Olympus Stylus XZ-2 (white)

When Olympus announced the Stylus XZ-2 last year we did wonder why there was no white version - as per the XZ-1 release - to complement the black version. C'mon, everything has a white version these days.

READ: Olympus XZ-1 review

Patience, it would seem, is all that was required, as Olympus handed Pocket-lint the brand new XZ-2 white model under hush-hush conditions ahead of its official announcement. We've been playing with this high-end compact - the so-called sequel to the XZ-1, if you will - for over a week now. Does it have all the makings of yet another classic compact?

Stylish Stylus

It seems Olympus has an affection for writing implements: pens, styli - okay so we digress. But there is a small point to be made - the XZ-2 brings its Stylus branding to the fore. The XZ-1 didn't bear the name of it at all. The latest model includes the brand logo on top of its pop-up flash as well as on the rear LCD. It's done away with the more brash "F1.8" stamp that was on the front of the XZ-1, and opted for a cleaner, more subtle front-on finish. It's simple, it's classy. We like it. We like it a lot, Forrest Gump style.

But this Snow White, fair-skinned compact isn't as dwarfish as the classic XZ-1 was on account of its tilt-angle screen bracket. It adds a meagre 6mm to the depth, so although the camera is slightly larger than its predecessor, on the whole it's fairly hard to tell. Size is an important factor to any buyer, but we think the XZ-2 is just about on the right side of small. It might look positively large sitting next to, say, a Canon S110, but then the Olympus has a few extra tricks up its sleeve...

READ: Canon PowerShot S110 compact camera review

Formidable Features

There are some standout features dotted around the XZ-2's body that make it well worth a look-in for any high-end compact fan. As well as a built-in pop-up flash, there's also a standard hotshoe coupled with an accessory port to the rear that's compatible with the VF-2 electronic viewfinder or flashguns, even wireless flash control is available. Expansion is great, but it's a minor shame there's no VF-2 in white too. Oh, and the cost implication is also rather heinous on top of the XZ-2's already sizeable £479 recommended retail price.

But there's plenty on board for the money: the 28-112mm equivalent lens offers a maximum f/1.8-2.5 aperture which is up there with the best of the bunch. Some might say it's a touch behind the Panasonic LX7, but the Olympus has the longer zoom of the two so they're fairly level-pegged.

READ: Panasonic Lumix LX7 compact camera review

Around the XZ-2's lens is a control ring that, much like a traditional aperture ring, gives a reassuring click with each portion of rotation. But here's the extra cool part: the Fn button situated to the side of the lens also has a function switch that, once flipped, releases the lens ring into a free-rotating one. Awesome. Not only is it super smooth in the hand, this dual control available at - literally - the flick of a switch is perfect for aperture selection followed by manual focus, for example. Lovely stuff.

An inspection of the XZ-2 spec sheet also suggests that its 1/1.7-inch sensor is slightly smaller than the XZ-1's claimed 1/1.63-inch sensor, yet the latest model packs in 20 per cent more resolution at 12-megapixels. Both XZ-series models show a "6-24mm" lens marking on their respective fronts which is an absolute truth, but it's the respective sensor sizes that generate each camera's equivalent view.

Some digging revealed it's the XZ-1's alleged sensor size that's the red herring; the original camera didn't utilise all of its size to produce its images, so the two XZ-series cameras both use approximately the same surface area to capture an image.

In response to our queries, Olympus says: "The lens of the XZ-1 and the XZ-2 is the same [but] the 35mm equivalent is of course not quite he same … as the XZ-2 sensor is a little bit smaller than the XZ-1['s] sensor. In reality focal length [equivalent] would be between 27 and 29mm."

Anyway, rather than read more of our inane ramblings about equivalents, it's the sensor's format shift that's another significant point. The XZ-2 has ditched the CCD sensor in favour of a new back-lit CMOS version that should, in theory, beef up image quality beyond its predecessor. In simple terms, the backlit part means that the wiring has moved to the rear of the sensor, out of the way of the light path, which helps to provide a "cleaner" signal.

There have been several changes in the screen department too. The XZ-2 now offers a tilt-angle-mounted 3-inch touchscreen LCD, not the much-touted, non-touch OLED version in the XZ-1 original. Some may see this as a jump forward coupled with a backwards step, but we're more than happy with how the XZ-2's 920k-dot resolution looks and the viewing angle is up to the task amid its various repositioned points too.

Performance

The XZ-2 has its own way of working. It doesn't quite conform to the norm - but everyone loves a rebel. The layout is intuitive enough, but the use of the rear rotational d-pad to adjust, primarily and by default, exposure compensation is common cause for accidental knocks. The number of times the XZ-2 would be pulled from pocket and bag and show -0.3EV was, well, a lot.


Arranged around the d-pad are quick-access controls for autofocus point position, flash, drive mode and the aforementioned exposure compensation. For more detailed options the quick menu is a single press of the "OK" button away but, as with previous Olympus models, the inclusion of the touchscreen still isn't compatible with hands-on menu use. Still, at least most stuff is readily accessible without digging into the main menu.

Focus is divided into single AF, Super Macro, continuous AF, tracking AF and manual focus. A 7 x 5 grid covers the majority of the screen so focus areas are most places they'll be needed and, if not, then a simple finger press on the subject area of the screen itself will suffice. Focus is swift, very much so in good light, and appeared accurate in the majority of our shots.

The Super Macro mode - or indeed any close-up snapping - is nothing short of incredible from the XZ-2. Even handheld with the f/1.8 wide-angle lens in full effect we managed to grab some impressive shallow depth of field close-ups with no added accessory extras. Top stuff.

It's that wide aperture that's the camera's winning feature. The blurred background effect from f/1.8, even with the 1/1.7in sensor size, is quite considerable though not over-the-top. Good for street snaps, portraits and, well, pretty much anything you'd care to shoot.

A small gripe is that the lens is less wide-angle than its predecessor in our opinion. We'd rather see a 24mm or 25mm equivalent, not the 28/29mm version in this model. But then others will disagree, and the less-wide wide-angle does hold together image quality well.

Image Quality

Not only does the XZ-2 have glorious external looks, it also delivers in the images that it can produce.

We've already covered the wide aperture and how much that can lend to an image's appeal, but the XZ-2 has plenty of other features on board that high-end snappers will appreciate.

Principally it's the inclusion of raw capture that will have an impact. Being able to snap away in the knowledge that an ORF raw file will hold all that extra data is definitely useful should an exposure be a little off or, simply, because you prefer the untouched, grainier look. It's a good base canvas to work from.

The camera can shoot from ISO 100 through to a maximum ISO 12,800 sensitivity, but the wide aperture values can be helpful in avoiding high ISO shots, which is for the best as those upper values really aren't great.

ISO 3200 full image taken from raw file

There's little image noise to worry about at ISO 100-200, some slight interference at ISO 400-800, and then from ISO 1600 and upwards it's a push as to whether the shots are of as much practical use. JPEG noise reduction does a good job to keep shots usable through to around ISO 3200, beyond which it's a descent into muddied, noise-smattered fare. But we rarely to never used such settings, so it doesn't really matter.

Same ISO 3200 image as above, taken from JPEG file (shows noise reduction processing)

On the whole images are cracking. There are plenty of on-board adjustments too, from the simple JPEG processing - neutral, natural and so forth - through to distinctive art filters that include pseudo-HDR dramatic tone, pale colour, pinhole effect and plenty more besides.

Verdict

We're big fans of high-end compact cameras, and the XZ-2 really does excel at what it does. We like the style, the images, the available wide aperture settings and that awesome dual-function lens ring.

In fact there's not much we don't like. A wider-angle lens would be welcome, as would a smaller body and - here's the likely purchase clincher - a smaller price too. That's the XZ-2's biggest barrier really - it'll cost £479 upon launch, although we're hopeful that will drop to the £420 mark that the XZ-2 black is currently hovering around at.

READ: Olympus Pen Mini E-PM2 review

But for that money it's the presence of Olympus's own E-PM2 "Pen Mini" and the likes of the larger-sensor Sony RX100 that will call into question this high-end compact's asking price. Each is roughly the same price, while other high-end competitors, such as the Panasonic LX7, are notably cheaper yet, often, equally remarkable in many areas.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review

Combine all that and it's the cost that, er, costs the XZ-2's final score. Our hearts give it top marks, but our wallet-tight heads disagree. It's a lovely camera that does inspire that gut feeling of greatness about it. If you're rich go and buy one. No, go and buy two, y'know, just because you can.



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