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Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent image quality - at least in raw
  • Best high-ISO performance of any compact camera, bar none
  • Reliable metering and exposure
  • Extremely quiet in operation (AF and shutter)
  • Straightforward control layout with analogue-style shutter speed and aperture dials
  • Good quality build, but still relatively small and lightweight
  • Well-integrated operation with external optical viewfinder
  • Price includes copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Conclusion - Cons

  • Autofocus distinctly slower than most
  • Unimpressive battery life
  • Accurate manual focus impossible (lens stops down uncontrollably)
  • Low light operation relatively poor (very slow AF and screen refresh rate)
  • Live histogram unreliable, disappears when setting exposure compensation
  • ISO only visible in detailed display mode; Auto ISO doesn't show selected value at all
  • Click stops for control dial 'A' positions not positive enough (particularly on the shutter speed dial)
  • No DNG only option (must record a JPEG as well)
  • Camera locks up completely when buffer is full shooting raw
  • Electronic image stabilization of limited usefulness (only works in JPEG mode)
  • Unrefined JPEG image quality
  • Playback mode slow and unresponsive
  • Very expensive

Overall conclusion

From the moment you pick up the Leica X1, it's a camera you want to love. So much about it is just 'right' - not just the feat of squeezing a relatively large APS-C sensor into a compact body, but also the lovely design and the fluid, intuitive analogue-style exposure controls. It's one of those tactile objects that simply begs to be picked up and used, and its silent operation means you can shoot with it in situations when a DSLR would be unacceptably intrusive. For those who like to frame using an optical viewfinder (rather than the LCD or an electronic finder) it works particularly well, with those top plate dials and the AF confirm light beside the hot shoe - indeed a great deal of thought has clearly gone into this aspect of its operation.

In terms of design and control layout the X1 is difficult to fault - it follows in a long tradition of pared-down Leica simplicity, giving users only the controls they need, and making them readily accessible. All major functions have their own dedicated button, so changing such things as ISO, white balance, and focus mode is quick and straightforward. The shutter speed and aperture dials positively beg you to take control of the camera and shoot in manual, encouraging experimentation and creativity in exposure.

Once you really start to use the camera, though, its shortcomings become clear. Our major criticism of the X1 has to be its operational speed, and it's primarily the autofocus that's likely to frustrate most when you're actually taking pictures. Of course the X1's AF is much faster than an M9's, but it can't keep up with any decent modern compact, and is much, much slower than the likes of the GF1.

Of course how much this will matter depends entirely on what you shoot - landscapes on the whole don't run off while you're focusing in the way small children tend to - and slow AF can be mitigated by old tricks such as pre-focusing or scale focusing anyway. But truth be told the X1 is best suited to slightly slower, more considered shooting, and is not the best camera for spontaneous grab shots, especially when the light has faded and its AF really begins to struggle.

In many other aspects of operation, the X1 also lags in speed - for example writing files to card, browsing through images in playback, or merely turning off. And while continuous shooting is pretty quick, writing a burst of raw files to card leaves the camera locked up and unable to shoot - compounded by the fact that you have no option but to record an accompanying JPEG as well. For anyone used to the responsiveness of a modern DSLR (or indeed high-end compact) this can easily become a source of frustration. The X1 simply makes you wait for it to finish whatever it's doing a bit more than we've become accustomed to, and feels a generation behind its peers in this regard.

Image Quality

The X1's image quality is excellent when shooting in raw, but not for the first time with a Leica, somewhat let down by the JPEGs. So if you're looking for a small camera which produces top notch out-of-camera JPEGs even in low light, it's not your best choice - especially considering the excellence of the Olympus E-P1's output. The sheer quality of the X1's DNG files, though, does mean that they will stand up to extensive post-processing very well (certainly far better than those from small-sensor compacts). Indeed it seems fair to say that the X1 has (by some measure) the best raw image quality of any small camera, especially at high ISOs. In this regard it's important not to overlook the value that the inclusion of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom in the price of the camera adds to the overall package - it makes working with raw files a pleasure.

The lens is, as we'd expect from a Leica, very good indeed, and capable of exceptional results at optimum apertures (F5.6 - F8), easily providing all the detail the sensor can record. At larger apertures it's still very sharp in the center, but falls off a little towards the corners - however for the kind of situations where you'll be using F2.8, this may well not be pictorially relevant. You do have to look out for flare from oblique light sources, but for anyone who likes to work just with a 35mm-equivalent prime, it's highly unlikely to disappoint.

Who's it for?

There's no doubt that the X1 has to be seen as a serious photographic tool - despite the cute good looks, this really isn't an upmarket fully automatic point-and-shoot, or even some kind of D-Lux 4 upgrade. It's therefore best-suited to experienced users who need a near-silent, discreet camera that can deliver SLR-quality images even in relatively low light - or simply the highest possible image quality in a small light package.

Therefore the X1 is really a camera for serious photographers, professional or advanced amateur, who fully understand the compromises they'll be making in terms of operational speed (not to mention being limited to a fixed semi-wideangle lens), and can accept them in exchange for that excellent image quality and silent operation.

Conclusion

The biggest problem when drawing a final conclusion on the X1 is of course the typical Leica price tag - this is the most expensive compact camera on the market by a huge margin. It faces strong competition too, with the availability now of other, more flexible small cameras (namely the Panasonic GF1 and the Olympus Pen twins) at a significantly lower price level. These Micro Four Thirds cameras are all faster and more responsive in use, and of course have the advantage that they can be fitted with an array of different lenses. Particularly relevant to this comparison is the excellent Panasonic Lumix G 20mm F1.7 ASPH, which negates one of the X1's greatest strengths - its high ISO image quality - by gathering a stop and a half more light than the X1's F2.8 Elmarit. This allows a GF1 user to set at least a stop lower ISO at any given light level, equalizing out the difference between the sensors; and for static subjects at least, an Olympus owner can take advantage of in-body image stabilization to use a lower ISO still.

So what, if not low-light image quality, is left in favor of spending $2000 on the X1? The traditional-style control layout will certainly appeal very strongly to some, the near-silent leaf-shutter can be a distinct advantage over the louder focal-plane shutters in the Micro Four Thirds cameras for some uses, and the lighter weight isn't to be totally dismissed. No doubt for some users these advantages will be sufficient reason to buy, but for the majority of photographers, it's impossible not to conclude that, despite the X1's charms, a Pen or a GF1 would be a more sensible option.

Detail (D-SLR) Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 9.0
Ergonomics & handling 9.0
Features 7.5
Image quality 9.0
Optics 8.5
Performance (speed) 7.5
Value 7.0

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Highly Recommended

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