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Conclusion - Pros

  • Fastest (brightest) zoom lens of any current compact
  • Really useful 28-112mm lens range
  • Lens impressively sharp with generally good corner sharpness at wide apertures
  • Reliable exposure metering and great color response make it easy to get good images
  • Good high ISO capability for a small-sensor camera (and rarely needed thanks to the bright lens)
  • AF illuminator helps in low light
  • Simple control system still gives high level of manual control
  • Low light mode makes it easy to make the most of the camera's strengths, quickly
  • Art Filters are good at encouraging creative photographic thinking
  • Ability to control flashes wirelessly a major plus
  • USB charging is convenient (but makes it awkward to keep a second battery charged)

Conclusion - Cons

  • Lack of AEL/AFL button rules out focus and recompose technique
  • No ability to adjust noise reduction level
  • No option to customize any buttons (though controls are generally very good)
  • No direct access to ISO or White Balance
  • Auto ISO can use long exposure times in low light
  • Lens a little prone to flare in bright light
  • Video not up to the standard of the stills (and in the inefficient, though convenient, M-JPEG format)

Overall conclusion

The XZ-1 is a rather late addition to the burgeoning enthusiast compact sector and, in some respects, a surprising one - the XZ-1's potential market can't help but overlap with the E-PL2's, to an extent. But it's a very welcome addition to what's become an exciting part of the market for the keen photographer. This now includes a fairly broad range of cameras, varying from the 'point-and-shoot with manual-override' of Canon's S95 up to the big, bulky, button-and-dial-covered Nikon P7000 and Canon G12, via the middle-ground option offered by Panasonic's LX5 and Samsung's TL500 (EX1).

The XZ-1 steps in towards the more compact end of this spectrum and does a great job of balancing flexibility with pocketabilty. Not only does it offer a very versatile lens range (28-112mm equivalent), but it does so with a maximum aperture that can't be matched. At F1.8-2.5 it's brighter at every point than either the Panasonic or Samsung, and is in a completely different league to the F2.0-4.9 offered by the Canon S95 to which it's otherwise so similar.

Image Quality

The image quality is exactly in line with what we'd expect from a camera with a sensor of this size - considerably better than most compacts other than its immediate peers. This is made all the more useable by that sensor being parked behind such a bright lens. This underlying image quality, combined with the excellent JPEG processing with which Olympus has made a name for itself, makes it easy to take impressive images every time you pick up the camera. The sensor may be a touch noisier than the one used by Canon, Nikon and Samsung but the slightly brighter lens makes up for some of that difference and it's rare to need to shoot above ISO 800 where that difference starts to become visible.

The default 'Natural' setting may be hugely misleading in its name but the results are fantastic: producing bright, punchy images without ever tipping over into cartoonishly vivid. The trick appears to be which colors it emphasizes - sky blues are made to look particularly radiant but reds and skin tones remain realistic and convincing. The combination of a good sensor, sharp lens and good image processing is pretty much all you could ask for in a camera this small.

Handling

In terms of direct controls, the XZ-1 sits towards the minimalist end of the spectrum in its class. It doesn't bristle with dials or buttons and only the most basic shooting settings have direct access. And yet, it's so simple to quickly adjust aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation that you don't feel much control is being denied to you. ISO and White Balance have to be accessed via the function menu, which is a shame - an extra button or two would make it faster/easier to change the settings - but, on the whole, the function menu is quick and simple enough to use that this still doesn't unbearably interrupt the shooting process.

In general, the majority of settings you're likely to want to change are available either immediately or with very little fuss. We'd prefer the ND filter (which you'll need on bright days if you want to make the most of the lovely fast lens) to be closer on the function menu to the features we change most often ( ISO and WB), but it's only a 12-item menu, so it's not actually that far away.

The final word

There will be some people who will reject the XZ-1 for not having an optical viewfinder but many will gladly forego the costs (both financial and in terms of size) that such an addition would bring. Unlike the Canon G12 or the less-impressive Nikon P7000, the XZ-1 is comparatively pocketable, and, in line with the axiom that 'the best camera is the one you have with you,' that's invaluable. And, if you must have a viewfinder, you can always add the excellent, though expensive, VF-2 electronic viewfinder available for the XZ-1 (or simply plump for the G12).

Aside from its lack of AEL/AFL button, there's very little to criticize about the XZ-1. Not everyone will be affected by the lack of such a button but as a function available on some point-and-shoots, it's a frustrating omission from a camera people will use creatively. However, this is just about the only major cloud in a sky that's otherwise the bright, cheery blue that this camera so loves to produce. The XZ-1 is a joy to use, quick and easy to control and small enough to make sure you have it when a photographic opportunity arises. In fact, many people considering a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera may find they're better served by the XZ-1, if they're not serious about buying additional lenses.

Olympus XZ-1
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Enthusiast and keen photographers, whether they be upgraders from point-and-shoots or seasoned DSLR users.
Not so good for
Users wanting direct access buttons for every function.
Overall score
74%
The XZ-1 combines simple direct controls with an excellent lens to create probably the best photographers' compact currently available. The output JPEGs are great and the balance of lens range, brightness and compactness make it a really appealing package, whether as an only camera or as a more pocketable backup for DSLR owners.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.

Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

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