Olympus XZ-1: Build and Design

March 9, 2011 by Jim Keenan Reads (13,322)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 8
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 7
    • Performance
    • 8
    • Total Score:
    • 8.00
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

The XZ-1 has a rectangular metal body and seems well-built, with materials, fit and finish commensurate with the camera’s price point and competition. Our review model was finished in a slightly textured matte black paint finish, but there is a white version available as well.

Olympus XZ-1

Actual dimensions are fairly close to the Canon/Nikon entries in this class (4.35 x 2.55 x 1.66 inches versus 4.5 x 3.1 x 1.8 inches for the P7000) and weight is almost 3 ounces less than the Nikon, 4 ounces less than the Canon. The XZ-1 just manages to squeeze into a shirt pocket, and you’ll have no doubt it’s there.

Ergonomics and Controls
The XZ-1 body features classic compact digital ergonomics, which is to say its edges are rounded and there’s very little else in the way of shaping to facilitate a grip on the body. There’s a bit of rubberized and textured material in the thumb rest position on the camera back, but I found it pretty much as smooth as the paint on the rest of the body.

Olympus XZ-1

External controls are sparser than the Canon/Nikon duo – the on/off switch, shutter button/zoom lever and shooting mode dial share the camera top with the hot shoe and pop-up flash. The camera back is largely taken up by the 3.0-inch monitor, as well as playback, menu and info buttons, the flash switch, movie capture button and wheel controller/OK button. My shooting finger fell naturally to the shutter button and the thumb sat squarely on the thumb rest with little contact with surrounding controls.

Olympus XZ-1

The printed quick start guide provided by Olympus briefly covers battery charging, date/time setup, still image capture in (surprisingly) program auto mode, movie capture, flash operation and playback. The first bit of bad news is the battery is charged in the camera. If you’re one of those folks who think “great, I can charge my camera from a computer,” read on. You can, but it can take up to 10 hours. I’m not a fan of having to use the camera to charge batteries – recharging a completely depleted XZ-1 battery from an AC outlet takes about 3 hours and the camera is unavailable for shooting during this time. About the only positive with this arrangement is the XZ-1 will allow you to post process images in the camera while attached to the charger.

The charging setup on the XZ-1, as it comes in the box, consists of a plug-in AC adaptor (designated F2AC) and separate AC cable. There is no external battery charger listed for the XZ-1 under the accessories section for the camera on its Olympus America website page. However, the XZ-1 battery is an LI-50B, is used in other Olympus compacts, and can be charged with an LI-50C charger listed as an accessory for those same Olympus cameras. MSRP for the charger is $45 and it’s the charger Olympus should be providing considering that $500 camera asking price, but at least XZ-1 owners have a way around the in-camera charging routine if they wish.

Second bit of bad news is the complete user’s manual is provided only on CD-ROM, with about 37 different language versions on the disc. If you’re looking for the English version, you’ll look long and hard for “ENG” (and not find it), since it’s designated “ENU.” Bad enough that the aforementioned $500 MSRP doesn’t include a printed full user’s manual, but at least make finding it on the disc a little more intuitive.

The XZ-1 might not prove particularly intuitive for folks trying to shoot in the manual modes, especially those who have shot only digital equipment. One of my standard routines with a review camera is to sit down and try and figure out how everything works without resorting to instruction manuals to get an idea of how intuitive its operation might be. Those of us who shoot in the manual modes are quite familiar with setting aperture, shutter speed or both by way of buttons or controllers on digital cameras, but trying to get the XZ-1 to change apertures had me stumped for longer than usual. Turns out the XZ-1 changes apertures very much like like we used to with our old manual lenses on an SLR – in this case by turning the large, knurled control ring that surrounds the base of the lens.

Olympus XZ-1

After that, things got a bit easier – if you’re in shutter priority, the control ring changes shutter speed. In manual, the control ring changes aperture, and we’re back to more traditional compact digital means for changing shutter speed. From the shooting screen, you push the “up” side of the wheel controller to designate the shutter speed icon on the screen, then turn the wheel controller to set the exact speed. I had to go to the full user’s guide (the one not provided in print form) to resolve the shutter part of the manual equation, though.

But wait – there’s more! If you’re in the “art” or “scene” modes, the control ring scrolls through your various shooting options and if you’re in “low light” mode it changes ISO sensitivity. The control ring takes a little getting used to, particularly if you’ve got an old school film-based background since that control location just screams “aperture change” and not much else. Once you get used to it and its permutations in the various shooting modes, you’ll appreciate the versatility it provides.

Menus and Modes
After the somewhat atypical manual shooting mode operation/control ring functions on the XZ-1, menus were decidedly digital compact mainstream, intuitive and easy to navigate. There are four main menus: camera, movie, playback and setup. Depending on your specific shooting mode, more or less options within the individual menus may be available.

There are nine primary still image shooting modes along with a 720 HD video capability:

  • iAuto: Fully automatic mode with camera handling settings using either portrait, landscape, night portrait, sport, macro or low light scene modes for image capture. If the camera can’t decide on a scene it defaults to Program Auto for capture. User can change color saturation, color image, brightness, or blur the background via a “live guide” menu.
  • Art Filter: Automatic mode offers 6 filter effects, few user inputs.
  • Scene: Automatic mode with 18 scene-specific shooting options, few user inputs.
  • Low Light: Automatic mode that can adjust ISO up to 3200, user has some inputs primarily related to image size/quality but can also set ISO manually.
  • Custom: User-saved set of shooting settings.
  • Program Auto: Camera handles shutter and aperture, user has wide range of inputs.
  • Aperture Priority: User sets aperture, camera sets shutter and user has wide range of inputs.
  • Shutter Priority: User sets shutter, camera sets aperture and user has wide range of inputs.
  • Manual: User sets aperture and shutter, has wide range of inputs.
  • Movie: Capture AVI motion JPEG at 1280 x 720 HD or 640 x 480 SD resolution, both at 30 frames per second (fps). Maximum file size is 2GB, maximum recording time is 7 minutes at 720 HD, 14 minutes at 480 SD. Audio is Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/16bit, 44.1kHz.

The 3.0-inch OLED monitor has a 614,000 dot composition and is adjustable for 5 levels of brightness. The monitor proved average to a bit above average for image composition and capture work in bright outdoor conditions, but could still be overcome by direct sunlight at times. On our newly-instituted brightness measuring tests, the monitor rang up a peak brightness score of a low 256 nits, and sky-high contrast ratio of 12800:1.

Olympus XZ-1

Generally speaking, monitors with brightness levels above 500 and a contrast ratio at least in the 500-800:1 range tend to be more useful in bright outdoor conditions. However, my experience has been that cameras with brightness scores below that 500 nit threshold that have contrast ratios above the 800:1 level seem to do fairly well outdoors, so contrast seems to compensate, at least in part, for a lower brightness level. The XZ-1 is the first OLED monitor I’ve reviewed since we started measuring monitor brightness, and the contrast ratio is about 10x more than the closest LCD monitor I’ve reviewed. Monitor coverage is 100%.

The optional electronic viewfinder (available in black or white) for the XZ-1 has a 1,440,000 dot composition, diopter adjustment and mounts on the camera’s hot shoe. Coverage is 100%, but use of the viewfinder precludes attaching an external flash or microphone adapter. MSRP for the viewfinder is $250.

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