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Back in 2001, when it was possible to charge $999 for a compact camera, Olympus produced the C-3040Z, C-4040Z and C5050Z which featured some of the brightest zooms to ever appear on such cameras. Sadly, as the years have gone on and prices have dropped, Olympus moved away from this part of the market and it's been a long time since we looked to it for class-leading compacts.

Despite the falling price of entry-level DSLRs and the arrival of their more compact mirrorless competitors, the enthusiast compact sector has seen a resurgence, with Samsung and Nikon weighing-in and Canon going as far as bringing a second model to the melee (the S90 revived the PowerShot 'S' series to sit alongside the company's stalwart G series). Olympus, meanwhile, has remained quiet.

With the launch of the XZ-1 it becomes apparent that Olympus hasn't been sitting idly by - instead it has clearly been watching the sector very closely and has studied the available cameras keenly. The result of this study is an enthusiast compact that takes the best elements of its rivals and synthesizes them into a very attractive package.

There's a bright lens, of course, with the XZ-1 becoming the first of the company's compacts to ever wear its respected 'Zuiko' designation. And it's clear why the company would want to draw attention to the optics, having created 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.

But the spec doesn't end at the lens - the XZ-1 is built around a high sensitivity 1/1.63" CCD which, along with its peers, makes it one of the larger sensors to appear in a compact camera with a built-in lens. To this it adds two control dials (including an S90-style dial around the lens) and a bright, high-resolution OLED screen. Other high-end highlights include a flash hot shoe and the ability to wirelessly control off-board flashguns. It's hard to imagine what else Olympus could have fitted into the XZ-1's attractive metal-fronted body.

From the front it's clear that the XZ-1 is slightly larger than the two smallest enthusiast compacts (the Panasonic LX5 and Canon S95). It's about the same size as Samsung's EX1/TL 500, making it much more conveniently sized than the larger Canon G12 or Nikon P7000.
The top-down view emphasizes the dimensional differences between the three cameras and also shows the flash hot shoe.

Olympus XZ-1 specification highlights:

  • High Sensitivity 10MP CCD sensor
  • 28-112mm equivalent lens
  • F1.8-2.5 maximum aperture
  • CCD-shift image stabilization
  • Twin control dials, including one around the lens
  • ISO 100-6400
  • New TruPic V processor (as used in the company's PEN series)
  • Large 3.0" 621k (VGA equivalent) OLED display
  • 720p movie mode (30 fps in Motion JPEG format)
  • Micro HDMI connector
  • 6 Art Filters (As per the PEN series)
  • In-camera RAW conversion
  • Built-in flash, hotshoe and remote flash control
  • Built-in ND filter

That lens in context:

The super-bright F1.8-2.5 lens does more than let you keep the ISO settings down in low light. It also allows a surprising degree of control over depth-of-field. It's sometimes hard to work out how much or little depth-of-field a lens will produce, thanks to differing sensor sizes (and the unclear manner in which they are often designated), but the key factors are the physical size of the aperture and the angle-of-view.

In this instance, at the long end of its zoom, the XZ-1 has an aperture with a diameter of 9.6mm at 112mm equivalent, which compares favorably to the 9.8mm maximum aperture at the 83mm equivalent of a typical APS-C 18-55 F3.5-5.6 kit lens. It means the XZ-1 should give at least as blurred a background and do so at something much closer to the traditional portrait focal length. Furthermore it means the XZ-1 should give greater control over depth-of-field than a Micro Four Thirds kit lens, since they tend to offer 7.5mm at 84mm equivalent.

All-in-all, it means the XZ-1 offers similar control over depth-of-field and a more flexible focal length range than most DSLRs or mirrorless cameras with their kit lenses, making it a competitive alternative unless you plan to buy additional lenses.