With the ranks of high performance compact cameras swelling by the week, Olympus has come late to the party with its own 10 megapixel, 4x optical zoom XZ-1. Already enjoying the sausage rolls and Vimto are the very similar PowerShot S95 from Canon, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX5, Samsung EX1 and new Nikon Coolpix P300, with Fujifilm’s FinePix X100 on its way in a taxi from slightly left-field.
However, like the best late arrival, the Olympus XZ-1 is making a dramatic entrance. At the front there’s a best-in-class F/1.8 aperture lens, and at the back a 3-inch, high 610k-dot resolution OLED screen. In both respects it’s similar to the Samsung EX1, yes, and the Nikon P300 also in its F/1.8 capability. This would seem to both suggest a better low light performance plus the ability to play with shallow depth of field - the amount of the image sharply in focus - to direct the viewer’s eye. ISO light sensitivity range extends incrementally from ISO 100 up to ISO 6400, not that you might actually need to utilise the higher settings. At its heart is a slightly larger than average 1/1.63-inch CCD chip, not overly burdened with a 10 megapixel effective resolution.
Current asking price is just shy of £400, nearly as much as a starter DSLR and kit lens, but £100 short of the new Olympus E-PL2 Micro Four Thirds with which to an extent it also competes, if the added ability to change the lens in use appeals. The idea here is that the XZ-1 is such an impressively compact all-in-one that you won’t begrudge the fact that you’re “stuck” with the one optic. The XZ-1 weighs 275g and measures 110.6 x 64.8 x 42.3mm, so while it might fit into a trouser pocket for those of us who like to shoot from the hip it’s a bit of a tight squeeze. It’s available in a choice of sober matt black or shiny white lacquered finish. We've played with both and the whilst the black stealth look carries with it a great deal of gravitas, we're surprisingly drawn to the more extroverted white model.
Announced at the same time as the E-PL2, and obviously from similar moulds in terms of boxy design and solid-feel construction, it will come as no surprise that the XZ-1 shares many features with its pricier sibling. These include a top mounted hotshoe plus accessory port above the rear screen that in tandem allow for the attachment of optional optical or electronic viewfinder, flashgun, and microphone. We also get the hand holding Live Guide from the Digital Pen series, accessible in fully automatic iAuto mode, and showing the effects of image-altering options in real time, plus on-board hints and tips.
In fact the shooting mode dials on both cameras are identical, save for a low light mode replacing the video mode of the E-PL2. Instead, 1280 x 720 pixels HD video is instantly activated on the XZ-1 with a press of the backplate camcorder-style record button. Press this and the screen’s aspect ratio alters from standard 4:3 to 16:9, black bands cropping the screen top and bottom to provide a more accurate impression of how footage will look once downloaded or replayed on a flat panel TV. HDMI output along with standard AV out and USB 2.0 connectivity is provided under a flap at the camera’s side. RAW shooting is offered alongside JPEG, and like the E-PL2 we get the ability to shoot both in tandem, and what’s more at each incremental JPEG compression level.
Deploying contrast detection AF, the XZ-1 lives up to the best of the Olympus E-series by being lightning fast in its response times. Powering up in just over a second, so comparable with a starter DSLR in that respect, it’s expectedly near instantaneous in determining focus and exposure, committing a full resolution JPEG to memory (SD, SDHC or SDXC card) in around 3 seconds, with a RAW file taking a mere blink of an eye longer.
Perhaps more impressive still are the Art Filter digital effects, a familiar “creative studio in a box” feature of Olympus cameras since their introduction on E-series digital SLRs. These have their own setting on the shooting mode dial and on the XZ-1, as on the E-PL2, number six in total. They comprise Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. Whilst most are self-explanatory, the Diorama feature is Miniature mode by another name, ape-ing a specialist tilt and shift lens and narrowing the portion of the image in sharp focus to a narrow band. Thus the illusion is created of a world that's been shrunk to Lilliput proportions. The contrast and colour boosting Dramatic Tone mirrors the results achievable via high dynamic range modes on competing compacts meanwhile, such as the HDR Art function on Casio’s slightly lower-end Exilim EX-ZR10. However the results from the Olympus are in a different league.
While it shares Olympus DNA, the XZ-1 also seemingly takes inspiration from the Canon PowerShot S95 by featuring a front-mounted lens ring via which camera functions, such as ISO speed, can be adjusted with a flick of the wrist. And again, like the Canon there’s the ability to adjust image aspect ratios. We’ve mentioned 4:3 and 16:9, with further options including 3:2 and 6:6. A toolbar at the side of the screen allowing for the picking and choosing of key settings in a thrice also seems “borrowed” from its rival, although there’s not actually a dedicated “function” or “mode” button here suggesting where you might find it. Instead it’s located with a press of the “OK” button at the centre of the scroll wheel type control pad - not something we’re fans off as it’s a little fiddly to operate - so the XZ-1 for all its approachability does require an initial period of familiarisation.
For all its impressive features, the XZ-1 cannot be considered a direct replacement for a DSLR, or even interchangeable lens compact. That is to say that image quality, for all its crispness, is not quite as sharp as a camera with a bigger lens and sensor. Colours are realistic if sticking to the default Natural Picture Mode setting, or there’s the option to switch to Vivid for a quick boost or of course twist the dial to the Art Filter modes if requiring added visual punch. In terms of low light shooting, we’d be happy going up to ISO 1600 as even at this setting noise is no more intrusive than another compact might manage at ISO 800 (some at ISO 400). You probably won’t need to stray higher than this anyway, thanks to that brighter than average lens that is so integral a feature of this model.
Shoehorning in almost as many features as its E-PL2 bigger brother, if you don’t want to change the F/1.8, 28-112mm equivalent lens on the front, the XZ-1 is the easier to use, as well as transport. Sure, an asking price of £399 is not inconsiderable, but at least it’s comparable with its immediate rivals that are also priced at a premium. After practically holding a wake with the release of the E-5 DSLR, fortunately it’s now party hats and streamers time for Olympus in the case of the XZ-1.
NOTE: In addition to the new sample shots we took with the XZ-1 in the UK, we've added our shots from our first play with the camera, because we liked them so much. We've also included hands-on shots of the white model from our time with the camera at CES 2011.