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Olympus Stylus XZ-2 iHS Digital Camera Review$599.99
It's hard not to root for the scrappy little XZ-2. It packs a lot of desirable features into a compact package, and does it with a sense of style that's distinctly Olympus (Olympian?). The XZ-2's build quality and design are virtually unimpeachable, and the company has clearly put a lot of effort into trying to make it stand out from the pack. A removable front grip, innovative hybrid lens ring, and tilting touchscreen are the most notable fruits of their labor. They've also upgraded the internals, with a new 12-megapixel CMOS sensor and TruePic VI processor.
But the goalposts have moved since the XZ-1 hit the market back in early 2011. With the arrival of larger-sensor compacts and improved performance from other 1/1.7"-equipped models, the XZ-2 needed to step up its image quality game to stay relevant. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. The new edition's image quality is certainly good—far better than the majority of compacts, and really very nice in good light—but it needed to be great in all conditions in order to keep up. Even with good sharpness and one of the brightest lenses out there, high noise levels, too-aggressive noise reduction, disappointing distortion, and poor low-light sensitivity all take a toll when comparing the XZ-2 to titans like the Sony RX100 and new Canon G15.
The camera has other foibles beyond image quality. Its menu system is incredibly deep, allowing for wonderful levels of customization, but it's also confusingly labelled (some might say inscrutable) and its design obscures some of the XZ-2's best features. Ergonomically it does a lot of things right, but we can't get down with the new grip. While heftier than the XZ-1's, it doesn't go far enough in bulking up and ends up being something of an unhappy medium. Flush-mounted buttons are another annoyance, making using the camera trickier than it needs to be in poor light.
That's not to say there aren't some bright spots. For one thing, the dual-mode lens ring is a joy to use. In its click-stop digital mode it brings delightful tactility to adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and the myriad other settings it can be mapped to control. When switched to smooth analog control, it provides one of the best manual focusing implementations we've ever seen from a compact camera. The touchscreen is also done right. Though it's not the best we've ever used, it's certainly among the best, and it makes focusing, shooting, and image review a much more intuitive process.
There's no denying that the XZ-2 is an improvement on the XZ-1, or that it's one of the best advanced compact cameras available today. But it isn't the best, and in the end it's not really all that close. In terms of overall image quality, at least, it's outclassed by the Canon G15 and Sony RX100, as well as the upcoming Nikon P7700 (keep an eye out for that review). It also costs $100 more than both the Canon and the Nikon, which is bound to stick in the craws of many potential buyers. For the XZ-3, Olympus needs to go back to basics and get its image quality on a level with the new class leaders—a goal that might be more realistic thanks to the company's new partnership with Sony. We sure hope they do, because the XZ-2 is a great platform to build on.