The brand new Olympus XZ-1 is a top-spec compact camera – the very first Olympus model to offer such a high standard in a small package, and looking to compete with the likes of the Canon PowerShot S95 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. Developed by the same team that heads up the Olympus PEN range, the XZ1 crams a whole host of pro features in.

First up the 10-megapixel XZ-1 has a large 1/1.63-inch CCD sensor that’s far larger than a standard compact camera sensor. This is a considerable nod towards better quality images and, thanks to the coupling with a 28-112mm (equiv.) F/1.8-2.5 lens, it’s also possible to snap shots with a more pronounced shallow depth of field (i.e., blurred background). The lens itself is a brand new i.Zuiko Digital which should mean the utmost quality and sharpness is possible, and from the short time we’ve had playing around with this model it does seem very impressive indeed. A little disappointing that the lens isn’t available at F/1.8 throughout its entire zoom range but it’s still suitably fast and the zoom is just that bit longer compared to much of the competition out there. 

The XZ-1’s controls are very good indeed: clearly this is one for serious snappers who know what they want as fully manual modes feature alongside Scene options. The shutter even extends as far as 1/4000 second which is further testament to its pro-esque specification.

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The XZ-1’s design also adds a ring to surround in the barrel of the lens that can be used to click through apertures, ISO, shutter speeds and so forth – a move we saw on the Canon S95. However the active mode dictates what is assigned to this ring control. Although this is sensible for the more common modes, where, for example, aperture adjustment is controlled in Aperture Priority mode, the more specialist modes do not possess the option to re-assign. For example the ring can be used to adjust ISO sensitivity when in Portrait mode but nothing else – it would have been better to allow this to be user-assigned for more customised use.

In use and the XZ-1’s focus system is pretty nippy, but that’s because it uses the very same algorithm as found in Olympus’s PEN series. Ensuring the XZ-1 steps above and beyond the call of duty of any lesser compact there’s also the same Art Filters and 720p HD movie modes as found in both the PEN series and E-5 DSLR model.

A low-light mode can shoot to ISO 6400 at full resolution and, coupled with Dual IS (image stabilisation) that both shifts the sensor and increases the ISO sensitivity, plus an AF-illuminator lamp, there’s plenty of scope for low light shooting too. In movie mode the IS adds a third dimension, coined “Multi Motion Function”, that is especially good at countering the effects of vertical movement by selectively adjusting the vertical area of the sensor that each movie frame is selected from. Other specialist features include in-camera ND (Neutral Density) filters and a variety of aspect ratios right through from 3:2 and 4:3 to 16:9 and even a 1:1 square option.

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On the rear there’s also a 3-inch, 620k-dot OLED screen. No LCD to be found here, but the rather more swanky Organic Light Emitting Diode technology that lends itself to lower power consumption and a considerably higher contrast ratio. The results are very nice indeed and, although it’s not super-high resolution it’s a fair play-off between quality and available viewing angle (the latter would potentially suffer at higher resolution).

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There’s also an accessory port on the rear that can be used to add an optional electronic viewfinder (VF-2) and the fitting is the very same as that found on the PEN series (where applicable). It’s a bit of a shame that no form of viewfinder comes as standard, but then the cost implication would be a negative and the XZ-1’s already slender and curved body otherwise wouldn’t be achievable. 

Price when reviewed:
First Impressions

However it’s great to see Olympus pulling out all the stops to make a great compact camera – something that’s essentially lacked from the company’s digital stable for quite some time. The XZ-1 looks to take on the Canon G12, Nikon P7000 and Samsung EX1 head-on, but with its slimmed-down appeal it puts a number of those boxier competitors to shame in the looks department.

Available in the UK towards the end of January 2011, the XZ-1 will be available in black or white options for around £399 a piece.  

Photos by Chris Hall.