Olympus XZ-1 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S95 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 170 g
Nikon Coolpix P300 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 189 g
Olympus XZ-1 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19.4 cu in. 244 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19.0 cu in. 233 g
Samsung TL500 4.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 13.5 cu in. 356 g

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?

Front of the Olympus XZ-1

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.

Back of the Olympus XZ-1

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:

Quality setting Sequential High-speed 1 * High-speed 2 **
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 13 shots @ 2.0 fps N/A N/A
RAW 31 shots @ 2.1 fps N/A N/A
Large/Fine JPEG Unlimited @ 2.0 fps Unlimited @ 7.6 fps Unlimited at 10 fps

* Resolution set to 5 Megapixel
** Resolution set to VGA

Tested using a Lexar Class 6 SDHC card

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.

Manual focus

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.

Top of the Olympus XZ-1

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:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection.
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access. There is no Program Shift on the XZ-1, much to my surprise (and disappointment).
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range is F1.8 - F8.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the proper aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/2000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, which keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed (up to 16 mins).
Custom mode Your favorite camera settings can be saved to this spot on the mode dial.
Low Light mode Boosts the ISO as high as 3200 for sharp photos in available light.
Scene mode You pick the scene, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from e-portrait, portrait, landscape, night scene, night+portrait, self-portrait, sunset, fireworks, multiple exposure, cuisine, documents, beach & snow, underwater wide, underwater macro, pet, and panorama.
Art filter mode Shoot photos with unique effects, including pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pin hole, diorama, and dramatic tone.

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!

Side of the Olympus XZ-1

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.

Side of the Olympus XZ-1

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.

Bottom of the Olympus XZ-1

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.