Olympus XZ-1 Camera Review
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The Olympus XZ-1 is a compact camera designed to be operated with two hands. The protruding lens barrel is surrounded by a mechanical ring which serves as the main control-dial. It has a heavily-textured surface and good detents which produce audible clicks. The left hand should therefore generally support the camera with the thumb and index finger operating the ring.
The right hand naturally is needed to operate the shutter-release and completes the hold of the camera. There is no grip at all on the smooth surface of the XZ-1, so it would not feel secure with a single-hand anyway. The index finger should be used to move between the shutter-release and the zoom-controller which is wrapped around it.
The right-hand thumb rests on a textured rubber patch within easy reach of the video-recording button and the mode-dial. With a one inch movement downwards, the thumb can reach a thin ring around the 4-way controller which serves as the camera's secondary control-dial.
Every part of the Olympus XZ-1 feels solid, even battery compartment cover. The camera has a nice weight to it but actually feels quite light in use, since both hands tend to support it. Most likely due to the ultra-bright aperture of its lens, the lens barrel is large for a compact camera. This requires a removable lens cover which can be tethered to the camera to prevent it from getting lost. It may get annoying though, particularly if you are used to taking portrait shots be turning the camera clockwise.
Power on and off require a quick press of the power button which is located on the top-plate. To the right of the power button is a two-stage shutter-release with a soft halfway point. When the camera takes long to focus, it can therefore happen that a picture gets taken accidentally. Further to the right is the mode-dial which has a textured outer surface and strong detents. Some sculpting on the camera's back make the mode-dial easily accessible from there. Towards the left side of the top-plate, inline with the center of the lens, is the hot-shoe. All the way to the left is the popup flash.
The mode-dial has 9 positions. The usual 4 PASM modes are there, plus a custom mode, an auto mode along with 3 scene positions. The chosen mode affects the functions assigned to each mode dial. In the case of scene modes, some menu options are often blocked as well.
In P mode, the front control-dial controls ISO sensitivity in 1/3 stops. From 100 to 6400, that is a lot of ISO settings! So may take a while to reach the desired ISO value. There is no way to customize the camera to only use full-stops. By default, the rear control dials does nothing. A tap of the Up direction on the 4-way controller activates EC which can then be set by the rear control-dial or Left and Right directions. Although there is an optional live-histogram, it disappears when setting exposure-compensation which arguably is the most important to see it.
In A and S mode, the front control-dial changes the aperture or shutter-speed, respectively. The rear dial works exactly as in P mode. Without the front-dial to change ISO sensitivity, one most therefore use the quick menu or camera menu, to be discusses further down in this review section. The entire range of apertures and shutter-speed is available at any ISO, making setting parameters straight-forwards. It would have been quite helpful to assign the rear control-dial to ISO in these modes.
M mode the front control-dial changes aperture and the rear control dial does nothing. This is an extremely odd to say the least. When the Up direction is pressed, the rear control-dial or Left and Right directions can be used to change shutter-speeds. It would be nice to have Up toggle between ISO and shutter-speed settings instead. Once again, each time any exposure-parameter is changed, the histogram disappears for a while. In any case, it would no do anything to keep it up since the histogram always shows the brightness distribution of the display which is not exposure-priority at all.
The front control-dial is used to change ISO in Low-Light mode, to change the art filter in ART mode, to change the scene mode when the mode-dial is set to SCN and to do nothing in Auto mode. In both SCN and ART modes, the first press of the menu button offers the same selection as the front control-dial. Subsequent presses bring up the camera menu, at least until the mode is changed.
The back of the camera is where almost everything else happens. The 3" screen has 640K pixels and is an OLED display rather than an LCD. Honestly, people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. It may use less power but in terms of brightness and sharpness, the two look interchangeable. This particular screen looks better than average but, after being spoiled for a few weeks with the Nikon Coolpix P300
Nikon Coolpix P300, it is simply not as crisp. Outdoor visibility is great and it has good color accuracy.
There is a mechanical sliding lever to release the pop-up flash right above the OLED display. Pushing the flash back down locks it in place and resets the lever's position. To the right of the level is the data connector for the multi-purpose hot-shoe. Flash units do not use it but Olympus has a number of accessories which fit there:
- Electronic Viewfinder (EVF): Provides an large ultra-sharp eye-level view with 1.4 megapixels and 1.15X magnification. It also tilts up to 90° to use as a low-level finder.
- Microphone Adaptor: Adds stereo sound to video using a microphone that can be connected directly to the adaptor or via a cable.
- Macro Light Arm: Adds flexible illumination for macro shots using LEDs.
To the right of the display are a number of buttons mostly gathered around the combined 4-way controller and rear control-dial. All the way at the top and next to the outer edge of the camera is the video record button. As is becoming alarmingly common these days, the XZ-1 lacks an actual Video mode. Instead, a dedicated button starts and stops video recording. There is a slight delay, just under one second, for video recording to start, so a tiny portion of action may be missed. The lack of a video mode and framing guides means that one cannot precisely setup framing before starting to film.
There is a Playback button above the 4-way controller. It works just as expected, toggling Playback mode on and off. It can also power-on the camera into Playback mode without extending the lens, just like most cameras without a modal power-switch. Below the 4-way controller are the Menu and Info buttons. These too work exactly as expected: Menu toggles the camera menu and Info cycles through various information screens.
The 4-way controller which is used for navigating menus has functions assigned to each direction, including the central OK button:
- OK: Brings up an icon-based quick menu at the last used position. The quick menu gives access to: ISO, Picture Mode, White-Balance Drive, Aspect Ratio, Image Quality, Video Quality, Flash Mode, Flash Compensation, Metering, ND Filter, Focus Mode and Face Priority. The front control-dial is used to select what to change and the rear control-dial changes it. This is extremely efficient.
- Up: Activates EC. Once active, the rear control-dial changes the value ±2 in 1/3 increments. In Manual mode, it lets you change the shutter-speed.
- Right: Shows the flash options, the ones that do not apply to the current exposure mode appear greyed-out.
- Down: Shows drive mode options including bracketing (BKT) and self-timers. The BKT option is usually greyed-out because this one is only a toggle. Bracketing itself must be configured in the camera's menu. That determines if AEB or WBB will be used.
- Left: Controls focus by first showing the currently active focus-point(s). The rear control-dial or directional buttons can be used to select a single focus point or all of them. At this point the Info button can be pressed to bring up focus-mode options.
For all options activated by the 4-way controller, the OK button can be pressed to confirm the selection and dismiss the menu. This is not necessary as the selected option is set regardless. The implementation of the directional buttons actually brings up the quick menu at a specific position. So, even though Down activates Drive Mode, the front control-dial can still be used to select other settings to change. When the OK button is pressed to bring up the quick menu, it does so at the last known position even if it was set by one of the directional buttons.
Although the quick menu can be used to change Picture Mode, White-Balance and Image Quality, it cannot be used to configure them. Specifically any adjustments to parameters such as sharpness, saturation and contrast has to be done through the menu system. The same is true for white-balance fine-tuning. Custom white-balance can be set though by pressing the Info button when the Custom White-Balance option is selected.
The bottom of the XZ-1 has a metal tripod mount which is neither inline with the lens nor the center of the camera. It also has a sturdy door which covers the battery and memory-card compartment. The sides of the camera are mostly bare.
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Performance starts with image quality, which is the criteria used as the foundation of our digital camera ratings. Ergonomic issues may get in the way, but in the end, image quality counts the most. Image quality has multiple components which can be attributed to the sensor, lens and processing.
The Olympus XZ-1 shows very good control over image noise. It produces noise-free images until ISO 400 which are usable for large prints up to the maxium sensor resolution. Given 10 megapixels, this means sharp 16x12" prints. ISO 800 shows a slight amount of noise which is very close to class-leading. By ISO 1600, details start getting destroyed by noise but this remains better than most compact cameras. Still, a mid-size 9x12" print should appear slightly grainy except in shadow areas. ISO 3200 is passable for small prints but is plagued by increased noise, lower dynamic range and greatly reduced contrast.
In absolute terms, this puts the XZ-1 on par with the top-performing compact digital cameras until ISO 400. Afterwards, this Olympus slips a little behind. However, the ultra-bright F/1.8 lens makes up for the difference in quality extremely well. Therefore, the Olympus XZ-1 can match or exceed the image quality of competitors under the same circumstances by shooting at a lower ISO and opening up its lens more.
Image sharpness is primarily a result of the lens at base ISO. The Olympus XZ-1 uses a lens with an ultra-bright F/1.8 maximum aperture at wide-angle and F/2.5 at telephoto. The sharpness of this lens is extremely good. At the widest F/1.8 aperture there is a slighest softening of the corners. Stopping the aperture down to F/2 improves things a notch and by F/2.2 it completely goes away. The remainder of the frame always remains perfectly sharp.
The one thing that users of compact cameras are not used to is the shallow depth-of-field at wide apertures. This may be confused as softness by novices but it is not. Shallow depth-of-field is often used in creative photography to isolate a sharp subject on a blurry background.
Color & White Balance
Color accuracy for the XZ-1 is about average. The output is close to reality but some distinct hue shifts are noticeable. Among for four color modes, Standard is closer to reality with noticeable over-saturation without being over the top. The Vivid mode is best suited for things which do not resemble reality. Muted is not really muted but just a dimmer version of Standard, so similar over-saturation is present. Those who shoot RAW can get much better color accuracy by creating a color-profile for their camera.
Automatic White-balance is good and even handles artificial light well, occasionally leaving only a slight yellow. Outdoor, it works very well. Presets work just as expected. The custom white-balance option is almost perfect, something which a one-step correction towards blue can take care of. As noted in the capability page of this review, the XZ-1 features white-balance fine-tuning. This lets one fix color issues when the a setting is not quite managing.
This compact digital camera has a sophisticated multi-segment metering system called ESP. It is generally reliable and can best be described as conservative. This means that there is much more chance of it under-exposing than over-exposing, which is certainly the more sensible thing to do. Under-exposure can occur for scenes with small bright highlights. Sometimes the XZ-1 misses those which causes blown out highlights. No system to date is foolproof and, considering that it is rarely off by much, this metering system performs rather well.
The autofocus system of the Olympus XZ-1 is accurate and reliable. It always locks focus unless the subject is too close. Macro focusing and Super Macro focusing are equally reliable. During the review period the camera never falsly confirmed focus. It takes about 1 second to lock focus under most circumstances, a little longer in low-light. This is on the slow side of things. On DSLRs bright apertures tend to improve focusing speed but it clearly is not the case for this compact camera.
In use the XZ-1 is extemerly responsive. Nearly every button-press and dial-turn shows an imediate response. Operating speed generally good:
- It takes just over 1s to power on and and 2s to power-off though. This is good.
- The time to take the first shot is just under 4 seconds, so slower than average.
- Shutter-lag is short but not exceptionally so. About average for its class.
- Shot-to-shot times are 2s with autofocus and slightly more than 1s without. This is better than average.
- It takes one second to get in and out of Playback mode.
- Switching between images and zooming in is instant.
- Panning is on the slow side.
The Olympus XZ-1 is a compelling entry into the advanced compact category with a rich feature set. The ultra-bright F/1.8 wide-angle lens combined with a relatively large CCD sensor lets this model produce some of the best images to come out of a compact digital camera for a given scene. Dual control-dials enable efficient use of manual controls which include manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, bracketing, custom white-balance and white-balance fine-tuning. The dual-port hot-shoe supports an optional tiltable EVF to provide eye-level and waist-level shooting, as well as supporting external lighting.
In the end, the Olympus XZ-1's achievement in image quality and capabilities easily earn it an excellent rating. Without being class-leading at everything, there are very few areas where it truly falls short. Focus speed is probably the main concern for capturing moving subjects, followed by the inability to frame video. The lack of an exposure-priority display and live histogram is certainly a major annoyance but reliable metering makes it easier to accept.
Olympus XZ-1 Facts
Compact digital camera
|10 Megapixels Fixed Lens||ISO 100-6400|
|4X Wide Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/2000-60s|
|Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|0.20" Optional EVF 1.4 Megapixels (1.15X)||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|1280x720 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Spot-Metering|
|3" LCD 610K Pixels||Hot-Shoe|
|Stereo audio input|
|Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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