Olympus XZ-1 Review
Overall handling and operation
The operation and control of the XZ-1 are simple but effective. There's nothing in the way of customization but, because the controls are fairly well thought through, there's no great need. That front control dial means it's as simple to shoot in aperture priority mode as it is in the iAuto point-and-shoot mode. In fact, it's such an easy camera to shoot in its PASM modes, the iAuto mode suddenly risks being a little redundant (the question is whether it's easier to learn how to use the iAuto sliders or take the time to learn which settings they represent and alter them directly).
There are only two significant casualties of this keep-it-simple philosophy: the lack of an AEL/AFL button and the lack of any control over noise reduction. Although it's an advanced, raw-capable model, the vast majority of XZ-1 owners are likely to shoot JPEGs for much of the time. The inability to fine-tune the amount of noise reduction being applied in the JPEGs is a shame. This is not to say that the default level is wrong, just that there will be some shooters that would like the choice.
The lack of an AEL/AFL button is more pressing. The ability to separate where the camera takes its metering value from and where it sets its focus from is key for the focus-and-recompose method of photography. The XZ-1 has 11 manually selectable AF points but if these aren't near enough to the edge of the frame for you, you have to point the camera at the subject you want to focus on, knowing that the camera will base its exposure on that same framing. Many compact cameras have some method of locking focus or exposure independently, so this is an area where being able to reconfigure a button would be valuable (there's that big red movie button that stills-shooters might welcome another function for, for instance).
Specific handling issues
Beyond these two slightly odd omissions, there's very little to highlight about the XZ-1: for the most part, it's a camera that's so straightforward as a shooting tool that you barely notice yourself using it (which is exactly what a good camera should do). There are a couple of odd quirks that need to be learned before you feel completely at home with it, though. The main one comes from the fact that two of the directional points on the four-way controller take you to predefined places in the function menu, while the other two have distinctly different behaviors.
The left and down directions on the controller summon-up the flash and drive mode sections of the function menu (which mean the up and down arrows then scroll up and down the other function menu options). Meanwhile the left button summons up the AF-point selection screen, necessitating all points of the controller be used for navigation, and the up direction calls up exposure compensation. The odd thing is that while all the other options are modal (they completely re-purpose the control dial until 'OK' is pressed), exposure comp still allows a downward press on the controller to jump to the drive-mode part of the function menu.
This is, of course, an incredibly minor consideration. It's a quirk that'll probably register no higher than 'I thought there was something slightly odd about that,' which is to say that there's not a lot wrong with the handling.
The XZ-1 is not an absolute speed-demon in terms of either focus and operation but it's rare for it to be so slow as to be noticeable, let alone problematic. Switching modes, entering menus and calling up the function menu are all handled promptly and focus is achieved without the delay ever becoming frustrating. Of course it's not fast enough to try to shoot sports but for most uses it's fast enough and the AF point is easy enough to adjust that you can quickly define a point-of-focus and pre-lock the focus (and exposure) with a half press of the shutter.
Continuous Shooting and buffering
Shot-to-shot speed: in either RAW or the highest quality JPEG mode (SuperFine, accessed via Settings Menu G7), the camera will happily shoot a shot every 0.5 seconds, so long as you pulse your finger on the shutter, rather than releasing completely, which prompts the camera to refocus. This rhythm can usually be sustained for around six or seven shots, which is more than enough for grabbing a couple of shots when you didn't think you needed continuous shooting.
In continuous (sequential) mode:
- JPEG (Fine): around 2fps until card fills
- RAW around 2fps for 50 frames (recovery time 5 sec)
- RAW + JPEG around 2fps for 14 frames (recovery time 7.5 sec)
There are also two high-speed burst modes. The first, Hi1, promises 7fps and can be used at resolutions up to 2560x1920 (5MP), while Hi2 offers 15fps at up to 1600x1200 (2MP).
- Hi 1: around 7fps for 100 frames (recovery time around 6 sec)
- Hi 2: around 15fps for 61 frames (recovery time 5 sec)
In testing, Hi1 mode's shooting rate fluctuates slightly (between 6 and 8 fps), but gives an average of 7.2 fps, while Hi2 drifts between 12 and 18fps but averages out at 15. Getting these maximum sizes requires digging in to the camera's 'M S Settings' menu option to tailor the Medium file size to the largest each mode can support. Hi1 mode audibly operates the shutter during operation but, disconcertingly, Hi2 doesn't, so you just have to hold down the shutter button and assume something's happening.
The XZ-1 has an AF control system we've seen many times before on Olympus cameras - 11 AF points that can be easily switched between manually-selection and camera-selected modes. When letting the camera select the AF point, there's also the familiar Face Detection option that will happily focus away from the 11 selectable points and just worry about where the detected faces are. In keeping with the rest of the camera's design it's all pretty quick and straightforward stuff. We didn't have any particular concerns about focus speed or accuracy during the time we were using the camera, other than finding it necessary to switch to Macro focus mode slightly earlier than we'd expect.
The inclusion of an AF illumination lamp makes a huge difference to the XZ-1. In low light and at a reasonable range, the lamp makes it easy for the XZ-1 to continue to focus. Crucially it can be turned off if you're trying to be a little more covert in your shooting, though this increases the risk of the camera struggling for focus.
The XZ-1 offers sensor-shift image stabilization and it works rather well. This, combined with the fast lens means you can get away with shooting in incredibly low light without having to push the camera's sensitivity too much. The stabilization itself isn't significantly more effective than just concentrating on holding the camera steady but will boost the number of steady shots you get.
In addition to the sensor-shift stabilization, the XZ-1 is able to offer digital stabilization in movie mode. And, while we've rarely been impressed by digital stabilization for stills, the reduced resolution of movies gives greater scope for it working. Because movies use only a portion of the sensor, the camera can vary which portion it uses and compensate for how the camera's being moved. We were pretty impressed with how the XZ-1 does - making a good job of canceling out walking movement, despite my fairly pronounced gait.