Olympus XZ-1 Review
by Jim Keenan -  3/4/2011

The recently introduced Olympus XZ-1 becomes that company's "...ultra-compact flagship camera and first of a new series... developed for the photographer or enthusiast who is looking for the ultimate high-quality, high-performance premium compact camera."

Olympus XZ-1

With Canon's G12 and Nikon's P7000 offering better than average compact digital noise performance, excellent compact digital image quality and a RAW shooting capability (not to mention a near-DSLR MSRP of $500), it was probably only a matter of time before Olympus threw their hat into this ring.

The XZ-1 offers 10 megapixel resolution on a 1/1.63-inch CCD sensor that is slightly larger than that of the Canon and Nikon competition and can capture images in RAW, JPEG or RAW/JPEG combinations. Video is 720p HD, and the camera features TruePic V image processing technology - TruePic V is also found in Olympus's PEN series cameras. Native ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 6400 and there are the obligatory compact digital automatic and scene shooting modes, along with full manual controls and a high resolution, 3.0-inch OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) monitor. The 4x iZuiko zoom lens covers the 28 to 112mm focal range in 35mm equivalents, and was specifically designed and built for use in a compact camera. Here's the view at both ends of that zoom:

Olympus XZ-1
Wide Angle, 28mm

Olympus XZ-1
Telephoto, 112mm

But the big news with this lens is its speed - a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture at wide angle slows only slightly to f/2.5 at telephoto. Eschewing the built-in optical viewfinders of the Canon and Nikon models, the XZ-1 comes in a bit smaller and a fair amount lighter - still a large compact digital, but not quite on the scale of those other guys. An electronic viewfinder that mounts on the camera's hot shoe is an optional accessory. The XZ-1 uses SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and there are about 54MB of internal memory. Olympus includes a lens cap, lens cap strap, Lithium-ion battery and charger, USB/Video multi-cable, shoulder strap, CD-ROM software and printed quick start user's manual with each camera.

First order of business for the XZ-1 owner (or reviewer) is to attach the lens cap to the camera with the provided lens cap strap - powering up the XZ-1 with the lens cap in place launches it off the body. With our lens cap accounted for and another winter storm taking aim on us here in southern California, let's get some shooting done before the wet weather arrives.

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:

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.

The XZ-1 enters an arena already populated by two strong performers in the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000. On paper the XZ-1 has the hardware to match up nicely with the two established brands, but do the promising specifications translate into real world excellence?

Shooting Performance
Power up time for the XZ-1 is about par for the class - a focus icon is presented about 2.5 seconds after startup and a first shot can be taken at around three seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.75 seconds. The camera made 2 fps in "sequential" (continuous) drive at full resolution with JPEGs, and did the same for RAW/JPEG fine combinations up to 15 shots using a 16GB class 10 SDHC card. More importantly for continuous shooters, after an initial monitor blackout following the first shot, subsequent images are displayed without delays so tracking moving subjects with the XZ-1 monitor is a bit easier than with the G12 or P7000 in the same fashion.

The XZ-1 also has two high speed continuous shooting settings, but Olympus is playing coy with just how high "high" is. The spec sheet for the XZ-1 admits to a 2 fps sequential rate, but says only that high-speed 1 shoots "at a faster speed than in sequential." Predictably, high-speed 2 "shoots at a faster speed than in high-speed 1." Not very forthcoming, Olympus.

For the record, I got high-speed 1 to shoot at a bit over 7 fps for 35 shots before I stopped the experiment; high-speed 2 went almost 15 fps for 74 shots before I stopped again. The other side of the high-speed coin is the camera defaults to a 1280 x 960 file size that puts out a 500KB image at either high speed setting. Here's a JPEG/fine shot in sequential and a high-speed 2 JPEG:

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Fine JPEG, sequential

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Hi Speed 2 JPEG

My Photoshop CS4 didn't recognize the XZ-1 RAW format, but Olympus provides Viewer 2 software with the camera that does. There's a range of adjustments available including color balance, sharpness/blur, unsharp mask, and a monochrome conversion tool among others, but the main thing is the Viewer 2 software can convert the XZ-1 RAW file into a TIFF or JPEG format that everybody's software recognizes. The camera can also process RAW files and give you a JPEG copy via post-processing.
Shutter lag on the XZ-1 was a very respectable 0.01 seconds, and AF acquisition time ran about 0.45 seconds, a bit off the pace compared to the Nikon, but a little ahead of the Canon.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Samsung TL500 0.01
Nikon Coolpix P7000 0.01
Olympus X-Z1 0.01
Canon PowerShot G12 0.04

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P7000 0.24
Samsung TL500 0.43
Olympus X-Z1 0.45
Canon PowerShot G12 0.50

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Canon PowerShot G12
2.1 fps
Olympus X-Z1 2.0 fps
Nikon Coolpix P7000 26 1.5 fps
Samsung TL500 1.5 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Olympus doesn't publish a flash guide number or even a flash range on either the Olympus America website or in the user's manual, but range seems to be about 20 feet at wide angle and auto ISO, a bit less at telephoto. Flash recycle times ran about 3 to 4.75 seconds depending on conditions.

Battery life is listed as approximately 320 shots when half are taken with flash. I was shooting one day and the XZ-1 suddenly locked up on me - monitor was active, but no controls worked, including on-off. I ended up taking the battery out of the camera to shut it down, and when I put it back in the camera came back up, albeit with a flashing red battery icon that is the XZ-1's way of saying "charge my battery NOW."

Olympus XZ-1

Nothing caught my attention that the battery was going away until the camera locked up - there is a battery icon on the shooting screen, but it displays for 10 seconds when the camera powers up and then drops off the shooting screen. The icon flashes red as a warning of imminent battery exhaustion, but wasn't prominent enough to get my attention like the camera locking up did. Carry a spare battery with your XZ-1.

Lens Performance
With Olympus designing the 4x zoom of the XZ-1 specifically for the camera, you'd expect pretty good results and you wouldn't be disappointed. There is some slight barrel distortion that verges on moustache distortion at wide angle, and a bit of pincushion at the telephoto end. Very slight softening exists in the corners and edges at wide angle, and even less at telephoto - the lens is quite good across the frame at both ends of the zoom. There is a very small amount of chromic aberration (purple fringing) at both ends of the zoom in some high contrast boundary areas, but the lens does quite well in this regard. Overall the XZ-1 glass turns in a very credible performance.

Those fast apertures at wide angle and telephoto speak for themselves, but aperture priority shooters may find themselves running out of shutter on bright days if they're working with the lens wide open. The XZ-1 shutter tops out at 1/2000th of a second and even with the ISO sensitivity at 100 you can start pushing into overexposure on a sunny day by going much below f/4. The camera features a built-in neutral density filter (disabled by default) and the user's manual doesn't specify the degree of strength, but shooting with the filter enabled and disabled indicate about a 3 stop reduction. For example, one particular scene shot at 1/50th of a second at f/5.6 with the filter disabled, but 1/6th of a second with the filter enabled.

On the other hand, those fast apertures are a godsend in low light as they allow you to shoot more without necessarily having to resort to higher ISO sensitivities to keep up shutter speeds when hand holding. The XZ-1 is stabilized, but even stabilization can only do so much. A tripod or other form of solid camera support is the best insurance in low light, but if you have to hand-hold the XZ-1 gives the user a significant speed advantage over the G12 and P7000 in this regard, all else being equal.

The XZ-1 can focus as close as about 0.4-inch in super macro mode, and while we're at it let's take a look at the nifty MAL-1 macro light accessory Olympus sent along with the XZ-1. The device features two 6.5-inch long flexible arms with 2-level adjustable LED lights at the end of each. The MAL-1 mounts on the hot shoe and draws its power from the camera. Here are a couple of looks at the MAL-1:

Olympus XZ-1 Olympus XZ-1

And here's a shot of a David Lee watercolor on silk original, with a close up of the artist signature shot with the MAL-1.

Olympus XZ-1 Olympus XZ-1

MSRP on the MAL-1 is $60.

Video Quality
Video quality out of the XZ-1 is not too bad, but I'd rate it a bit below the G12 and P7000 overall. At times it looks very good, but often it seems a bit soft, and with close up subjects the AF seems to hunt a bit, taking a sharp image in and out of focus on occasion. Capture is handy, featuring a dedicated one-push movie capture button on the camera back. The built-in microphone is fairly sensitive but there is no wind-cut feature - you can only enable or disable audio recording.

Sample Video Download

Recording times are sub-par: maximum file size is 2GB, but the clip lengths of 7 minutes at 720 HD and 14 minutes at 480 SD are the shortest I've encountered. Users should also be aware that if you're shooting in one of the art filter modes and switch to video, the camera will apply that filter to your video and the results may be disappointing depending on the individual filter. For example, the pinhole and grainy film filters produce a jerky video when panned, while the diorama effect greatly accelerates the speed of the pan.

Image Quality
Default images out of the XZ-1 are very good, with nice color rendition and sharpness.

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image

Overall I thought still image quality was on a par with the G12 and P7000, which I feel offer the best compact digital images of any camera I've shot. I'll be adding the XZ-1 to that list. For folks who shoot in the manual modes, there's plenty of user inputs to adjust image output to your liking if the default product fails to meet your needs.

I mentioned the art filters in the context of their impact on videos, but here's a look at them applied to a still scene - the filters can't be applied to RAW images:

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Pop Art
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Soft Focus
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Grainy Film
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Dramatic Tone

And here's the XZ-1 color palette along with red and yellow filtered monochrome options:

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Red monochrome
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Yellow monochrome

Auto white balance was used for the majority of shots in this review and did a good job overall, although it shot a bit warm under incandescent light. The XZ-1 offers daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, fluorescent and underwater WB presets along with a custom setting.

Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Default metering is Olympus digital ESP, with exposure based on light levels at the center of the image and also the surrounding areas; some areas are more weighted than others. In practice it worked well for most lighting situations, although it did lose some highlights in high contrast situations. There are center-weighted and spot options available to manual shooters.

With the physical size of the XZ-1 sensor being a bit larger than that in the G12 or P7000, expectations were that noise performance could equal or possibly surpass those two. Surprisingly, I noticed a loss of fine detail in the jump from 100 to 200 ISO, particularly in the area of the bear's nose, and the overall image looks a bit softer than at 100. This is admittedly pixel-peeping, as both images look the same small, but it still came as a shock to see a fairly dramatic change at only the first ISO step. 400 drops off a bit compared to 200, but not as much as I expected given the results between 100-200. In some areas it looks about the same as 200, but there are some losses in fine details in others and a bit more graininess.

Olympus XZ-1
ISO 100
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 200
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 400
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 800
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 1600
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 3200
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus XZ-1
ISO 6400
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 800 is a fair bit worse than 400, with fine details starting to smudge and more grain appearing. ISO 1600 takes another significant downturn, with widespread smudging of fine details and more grain - the Auto Zone coin is almost a featureless disc at this point. ISO 3200 is rapidly becoming a smudge fest and 6400 loses most of what fine details are left - even some of the larger letters such as "SUNPAK" are getting hard to read.

I felt the P7000 and G12 were about even at 400 ISO, but the XZ-1 looks to be falling behind a little bit at 400, so its overall noise performance would have to be rated as a disappointment compared to others in the class. It does a bit better than a typical compact digital, but looks to be in third place in a noise race with the P7000 and G12. Here's where those fast lens maximum apertures come into play, allowing the XZ-1 to shoot hand-held at lower ISO sensitivity in low light to help negate the apparent noise advantage enjoyed by the competition.

Additional Sample Images
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image
Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image Olympus XZ-1 Sample Image

The Olympus XZ-1 would be a notable entry into the high end compact digital field if only for its fast lens, but throw in a dose of excellent still image quality and the camera commands serious consideration. It starts reasonably fast and acquires focus and shoots in similar fashion. Menus are intuitive and simple and the camera is a bit smaller and lighter than its chief competitors. The zoom range is decent, there are RAW shooting options and a handy one-touch video capture interface.

As good as the still image quality is out of the XZ-1, the video doesn't seem up to par with the P7000 and G12. It has moments where it seems to compete on fairly even terms, but overall leaves the impression of being a bit softer than the other guys. Clip length is on the short side - only 7 minutes at HD resolution. And then there's noise performance that, while a bit better than the average compact digital, also looks to be a bit worse than the main competition, at least once sensitivities reach 400 ISO and up.

If you're an Olympus fan they've given you a worthy addition to the top of the digital compact food chain, and if you're in the market for a camera in this class but haven't made up your mind, do yourself a favor and take a good look at the XZ-1 before making the purchase. If you're a manual mode shooter who can make use of that fast lens you'll be happy you did.