WHAT'S HOT: Through-the-lens viewing tops this camera's extensive list of features. Unlike the tiny, straight-through optical viewfinders on most digital cameras, the E-20N's is big, bright, and more precise, especially for macro shooting. Another significant advantage of the E-20N (like its predecessor, the E-10) is that it lets you see the aperture and shutter speed settings in the viewfinder. This rare capability makes using aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual exposure modes truly practical. Another seldom-seen feature is multiple-media support. The E-20 comes with a modest 32MB SmartMedia card (we think at least 64MB would be more appropriate for a 5-megapixel camera), but it can also use Compact Flash media and IBM's Microdrives, both of which have capacities of up to 1GB.
Its heavy aluminum body gives the E-20N a rugged, durable feel, and it operates smoothly and quietly. The unit's lens moves relatively quickly throughout its zoom range. Most digital cameras lose two or three full f-stops as you zoom to their maximum telephoto range--the E-20N drops from f2 to f2.4. Multiple buttons let you speedily adjust the more commonly used controls, including two dedicated white balance buttons--one for one-touch instant calibration (which helps with recording accurate colors) and the other for switching between white balance modes. All of the controls are well placed, maximizing their functionality under a variety of shooting conditions.
WHAT'S NOT: This isn't a camera you can drop into a pocket or small bag. It's big and heavy even in comparison to a typical 35mm SLR. The E-20N measures 7 inches from the back of its massive body to the end of its longish zoom lens, and it weighs over 2.5 pounds. It doesn't offer digital zoom or audio or video recording--a disadvantage for some amateur shooters, though few pros will miss them.
WHAT ELSE: Olympus's E-20N earned an overall image quality score of good in our standardized tests. Enlargements made from the Olympus' shots weren't quite as sharp as those produced by Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-F707 and Nikon's Coolpix 5000--though they were still pleasing overall. The E-20N impressed us least in color balance. Outdoor shots tended to have a blue cast (which we've noted in other Olympus models); and in our test pattern shots, whites took on a light cream tone. Images of our model taken with flash had fine color shading, but the powerful flash tended to overexpose our model's skin tone.
You can compensate for most of these problems by working with the camera's settings. Using the menus, for example, you can lower the exposure value for the flash. Similarly, adjusting the white balance calibration button significantly improved the accuracy of blues and whites in outdoor shots.
One of the more interesting changes Olympus made in upgrading the E-10 to the E-20N was to add a progressive scan mode. This menu selection allows you to shoot at shutter speeds up to an incredible 1/18,000 of a second (no that's not a misprint). That remarkable speed does not come without some cost, however: It cuts the camera's vertical resolution by half. We shot images in both the standard interlaced and progressive scan modes; viewed at 100 percent of image size on-screen, the latter were significantly less sharp.
The E-20N did exceptionally well in our battery tests. Using two 3-volt, disposable lithium-ion batteries, we took over 600 shots. For users embarked on really long photo shoots, Olympus offers a rechargeable lithium polymer battery pack that attaches to the bottom of the camera. Other options include various telephoto and wide-angle lenses. If you plan to do a lot of macro photography, you'll want to purchase the optional macro extension lens. Without it, the smallest area the E-20N can shoot is about 3 inches across.
For shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, the E-20N comes with a large plastic sunshade that clips onto the front of the lens. When you stuff the E-20N into your camera bag, the shade is designed so you can turn it around and slide over the lens barrel backward. Unfortunately, it doesn't stay put this way very well, and it tends to fall off when you pull the camera out of the bag--a minor irritation.
UPSHOT: A worthy upgrade to the well-regarded E-10, the E-20N adds extra imaging power to an already extremely versatile camera.
By Tracey Capen