The Competition:

We've looked in depth at three of the cameras in this class, which offer coupled optical viewfinders in addition to their other enthusiast-oriented feature sets, but they don't represent the total market. The three cameras on this page all boast full manual control, raw capture, and fast, high-quality optics. Here's a summary of their key features, performance and image quality (some of the content on this page is drawn from our previously-published reviews).

Olympus XZ-1

10MP | 28-112mm (4x) Zoom | $419 (US) £309 (UK) €344 (EU)

Key Features

  • 10.0MP 1/1.63" CCD sensor
  • ISO 100-6400
  • 28-112mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.5 lens
  • 3in, 614k-dot LCD screen 
  • 720p, 30fps video mode

Late arrivals to the high-end raw-enabled compact camera party, with the launch of the XZ-1 in late 2010 it became apparent that Olympus hadn't been sitting idly by as Canon, Panasonic and Samsung were fighting for dominance in this market segment. Standout features of the XZ-1 include a bright lens, with the XZ-1 becoming the first of the company's compacts to ever wear its respected 'Zuiko' designation. The X-Z1's lens is the brightest zoom lens of any current compact while still offering a truly useful range. The i.Zuiko lens is F1.8 at the 28mm equivalent end and a still very impressive F2.5 at the 112mm setting. 

As far as image quality is concerned we're big fans of the bright and punchy 'Natural' mode and are pleased to see it become the default Picture Mode for iAuto mode. Exposure and White Balance are both pretty dependable, meaning you can point and shoot with a high degree of confidence. In general, we were impressed with the XZ-1's image output - a sharp, bright lens and flattering image processing makes for consistently good results. The lens is consistently sharp in the center with slightly soft corners, especially at short focal lengths and wide apertures. Stopping down quickly sharpens the corners and, particularly at longer focal lengths, the results are very impressive.

Ultimately, 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. Image quality is very good, and aside from the strange omission of an AEL/AFL button, there's little to criticize. 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.

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Olympus XZ-1 Samples (32 images)
  • What we like: Very straightforward operation, fast zoom lens, excellent 'straight from camera' JPEGs
  • What we don't like: No AEL/AFL button, no control over noise reduction, no direct access to WB/ISO
Score When Originally Tested: 74% (+Gold Award)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

10MP | 24-90mm (3.8) Zoom | $348 (US) £343 (UK) €391 (EU)

Key Features

  • 10.1MP 1/1.63" multi-aspect CCD sensor
  • ISO 80-3200
  • 24-90mm (equivalent) f/2-3.3 lens
  • 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen 
  • 720p, 60/30fps video mode

The LX5 is the fourth camera to carry the LX name, and Panasonic has not seen the need to meddle too much with the essential ingredients. A fast-aperture Leica Vario-Summicron lens, compact metal body, flash hotshoe and plenty of external controls make the LX5 a very appealing camera for the photo enthusiast.

The LX5's 3.8x 24-90mm (equivalent) optical zoom is the joint-widest of its peers, and has a greater reach than its predecessor the LX3, which was limited to a 60mm equivalent telephoto setting. This is a welcome change, extending the zoom usefully into the 'portrait' range. The other key feature of the Leica-branded lens is its speed: a maximum aperture of f/2 - 3.3 makes the LX5's lens one of the fastest available, only very slightly slower than that of the Olympus XZ-1 and Samsung TL500, and significantly faster than the longer-reaching zooms belonging to the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100. 

The LX5's sensor is multi-aspect, which means that its 3:2, 16:9 and square format shooting modes do not take a serious bite out of the effective resolution, making them arguably more useful than they might otherwise be. This is especially true of the 16:9 mode, which at 9.5Mp offers roughly 25% greater pixel coverage than either the S95 or P7000 in the same aspect ratio. They also all offer the same (diagonal) angle of view at any given lens position (see example below). Successor to the popular LX3, the LX5 brings a host of improvements and new features, including an excellent multi-aspect sensor, a slightly more versatile optical zoom range, and better ergonomics.

It's not the fastest compact around, but it is a great camera for the enthusiast photographer or DSLR user who wants something a little smaller. We love the LX5's multi-aspect sensor, and have also come to appreciate the generous amount of customization that is possible over its operation. The LX5 stands out amongst its competition for bad reasons though, as well as good. It is a comparatively slow camera, especially when shooting raw files, and although sharp and fast, its 24-90mm (equivalent) lens cannot compete with the longer zooms on cameras like the Nikon P7100 and Canon Powershot G12. At 460k dots the rear LCD isn't up with the best of its peers and is comparatively prone to reflections, making it hard to use in bright daylight.

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Panasonic DMC-LX5 Samples (36 images)
  • What we like: Excellent, fast lens, lots of custom options
  • What we don't like: Relatively restrictive zoom range, dated ergonomics, sub-par LCD
Score When Originally Tested: 73% (+Silver Award)

Samsung TL500 / EX1

10MP | 24-70mm (3x) Zoom | $328 (US) £299 (UK) €328 (EU)

Key Features

  • 10.0MP 1/1.7" CCD sensor
  • ISO 80-3200
  • 24-72mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.4 lens
  • 3in, 614k-dot OLED display 
  • VGA, 30fps video mode

The Samsung TL500 follows the Panasonic LX-series recipe of a fast, wide (though reach-limited) zoom lens in a fairly compact metal body. It's impressive f/1.8-2.4 zoom lens covers a range from the very wideangle 24mm equivalent out to 72mm (equivalent).

The other standout feature of the TL500 is undoubtedly its rear display - not only is it fully articulated, it also has the excellent VGA-equivalent OLED screen we first saw on the Samsung NX10. In principle OLED screens can be more efficient and offer greater contrast than LCD panels because they can selectively light just the pixels that need to be illuminated. They also promise greater viewing angles. Despite its high specification, the Samsung's interface is very simple and straightforward. There's a function menu that allows direct access to most key shooting functions and well-chosen buttons to give even more direct access to key functions such as ISO. There's also a menu system that duplicates these functions and adds a few setup options in an attractive and easy-to-navigate menu. 

Sadly there's very little in the way of customisation: none of the buttons are configurable and you can't even turn off the digital zoom option. This simplicity does have the advantage of making the camera very straightforward to use, though. 

At low ISO settings the TL500 is capable of producing excellent image quality and, thanks to its bright lens, there are plenty of situations in which you can get away with keeping the ISO down. Its relatively small compact camera sensor means, though, that what the bright lens gains you is mainly the ability to shoot in low light, rather than any particularly great control over depth-of-field. At higher ISOs the camera's JPEG engine begins to struggle, with its over-eager noise reduction blurring away all fine detail above ISO 800. However, if used in RAW mode, it's possible to apply more subtle noise reduction and reveal greatly improved images.

The Samsung TL500 is a very good camera - it takes good images, has a great lens, flexible feature set and, unlike most mirrorless cameras, it maintains its go-anywhere, shoot anytime capability when slipped into a jacket or coat pocket. The TL500's few quirks are not important enough that we'd consider it significantly less desirable than slightly more polished competitors like the Panasonic LX5 and Olympus XZ-1 but its advantages are similarly marginal. Only its superb articulated OLED screen really stands out in such an increasingly strong field of competition. 

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Samsung TL500/EX1 Samples (35 images)
  • What we like: Excellent OLED display, fast zoom lens and straightforward operation
  • What we don't like: Occasionally erratic metering, aggressive noise reduction at ISO 800 and above, VGA video mode
Score When Originally Tested: 73% (+ Silver Award)