The new Olympus XZ-1 shows that big-sensor hybrids still haven't killed off conventional high-end compacts. But is it really a serious alternative? DSLRs are often too big, many compacts don't offer the right control or quality. Hybrid 'mirrorless' cameras seem to offer the best of both worlds - a big sensor in a small body - but with a lens, they're still very big. Does this new high-end compact from Olympus fill a hole in the market?
Big sensors deliver better pictures, we all know that. But there are times when a digital SLR is just too big and inconvenient to carry around. We find ourselves needing a smaller, pocket-sized camera that still delivers good quality and a reasonable level of control.
Hybrid 'mirrorless' cameras seemed to offer the best of both worlds - a big sensor in a small body - but it's quickly becoming apparent that this doesn't necessarily make them pocket-sized. The bodies may be smaller, but the lenses aren't, and by the time you've fitted a standard zoom to a hybrid, there's no way it's going to fit into a jacket pocket.
So it's back to high-end compacts. These offer the controls of a digital SLR, but in a much smaller body and with a much smaller sensor. The scaling down of the sensor means the optics are scaled down too, so these are cameras you really can take anywhere.
Also, advances in sensor technology and some new thinking from the camera makers mean that these high-end compacts get closer to digital SLR quality than ever before.
The Olympus XZ-1, like its rivals, has a slightly larger sensor than regular compacts (1/1.63"), and, like Canon, Nikon, Samsung and Panasonic, Olympus has steered away from high megapixel counts and concentrated instead on image quality. The 10-megapixel sensor used here is a step down from the 14-16 megapixel sensors in smaller point-and-shoot models, but it's still more than enough for big enlargements, and the payback is bigger photosites, improved sensitivity, less noise and better dynamic range.
The high-quality sensor is only one aspect of the XZ-1's appeal. Another is its 4x 'iZuiko' zoom lens. Olympus is exploiting its renowned 'Zuiko' brand of SLR lenses. An indication that it's taking image quality very seriously. The lens has a 35mm equivalent focal range of 28-112mm, which is pretty ideal for everyday use. Panasonic's LX5 goes a little wider (24-90mm equivalent), but it all depends on whether you want your lens to be stacked towards super-wide shots or longer focal lengths.
The lens does protrude some distance from the camera when it's powered up, but when it's switched off it retracts into the body, giving the XZ-1 quite a slim profile.
The iZuiko lens also has a very fast f1.8 maximum aperture, and this is one thing you won't get on a D-SLR or hybrid zoom lens. This does drop to f2.5 at the maximum focal length, but a f2.5 112mm equivalent lens is still pretty fast in its own right.
The XZ-1 doesn't win the aperture war outright - its main rivals are very close - but it's another way in which a high-end compact may offer unexpected advantages over a D-SLR. It gives you another 2EV of low-light capability, which means you can use faster shutter speeds or lower ISOs, both of which help narrow the gap in picture quality between DSLRs.
Olympus also points out that the fast maximum aperture will deliver a shallow depth-of-field, and while this is true up to a point, the smaller sensor/lens combination means that the iZuiko lens's defocusing effect is limited. It's good, but for this kind of effect an SLR is better.
This pair of shots was taken at maximum focal length, maximum aperture and minimum focus distance. It gives you an idea of the depth of field effects that the XZ-1 can achieve, but that's under maximum provocation. At shorter focal lengths and normal shooting distances you won't get this degree of defocusing, even wide open.
But the XZ-1's lens does something your SLR's standard zoom won't - it can focus right down to 1cm in Super Macro mode. That's not quite as close as it sounds because in this mode the lens is locked at its 28mm minimum, which makes it tricky to exclude unwanted backgrounds and doesn't quite get you down true macro reproduction ratios, but it's still pretty good.
The magnification in this shot of a primula is impressive, though in Super Macro mode the lens is so close that it's obscuring the light and a little artificial illumination was needed from the side.
In the normal macro mode, alas, the lens unfortunately plays the usual compact camera tricks - the minimum focus distance changes with the zoom setting.
Other important features include full program AE, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes, just as you'd expect in a serious camera, plus the ability to shoot RAW files - another must-have for keen photographers. The free Olympus Viewer 2 software that comes with the camera offers plenty of RAW conversion options too, so you don't have to pay for extra software.
There's also a good selection of scene modes, though these do seem slightly out of place on a camera designed for enthusiasts, plus six Art Filters: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. These are a bit like scene modes in that you don't get much control over the effect or the camera settings, but they are a lot more likely to appeal to keen photographers. The effects are applied pretty strongly.
The Pin Hole filter adds a vignette effect to the corners of the picture and warms up the colours.
The Dramatic Tone filter is quite new, and creates a pseudo-HDR effect that darkens skies, lightens shadow areas and boosts contrast. It's not always easy to predict how it's going to work out, since small changes in the camera position affect the way the tones are manipulated, and there's even a difference between the LCD preview and the image that's saved, but it doesn't really matter because these filters are all about discovering new effects and enjoying the unpredictable.
Usability and handling
The ZX-1's other key features are reflected in its design and handling. For a start, it's very compact for a camera of its type, especially if you compare it to something like the Canon PowerShot G12.
It also has good-sized 3-inch OLED display. The 610,000 dot resolution means that both the pictures and the menus look sharp, and the OLED display technology delivers a wide range of viewing angles.
Surprisingly, it doesn't perform well outdoors, where glare from the sky saps the brightness and the colours significantly. You can still see what you're shooting, but it can be hard to judge the exposure, so you'll need to rely on the histogram display.
The XZ-1 isn't alone in this, but some kind of viewfinder would be an advantage in bright conditions. There isn't one built in, but you can add one using the XZ-1 Accessory Port, which it shares with Olympus's E-series hybrid cameras.
The LCD doesn't have a tilt/swivel mechanism, either, which makes low-angle shots like the one above quite tricky. It would make the XZ-1 bigger and heavier, of course.
One of the XZ-1's key selling points, though, is its mechanical lens control ring. This has a light, 'click-stop' action, and its function depends on the mode you're in. For example, in program AE mode it adjusts the ISO setting, in aperture-priority mode it controls the lens aperture and in shutter-priority mode it controls the shutter speed.
So what about manual mode? Here, it controls the lens aperture, and to adjust the shutter speed you first press the 'up' button on the rear controller, then spin the rear controller's outer ring. The extra button-press seems a little unnecessary, and while the lens ring is great, the rear controller is quite small and fiddly.
If the XZ-1 has a handling weakness, it's this. These multi-function controllers are very popular now on compact cameras because they combine four-way buttons with a control dial, but you have to apply a little pressure with your thumb to get enough grip to turn the dial, and this makes it too easy to press the buttons by mistake.
You can control most functions with the lens ring and the four-way buttons, fortunately. Pressing the rear controller's center 'OK' button calls up a vertical menu on the right of the display, and you can then scroll up and down to adjust various shooting settings, like image size and quality, aspect ratio, drive mode, white balance, picture mode and ISO.
Overall, the XZ-1 is easy to use and quite straightforward, but the small rear controller can prove a small but constant irritation.
Picture quality and lenses
First, let me say, that all of the photos in this review are linked to full resolution versions. Simply click the image to view the photos full size.
It's the picture quality that matters most, of course, and here the XZ-1 performs very well. At low ISOs, images are sharp and noise-free, and they compare pretty well with the pictures you'd get from a basic digital SLR. In fact, the iZuiko lens delivers really good edge-to-edge sharpness, so if you compare it to an SLR with a cheap kit lens, you might even decide it's better. The colour rendition and white balance are solid, too. Also, the pictures are contrasty, saturated and natural-looking. You will see chromatic aberration creeping in here and there, but in general it's well controlled.
Exposures are pretty accurate too, and the Olympus has an auto-gradation option which helps maintain shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast scenes.
Shooting into the light here, though, has pushed it just a little too far, and much of the highlight detail's been lost, but this was an extreme situation and most of the time you don't need to make any exposure adjustments.
This shot also demonstrates the iZuiko lens's slight barrel distortion at the wide angle end of the range. It's not as bad as some, though, and it should be easy enough to correct in Photoshop or Elements where necessary.
At longer focal lengths any trace of distortion disappears, and there's no visible pincushion distortion at maximum focal length either. This shot also demonstrates the vivid clarity of the XZ-1's colour reproduction and super-clean whites.
But while small sensors often do perform very well at low ISOs, the quality tends to drop off quickly as the ISOs go up, because this is where the bigger sensors (and hence photosites) of larger cameras really make a difference.
Even here, though, the Olympus performs unexpectedly well. On most compacts, pictures are showing a loss of detail and unwanted smoothing of fine textures at ISOs as little as 100-200, but the slightly larger sensor size in the XZ-1, the modest resolution and the latest generation of Olympus's TruePic V image processing combine to deliver a much better performance. You can start to see the quality dropping off at ISO 400, but it's still quite reasonable at ISO 1600. ISO 3200 is only tolerable, though, and you wouldn't really want to use the ISO 6400 setting at all, but overall it's still an impressive performance for a high-end compact camera.
This interior was shot at an ISO of 1600, and it's commendably smooth and detailed for a camera with a small sensor. Up close, though, you can start to see problems. Modern cameras often over-smooth high-ISO images to disguise noise, and that's exactly what Olympus has done here. Surprisingly, there's no option for adjusting the high-ISO noise reduction, so you're stuck with it.
This also shot shows another unfortunate quirk - areas of even tone show low-frequency colour 'blotching' that's going to be very difficult to remove using software. It's not too prominent here, but it's there all the same.
Despite these issues, the XZ-1 is still better at high ISOs than you'd expect a compact camera to be. If low-light shooting is important, you will be better off with a D-SLR or hybrid, but then the extra-fast lens does mean that the XZ-1 can compensate by shooting at lower ISOs and wider apertures.
The XZ-1 versus its rivals
At the time of writing, the XZ-1 has five main rivals: the Canon PowerShot G12 and S95, Nikon CoolPix P7000, Panasonic Lumix LX5 and Samsung EX-1. The PowerShot G12 and Nikon P7000 are both fairly bulky cameras, and while the Samsung has an articulating LCD, it too is quite large, and has a smaller 3x zoom range. The closest rivals in terms of size and features are the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, and it is quite difficult to choose between them. The Panasonic is made beautifully and handles really well, but it costs a lot more. The S95 and the XZ-1 are very close in price, specs and features, though, so you might need to handle both of them to choose which you prefer.
The XZ-1 is well-made, compact and comparatively inexpensive for a camera in this class. The 4x zoom range is very good and the lens quality is terrific, especially in terms of edge-to-edge sharpness. Pictures are sharp, saturated and natural-looking, and it performs unexpectedly well at high ISOs. The handling is a mixed bag, though. The lens control ring is great, but the main controller on the rear is not. It's not perfect, then, but as a second, go-anywhere camera to pop in your pocket, it sets a high standard.
Lens control ring
Overall image quality
Fixed (non-articulating) LCD
LCD visibility poor outdoors
Small and fiddly rear controller