With the release of what is arguably its first 'high performance' pocket compact in the 10-megapixel, 4x optical zoom XZ-1, Olympus is trying to target - and moreover enthuse - two distinct groups of photographer. First, there's the beginner wanting to take better pictures than their current auto-everything model will allow. Second, we have the photography enthusiast looking for a smaller back up to complement their existing digital SLR. That's without, presumably, wanting to alternatively invest in Olympus' existing Digital Pen series of interchangeable lens compacts - another way to achieve close to DSLR quality without actually buying a DSLR.
While its manufacturer may be aiming to set a new benchmark for what's achievable with the humble compact, in truth there's already plenty of stiff competition for the XZ-1 to take on. There's the equally portable Canon PowerShot S95 and G12, Nikon's Coolpix P7000 and newer Coolpix P300, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX5 and Samsung's EX1. And these are soon to be joined by the Fujifilm FinePix X100, which on paper trumps the lot by incorporating a larger APS-C size sensor, as found in a number of DSLRs. Though we've yet to test the P300 and X100, we have to say that the rest are pretty damn fine alternatives for those after the best quality possible from a camera with a fixed lens - the Panasonic LX5 being our current favourite.
First impressions of the XZ-1 suggest that it is indeed a class act that deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with existing high-performing rivals. As if you hadn't already guessed, a current retail price a penny shy of Â£400 earmarks the Olympus XZ-1 from the outset as a premium compact. So, too, does the bright f/1.8 to f/2.5 Zuiko Digital-branded zoom lens bolted onto the front (matching the f/1.8 also offered by the Nikon P300 and Samsung EX1), twinned with a larger than average 1/1.63in, 11.3-megapixel CCD sensor.
The upshot should be usable, noise and blur-free results in natural light without having to reach for the extra illumination provided by the camera's pop-up flash - which is neatly sunk within the top plate when not in use - as well as enabling a narrow depth of field to be captured. Incidentally, there's a dedicated button for activating the flash located at the top left hand corner of the back plate. Slide this to the right and the flash pops up instantly with a satisfying and solid-sounding 'clunk'. Wireless flash control is available from the XZ-1 should it be required.
We had the compact XZ-1 in for testing alongside the new Olympus E-PL2 and, as expected, there are similarities between these closely priced and featured rivals. Both offer Raw and JPEG capture (recording to SD, SDHC or SDXC cards), an ISO range extending in steps up to ISO6400, dedicated one-touch record button that captures 1,280 x 720 video at 30fps. That's in addition to an HDMI output, a top-mounted shooting mode dial and an infuriatingly fiddly scroll wheel at the back. Where you can swap the lens on the front of the E-PL2, you're 'stuck' with the one on the XZ-1, as you are with all of the competitors we mentioned previously.
It's lucky therefore, that said lens is an excellent example. The Olympus XZ-1's (so-called) dual image stabilised (sensor shift plus ISO boost doesn't really count) 4x optical zoom boasts a focal range equivalent to a wide 28mm to 112mm in 35mm film terms, so it's useful for landscapes and group portraits and again comparable with its aforementioned rivals in that respect. Macro close ups at as near as 1cm from a given subject are possible too. This should make the XZ-1 a capable all-in-one option, so photographers buying one with that in mind won't miss the fact that the lens cannot be changed.