Olympus XZ-1 Hands-on Preview

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Olympus XZ-1 Hands-on Preview

by Shawn Barnett
Hands-on Preview posted: 01/05/2011

After firing the opening salvos in the war of small CSC/mirrorless cameras vs. both SLRs and high-quality pocket zoom cameras, its no surprise to see Olympus take on their last unjoined front with the pocketable XZ-1, the first of the company's compact cameras to sport a Zuiko-branded lens.

The smart, no-nonsense design of the Olympus XZ-1 seems aimed at both the Panasonic LX5 and Canon S95: It's about as large as the LX5, with a hot shoe and manual pop-up flash; yet it has a programmable control ring around the front lens barrel, with a dial on the back, along with a sleek, relatively featureless, gripless front profile.

Since speed is the name of the game in low-light shooting, Olympus rightly chose the lens's aperture as the primary feature to highlight with a smart silver badge in the lower left corner of the front panel. f/1.8 is about one-third stop faster than the LX5 and S95's f/2.0 optics, equal to the speed of the lens on the Samsung TL500, and 1.3 stops faster than the f/2.8 optics on the Nikon P7000 and Canon G12.

Curiously, the lens's 4x focal length is equivalent to the same 28-112mm as the Panasonic LX1 and LX2, though the max aperture of those lenses started at f/2.8.

Though the lens does retract into the body of the Olympus XZ-1, its outer ring still protrudes from the body of the camera, as do the rings of all the XZ-1's competition, making its thickness about 43mm (though if you really want to be a stickler, the accessory port juts out enough to make it 44mm according to my caliper, not including the lens cap or rear port cap; the Canon S95 is the most pocketable of the bunch at 30mm closed).

The back of the Olympus XZ-1 is clean and simple. A slide releases the flash to pop up from the top deck on the far left, and the accessory port peeks out from beneath the hot shoe (the XZ-1 includes a hot shoe/port cover). The XZ-1's accessory port doesn't support the new PENPAL Bluetooth transceiver as it is not Version 2 compliant, but it does support most PEN-series accessories including the VF-2 external electronic viewfinder, SEMA-1 external microphone adapter, and the new MAL-1 macro arm light. A soft rubber grip serves as a thumbrest, and a reasonably large ridge rises to protect the red Record button. Beneath that are the Playback button, Control wheel and rocker cluster, plus the Menu and Info buttons.

Top right you'll find the Olympus XZ-1's knurled Mode dial, which like the Mode dial on the LX5, turns too easily, often changing in a pocket or bag. Its position out at the edge makes this more likely, and it changed on me frequently. This might get better in the shipping version, and at least it has a quality feel.

The Zoom lever, Shutter button, and Power button also look and feel high quality, worthy of a $500 digital camera.

When powered on, the lens quickly protrudes from the camera with enough force to easily push off the large friction-fitting lens cap that attaches with a tether. Although you have to worry about them coming off in a camera bag, I think this lens cap is a good design choice that also looks good on the camera.

At right, the lens is shown fully extended to its 112mm equivalent focal length. All design accents are executed very well on the XZ-1, giving the impression of a fine photographic instrument. Though it's the first of a new line for Olympus, it seems a very mature offering, reserved in the right ways, aggressive where it counts.

Interface. The Olympus XZ-1 functions more like a PEN than one of the company's pocket digital cameras. The Function menu comes up with a press on the OK button, allowing you to access most of the features that are important while you're shooting. Items like ISO, resolution, and color mode are easily adjusted, and even the ND filter can be switched off and on from here.

The regular menu is a little odd looking, with a rather more squashed font than we're used to seeing (most fonts on Japanese cameras are taller, rather than wider), but this really looks like pre-release firmware, not worthy of extensive comment. At present, when looking at an image in Playback mode, as another example, an image captured at 4:3 becomes vertically shortened into a 16:9 format, effectively squashing the image. That can't be final firmware.

Display. Because the screen is fairly high res, fonts and icons are smaller, and more difficult to read. And though we've been waiting for some time to see more OLED screens appear in products, I'm still not quite satisfied with them when they do show up. This one is the best I've seen, with good, balanced color that's more true to the scene than was on the Samsung NX10, but I still find some of its colors--as well as bright white icons--seem out of focus when compared to the surrounding background image area. I think part of the problem is that OLEDs are different from the LCDs we're accustomed to using. According to what I've read about OLEDs, the latest designs are shipping with a brighter blue emitters specifically because that color dims faster than the others the panel ages. As a result, you can end up with oversaturated colors among colors that contain blue when the display is new. Our eyes also have less resolution at blue wavelengths, which might add to the difficulty I have with some colors on OLED displays, mainly saturated icons and words. Mind you, it's not a real problem, more a curiosity that hasn't negatively affected my shooting with the Olympus XZ-1.

Olympus XZ-1 vs. Canon S95

Since we have only the one competitor in the office, we can only compare the Olympus XZ-1 with the Canon S95. Both are 10 megapixel designs with zooms that start at 28mm (the Panasonic LX5 starts at 24mm). Though the XZ-1 is larger, it also includes a hot shoe. The i.Zuiko lens is f/1.8 while the S95's is f/2. The XZ-1 has a large lens cap, while the S95 uses integrated doors.
The LCDs are different aspect ratios, but both measure 3 inches diagonally. Controls are remarkably similar, with a control wheel in the front and back. Both have a pop-up flash, but the Olympus XZ-1's is deployed manually while a small electronic motor drives the S95's flash up out of its silo. The XZ-1 also has a physical movie Record button and can zoom while recording video, while the S95 requires a change of the Mode dial to access Movie mode and can only zoom in digitally while recording video.
The top view shows the difference in thickness. But while the Canon S95 is more portable, the Olympus XZ-1 can be used in more photographic situations, with a built-in hot shoe and accessory port. I'm sure as I did with the Panasonic LX5, I could use the Olympus XZ-1 with my studio lights in a portrait situation. Also note that the S95 lies flat, while the XZ-1 tilts up thanks to the hot-shoe cover and accessory port.

Since it's a pre-release camera, we're not able to comment on image quality yet, but the Olympus XZ-1 was a pleasure to use most of the time. The lens comes out quietly, not unlike the LX5's zoom, and focusing is quiet as well. One can zoom in or out optically while recording video, unlike the Canon S95. Video is cropped noticeably in video, though, with a very pronounced effort at making everything appear perfectly smooth. It's a different kind of image stabilization first seen in camcorders, where the image is cropped and digitally stabilized in the final view that goes to the LCD and the digital file. This is smoother than I've ever seen, with an artificially smooth panning that continues to pan even after you've stopped, slowly halting your movement in that direction to improve your video. It also resumes motion slowly, and resists following your up or down motion until it's convinced you really want to move in that direction. The result is a little spooky, but should indeed produce better, smoother videos--so long as you don't get freaked out and drop the camera.

Because its sensor is similar to the sensor in the Panasonic Lumix LX5, which also has a 10-megapixel CCD sensor with a 1/1.63" size, we expect its noise characteristics to be similar. Still, both companies have come up with different results in their Micro Four Thirds designs, especially in the areas of noise suppression and color rendition, so we'll otherwise reserve judgment. Its size and shape are also similar, so we suspect the same manufacturer is at work, Panasonic's newly acquired Sanyo Electronics. All that means is that the Olympus XZ-1 is likely to be an excellent camera that will give its two main rivals a run for their money.

Though it's great that the Olympus XZ-1 has an f/1.8 lens, I haven't noticed significantly better low-light images than I got with the Panasonic LX5 or the Canon S95. One-third stop isn't really that significant; but it doesn't hurt, either, and the optical quality I'm seeing at the lowest ISO settings is quite good. I look forward to getting a shipping sample in for testing, as the Olympus XZ-1 appears to have what it takes to entice the avid enthusiast photographer.


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