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Note: Some of the tests in this review were carried out using firmware 0.73b (the final development version). Leica informs us that the differences between 0.73b and 1.0 relate only to 'bug fixes and performance improvements'.

If there's been one welcome development in 2009, it's the rise of relatively compact cameras with large sensors (i.e. APS-C, or the smaller Four Thirds size). For a long time Sigma seemed to be the only company willing to take a gamble on there being a genuine market for such beasts, starting with the slightly rough-and-ready DP1 (released in March last year), which was followed up by the much-improved DP2 earlier this year. But then Olympus launched its retro-styled Micro Four Thirds E-P1, Panasonic replied with the GF1, and into a sector which, if not yet exactly crowded, is at least starting to look like if can be described as 'burgeoning', there now comes the Leica X1.

The mere mention of the name 'Leica' causes certain photographers' hearts to beat just a little bit faster; this sole survivor of the once-mighty German camera industry is one of the very few genuine 'heritage' brands left. The company's long-running reputation for sheer engineering quality and optically-superb lenses is legendary - many a budding snapper has aspired to own a 'real' Leica, eventually. Unfortunately though, this quality is (inevitably) accompanied by heart-stopping prices, meaning such aspirations are often left unfulfilled for many years.

Perhaps with a mind to providing an 'entry-level' option that is more affordable and attainable, the X1 promises to make Leica's inimitable design and quality accessible to more digital shooters than ever before. It follows in the tradition of the company's premium compacts for 35mm film such as the CM, offering a fixed prime lens, analogue-style controls and premium build quality. Of course this being a Leica the lens is all - the Elmarit 24mm 1:2.8 ASPH is made up of 8 elements in 6 groups, and includes an aspheric element to minimize aberrations. It sits in front of a 12Mp CMOS APS-C (1.5x crop) sensor, giving an angle of view equivalent to a 35mm lens on full frame. Viewing is via a 2.7", 230,000 pixel LCD on the rear - there's no built-in optical finder.

The X1 has clearly been designed as an instrument for taking photographs, pure and simple, and features a pared-down, traditionalist design in service of that goal. Shutter speed and aperture are controlled by dials on the top plate, and all other major shooting settings are directly accessible from buttons on the back. This is a design that utterly rejects fripperies in the quest for uncomplicated functionality; if you're after an aquarium mode, HD movies or background music for your slide shows, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Of course the X1 is still a Leica, and so will not by any means be cheap, which means it's going to have to deliver some pretty compelling results to persuade the less-emotionally driven buyer to hand over the wallet-slimming sum of money required to own one. So let's take a close look to see what it can do, and find out whether it succeeds in this goal.

Leica X1 - Key Features

  • Compact lightweight body with analogue-style control dials
  • Fixed 24mm F2.8 lens (angle of view equivalent to 35mm lens on full frame)
  • Program, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual exposure modes
  • Full range of manual controls
  • 12.2 Mp APS-C CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-3200
  • DNG raw format recording