(Pocket-lint) - There's a lot of choice in Olympus's Pen range. The E-PM2, also known as the Pen Mini, is the baby, and smallest, model of the company's compact system camera range.
But small size doesn't mean small features; like both the E-PL5 and even top-tier OM-D E-M5 cameras the E-PM2 comes loaded with a proven 16-megapixel sensor to complement its interchangeable-lens Micro Four Thirds mount.
Is the sequel that rare breed that's better than the original, and perhaps more importantly for buyers with sights fixed on the Pen range, is there space for the E-PM2 when it lies so closely to the E-PL5's features?
Why hello, good looking. Simple yet elegant, we're rather taken by the E-PM2's looks, although its plasticky finish lacks the premium refinement of the higher-up-the-range models, as is to be expected at this £500 price point.
As the baby of the group, the Mini's focus is on simplicity. For example there's no main mode dial on the body. Instead the rear touchscreen can be used to select through the shooting modes - from auto to scene, as well as all the usual manual options, among others - using either the power of touch or the rear d-pad control.
There are fewer dedicated buttons on board compared to the E-PL5 too. No autofocus type or zoom keys are to be found on the rear which, while this is unlikely to matter for point-and-shoot users, does slow down the user experience a little.
The original Pen E-PM1 was a smooth-fronted fare, something that the E-PM2 has fixed up with the addition of a small, protruding front grip. It's not removable, and just like the body is also plasticky, but makes holding the camera more practical than its predecessor.
The latest Pen model also sticks to Olympus's apparent no built-in flash policy. There is a hotshoe-mountable one included in the box, but we think that the baby of the group should, considering its target audience and outlook, have one built into the body. Not necessarily a major biggie, but as the flash utilises the hotshoe and rear accessory port it won't be possible to use both the flash and the optional electronic viewfinder (sold separately) should you happen to splash out on the eyepiece upgrade.
In use there's no real difference between the E-PM2 and the E-PL5 cameras, except that the Mini's rear screen is fixed rather than mounted on a vertical tilt-angle bracket.
But otherwise that's good news: the E-PM2's improved autofocus system is nippier than its predecessor.
The autofocus system has 35 square points to select from and it's always quick to snap a subject into focus whichever one of them is selected. Better still is the ability to quickly override where focus takes place with the touch of a finger - and the size of the focus point can be quickly adjusted between a small, pin-point size to a larger size using a virtual slider to the side of the screen.
Sometimes there'll be the occasional mis-focus where the system pulses back and forth when trying to focus on close-up subjects, but otherwise, at least for "normal" distanced subjects, we found the AF system to operate well in all kinds of lighting conditions.
The inclusion of a red/orange AF assist lamp positioned to the top corner of the camera's front which deploys to help focus in low light conditions, though we did find it was occasionally blocked by a stray thumb positioned towards the lens. Not that there's really anywhere else it could have been placed, but a small moan nonetheless.
But the only more considerable focus-related issue surrounds the E-PM2's continuous autofocus mode. It's just not quite up to scratch - an ongoing issue for not only Olympus's range, but also compact system cameras as a whole. Faster moving subjects are hard to shoot using this camera, and when considering the likes of, say, Sony's budget SLT Alpha series, this feels further highlighted.
There are also certain Olympus design quirks that might take a little getting used to for those coming on board from another camera system. For example, rather than the rear d-pad's rotation adjusting aperture it changes exposure compensation; it's the up and down keys that open up or stop down the aperture.
As per the E-PL5 there's also no second dial control to be found on the front which might have helped make for a yet more fluid control system - though given the E-PM2's stripped-back design this is hardly a surprise.
It's also still not possible to use the touchscreen to select options from within the menu - short of the new shooting mode's screen-based soft menu - which is a shame as it's accurate enough to handle such a task.
With the same 16-megapixel sensor as the OM-D E-M5 and E-PL5 we anticipated good things from the E-PM2, and, by and large, it didn't let us down.
READ: Olympus OM-D E-M5 review
Cameras deal with lower light conditions by amplifying the signals that their sensors produce. Doing so also amplifies imperfections in the signal which can result in what's known as image noise - that "mottled" pattern of white and/or coloured flecks in an image that become more prominent as the ISO setting increases.
ISO 320 image sample
The E-PM2 offers ISO 200-1600 in its standard auto ISO setting, which can be pushed up to an ISO 25,600 equivalent if you really want. That does mean that handheld shooting in both bright and dim conditions is possible.
ISO 200-400 shots are clean and clear, largely free of image noise and there's enough detail right through to ISO 1600. Image processing does result in some artefacts around subjected edges, but there's just enough grasp on detail, so even even handheld city-lit night snaps came out looking very reasonable indeed. Even the higher ISO settings cope rather well, such as this ISO 6400 example below:
ISO 6400 - 100 per cent crop (detail)
The ongoing lack of an ISO 100 sensitivity is a frustration that we'd really like to see rectified in future Pen releases, but otherwise the low-mid ISO settings hold an impressive amount of detail.
We're not quite as impressed by the E-PM2's handling of images as the OM-D E-M5, however, largely on account of the included kit lens. It's just a touch soft and "smeary" when using the zoom and viewing at 100 per cent, so we'd advise getting hold of one of the many more premium Micro Four Thirds lenses to get the very best out of the sensor.
ISO 200 image sample
One fun feature that the Pen Mini, just like the other cameras in the range, includes is a variety of art filters. These built-in presets adjust the image - whether to sepia, grainy film, pop art, or many others - to great effect. Shoot raw & JPEG together and the original, non-filtered shot will be stored as the raw file which can be useful as a backup.
Dramatic Tone image sample
For the price point the E-PM2's images are great, but let down a little by the kit lens. It's a leap beyond the previous E-PM1's abilities though, showing that Olympus is pushing the Micro Four Thirds brand up in the rankings.
If it's value you're looking for then the E-PM2 sure does lay out an attractive spread of features for its £500 asking price.
Image quality is good, though the kit lens is a bit of a letdown - to get the very best from this Mini compact system camera we suggest looking to other lenses.
The main qualm we have with the E-PM2 is how closely aligned it is to the E-PL5. The latter has better build quality, is easier to operate thanks to its mode dial, and the tilt-angle LCD screen is a nice touch too.
We're definitely fans of the E-PM2, which is superior to its predecessor across the board, but for our money it's the E-PL5 which is the Pen model to take the prize.