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When it arrived at the beginning of 2011, the Olympus XZ-1 was a very impressive camera. It was also a clear signal that Olympus was gunning for the throne in the advanced compact segment—a throne left vacant by the decline of Canon's formidable G series. The XZ-1 shared the styling, handling, and seriousness of the company's PEN line of Micro Four Thirds cameras, giving it a decidedly upmarket feel.
Now, nearly two years later, the XZ-2 arrives amid a changed landscape. Not only has Canon's G series returned to prominence, but there are strong challenges from Nikon, Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic as well. The $599.99 XZ-2 retains its ancestor's most impressive feature—its f/1.8 zoom lens—and attempts to build on it with a new 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, an innovative dual-mode lens ring, and a tilting touchscreen LCD.
With the XZ-2, Olympus has given its top point-and-shoot a more professional look, not to mention some key internal upgrades. A new removable grip and a tilting touchscreen LCD are major external changes, while inside, a new 12-megapixel CMOS sensor replaces the 10-megapixel CCD unit from the XZ-1. Perhaps the most unconventional design change—and also the best—is the new dual-mode lens ring, which offers both digital (clicky) and analog (smooth) rotation modes. Users can assign each rotation mode its own custom function, making the XZ-2 one of the more versatile advanced compacts on the market.
In general, we're in favor of these advanced compact cameras getting all the ergonomic help they possibly can. Smaller and lighter is all well and good as a design goal, but these cameras aren't likely to ever be pocketable anyway, so why not just make them more pleasant to hold while you're at it? To that end, Olympus has given the XZ-2 a removable grip resembling the one found on the PEN E-P3. Strangely, though, the XZ-2's new grip doesn't do much to improve its handling. We almost prefer the camera without it, as it's awkwardly designed and too shallow to provide any real support.
Beyond these new additions, the XZ-2 stays the course set by the XZ-1. The top plate features the hot shoe, the on/off switch, the zoom ring, the shutter release, and the mode dial. On the left of the hot shoe is the pop-up flash, which is released via a little slider switch just above the rear LCD. The back face of the camera has the customary control cluster on the right, and around front, the only control is the digital/analog toggle for the lens control ring, which also features a secondary function button.
Olympus's menus are both a blessing and a curse, as any PEN or OM-D enthusiast can attest. To begin with, they're deep, almost to a fault, and they offer granular control whenever possible. Rather than restricting what you can do with the camera, as many manufacturers do, Olympus tends to give you every option at once. For power users, this is a fantastic bonus, but the effect can be dizzying to new users. And it's complicated by the fact that the menus aren't terribly well-labelled or organized. On photo enthusiast forums, it's not uncommon to see experienced pros complain about an inability to figure out how to do X, even after months of using their camera.
Some of the company's general UI choices are also less than crystal clear. For instance, the Super Control Panel—one of Olympus's best features—is hidden by default, and turning it on requires diving through five or six menu screens to find the option called "Live SCP." How, we ask you, would anyone new to Olympus digital cameras have the slightest clue what "Live SCP" means? Why hide your light under a bushel, Olympus?
Otherwise, the XZ-2 provides plenty of useful features. The sheer volume of art filters and scene modes would be impressive enough, but the camera provides a great deal of control over their intensity and implementation. While this can lead to some sluggish operation at times, the camera is generally quite peppy. We're also big fans of Olympus's use of touch operation, which is identical to that of the company's superlative OM-D E-M5.
The Olympus XZ-2 enters a high-end compact camera market that is significantly more competitive in 2012 than it was just a year ago. The fact is, 1/1.7-inch sensors don't do much to impress anyone these days—not in the wake of Sony's bombshell RX100 and its comparably massive 1-inch unit.
That isn't to say the XZ-2 takes bad photos—far from it. We were really impressed by the XZ-2's bright f/1.8 lens, which produced sharp results in the lab as well as our real-world shooting. The XZ-2 also benefits from spectacular color fidelity, which placed it among the best cameras in its class. The bright light image quality here is truly great.
Unfortunately, the goalposts have moved. Bright light image quality simply isn't enough to keep up with the field; the new crop of advanced compact cameras, including the Canon G1 X and Sony RX100, feature large sensors that produce legitimately great images in limited light. Cameras with smaller sensors, like this XZ-2, can get by with their aggressive noise reduction for only so long. In conditions where the RX100 produced acceptable images, the XZ-2 more often came back with just a muddled mess.
The XZ-2 does manage to shoot at a respectable 5 frames per second and you can also access a faster continuous burst speed by opting to shoot at a lowered resolution. We're hopeful that Olympus can up this speed in the next XZ-series camera, while perhaps improving the speed of the contrast-detect system so that it's on par with what newer PEN and OM-D cameras are capable of.
It's hard not to root for the scrappy little XZ-2. It packs many desirable features into a compact package, and does it with a sense of style that's distinctly, dare we say it, Olympian. The XZ-2's build quality and design are virtually unimpeachable, and the company has clearly put great effort into trying to make it stand out from the pack. A removable front grip, an innovative hybrid lens ring, and a tilting touchscreen are the most notable fruits of its labor. Olympus has also upgraded the internals, with a new 12-megapixel CMOS sensor and a TruePic VI processor.
Still, after testing and shooting with the XZ-2 for a couple of weeks, we found that its performance was mostly a mixed bag. Overall, it just doesn't improve enough on the XZ-1, and that isn't the camera's only problem. The menu system is incredibly deep, allowing for wonderful levels of customization, but it's also inscrutable. Ergonomically, it takes some nice steps forward, but the grip is largely a failure.
There are bright spots, though. 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, it's outclassed by the Canon G15, the Sony RX100, and the Nikon P7700. It also costs $100 more than both the Canon and the Nikon, putting it just $50 below the Sony, which is easily the best of the bunch in terms of sheer image quality. In future XZ-series models, Olympus has a few ergonomic and UI tweaks to make, but their main goal should be to get its image quality on a level with the new class leaders—a task that might be made more realistic by the company's new partnership with Sony. We sure they can pull it off, because the XZ-2 is a great platform to build on.
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