Headlining the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's list of upgraded features is a speedy new autofocus (AF) system, which Olympus claims to be the fastest on the market (a title shared by the E-P3, which sports the same new system).
The newly-developed 35 point system is incredibly responsive, finding an instant lock in most cases, with a newly-added AF-assist lamp lending a helping hand when the light levels start to drop.
Accuracy is impressive, with the camera's autofocus system proving to be unfazed by off-centre subjects.
Its TruePic IV processor drives the E-PL3's zippy performance, with the added benefit of enabling full-time AF and subject tracking. The latter feature works pretty well in practice with moderately paced subjects, but it starts to struggle if you try to keep up with particularly fast movement. But this factor alone doesn't take the shine off the E-PL3's impressive capabilities.
Equally remarkable is this little CSC camera's near-immediate start-up. Unlock the lens, which retracts into a locked resting position when you want to stow the camera away, and you're ready to shoot the second you spot a photo opportunity. Shot-to-shot times are also very quick, even when you're shooting RAW and JPEG files simultaneously.
Art Filters make another welcome appearance on the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3's mode dial – a fun feature that we've always liked about the PEN series.
With the E-PL3 you get six – compared to the E-P3's ten – different settings to choose from. These filters are Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone.
We found we could take or leave the Dramatic Tone filter – its HDR-esque effect might be a little strong for some tastes. The vintage-style Pin Hole and miniaturising Diorama remain our firm favourites, with each producing compelling images imbued with their own unique aesthetic qualities.
The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3 offers a range of sensitivity settings spanning ISO 200-12,800, with 19 options in total (plus Auto). Noise is pretty well controlled up to and including ISO 6400 – the maximum setting we'd recommend if you want to shoot in low light without sacrificing too much detail.
The very top setting produces somewhat impressionistic results, with a lot of noise and softening of detail. It's there if you really need it, but is best avoided if you want to make high quality prints from your shots.
For the best results, shooting RAW files offers more scope for noise removal at the processing stage, and – although shots will require extra sharpening compared to the E-PL3's JPEGs – it's possible to get some very satisfying images using this method.
Colours are generally very pleasing, although images shot under tungsten lighting can turn out very warm indeed. Shooting RAW, or manually adjusting the WB setting, solves the issue.
Accuracy in day-lit scenes is good, and there's a decent array of options available to help you tweak the appearance of your shots in-camera if you so wish.
The HD (1080i) video mode the E-PL3 offers can be used in Auto, or any of the P, S, A and M modes, giving you as much or as little control over your movies as you want. Video quality is pretty good on the whole, save for some warping of verticals and smearing of detail if you pan too quickly.
The built-in stereo microphones do a good job of picking up ambient sound, but they are quite sensitive, which means they also record the sound of you operating the camera, as well as any breeze if you're shooting outdoors.
The AF system is very responsive and incredibly quiet, though, so there are no issues with mechanical noise being added to your soundtracks.
The 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens feels a little lightweight and – dare we say – cheap compared to the superb build quality of the camera body itself. But with its stylish silver finish, it looks the part.
The focusing and zoom rings are pretty smooth to operate, and the lens itself puts in a fairly good optical performance, given its kit-lens status.
Sharpness is so-so, particularly at the 42mm end of the focal range, and sensor-shift image stabilisation proves to be a welcome measure that helps make up for the relatively slow maximum aperture range.
On the whole, though, this is a useful everyday lens that'll tide you over until you feel ready to explore the vast range of other MFT optics available.