the quick access to creative modes has been a forte for Olympus mirrorless cameras and has been brought even more to the fore in the E-PL9. 

Bottom line: the E-PL9 is not the most exciting update to a camera we've ever seen we've seen. So unless 4K capture and is top of your list, there is little reason to opt for the E-PL9 over what is now a much cheaper E-PL8.

The Olympus E-PL9 is available now in three colours - white, black and brown - priced £579.99 body-only, or £649.99 with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom kit lens.

Writing by Timothy Coleman. Originally published on 5 February 2018.