Olympus XZ-1 Review

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

Other cameras you'll definitely want to check out include the Canon PowerShot S95, Nikon Coolpix P300, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, and the Samsung TL500.

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!

Photo Gallery

Check out our photo gallery to see how the XZ-1's photos look!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.