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?
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.