The Olympus XZ-1 is the latest advanced creative compact, featuring an enviable specification and packed with high end features. Could this be the best pocketable enthusiast compact yet made?
Creative compacts like the Olympus XZ-1 are aimed primarily at hobbyists seeking a high quality pocket camera as a lighter alternative to the unwieldy DSLR system that they most likely also own. To pass muster with this discerning audience there are several key features that these cameras must possess to distinguish them from your run of the mill point and shoot: a larger sensor, a superior lens with wider maximum aperture, full manual control, and the ability to shoot raw files. The Olympus XZ-1 ticks all these boxes, plus a couple more nice-to-haves, such as a hotshoe for external flash and, almost uniquely for a compact, the option to attach an electronic viewfinder. It’s also one of the smallest cameras in this class – think Canon S95 rather than Canon G12.
Olympus XZ-1 review – Features
The Olympus XZ-1 has at its heart a 1/1.63in CCD, one of the largest sensors available for zoom compacts, and bigger than, for example, the one in the Canon G12. It’s only 10 megapixels but this is part of the trend at the quality end of the compact market for fewer but bigger pixels, because this lower density results in reduced image noise and better low light performance. Images captured by the sensor are fed through the Truepic V processor, as used in the Pen E-PL2.
The lens is the first on a compact to bear the prestigious ‘Zuiko’ name that adorns its premium DSLR lenses. The iZuiko Digital 6-24mm is equivalent to a useful 28-112mm in 35mm terms but it’s big selling point is the wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end, dropping to a still impressive f/2.5 at 112mm – making the XZ-1 one of the widest aperture compacts on the market. This offers several benefits: the ability to shoot hand held in lower light, the ability to shoot at lower ISOs or at faster shutter speeds in a given situation, and the ability to shoot at wider apertures to create more shallow depth of field than is possible with a normal compact. In order to achieve this maximum aperture, the lens is physically wider than average and of course in common with all such cameras does not retract fully into the body.
Many cameras offer manual exposure controls but to appeal to the enthusiast they need to be quick and easy to access. The XZ-1 has a mode dial on the top featuring all the PASM modes (Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual) plus a selection of auto options. Olympus has also followed the path laid by the Canon Powershot S95 in providing an input collar around the lens mount, like an old fashioned aperture ring, which can be rotated to adjust a wide variety of settings, depending on the mode selected. It even has click stops. In aperture and shutter priority modes this ring scrolls through the apertures and shutter speeds respectively, while in both Program mode and the dedicated Low Light mode (which favours wide apertures) it alters the ISO. In manual it changes the aperture and the rear input dial on the back changes the shutter speed. In Scene mode the ring provides access to 18 subject-optimised programs such as indoor portraits, fireworks and pets. There’s also a setting for the now familiar Art Filter modes, which apply one of six post processing effects to your images: Pop Art, Pinhole, Dramatic Tone, Soft Focus, Grainy B&W and Diorama – again, selected via the collar around the lens. In-camera filter effects can often be a bit naff but some of these can produce quite striking results with the right subject. Finally there’s a Custom mode which lets you save preferred settings and, for when you just want to point and shoot, there’s iAuto, which uses subject recognition to pick the appropriate scene mode for you.
The XZ-1 offers a choice of three metering modes: centre-weighted, spot or Digital ESP, which uses 324 metering zones. The contrast-detect focusing options are equally comprehensive. Choose from 11 area AF, manually selectable spot focus from any of the 11 points, or manual focus using a magnified central section. The XZ-1 also boasts auto-tracking AF and Face Detection.
The Olympus XZ-1 is one of a number of recent compacts to offer high speed burst shooting options. In addition to the standard continuous mode, which shoots at around two fps, there are two dedicated high speed modes which deliver faster burst rates at reduced resolution: Hi1 shoots 5MP images at 7fps, and Hi2 shoots 2MP images at 15fps.
The built-in flash is a pop up type, which must be activated manually when required, but it also doubles as a wireless flash controller, capable of triggering the optional FL-50R and FL-36R flashguns remotely. This is unique for a camera of this type.
Olympus XZ-1 review – Design
The Olympus XZ-1 is a svelte and attractive camera. Despite the protrusion of the lens it’s small enough to fit comfortably into, say, a blazer pocket, and at just 275g is light enough not to be a burden to carry. The body is made from a combination of aluminium and plastic and comes in a choice of matte black or gloss white. Although the white version is perhaps the more eye catching of the two, the shiny surface makes it a little less secure to hold, especially in view of the fact that the XZ-1 lacks any kind of grip or body contouring. A grip would have been good, or at least a groove in the front for the index finger.
The mode dial occupies the right hand edge of the top plate, next to the shutter and, although well placed, is easily knocked into a different mode. It could do with being a bit stiffer. The flash rises from the left side of the top plate, and between the two, directly above the lens axis, is a raised platform housing both the hotshoe, for an external flash, and the Accessory Port, which accommodates the optional electronic viewfinder, external microphone or macro lights from the Pen system. The ability to attach the VF-2 viewfinder in particular gives the XZ-1 a huge advantage over most competitors except for the LX5, which also has this facility, although this option costs an extra £200.
The back of the camera is dominated by the big, 3in 610k-dot OLED screen. Also used in the rival Samsung EX1, OLED screens offer better brightness and contrast than LCD technology, as well as a wider viewing angle and lower power consumption.
On the right of the camera is a dedicated movie recording button next to a small rubber thumb grip, below which is a rear control dial that doubles as a four-way D-pad. Inside this the ‘OK’ button provides direct access to the key image settings. The only other buttons are the Play, Menu and Display Info buttons. A door on the right side provides access to the mini HDMI port for connection to a TV, and a USB port through which the battery is charged in-camera. The li-Ion battery and SD card slot are accessed via a door in the bottom. The XZ-1 is SDHC and SDXC compatible.
Olympus XZ-1 review – Performance
For a compact the XZ-1 is not a sluggish perfomer. It takes about a second to power on and there’s no excessive delay in focusing, zooming, shooting or switching between menus. Most of the key settings are accessed by pressing the OK button on the back, which brings up a vertical Function menu down the right side of the screen that lists 12 parameters: ISO, Picture mode, White Balance, Drive mode, Aspect Ratio, File Format, Movie mode, Flash mode, Flash Compensation, Metering Mode, ND Filter on/off, Focus mode and Face Priority on/off. As you scroll down the list the options within each parameter display along the bottom, so it’s a matter of pressing down then across on the D-pad. It’s a shame there are no direct buttons for ISO and white balance on the camera, as there are for focus and drive modes, but at least when you enter the Function Menu it goes to the last place you visited.
The XZ-1’s front input dial, around the lens, is superb to use. With your left hand cradling the camera the ring falls naturally between thumb and forefinger and adjusting settings is quick and easy, guided by the click stops and the linear display of settings on the screen. The rear input dial is less successful; in common with most such dials other compacts it is narrow, fiddly and lacks grip. If you don’t press hard enough with your thumb it slips on the wheel but press too hard and you inadvertently select one of the modes, such as the flash mode. Fortunately you can alternatively, press left and right or up and down and avoid the rotary dial altogether. A wider dial with better grip, and the need for a firmer press to activate the D-pad, would be better.
The XZ-1’s OLED screen is a joy to use – bright, sharp, easy to see even outdoors and great for zooming in on your pictures to check the detail. The optional clip on VF-2 viewfinder, which is one of the best EVFs available, also proved hugely useful. Unlike the poky optical viewfinders built in to a small number of compacts, the VF-2 shows 100% of the image, with all the shooting data. It has built in dioptre correction and a high enough eyepoint for spectacle wearers to see the whole frame without that tunnel vision effect. Being electronic the image is also brighter in low light. By making it an optional extra it keeps the size and cost of the camera down for those who don’t want a viewfinder, although the downside is that £200 price tag.
Many users will like the fact that the XZ-1’s flash must be popped up manually to turn it on. The display will indicate if it thinks flash is needed, but its up to the user to decide whether to heed or ignore the advice. Note though that if you select Flash Off in the flash mode menu the flash won’t fire even if you pop it up, which can be confusing if you forget you’d selected that mode. The inclusion of a hotshoe for an external flash broadens the creative options and the addition of wireless flash functionality is very impressive in a camera of this type.
The ability to manually select from 11 focus points is useful for focusing on off-centre subjects
The auto focusing proved to be problem-free, rarely failing to lock on to the subject first time even in fairly low light, thanks to the inclusion of an AF illumination lamp on the front. The ability to manually select from one of the 11 AF points is useful too and there’s also manual focus, via the rear dial. The enlarged image on the screen is brought into sharp relief either by rotating the dial or pressing up and down. The latter is quicker and less frustrating, but it would be quicker if the display gave some indication of which direction to go in.
Its great to have the option of high speed shooting, and it’s quick and easy to access via the drive modes button on the back, but the image resolution is reduced to 5MP at the 7fps setting (Hi1) and a lowly 2MP at the 15fps (Hi2). The image quality of the latter, however, is so poor that the results look like watercolour paintings so it’s best avoided.
The XZ-1’s Image Stabilisation, on the other hand, is very effective and with care we managed to get pretty sharp images, hand held, at speeds as low as 1/8sec. Of course the wide aperture lens makes it less likely that such low speeds will need to be used at all. But it’s the Digital Stabilisation in Movie Mode that is the more interesting here. Movies don’t use the whole vertical run of the sensor, so by varying the portion of the sensor it captures, the XZ-1 can compensate for user-generated motion, such as when walking.
The movie mode itself has a dedicated button on the back, which saves time fumbling around with dials and so forth, and causes less confusion when it’s shared with the main still camera shutter button. The XZ-1 is only capable of 720p HD movies, and it saves them in the less than ideal MPEG format, which is less efficient than the alternative AVCHD used by some other cameras.
Olympus XZ-1 review: Image Quality
Olympus XZ-1 review: Tone and Exposure
Some of the images from the XZ-1 are slightly on the light side, but not enough to cause concern, though it’s a good idea to keep an eye on highlight detail in high contrast situations. Images display good contrast, which combined with the excellent sharpness gives them lots of impact.
Olympus XZ-1 review: RAW/JPEG
JPEG files do not look radically different to ORF format Raw files converted in the supplied Olympus Viewer 2. At higher ISOs the presence of noise breaks up much of the fine detail, while edge sharpening tries to undo some of the damage done by the former.
Olympus XZ-1 review: Colour and White Balance
XZ-1 images are punchy and saturated, even in the Normal picture mode, while the Vivid mode is only marginally more lurid. White balance performs impeccably outdoors but can struggle to filter the warmth out of tungsten lit scenes, while mixed lighting can flummox it completely, though to be fair these issues are no more pronounced here than on most other cameras.
Olympus XZ-1 review: ISO Sensitivity and Image Noise
At IS0 100 to ISO 400 there is little visible image noise even when viewed at 100%. At ISO 800 it starts to become visible but is still fairly unobtrusive. At ISO 1600 however the noise control seems to fall off a cliff, taking the colour fidelity with it. They’re still acceptable, but muddy shadows, chroma noise and the traces of a red cast take the sheen off the results. Beyond ISO 1600 these issues become much more pronounced and ISO 6400 is pretty poor ¬- not so much for the noise as the almost total lack of colour.
Olympus XZ-1 review: Sharpness and Detail
Images from the XZ-1 look impressively sharp and detailed. This is partly due to some clever and effective sharpening of the JPEGS, but also to the high quality of the lens, which is demonstrated by the edge to edge sharpness of the unprocessed raw files. At the higher ISOs sharpness is diminished slightly by the presence of noise but because the XZ-1 doesn’t ever go overboard with detail-killing noise reduction processing fairly fine text is still quite readable even at ISO 1600.
Olympus XZ-1 review: Movie Mode
While still images from the XZ-1 are extremely impressive the movie clips let the side down a bit. They’re soft and lacking in detail, as though over-compressed – not really what you’d expect from HD. This could be an attempt to keep file sizes down to compensate for the space-hungry MPEG format that the camera uses. Although the focus locks on to the subject most of the time it does tend to drift now and again, but on the plus side the stabilisation works well to compensate for camera shake.
Value & Verdict
Olympus XZ-1 Review – Value
The Olympus XZ-1 is launched at a similar price to its near rival, the Panasonic Lumix LX5, and slightly more than the street price of the other main contenders in this sector, the Canon S95 and Samsung EX1. While there are one or two features on those cameras that the XZ-1 lacks, the XZ-1 has its own aces, such as the wireless flash control. Image quality is the deciding factor and here the points of difference are more difficult to discern, at least at the lower ISOs. Overall the XZ-1 is prices fairly for what it offers, compared to what else is available.
Taken using the Pinhole Art Filter Mode
Olympus XZ-1 Review – Verdict
The Holy Grail for serious enthusiasts shopping for a compact is for a camera that achieves the highest possible image quality, with full control, in as small a package as is practical. The Olympus XZ-1 comes as close to achieving this as any camera yet launched. It’s certainly one of the smallest cameras of its type, the lens is superb, it’s great fun to use and image quality at the lower ISOs is among the best, whether shooting in Raw or JPEG. Furthermore it offers the ability to add an electronic viewfinder, to use a flashgun (either on the hotshoe or wirelessly) and to shoot high speed bursts.
Only a couple of niggles thwart its bid for perfection, most notably its high ISO performance and so-so movie quality. The awkward rear dial and lack of any kind of hand grip are more minor issues. On balance though the XZ-1 is an excellent camera that we can heartily recommend to anyone looking for a camera of this type.