Olympus XZ-1 Review

Olympus' stab at a serious compact.

What is it?
The Olympus XZ-1 is their top-end compact camera, one targeted at serious shooters desiring something small and compact. It's not quite in the shirt-pocket league of the Canon S95 or Panasonic LX-5, but it does fit some of my big men's shirt pockets and is certainly a jacket-pocket camera. With a 10mp 1/1.63" CCD (not CMOS) and a 28-122mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.5 zoom lens, it's also clear that Olympus is targeting the XZ-1 as a possible low-light compact camera. With metal body construction, a 3" 621 dot OLED display, and support for Olympus's hot-shoe accessories (e.g. EVF, macro lights, or microphone, but not the bluetooth connection), the camera is clearly targeted towards a sophisticated user willing to pay for higher-end capabilities.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

Other key features you'll want to know about: sensor shift stabilization, built-in ND filters, remote flash control, 720P/30 Motion-JPEG video support, a mode dial with the full PASM capbilities, as high as 15 fps shooting speed (with restrictions; normally 2 fps), bracketing, and a built-in flash that can also work with wireless flash units. The ubiquitous Olympus stuff: Art Filters, TruePic imaging ASIC (version V), face detect and other "intelligent" autofocus modes, plus spot/center/matrix metering.

The camera comes in white or black for US$499, and an underwater housing is available for US$299.

How's it Handle?
What is it about compact camera makers and their aversion to grips? The XZ-1 comes as a plain jane rectangular box, the old bar-of-soap design. The metal surface is, as with most metals that aren't coated or covered, slippery. First thing on your list should be to get a stick on grip, such as those from Flipbac (which you can see on my camera in the photos). Even that isn't a perfect solution, as the camera body itself is very skinny. Someone with large hands will have trouble one-handing this camera even with a grip added. For me, it works okay, but isn't optimal, so I'm usually two-handing it while shooting.

One irony is that the XZ-1 has a more substantial lens cap than Olympus supplies with most of their m4/3 lenses. Hook it via the supplied strap to one of the strap attachment points and you can ignore turning on the camera with the cap attached: the movement of the lens to its shooting position will just eject the cap. If you don't tether the cap, you'll be hunting for it on the ground a lot when you forget that this compact camera doesn't use retracting shutter leaves over the lens and you turn the camera on with the cap attached. Personally, I'm all for this sort of arrangement. I'm grown up enough to deal with lens caps, even on small cameras.

The big claim to fame on the Olympus was the inclusion of a ring around the lens for control, ala the Canon high-end compacts. What mode you're in dictates what it controls. For aperture-priority and manual exposure, for example, it controls the aperture. For shutter-priority, the shutter speed. For Program exposure, it controls ISO. In Scene modes it controls the scene selection. In other words, the ring does about what you'd expect it to do, which is good, because the camera doesn't have a lot of customization ability: what you see in controls is pretty much what you get.

In practice, I wasn't as excited about the ring as some seem to have been. Yes, it's a convenient and logical control mechanism, but remember that comment about two-handing? The ring is part of that. This is a two-hand camera, despite its small size. I have no problem with that myself, as I prefer the extra stabilization that two-handing supplies, but some people might find it frustrating.

Aside from the ring around the lens and the full mode dial, the rest of the controls are straight by the compact camera playbook. The direction pad is overloaded with function, some things are buried in the menu system, plus there's an overabundance of icons and information on the LCD. Curiously missing is an exposure lock button, but it's easy enough for a sophisticated shooter to just use manual exposure. One thing Olympus has provided is the quick menu for oft-used settings triggered by pressing the OK button in the center of the direction pad. As with the m4/3 Pen models, this is both a boon and a curse. A boon in that it gives you very fast access to changing critical settings. A curse because at some point you're going to accidentally have settings changed by bumping the OK button and other controls while not looking.

So here's my handling tip: before shooting, check the mode dial and the quick settings. Before you shoot, every time. Fail to do that and you'll get some shots with random settings on them. The mode dial is very easy to move (though the camera does sometimes warn you about when it's been changed). The quick menu is a little tougher to invoke accidentally, but it happens with some regularity when I handle the camera roughly, just as it did on my Pens.

The menu system is simple, understandable, and very quick to navigate, something that can't be said for the Pen menu system. Olympus has shown a lot of restraint and kept things to a bare minimum, but has done so in an organized fashion, too.

Overall I'm a little surprised at some of the criticisms of handling and controls that have been levied at the XZ-1. Personally, I found it very straightforward and easy to adjust to. It doesn't really get in the way, though I'd also agree that it isn't perfectly optimized.

How's it Perform?
Let's get one of the big minuses out of the way first: the battery is too small. Even with the efficient OLED LCD it's tough to get 300 shots out of a full battery charge on this camera. Buy extra batteries.

Focus performance is compact cameraish. Face detection seems to work quite well, the 11 point AF system is also quite decent for single focus work. Continuous autofocus (tracking) is not something I'd rely upon. Close focus switches too soon to macro, necessitating some extra button pressing compared to other compacts. Low light performance is helped by the AF assist lamp (which can be turned off), but low light performance definitely is poorer than bright light performance, even with the lamp.

The lens is, in a word, excellent. Even the edges are impressively sharp wide open in the corners at the widest angle (28mm equivalent). Chromatic aberration and even linear distortion are well controlled for the specification. The one minor issue is that the lens will flare with light sources in the scene or in very bright side light. It really needs the option of a lens hood, but even that wouldn't solve the bright light flare.

JPEG shooters beware. The XZ-1 has a tendency to smear fine detail a bit, which is a shame considering how good the lens is. This appears to be due to the non-cancellable noise reduction. At base ISO, maybe you'll be fine with this, but personally I found it annoying at every ISO value. Olympus is clearly reducing noise even at base ISO, but something about the way they're doing it makes edge acuity suffer a teeny bit. The problem is that this makes a "turn off sharpening and sharpen later" workflow questionable. As usual, though, Olympus produces punchy, good looking color in their JPEGs.

RAW is noisy from the base (as it is with most compact cameras). Perhaps a bit more so than some competitive cameras (Samsung TL500, for example). Fortunately, this is luminance noise, and well controlled, so you can easily deal with it. By ISO 800 we've got clear color noise being added in, and by ISO 1600 I'd judge the results unacceptable. All that said, this is a compact camera, and noise is to be expected. At the lower ISO values the XZ-1 is competitive, especially because the lens performs so well. Moreover, the fast apertures on the lens allow you to delay moving to higher ISOs as the light drops.

Videos are only okay, and that's probably due to the use of Motion JPEG. As with most Motion JPEG footage I've seen, there's a bit of acuity loss and motion can seem overly blurry.

Dynamic range, as with all compacts, is somewhat limited. It would have been nice to have a built-in HDR function in this camera.

Final Word
The overall impression the XZ-1 gives is this: no nonsense. The designers showed remarkable restraint in not adding the usual kitchen sink to a high-end compact camera, and it makes for a rather pleasant experience. The lack of a few controls and the lack of customization will have you conforming to the XZ-1, not the camera conforming to you. That's fine. It's simple enough to pick up and adjust to.

There are some contradictions in the design, though. The superb lens is let down a bit by the sensor, which forced Olympus to choose noise reduction in all JPEGs. With only 10mp of image, you can't push this camera into large output without seeing the noise smear. The fast lens helps keep you from moving to higher ISO values, though. You'll also find yourself hitting the macro button a little more often than you'd like because the switchover on focus is too far out.

That said, most serious shooters would probably enjoy the XZ-1. It handles well and doesn't get in the way, and the lens can produce excellent results, despite the small sensor.

I can't help but feel that the XZ-1 could have been better, though. The sensor and noise reduction let it down a bit. It would have been nice to have a small amount of customization (or an abandonment of overloaded direction pad for more dedicated controls). Video really should be AVCHD. Olympus has some room to tweak this camera into a real winner.

Features All the basics you'd expect of an advanced camera. No frills.
Performance The sensor holds this camera back a bit. The lens doesn't.
Value Getting into the price range for larger sensor cameras lowers the rating.


Original: 8/1/2011
Ratings last updated: 8/1/2011


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