Originally Posted: January 5, 2011
Last Updated: January 4, 2013
The Olympus XZ-1 ($499) marks the Japanese camera giant's entry into the compact prosumer market. The XZ-1 is a cross between the Canon PowerShot S95 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, featuring such things as a fast and wide lens, a high sensitivity 10 Megapixel CCD, manual controls, a large/high resolution LCD (or OLED), HD movie recording, and more.
I can't think of a better way to start this article than to show you a chart comparing all three of those cameras, plus the similar Samsung TL500, and the new Nikon Coolpix P300 (which has a fast lens, but regular-sized sensor). You may want to widen your browser window a bit so it all fits!
That's quite a table! The XZ-1 comes off looking pretty good, at least when it comes to specs. Is it a great camera in the real world, too? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The XZ-1 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 10.0 effective Megapixel XZ-1 digital camera
- LI-50B lithium-ion battery
- USB-to-AC adapter
- Lens cap w/retaining strap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Olympus Viewer 2 and Olympus [ib] software
- Fold-out Quick Start Guide + full manual on CD-ROM
The XZ-1 has 54.6 MB of memory built right into it. While that's more than you'll get on most cameras, it's still not going to hold a whole lot of photos. Thus, I'd recommend buying an SD, SDHC, or SDXC card right away. For most folks, a 2GB or 4GB card should be fine, while most enthusiasts may want something larger. Buying a high speed card isn't a bad idea, though you don't need to go overboard.
The XZ-1 uses the familiar Olympus LI-50B lithium-ion battery. This compact battery holds 3.4 Wh of energy, which isn't a whole lot. Let's see how that translates into battery life:
Despite a fairly anemic battery, the XZ-1 still manages to put out above average battery life numbers. Nice job, Olympus!
All five of the cameras on the above list use proprietary batteries. What that means for the average user is that you 1) replacement batteries are on the pricey side (an extra LI-50B will cost you about $30) and 2) should your rechargeable die, you can't find something off-the-shelf to get you through the rest of the day. Unfortunately that's "par for the course" with cameras like this!
The XZ-1 does not charge the battery in the traditional manner -- at least not by default. Inside the box is this little number, which is an AC-to-USB adapter. Attach one end of the USB cable into your camera and the other into the adapter, and then plug the whole thing into the wall, and the battery will be charged inside the camera. It will take up to three hours for the battery to fully charge. You can also charge the battery by plugging the USB cable into a computer, though Olympus warns that this may take longer.
If you want a regular external charger, Olympus would be happy to sell you their LI-50C travel charger, which is priced from $24.
Olympus includes a lens cap (with retaining strap) to protect its lens. The cap doesn't really lock on to the lens, which is both good and bad. The good news is that it'll pop off when you power on the camera, and the bad news is that it often comes off when you don't want it to.
The optional PT-050 waterproof case
Image courtesy of Olympus
There are a decent amount of accessories available for the XZ-1. One thing which I mistakenly put in the chart in the preview of this camera was the PENPAL Bluetooth accessory -- it is not compatible with the XZ-1. Here are the extras that will work with the camera:
While the camera does come with an AC adapter, do note that it's only for charging the battery and replaying images. Olympus says that it is not for taking pictures, and they don't offer an AC adapter that would allow you to do so.
Olympus Viewer 2 in Mac OS X
Olympus includes two pieces of software with the XZ-1, with their Viewer 2 being the main one. This software works on both Mac and Windows systems, and is capable of handling a lot of tasks. The main screen looks like every other image viewer on the market: file browser on the left, resizable thumbnails in the middle, and shooting info on the right (as well as a "box" in which to put photos you want to work on.
Other options here include an image lightbox (for side-by-side comparisons), slideshows, printing, batch processing, and easy skin retouching. The XZ-1's firmware can also be updated using Viewer 2.
Editing in Olympus Viewer 2
Olympus Viewer 2 is fully-loaded in the editing department, as well. In addition to a quick "auto tone" fix, you can also adjust the following:
If you're working with a RAW image, you can also edit the following properties:
Pretty impressive for free software!
Olympus [ib] software in Windows
Also included is Olympus' oddly named [ib] software, which is for Windows only. This software, complete with an overly flashy interface, is aimed more toward consumers than the Viewer 2 product described above.
The photo import process involves naming events (just like iPhoto), tagging any faces, and selecting the location in which a photo was taken. You can't choose individual photos to import -- it's either everything in an event or all of the photos on the camera. Once you get to the main screen, you'll find the usual thumbnail view, which is broken down by event. Over on the right side of the frame are windows for faces the software has identified, as well as a map showing the locations you've tagged.
You can also print photos, stitch together panoramas, and update the firmware on your camera from the main page. If you register the [ib] software, Olympus also gives you 2GB of online photo storage.
Editing JPEGs in Olympus [ib]
The [ib] software has a nice set of image editing tools. You can rotate or level images, correct for distortion and redeye, smooth skin tones and remove blemishes, or add special effects to your photos. Of course, basics like brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness can be adjusted as well. In addition to its JPEG editing duties, the [ib] software can also edit and export RAW images. RAW properties that can be adjusted include exposure, white balance, Picture Mode, contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, and the noise filter.
If you'd rather use Photoshop CS5 to work with the XZ-1's RAW images, then you'll want to have version 6.4 or newer of their Camera Raw plug-in.
And what is this RAW thing all about, anyway? RAW files contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.
Unfortunately, all of the documentation for the Olympus XZ-1 is in digital format. Sure, there's a fold-out Quick Start guide in the box (in multiple languages), but that doesn't get you very far. If you want more details, you'll have to load up the PDF manual, which comes on an included CD-ROM. The quality of the manual itself is average by digital camera standards, which is to say: somewhat confusing, and not very detailed. The manuals for the two software products I mentioned above will be installed onto your computer.
Look and Feel
The Olympus XZ-1 is a midsize camera with a matte black, all-metal body. Build quality is good in all respects, with even the battery/memory card door feeling pretty solid. The design is a cross between the Canon PowerShot S95 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, though the XZ-1 is closer in size to the latter.
The XZ-1 and its close competitor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
Ergonomics on the XZ-1 are generally good. Like the S95, the XZ-1 has no right hand grip, and the matte finish is a bit slippery, so hold on tight. There is a rubberized spot on the back of the camera for your thumb, however, which was nice. The important controls are well-placed, though I found the buttons and dials on the back of the camera to be cluttered and small. It's also way too easily to accidentally power the camera on.
Images courtesy of Olympus
The XZ-1 will be available in both black and white colors.
Alright, now let's see how the XZ-1 compares to other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
Well there you have it -- the Olympus XZ-1 is the just barely the largest (but not the heaviest) camera in the group. It's a bit too large to fit in your jeans pocket, but the XZ-1 will travel in a jacket pocket or small camera bag with ease.
Let's start our tour of the camera now, shall we?
You can tell how big a deal the lens is on this camera, as Olympus has printed its maximum aperture on the body using very large type! The aperture range is indeed impressive, ranging from F1.8 at wide-angle to F2.5 at telephoto -- only the Samsung TL500 is faster (and just at telephoto -- barely). The focal range of this 4X Olympus iZuiko lens is 6 - 24 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 112 mm. While the lens itself is not threaded, the barrel around it is, and you can add a teleconversion lens and possibly filters by purchasing the CLA-12 adapter that I mentioned in the previous section.
Like the other cameras in this class (save for the Nikon Coolpix P300), the XZ-1 has a larger-than-average sensor with fewer pixels than your typical compact camera. This sensor is 1/1.63" (0.61") in size, which is considerably larger than the 1/1.8" (0.55") or 1/2.3" (0.43") sensors found on most cameras. And, by keeping the pixel count low, the XZ-1's sensor has larger photo sites than the 12 or 14 Megapixel CCDs that are all-too-common these days. All of this means that more light is captured, allowing for better picture quality at high sensitivities than other compact cameras -- at least in theory.
The XZ-1 uses a sensor-shift image stabilization system to help reduce blur in photos. The camera detects the tiny movements caused by your hands that can blur your photos, especially in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens. It then shifts the CCD itself to compensate for this motion, allowing for a higher likelihood of a sharp photo. The mechanical IS system won't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second handheld exposures, but it will produce sharper photos than you'd get otherwise. Here's an example of the XZ-1's image stabilization system in action:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
Both of the photos you see above were taken at a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second. As you can see, the photo with image stabilization turned off is totally blurry -- but that's not the case with IS turned on. In movie mode you don't get to use the sensor-shift IS system. Instead, there camera reduces camera shake digitally, and I have to say, it does a good job at it. Don't believe me? Look at this sample video, and note how the field-of-view is larger when using the digital IS system.
At the upper-right of the photo is the XZ-1's pop-up flash, which is released manually. I'm normally not a fan of flashes like this, as they take up all the finger space on the top of the camera, but Olympus left enough room here, so that's not an issue. The flash has a working range of 0.5 - 8.6 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 6.2 m at telephoto (both at ISO 800, rather than Auto ISO that's typically used for this spec), which is quite powerful. If you want more flash power and a reduced chance of redeye, then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe, or cut the cord entirely and go wireless (though you'll need one of the higher-end Olympus flashes to be the slave).
The last thing to see on the front of the camera is its AF-assist lamp, which is used as a focusing aid in low light. This same lamp serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
The first thing to see on the back of the camera is the XZ-1's 614,000 pixel OLED display. This display, likely the same as the one on the Samsung TL500, is absolutely gorgeous. OLED displays have much wider color gamuts, deeper blacks, and wider viewing angles than typical LCDs. Outdoor viewing is just okay -- OLEDs aren't known for their visibility in those situations -- while in low light situations it brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.
Above the OLED display, and normally under a plastic cover, is the XZ-1's accessory port. This is exactly the same port that is found on the E-P2 and E-PL1 interchangeable lens cameras, and thus, the XZ-1 supports the same add-ons. One that many interest many folks is the VF-2 electronic viewfinder that I mentioned in the previous section. Do note that the PENPAL Bluetooth transmitter is not supported.
To the left of the accessory port is the release for the camera's built-in flash. Over on the top-right side of the photo is the dedicated movie recording button. Press once to start recording a movie and again to stop. I'll have more on the XZ-1's movie capabilities later in the article.
Moving downward we find the button for entering playback mode, plus the combination four-way controller / scroll wheel. The scroll wheel (which is small, and turns a bit too easily) is used for adjusting manual settings, navigating menus, and playing back photos. The four-way controller does many of the same things, plus:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV)
- Down - Drive mode (Single-shot, sequential, high speed sequential 1/2, bracketing, 2 or 12 sec self-timer) + Delete photo
- Left - Focus point select (11-point auto, 1-point manual)
- Right - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash, fill flash w/redeye reduction, flash off, full strength, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64 strength) - the last few options are only available in "M" mode
- Center - Live Guide / Live Control menus + OK
There are three continuous shooting modes on the XZ-1, though only one of them is at full resolution. The two high speed modes will reduce the resolution (to 5 Megapixel or VGA), and will set the ISO to "Auto". The high speed modes cannot be used with RAW, or in the manual exposure modes, either. The table below summarizes the performance you'll get in each of these three continuous modes:
At full resolution, the XZ-1 impresses with the amount of photos it can take in a single burst, though its frame rate is pretty average. When you reach the limits above, the camera actually stops recording, unlike others that just slow down. The display keeps up fairly well with the action at full resolution, and better when using the two high speed options.
The XZ-1 also has the ability to bracket for both exposure and white balance, in 3-shot bursts. See the menu section for a bit more detail on those features.
By pressing left on the four-way controller, you can let the camera select one of the eleven focus points automatically, or you can choose one of them yourself. Press the Info button and you can select a focus mode, with options that include two macro choices (with 1 and 10 cm minimum distances), a subject tracking option, and manual focus. This last mode lets you use the scroll wheel to set the focus distance yourself. While the center of the frame is enlarged, there's no distance guide shown.
|The Live Guide menu lets you easily adjust things like white balance by using sliders like you see above||There are also numerous photo tips available|
If you're in the iAuto mode, pressing the center button on the four-way controller will open up the Live Guide menu. This menu lets you adjust camera settings such as color saturation, color image (white balance), brightness, and background blurring (aperture) using "sliders" like you can see in the above screenshot. In other words, you can adjust these somewhat complex parameters without having to know what "aperture" actually is. Here you'll also find tips for taking pictures of children, pets, flowers, and more.
Live Control menu
If you're in the P/A/S/M modes, the center button instead opens up the Live Control menu. Settings that can be adjusted here include:
- ISO sensitivity
- Picture Mode
- White balance
- Drive mode
- Aspect ratio (4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 6:6)
- Image size/quality
- Movie quality
- Flash setting
- Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
- Metering (ESP, center-weighted, spot)
- ND filter (on/off)
- AF mode
- Face priority AF (on/off)
I've already touched on some of those options already, others I'll get to later, and there are a few (exclusive to this menu) that I'll mention now. First up is the ND filter, which is a feature not usually found on compact cameras (the PowerShot G12 and Coolpix P7000 are two cameras that do have it). This filter reduces the amount of light that hits the sensor, which allows you to use slower shutter speeds or larger apertures than you could otherwise.
The XZ-1 found just one of the faces in our test scene
The face priority AF option is, not surprisingly, the XZ-1's face detection feature. The camera really struggled with our test scene, finding one or maybe two of the six faces in it. While I imagine that it'll do better with real faces, it's worth pointing out that most cameras do better in this test. The XZ-1 does not have smile or blink detection.
Returning to the tour now, the last things to see on the back of the camera are the Menu and Info buttons. The former does exactly as it sounds, while the latter toggles the information shown on the LCD.
Here's the top of the camera, with the flash is the closed position. While it looks like it takes up all of your finger space, Olympus cleverly left a little "nook" in-between the flash and the body of the XZ-1, so you can still get a good grip on the camera.
To the right of the flash is the XZ-1's hot shoe. It'll work best with recent Olympus flashes, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. Do note that the FL-50R flash is not compatible -- I don't think it fits. I wasn't able to figure out if you can high speed flash sync was supported -- I think so though. If you want to go wireless, you can do that too, with the XZ-1 able to control up to three sets of wireless flashes (as long as they're the FL-36R and FL-50R). If you're using a third party flash, odds are that you'll need to set the exposure on both the camera and flash manually.
Just above the hot shoe is the XZ-1's control ring, a feature basically lifted from the Canon PowerShot S90/S95. Unlike on those cameras, though, the ring's function here is fixed. In some modes it adjusts the ISO, while in others it'll handle the shutter speed or aperture. A handy feature for sure, though some customizability would've been nice.
The tiny hole to the right of the hot shoe is the camera's microphone. Next to that is the power button, which I found to be way too sensitive, making it easy to accidentally turn the camera on or off. Next to that is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about two seconds. I counted seventeen stops in the XZ-1's 4X zoom range.
At the far right of the above photo is the XZ-1's mode dial, which has these options:
Scene mode menu
The XZ-1 has both automatic and manual controls. On the point-and-shoot side, you've got an Intelligent Auto mode that will pick a scene mode for you. If you'd rather do that yourself, or just choose from more options, there's a dedicated scene mode as well. Some of the notable options there include e-Portrait (smooths skin and removes blemishes), multiple exposure (combines two exposures into a single image) and panorama. This last option helps you point the camera in the right spot for proper alignment, and can even take the photo for you, if you'd like. The XZ-1 can stitch together the image right on the camera, or leave the files alone so you can do it on your PC. I took some sample panoramas along the SF waterfront and noticed that the camera had a lot of trouble figuring out where the edges of each frame were, though that may be due to all the blue sky/water in the scene.
The camera also has a low light mode, which has its own spot on the mode dial, which boosts the ISO up to 3200 for sharp low light photos. Don't expect great things, though, as photos taken in this mode will be quite soft (example).
Art Filter menu
The camera's Art Filters add additional options for creative photography. The available art filters include pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pin hole, diorama (miniature effect), and a new dramatic tone option. These can be used for both stills and movies, though keep in mind that Art Filters are only available in their dedicated shooting mode. Below are examples of two Art Filters in action:
|Pop Art filter||Grainy film filter|
The XZ-1 almost has a complete set of manual controls, including two types of bracketing that I'll tell you about later. The only thing which is (surprisingly) missing is a Program Shift option in "P" mode, and the ability to set the white balance by color temperature.
And that'll do it for the top of the camera!
On this side of the camera you can catch another glimpse of the control ring, plus that "nook" for your finger behind the flash. The lens is at the wide-angle position here.
On the opposite side of things you'll find the camera's I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The top port serves as the USB and A/V output, as well as the input for the optional wired remote control. Below that is a Micro HDMI port, used for connecting to an HDTV.
The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.
On the bottom of the XZ-1 you'll find a metal tripod mount, speaker, and battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is nice and sturdy, though do note that you won't be able to access its contents while the camera is on a tripod.
The LI-50B lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Olympus XZ-1
It takes the Olympus XZ-1 about 1.1 seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's pretty quick.
A live histogram is available on the XZ-1
The autofocus speeds on the Olympus XZ-1 are about for this class. Typically, the camera took between 0.2 and 0.4 to lock focus at the wide end of the lens. Telephoto focus times were between 0.5 and 0.9 seconds in most situations. Low light focusing was generally accurate, with focus times hovering at or slightly above the one second mark.
I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.
Shot-to-shot delays were about two seconds long, regardless of whether you're shooting JPEG or RAW images, or using the flash. Nice!
There's no way to delete a photo immediately after taking it -- you must enter playback mode first.
While there are numerous image size and quality options available on the XZ-1, there are only five "slots" available at any one time. Below is a list of the default resolutions and their file sizes:
|Chart corrected on January 4, 2013|
The XZ-1 lets you take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG of the size of your choosing. I didn't put the RAW+JPEG options in the chart in order to keep things simple, but simple math will tell you the file size and number of shots for the various combinations.
The XZ-1 has a newly designed menu system that's fairly attractive and easy to navigate. There are no help screens available, though maybe Olympus figures that the target audience doesn't need them. Then again, there aren't a whole lot of custom functions, either, which the XZ-1's target audience probably would like. The menu is divided into four tabs, covering photo, movie, playback, and setup options. Keeping in mind that not all of these options will be available in every shooting mode, here's the full list:
Those of you who have used other Olympus cameras will be familiar with the Picture Mode option. A Picture Mode contains various color and sharpness settings, and there are five presets to choose from. You can adjust the contrast, sharpness, gradation (tone range), and saturation for each of those presets. For the monochrome preset you can also add in filters (yellow, orange, red, green) or a tone (sepia, blue, purple, green). One parameter you cannot adjust (unfortunately) is noise reduction.
The XZ-1 has numerous white balance presets, plus a one-touch option which lets you use a white or gray card for shooting under mixed or unusual lighting. Each of the WB settings can be fine-tuned in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta direction. If that's still not enough, you can also bracket for white balance. You cannot adjust white balance by color temperature, however.
Like all digital cameras, the XZ-1 has a digital zoom feature that you usually want to keep turned off. However, it has a "crop" function that allows you to get a little bit of extra zoom power without a loss in image quality, though you'll need to lower the image size first. Olympus doesn't say how much of a zoom boost you get, but when I lowered the resolution to 1600 x 1200, it appears that I got an extra 1.25X worth.
Alright, that does it for menus -- lets move on to photo quality now!
The XZ-1 did a very good job with our standard macro test subject. The figurine is both smooth and sharp at the time time. The colors are nicely saturated, with the camera handling our studio lamps with ease. While I don't see any grain-style noise, you may spot some very mild detail smudging if you look hard enough.
There are two macro modes to choose from on the XZ-1. In the regular one, you can be 10 cm away from your subject at wide-angle, and 30 cm away at telephoto. If you switch into super macro mode, the minimum focus distance drops to just 1 cm. Do note that the lens is fixed at the wide-angle position in super macro mode.
Seeing how the XZ-1's lens tops out at 112 mm, the night shot is a bit more wide than you may be used to. That said, the results are fairly good. The camera took in plenty of light, as you'd expect, given its manual exposure controls. The buildings are a little bit soft, though I think that's due to noise reduction, rather than the lens. The camera definitely clips highlights, which is something you'll hear again in this section. There is some mild detail smudging here, though I don't think it'll keep you from making a large print at this sensitivity (which is ISO 100, of course). Purple fringing was not an issue, and I don't know what's up with the star filter effect there.
Now, let's use that same night scene and see how the noise levels look as we travel from ISO 100 to 6400:
The first two crops, taken at ISO 100 and 200, look about the same. At ISO 400 you start to see some detail loss and noise, though a midsize or large print is still very possible. At ISO 800 detail loss becomes a lot more obvious, so I'd save this for small prints only (and sorry about the darker exposure). Image quality continues to drop at ISO 1600, and then things really go downhill at ISO 3200 and above.
|The section below was updated on 3/12/11 after Adobe released a version of their Camera Raw plug-in with XZ-1 compatibility.|
When I originally wrote this review, I performed the usual RAW vs. JPEG comparison test using the only RAW editor available (Olympus Viewer 2), and so nearly zero improvement from shooting RAW and post-processing. Since then, Adobe has released a version of their Camera Raw plug-in that is compatible with the XZ-1, and the results are more promising. Check it out:
While neither the ISO 800 or 1600 photos look fantastic after some post-processing, they are better than the original JPEGs, in terms of both detail and highlight clipping (a little). We'll do this test again in normal lighting in a bit.
Straight out of the camera
After using Redeye Fix in playback mode
Compact cameras are redeye machines, and the XZ-1 is no exception. Even with the redeye reduction flash turned on, there's still a ton of red. Thankfully, there's a tool in playback mode which you can use to get rid of it!
There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the XZ-1's 28 - 112 mm lens. You can see what this does to your real world photos by looking at the building on the right side of this photo. Two things you won't encounter on this camera are vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges -- this is definitely a quality lens.
And now it's time for our studio ISO test, which shows how the XZ-1 performs across its sensitivity range in normal lighting. If you feel like comparing cameras, then now's a good time to open up the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 and Canon PowerShot S95 reviews to see their test shots (I don't have them for the Samsung or Nikon). With the usual reminder to view the full size images, in addition to the crops you see below, let's begin:
You'd be hard-pressed to see a difference between the first two crops. At ISO 400 things start to soften up a bit, and there's also a slight drop in color saturation. This trend continues at ISO 800, which is probably a good stopping point for most folks, at least if you'll be shooting JPEGs. That's because of the noise and noise reduction artifacting at ISO 1600, which becomes pretty nasty at ISO 3200. I wouldn't even bother with ISO 6400 -- it's just there to look good on the spec sheet.
|The RAW vs. JPEG comparison below was updated on 3/12/11, after support for the XZ-1 was added to the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in.|
Earlier I showed you that a modest improvement in low light image quality can be had by using the RAW image format and post-processing. Let's see if we can't make the ISO 1600 and 3200 test scene shots look better by doing the same:
There's a lot less detail smudging (though more grain-style noise) at these two high sensitivities when shooting RAW and post-processing. I'd say it's well worth your time to shoot RAW and do some work on your computer in order to get the most out of the XZ-1. Just use Photoshop, as it got a lot more detail back than Olympus Viewer 2 did.
So how does the XZ-1 compare to the PowerShot S95 and Lumix DMC-LX5? Here are the ISO 800 and 1600 crops from all three cameras:
Canon PowerShot S95
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
At ISO 800, the XZ-1 holds its own pretty well, aside from the mushy details on tea box on the right side. At ISO 1600, I'm thinking that the Canon PowerShot S95 looks the best. It may be grainier than the other two, but it also retains more detail. Of course, these are JPEGs, and you should be able to get better results by shooting RAW. Well, maybe.
Overall, the XZ-1's photo quality was very good, though not without some issues. Exposure was generally solid -- I didn't find myself having to bracket every shot. While it may have a larger sensor than your typical compact camera, the XZ-1 still suffers from some pretty noticeable highlight clipping. Colors are nice and vivid -- no complaints there. While I think the XZ-1's lens is very good, I think that Olympus is using too much noise reduction, which softens photos more than I'd like. Fine details can get smudged, even at the base ISO, as you can see here and here. It's too bad that you can't adjust the amount of noise reduction on the camera. You won't see much in the line of noise on the XZ-1 until around ISO 400 in low light and ISO 800 in normal lighting, and even then, it's more detail smudging than grain-style noise. I didn't find purple fringing to be much of an issue on the XZ-1.
So, that's my opinion about photo quality, now it's your turn. Have a look at our photo gallery -- perhaps printing a few of them if you can -- and then decide if the XZ-1's photo quality meets your expectations.
The XZ-1 is capable of recording videos at 1280 x 720 at 30 frames/second with monaural sound. The camera will keep recording until the file size reaches 2GB, which you'll reach in about seven minutes. For longer movies you can cut the resolution to 640 x 480 (also at 30 fps), with a maximum recording time of around thirteen or fourteen minutes.
Here's some good news: you can use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The lens moves slowly, to minimize the amount of noise picked up by the microphone. The autofocus is adjusted continuously, so moving subjects will remain in focus (though the camera has the tendency to "hunt" at times). The image stabilization in movie mode is electronic, though it seems to work quite well.
The XZ-1 movie mode is a totally point-and-shoot experience. The only manual control you can adjust is focus, which you set before you press the movie recording button. You can also use the Art Filters, though note that some of them may look a little choppy.
Movies are saved in AVI format, using the Motion-JPEG codec.
Here's a sample movie for you, which seems a little soft to me.
The XZ-1 has a pretty nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows (with background music and transitions), DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. The camera lacks the calendar and micro-thumbnail view of some of Olympus' other cameras.
JPEG Edit menu
The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs and another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you resize or crop an image, brighten shadows, adjust saturation, remove redeye, change the aspect ratio, smooth out skin tones, or convert it to black and white or sepia.
The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG. This is how you can apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken.
There are no movie editing features of any kind on the XZ-1.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button and you'll get a lot more, including multiple histograms.
The XZ-1 moves from photo-to-photo without delay. You can use the four-way controller or the scroll wheel to navigate through your pictures.
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus XZ-1 is a fairly compact camera with a fast F1.8 lens, a larger-than-average CCD, a beautiful OLED display, numerous manual controls, fun Art Filters, and 720p video recording. Add in a handy control ring around the lens, wireless flash support, a nice playback mode, and plenty of optional extras, and you've got what is arguably Olympus' best compact in... well, ages. Like all products, the XZ-1 isn't perfect, and I found myself most annoyed with its highlight clipping, detail smudging and overall softness (due to noise reduction, not the lens), so-so movie mode, and "just okay" visibility on the OLED display when shooting outdoors. The XZ-1 isn't as customizable as some of its peers, and it lacks Program Shift and control over noise reduction (which it really needs). Even with those flaws (and a few more), it's still a camera I can recommend, though take a close look at the competition before you buy.
The XZ-1 is a compact-to-midsize camera that borrows from both the Canon PowerShot S95 (control ring around lens) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 (just about everything else). It's made almost entirely of metal, and feels solid (though a bit slippery) in your hands, as you'd expect from a $500 camera. Olympus has kept camera controls to a relative minimum, relying on a shortcut menu for most things. Around the lens is the aforementioned control ring, which is used for adjusting the ISO sensitivity, aperture, or shutter speed. Too bad it's not customizable. The highlight of the camera is undoubtedly its F1.8-2.5, 28 - 112 mm lens. You like available light shooting or really want to play with depth-of-field, then this lens is for you. Optically its also quite good, with fairly low distortion, no vignetting or corner blurring, and minimal purple fringing. The camera features sensor-shift image stabilization for reducing blur, though it's for stills only (not videos). On the back of the camera is a gorgeous 3-inch OLED display, with 614,000 pixels. The screen is bright, colors are vivid, and the viewing angle is most impressive. My one beef with OLED screens is that they can be hard to see outdoors, and that's the case here (and on my HTC Incredible mobile phone). If you want to add an electronic viewfinder, Olympus offers one with 1.44 million effective pixels, that can tilt up to 90 degrees upward. This, and a few other accessories (stereo mic, macro arm light) attach to an Accessory Port, located just above the OLED display.
The camera has a nice mix of point-and-shoot and manual controls. For those who don't want to bother with adjusting settings, just throw the camera Intelligent Auto mode -- the camera will pick a scene mode for you. In this mode you'll also find Olympus' Live Guide, which uses simple slider controls to adjust things like aperture and white balance, without requiring any knowledge of what those things are. If you want to select your own scene mode, there are plenty to choose from, including a new panorama stitching feature that helps you compose the photos, and then stitches them together in about 20 seconds. The XZ-1 also features Olympus' Art Filters for both still and movie recording, which I always find entertaining. The manual control selection on the camera is fairly good. You can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or both, plus focus and white balance. The RAW image format is supported, and the bundled Olympus Viewer 2 software is a good editor. The XZ-1 is also somewhat unique in having a neutral density filter that you can turn on to reduce the amount of light hitting the lens. You can add an external flash via the hot shoe, or cut the cord entirely and go wireless, with the onboard flash serving as the controller. The bad news is that you cannot adjust the noise reduction setting, set the white balance by color temperature, or adjust the aperture/shutter speed in Program Mode (aka Program Shift). In general, the XZ-1 isn't as customizable as most of its competition. As you'd expect, the XZ-1 can also record HD videos, at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) to be exact. You can use the optical zoom to your heart's content, and the camera will focus continuously while you're recording. However, video quality isn't great, recording times are limited, image stabilization is electronic, and there aren't any manual controls available.
Camera performance was generally very good. The XZ-1 starts up in just over a second, so you can be ready to shoot as soon as you hit the power button. Focusing times were about average, ranging from 0.2 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle to about twice that at full telephoto. Low light focusing was fairly good, with focus times typically hovering around a full second. Shutter lag was not an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were brief, even if you're using the flash. The XZ-1 has a decent continuous shooting mode, with the ability to take a whopping 31 RAW or a seemingly unlimited number of JPEGs at 2 frames/second. Battery life was above average, though I'm not sure everyone will care for the internal battery charging system that the XZ-1 uses (a regular external charger is available, though).
Photo quality is very good, though there is definitely room for improvement. The XZ-1 takes well-exposed photos, but it really loves to clip highlights (even with its larger-than-average CCD). Colors looked nice and vivid, and the camera handled my studio lights with ease. I found the XZ-1's photos to be on the soft side, which I attribute more to noise reduction than the camera's very nice lens. You will see smudging of fine details at ISO 100, which is an issue that the Panasonic LX5 has, as well. Things will slowly get softer as the ISO increases, with a significant drop in image quality when you hit ISO 800. Usually there's an improvement to be had by shooting RAW, but I didn't obtain better results by doing so at the camera's higher sensitivities. Redeye was definitely a problem on this compact camera, though at least there's a tool in playback mode to get rid of it. Purple fringing, on the other hand, was not an issue.
And now it's time for my petty list of complaints (which is a bit longer than normal) that don't fit in anywhere else. While the manual focus mode has the requisite frame enlargement feature, there's no distance guide shown. The camera did not fare well in my face detection test, though real life performance may be fine. The camera is way too easy to power on accidentally, and the lens cap doesn't like to stay on. If you've got the camera on a tripod, you won't be able to access the memory card slot. Finally, the camera manual is only available in PDF format on an included CD-ROM, and its readability as well as detail leave much to be desired.
As I said earlier, the the XZ-1 is Olympus' best compact camera in many years. It offers a good design, super-fast lens, beautiful OLED display, manual controls, and plenty of point-and-shoot toys. It does have its share of annoyances -- perhaps more so than its competition (at least those cameras that I've used) -- though I have to cut Olympus some slack, as this is their first generation model. The XZ-1 is absolutely worth your consideration -- just be sure to check out the other models in its class before you buy.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
- Super-fast F1.8-2.5 lens offers sharpness across the frame, no vignetting, low distortion
- Solid, well-designed body, with handy control ring around lens
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Gorgeous 3-inch OLED display has great color, sharpness, and viewing angle
- Nice selection of manual controls
- RAW format supported, good editor included
- iAuto mode picks a scene mode for you; Live Guide uses sliders to make changing complex settings simple
- Fast start-up, shot-to-shot, continuous shooting performance
- Built-in neutral density filter
- Hot shoe + built-in wireless flash support
- Entertaining Art Filter feature
- Nice playback mode
- Records HD video at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with use of optical zoom and continuous AF
- Above average battery life (though not everyone will care for internal battery charging)
- Lots of optional accessories, including: teleconversion lens, wired remote control, stereo microphone, underwater case
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Lots of highlight clipping
- Noise reduction gives photos a soft appearance and smudges fine details, even at ISO 100
- Redeye a problem, though it can be removed in playback mode
- OLED display can be hard to see outdoors
- Missing manual features: noise reduction adjustment, Program Shift, distance guide in manual focus mode
- Not as customizable as its peers
- Face detection didn't do well in my tests
- Movie mode issues: a bit soft, limited recording time, huge file sizes, no sensor-shift image stabilization, no editing tools
- Overly sensitive power button; lens cap falls off too easily
- Can't access memory card slot while camera is on a tripod
- Full manual on CD-ROM; user-friendliness and detail isn't great, either
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the XZ-1 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our photo gallery to see how the XZ-1's photos look!