Sunday, January 20, 2013

Olympus PEN Lite / E-PL3 Review

The Olympus PEN Lite/E-PL3 is identical in terms of output to the recently reviewed Olympus E-P3. We have tested to verify image quality (and of course include these tests in the review). Where appropriate, you will find our comments and judgements identical to those expressed in our in-depth review of the Olympus E-P3. Much of the original content in this article then is devoted to assessing features and functionality unique to the E-PL3.

From the outset, Olympus has positioned its E-PL lineup as a simplified, lower-cost alternative to its higher-end E-Px cameras. The release of the third generation Olympus PEN E-PL3 (dubbed PEN Lite) continues this tradition while sporting much of the functionality and nearly all of the performance gains of its big brother, the Olympus E-P3. One difference this time around, however, is the simultaneous arrival of the E-PM1/PEN Mini, which now becomes the entry-level model in the PEN lineup. The PEN Lite sits between the PEN Mini and Olympus' flagship E-P3, offering a combination of external control points and compact-camera-like handling that may appeal to those who want high image quality in a small package, and are ready to move beyond an 'auto everything' experience.

The PEN Lite introduces handling and operational changes from its predecessor, the Olympus PEN E-PL2. Among the most obvious of these are the lack of a hand-grip along the front plate, the addition of a tilting 16:9 format LCD screen and a clip-on flash unit that occupies the hot shoe and rear accessory port (in contrast to the E-PL2's built-in flash). While it shares a sensor and image processing engine with the higher-priced E-P3, the PEN Lite has more distinct styling and better feature differentiation from the high end model than we've previously seen. As such, the E-PL3 is a very different looking camera than its predecessor, the E-PL2. In fact, the design aesthetic and reduced size of the E-PL3 point more closely to that of the Olympus XZ-1 compact camera; a none-too-subtle hint perhaps at Olympus' intended target audience.

Make no mistake, however, the E-PL3 does not skimp on features. External control points, a mode dial, hot shoe and accessory port all carry over from the E-PL2. And, as we've come to expect from a PEN series model, the E-PL3 offers a high degree of customization over camera operation along with a variety of art filters and effects that can be applied to JPEG image captures. We're also pleased to note that, like the E-P3, the PEN Lite has an AF illuminator to assist low-light focus acquisition.

Having regularly acted as a trailblazer (Olympus was an early exponent of DSLR live view, in-camera image stabilization and art filters), and subsequently watching other manufacturers adopt similar features, the E-PL3 sees Olympus taking the opportunity to borrow ideas for a change. There's something decidedly NEX-like about the E-PL3's protruding lens mount and tilting LCD screen, not to mention its separate clip-on flash.

Curiously, the PEN Lite's flip-out screen is in the 16:9 aspect ratio - well suited for shooting HD video but much less so when shooting stills in the camera's native 4:3 format. This format mismatch leaves black bars down both sides of the screen, areas which are then solely devoted to displaying camera settings.

Olympus PEN Lite key specifications:
  • Updated 12MP Live MOS sensor
  • 120 Hz 'Fast AF' focus system with 35-point area AF
  • Clip-on flash (included)
  • Built-in autofocus illuminator light
  • 460,000 dot tilting LCD screen (16:9 aspect ratio)
  • Dual-core TruePic VI processor
  • 1080i60 movies in AVCHD format
  • Shadow tone adjustment control
  • Revised and expanded Art Filter mode (with quick preview option)
 Compared to the Olympus PEN E-P3

 Differences between the PEN Lite E-PL3 and PEN E-P3
  • Faster continuous shooting: up to 5.5fps vs. 3fps
  • Tilt/flip LCD display vs. fixed OLED screen
  • Lower resolution screen (460,000 vs. 614,000 dots) in 16:9 vs. 3:2 aspect ratio
  • No thumb dial
  • No orientation sensor
  • Slower flash sync speed of 1/160th vs. 1/180th of a second
  • Four fewer Art Filters (Loses Pale Light & Color, Light Tone, Gentle Sepia and Cross-Process)
  • No built-in flash (clip-in unit included)
  • No level gauge

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G Review: Blazing Fast

 While it may look like another rehash of the old Galaxy S, under the hood the new Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G packs blistering speed, with a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and lightning fast 4G. Does the rest of the device measure up? We take an in-depth look.

This model is available exclusively at T-Mobile USA for $150 with a two-year service contract and $50 mail-in rebate. Without the contract it's $450.

 Build & Design
Given its name, you would expect that the Galaxy S Blaze 4G is a rewarmed version of the two-year-old Galaxy S in a new package. Well, not exactly. While it has undeniable similarities, it's clear that the Blaze has been through quite a retrofit, delivering a much more modern experience.

The first impression you get from holding the Blaze is that it's remarkably light, even for a keyboard-less device. There's several reasons for that, including the screen (which we'll talk about in a minute) and the relative simplicity of the design.

This smartphone's design is very minimalist: no clutter, no extra parts, it's pretty much just literally the screen and the battery. Nicely enough, the microSD card is accessible from a side door without removing the main battery cover.

The Blaze probably isn't the most bulletproof device in existence, given how light it is, but there's nothing really to complain about with the build quality. It's simple, it's solid, and northing's going to pop off or go bad too quickly. It's simplicity in action.

Part of the reason for the Blaze's lightness is its Super AMOLED screen. Displays of this type use a single layer of glowing elements to form the picture, instead of regular LCDs which have one layer to create a picture and another to light it up. This makes Super AMOLED thinner and lighter than other screens, as well as providing better contrast, with black actually appearing as black rather than dark grey. The Blaze uses the same basic Super AMOLED screen seen in a lot of Samsung's older or mid-range models, not as clear and vivid as the ones in the Galaxy S II and Samsung Infuse, but still nice. Even contrasted against your average, more modern LCD, it's going to hold up very well.

Without a doubt, the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G's highest end spec is its processor: a whopping 1.5 GHz dual-core chip gives it as much raw power as just about any smartphone out there, even the higher end stuff. That makes it an ideal choice for games and high-end video for those who don't want to break the bank. Using Quadrant Standard benchmarks, the Blaze earned a whopping 3565 average. When you consider that the Verizon flagship Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX only scores around 2700, that's impressive.

Once you branch out past the processor though, the Blaze is pretty standard mid-range fare. Running on the slightly older Android  OS 2.3 (Gingerbread), it isn't the sort of device I'd expect to see get an Android 4.0 upgrade, so don't count on it. But then, there's as yet very little real advantage using 4.0, as most apps are still designed for 2.3.

A lot of the online spec sheets about the model are wrong: it definitely does not have 16 GB of memory. Instead, it has 4 GB internal (of which 2 GB are available) and is pre-loaded with a 4 GB microSD card. That adds up to a reasonable amount for a middle of the road device, but not nearly so exciting as if the spec sheets had been right.

One unfortunate quality is that the Blaze comes stocked with a lot of T-Mobile branded "bloatware" apps. While it's not quite as bad as some of the Verizon models, the ten -- yes, ten -- T-Mobile branded apps like their own app store, their own version of 411, their own version of caller ID, etcetera, do tend to be tiresome. And they can't be uninstalled, although you can at least remove the widgets that come plastered all over the home screen.

While T-Mobile is currently the only major provider that isn't deploying an LTE network, that doesn't mean you should underestimate their own high speed internet options. The carrier's souped-up HSPA network is still amply capable of delivering broadband at speeds of 10 to 12 megabits downstream, which is competitive with even Verizon's 4G LTE service. Uploading is slower, but not so slow that it should bother you unless you're sending 50 MB videos on a regular basis.

A nice thing about T-Mobile's service that you can't get elsewhere is their WiFi Calling option. Basically, whenever you're hooked up to WiFi your T-Mobile Android phone will default to running your phone's voice, data, and messaging all over the WiFi connection. This effectively gives you the same thing as native T-Mobile service anywhere you can get WiFi, even if you're way, way out in the boondocks, or buried deep in an office building with no other reception. And unlike the signal boosters offered by other providers, you don't need any special hardware or setup, and it works anywhere.

One slightly surprising inclusion on the Blaze is Near Field Communication, or NFC. This is a means to transmit small bits of information such as URLs, contact information, or other bits of text. This can be device to device, like sharing a contact; picking up a URL from an NFC-enabled poster or advertising display; or transmitting data or an authorization from your phone to another device. NFC hasn't seen much adoption in the US, but Google has been pushing it for use with their "Google Wallet" service, essentially trying to make your smartphone into also being your credit card. Although why you'd want that, I have a hard time imagining.


Unfortunately the Blaze doesn't stock over-much in the way of productivity software. Beyond the standard email, contacts, and organization apps, the only other particularly useful thing it sports is a copy of Polaris Office, allowing you to work with Microsoft Office documents while on the go.

There's much more of an emphasis on entertainment with the Blaze, with not just Google's own music, books, and video apps included, but also clients for T-Mobile's version of MobiTV, Netflix, and Zinio. All of which, unfortunately, require paid subscriptions to get the most out of them, but at least they mostly offer free trials too.

In the camera department, this Samsung smartphone unfortunately hasn't gotten an upgrade from its ancestors. While its 5 megapixel camera is a fairly standard resolution, the optics leave a lot to be desired, giving you fuzzy photos lacking in detail compared to other phones based on more recent designs. Even in good light, you will lose a lot of detail.

Battery Life
Despite being a fairly slim and light device, the Blaze packs a 1750 mAh battery. That's close to standard size if you're talking about devices running on LTE, but for T-Mobile's network it's well above the rest of the crowd, giving the device excellent battery life. It's pretty safe to say that you'll get through the day with this thing even if you're using it roughly with a lot of 4G and the brightness cranked up.

 All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G makes for a fairly good Android phone. Is it worth your $150? I would give it a conditional yes. Of all the major carriers, T-Mobile probably has the scarcest options in terms of good Android devices. Compared to the rest of the carrier's offerings, the Blaze makes a decent mid-point between the newer Samsung Galaxy S II on the higher end, and the truly cheap options like the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G and the Samsung Exhibit II.

That said, the Blaze isn't going to match up with the amount of bang for your buck that you'd get on other carriers. The same price on AT&T or Verizon would net you a better phone -- but also a higher monthly bill than you'll get with T-Mobile. Either way, you get what you pay for.

Although it may not be the best Android phone available for its $150 suggested retail price, the Blaze is still a pretty good device, and it's one of the few "small" Android devices on the market that still has a truly high-end processor in it. That alone may merit some attention. Otherwise though, I would call it a solid mid-range choice for those who don't need the Galaxy S II, and one they'll likely be very happy with.
Slim and light
Great battery life
Fast processor

Other specs are less impressive
Lots of clutterware
Slightly higher price than comparable devices on other carriers

Bottom Line
A decent but not extraordinary device, the Blaze 4G is a good choice for those who want a mid-range device on T-Mobile, or a compact Android phone with a fast processor.