The Olympus Stylus XZ-2 iHS will be available in early November, in black, for $599.99.

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Box Photo

• XZ-2 Body

• Lens cap

• Battery Li-90B

• AC Adapter F2AC

• USB Multi cable

• Shoulder strap

• CD-ROM (OLYMPUS Viewer2)

• Instruction manual

• Warranty card

Like many other recent high-end compact cameras, the XZ-2 boasts an incredibly bright zoom lens. Though it's unchanged from the one used on the XZ-1, it remains one of the most outstanding designs on the market today, at least in terms of specifications. Its aperture ranges from f/1.8 on the wide end to a still-wide f/2.5 at full telephoto. Granted, the lens zoom ratio is only 4x (28-112mm effective), but it's still on roughly the same track as the lens in Canon's new PowerShot G15, which claims a 5x (28-140mm effective) zoom with a f/1.8-2.8 aperture range. These two are by far the brightest cameras on the block throughout their focal ranges.

The 1/1.7-inch 12-megapixel CMOS sensor represents a change from the 10-megapixel CCD unit found in the XZ-1. Keeping up with the Joneses, the XZ-2 sensor's size, pixel count, and ISO sensitivity range all match the G15's sensor spec for spec. There are a few larger imaging sensors on the compact camera market today, from the Fuji XF1 and X10's 2/3-inch model to the massive 1.5-inch outlier found in the Canon G1 X, but 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensors are essentially par for the course in this category these days.

While the XZ-2 does not have a built-in optical viewfinder, as does the Canon G15, it can accept the tried and true Olympus VF-2 and VF-3 electronic viewfinders—the same EVFs that can be used with the earlier XZ-1 and several of the company's PEN-series Micro Four Thirds bodies.

The XZ-2's rear LCD is 3 inches on the diagonal, like most high-end camera screens these days, and offers a resolution of 920,000 dots. Relative to the G15, it has a couple of big advantages. First, it can tilt through about 130 degrees of motion (80 degrees up and 50 degrees down), which can be a great help in composing shots. While we prefer full flip-out 'n' tilt-style screens, Olympus's tilt-only solution is nevertheless a big improvement over the fixed screen on Canon's G15, at least in terms of versatility.

Second, the screen is touch-sensitive. Olympus's touchscreen implementation on the XZ-2 is virtually identical to what you'd find on the flagship OM-D, and that's a very good thing indeed. It allows you to touch the screen to focus or shoot, and also to manipulate or page between images during playback. And it's a capacitive screen, which means it's extremely responsive (like any modern smartphone).

As with virtually every other advanced compact, the XZ-2's pop-up flash is positioned atop the far left edge of the camera. It's tiny, not very powerful, and doesn't extend very high above the lens, but it gets the job done for quick snaps. Luckily, since the XZ-2 has a full hot shoe (along with Olympus's standard accessory port) it can accept a number of add-on flashes for more serious strobist use.

Flash Photo

The flash emitter pops up from the top of the body via a mechanical release.

Though some cameras in its class offer more advanced options, the XZ-2 has only two ports: HDMI and a proprietary USB 2.0 jack that can either send data or video/audio.

The XZ-2 is powered by the proprietary Li-90B lithium ion battery pack, which it inherited from the TG-1 waterproof camera. This cell provides 1270mAh of juice for roughly 310 shots on a charge. Though it's a bigger battery, that's actually 10 shots less than the XZ-1 could manage, and it lags the G15 by about 40 shots.

Battery Photo

The XZ-2's image quality is something of a mixed bag. Sharpness numbers are good, if not exceptional, and pretty much right in line with what we saw from the earlier XZ-1. The camera doesn't oversharpen its JPEGs, which is always nice to see, and color and saturation levels are extremely accurate. On the other hand, high noise levels are countered by even higher noise reduction, rendering the upper ISO settings all but useless. Low-light performance is also poor, and distortions aren't exactly brilliantly controlled. Video is also a wash, with great sharpness but odd codec issues and poor results in dim lighting.

Despite the change from a 10-megapixel CCD sensor to a new 12-megapixel CMOS unit, the XZ-2 performs nearly identically to its predecessor with regard to sharpness. It's not the sharpest sensor/lens combination we've ever seen, but it's solidly in the ballpark of "very good" performance. Generally speaking, it's sharpest at full wide angle, dropping off a bit in the middle focal lengths, and then picking up again toward full telephoto. In the real world, it produced very pleasing results at low ISO settings, before noise and noise reduction crash the party.

It's also worth noting that, unlike many recent advanced compacts, the XZ-2 doesn't seem to apply excessive in-camera sharpening to its JPEGs. In-camera sharpening is like salt: you can always add it, but you can never take it away. While we've seen sky-high oversharpening numbers from cameras like the Samsung EX2F and Canon G15, Olympus tones it down. Those cameras' sharpness figures ranged from 130% to 150% of normal, producing ugly dark outlines around high-contrast objects. In contrast, the XZ-2 rarely rises above 110%, and as a result, the photos you get out of it look a good deal more natural on a per-pixel level.

The XZ-2 also lets you adjust the sharpness level of each JPEG color mode (on a scale of ±2 adjustments from "normal"), so you can make the camera behave however you please. Of course, you can always shoot RAW to get the sensor's pure output and shortcut the sharpening issue entirely. More on how we test sharpness.

The XZ-2's color accuracy is among the best in its class, with a best uncorrected color error value of just 2.47 when using the "Muted" color mode. Of the camera's three other non-monochrome color modes, "Natural" and "Portrait" also recorded very good scores of 2.51 and 2.77, respectively. As one might expect, "Vivid" was a bit further afield, with a smallest error value of 3.33. Saturation numbers were also good across the board, ranging from 102% in the Muted color mode to 106.7% in Natural, before jumping to 118.3% in Vivid mode (again, as expected). Compare this to a competitor like the Canon G15, whose saturation levels were either way under (92%) or way above (113%+) normal.

This combination of very accurate colors and on-target saturation is a rarity in compact cameras, so the XZ-2 pulling it off is a big win. What it means for users is that they can take it straight out of the box and get lifelike shots from the get-go. (Though regardless of what they say, we often find that consumers don't actually like accurate colors and saturation.) More on how we test color.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Though it can't quite match the Panasonic LX7's superb scores, the XZ-2 is clearly head and shoulders above most of its rivals when it comes to color accuracy. Its precisely calibrated saturation, which isn't weighted as heavily in our comparison, puts it even further ahead.

Compared to the competition, the Olympus XZ-2 suffers badly from inaccurate automatic white balance. Though it's better than many cameras when it comes to AWB under tungsten light, it's correspondingly worse under compact white fluorescent and daylight conditions. It's possible that in trying to balance the AWB range to minimize problems under incandescent lighting, Olympus may have unintentionally crippled its performance under other lighting types, but we don't really have enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion.

When a custom white balance is set, the camera performs much better, though still not as well as some of its closest rivals. Average color temperature errors with custom WB hover around 200 kelvin, while in AWB they're more like 600 kelvin. These issues are visible in the real world, but not to the point that it will annoy most users. Generally speaking, the camera renders all scenes slightly warmer than they appear in reality; some users may even enjoy this tendency.

The XZ-2 is equipped with eight white balance presets: Auto, Sunny, Shadow, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Underwater, and WB Flash. Beyond these, it also offers two custom white balance presets and the ability to calibrate the white balance to a specific color temperature, in increments of 200 kelvin. You can select a white balance preset from either the main menu, the default quick menu overlay (by pressing OK while shooting), or the optional Super Control Panel.

Aside from the direct kelvin entry option, all of these can be fine-tuned using A (amber-blue) and G (green-magenta) axis sliders. Annoyingly, you need to go into the main menu's custom settings to make these changes, though we suppose it's not a trip you'll need to take all that often.

It would appear that the only real negative of the XZ-2's switch from CCD to CMOS is its noise performance, which, to be honest, is really pretty bad. While the XZ-1 was among the best of its generation, the XZ-2 lags behind its contemporaries and even its predecessor (up to a point).

The XZ-2 includes settings for both Noise Reduction (in reality, long-exposure noise reduction) and Noise Filter (high-ISO noise reduction). The latter is what most people think of as NR, so you can file this away as just another in Olympus's long history of strange menu decisions. The default setting for Noise Filter is Standard, but Off, Low, and High options are also available. Using the default setting, noise levels start at 0.80% at ISO 100. They hit 1.22% at ISO 400 and stay below 2% until ISO 6400, maxing out at 2.13% at the top ISO setting of 12800.

However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. With NR Off, noise levels exceed 2% starting at ISO 400 and max out at 4.79% at ISO 6400 before dropping again at ISO 12800 due to a sheer lack of detail. This indicates that the "Standard" NR setting is doing some very heavy lifting—an impression confirmed by our test scene crops, which look really, really awful at the top two ISO settings. On the whole, we can't recommend shooting anything above ISO 800 if you want to preserve a reasonable amount of fine detail. ISO 1600 and 3200 shots will look okay when resized for the web, but 6400 and 12800 are right out. More on how we test noise.

The XZ-2 lets you adjust ISO settings in 1/3 stops all the way through its sensitivity range, giving you a total of 22 options from the base setting of ISO 100 through the maximum of ISO 12800. You can also select automatic ISO control, and the camera lets you set the Auto ISO mode range limits through its Custom Menu.

In the lab, the XZ-2 displays excellent dynamic range performance, recording up to 7.89 stops of "high-quality" dynamic range at ISO 100. It keeps this number above 6 stops up through ISO 400 and over 4 stops through ISO 1600, but tails off to just 2.85 stops at the max ISO setting of 12800.

But the lab results don't always provide a complete picture. Lab-based dynamic range numbers are heavily dependent on signal-to-noise ratios, and since the XZ-2 is applying very heavy noise reduction by default, it in effect artificially inflates the camera's DR capabilities. For this reason, we like to cross-reference our lab numbers with both our noise reduction tests and our experience shooting the camera in the real world.

In the field, we found that the XZ-2 was a capable performer with regard to dynamic range, but not the equal of some of its closest competitors. The camera did a very good job of preserving highlights in most circumstances, but occasionally this came at the expense of shadows, which had a tendency to dissolve into inky pools of nothingness in high-contrast scenes. In the field it lagged behind the Canon G15, which scored slightly worse in our lab testing.

The XZ-2 provides a couple software-based dynamic range assists. While shooting, there's an automatic shadow adjustment option available under the "Gradation" option, and you can also use the JPEG Edit submenu to apply shadow adjustment after the fact. Then there's the HDR scene mode, which merges several shots to make sure shadows and highlights both have a fair shot at proper exposure. Unlike some other cameras, you can't adjust the intensity of the HDR effect, but luckily the XZ-2 seems to apply it in moderation. More on how we test dynamic range.

With its poor noise-handling characteristics, the XZ-2 probably won't be anyone's go-to camera for low-light shooting. Up through ISO 800, results are generally pretty good, but beyond this point image quality starts to deteriorate quickly. Combine this with the sensor's mediocre low-light sensitivity capabilities (see the Video: Low Light Sensitivity section below) and you have a recipe for sad shots in dimmer lighting situations.

It would appear that the only real negative of the XZ-2's switch from CCD to CMOS is its noise performance, which, to be honest, is really pretty bad. While the XZ-1 was among the best of its generation, the XZ-2 lags behind its contemporaries and even its predecessor (up to a point).

The XZ-2 includes settings for both Noise Reduction (in reality, long-exposure noise reduction) and Noise Filter (high-ISO noise reduction). The latter is what most people think of as NR, so you can file this away as just another in Olympus's long history of strange menu decisions. The default setting for Noise Filter is Standard, but Off, Low, and High options are also available. Using the default setting, noise levels start at 0.80% at ISO 100. They hit 1.22% at ISO 400 and stay below 2% until ISO 6400, maxing out at 2.13% at the top ISO setting of 12800.

However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. With NR Off, noise levels exceed 2% starting at ISO 400 and max out at 4.79% at ISO 6400 before dropping again at ISO 12800 due to a sheer lack of detail. This indicates that the "Standard" NR setting is doing some very heavy lifting—an impression confirmed by our test scene crops, which look really, really awful at the top two ISO settings. On the whole, we can't recommend shooting anything above ISO 800 if you want to preserve a reasonable amount of fine detail. ISO 1600 and 3200 shots will look okay when resized for the web, but 6400 and 12800 are right out. More on how we test noise.

The XZ-2 lets you adjust ISO settings in 1/3 stops all the way through its sensitivity range, giving you a total of 22 options from the base setting of ISO 100 through the maximum of ISO 12800. You can also select automatic ISO control, and the camera lets you set the Auto ISO mode range limits through its Custom Menu.

In good light, the XZ-2 focuses quickly and very accurately, though it will often fail when trying to lock on to low-contrast targets. To a certain extent, this characteristic is shared by all contrast-detect autofocus systems (and therefore all compact cameras). However, the XZ-2 fails more often than some of its competitors (most notably the Canon G15). In dimmer light, it uses its orangey-red AF assist light early and often, but even so it often has trouble locking on when the illumination drops below a certain level.

The XZ-2's manual focusing action is superb for a compact camera, thanks in large part to a sharp LCD and the excellent feel of the "analog" lens ring. Sure, it would have been better if Olympus had seen fit to include focus peaking technology (which helpfully outlines the edges of in-focus objects), but we suppose we can always hope for a firmware update.

In our testing, we found that the XZ-2 required about 25 lux to achieve 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. The 50 IRE mark represents the BBC’s minimum acceptable broadcast quality, and serves as our bar for low-light sensitivity. By way of comparison, the Canon G15 hit 50 IRE at just 3 lux—a truly astounding achievement for a small-sensor compact camera. On the other hand, the XZ-2's performance is strictly mediocre, and that fact is reflected in its low-light stills ability as well.

Fast lenses are prone to chromatic aberration and (to a lesser extent) geometric distortion, and the XZ-2's 28-114mm equivalent f/1.8-2.5 lens suffers to some degree from both issues. Its performance in this regard is pretty much identical to what we saw from the XZ-1. Aberrations are visible at all focal lengths and f-stops, though they're most prevalent at wider apertures and full wide angle. At wide and middle focal lengths it shows up as green fringing, but flips over to purple/magenta at full telephoto. On the whole, the effect isn't too distracting in real world shots, but it can become noticeable in extreme high-contrast scenes.

Geometrical distortion is fairly moderate, peaking at 1.2% barrel distortion at full wide angle. At middle focal lengths it switches to 0.25% pincushion, and continues to increase in that direction until it hits 1.0% pincushion distortion at full telephoto. This isn't bad at all, but it's pretty ordinary. The G15 outclasses it in this regard, though it beats other competitors like the Samsung EX2F. As always with a compact camera, it's hard to tell whether the XZ-2 is doing any in-camera correction of distortion and chromatic aberration behind the user's back, but from the results we're seeing we don't think that's the case.

In good light, the XZ-2 is a capable video performer, though it does have a few odd quirks. Generally speaking, artifacting and trailing are kept to a minimum, and the 30fps set framerate in 1080P and 720P shooting provides a smooth viewing experience. However, our motion test did show some odd "tearing" behavior in high-frequency movement areas (see the black and white wheel in the attached video). This problem is evident when the video is playing but disappears as soon as it's paused, which leads us to believe it's a codec issue.

In dim light, artifacting becomes much more apparent and trailing becomes a real problem, but video playback is still smooth and reasonably pleasing to look at. The sensor's poor low-light sensitivity does produce a slightly underexposed image, though, and this problem only intensifies the lower the light gets. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video was acceptably sharp, with roughly 625 lw/ph of both vertical and horizontal sharpness observed in bright light. Interestingly, sharpness didn't fall off at all in our low light test, though image quality is affected in other ways. Moire, on the other hand, was a problem in both good and poor light—it was among the worst we've seen from any camera, and should be visible in everyday shooting. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

In our testing, we found that the XZ-2 required about 25 lux to achieve 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. The 50 IRE mark represents the BBC’s minimum acceptable broadcast quality, and serves as our bar for low-light sensitivity. By way of comparison, the Canon G15 hit 50 IRE at just 3 lux—a truly astounding achievement for a small-sensor compact camera. On the other hand, the XZ-2's performance is strictly mediocre, and that fact is reflected in its low-light stills ability as well.

In many ways, the XZ-2 provides a Micro Four Thirds user experience in a fixed-lens body. The menu systems and touch interface are all but exactly alike, and the body shape is more like a PEN than ever. This similarity, of course, comes at a price: it means the camera lacks the immediate ease of use of some competing models, like the Canon G15 or Samsung EX2F. The menu system is deep and at times less than clear, some of the UI's best features are hidden by default, and the handling is a disappointment (though still good). However, advanced amateurs and pros using the XZ-2 as a backup body will certainly appreciate the degree of fine control the camera affords.

Like most cameras in its class, the XZ-2 provides both a Program mode and a full Auto mode (in this case called iAuto). While Program (P on the mode dial) will give you control over everything but shutter speed and aperture, iAuto takes you by the hand and does pretty much everything for you. iAuto mode not only selects the proper combination of shutter speed and aperture to get the right exposure, but also chooses from among the camera's many scene modes to select the most appropriate color profile, ISO setting, and more. In this mode, the user can only set the focusing area, focusing mode, drive mode, image size/quality, and image stabilization mode.

You can also move the mode dial to SCN or ART to access the huge array of scene modes and art filters. These range from settings for specific applications like shooting fireworks or reproducing documents to more creative options like in-camera panoramas and Instagram-type effects.

When it comes to manual controls, there have only been two big changes since the XZ-1. First is the customizable lens ring. The XZ-1 had a ring of its own, but like the implementations on competing cameras, it had only one function per shooting mode and was limited to a "clicky" rotation style. The XZ-2 one-ups it with a dual-function control ring that toggles back and forth between clicky ("digital") and smooth ("analog") rotation. The user can set what each type of rotation controls for each shooting mode, which opens up a whole world of customization.

The second change is the touchscreen. The implementation here is virtually identical to what you'll find on the latest Olympus PEN and OM-D cameras, allowing you to tap to focus or shoot, manipulate (some) menus, and swipe through or touch to zoom photos in playback mode. We're not the biggest fans of touchscreens on cameras, but in general it works pretty well here. It's not as good as what you'd get from the Canon T4i, which we feel sets the bar for touchscreens in this generation of cameras, but it's close.

Olympus is known to provide some of the best scene modes and creative filters in the business, and the XZ-2 is further evidence to support that argument, packing 15 scene modes and 11 art filters. The scene modes encompass practical situations like fireworks, underwater shooting, landscapes, and portraiture, as well as more creative options like multi-exposure compositions, panoramas, and HDR shooting. All of the art filters can be fine-tuned, either to control the intensity of the effect or to add further filters on top of filters, like artsy frames and vignetting.

In general, the art filters work very well, instantly adding mood, pop, or depth to photos that might otherwise be drab and ordinary. If you find yourself shooting on a grey and dreary day, they might just save your shots—or at least keep you entertained.

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 offer granular control whenever possible. Rather than restrict what you can do with the camera, as do many manufacturers, 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 not being able 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?

But what do the menus actually look like? Well, they're divided into vertical tabs: two for general shooting functions, one for playback, one for custom shooting functions (which actually contains 10 sub-tabs with a total of 52 settings contained therein—see what we mean about depth?), and one for setup. You can navigate the menus using either the four-way pad and OK button, the rear command dial, or the front lens ring.

There's also a live menu overlay that can be brought up during shooting to adjust crucial settings by pressing the OK button. By default, this is a vertical list of options with horizontal fine adjustment. With some menu-diving, however, you can disable "Live Control" and enable "Live SCP" to get the full Super Control Panel, which we prefer. This menu overlay presents all the available settings in a grid.

While our review unit didn't include a manual and a digital version wasn't available during our testing period, we assume that the XZ-2 will ship with a Quick Start guide, like the XZ-1 did. A comprehensive manual should also be available for download from the Olympus web site, and buyers will do well to get it and read it front to back.

When we first heard that Olympus was adding a larger grip to the XZ-2, we couldn't have been happier. 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 make them more pleasant to hold while you're at it? Strangely, though, the XZ-2's new grip doesn't really do much to improve the camera's handling. We almost prefer the camera without it (and that's a legitimate option, since it's removable).

The reasons for this are three-fold. First, the grip is really, really shallow. It doesn't completely fill in the gap between your fingers and the camera body when you're holding it, and thus it doesn't give a ton of support. Second, the grip stops just where your fingertips hit the body. This means that in the end they're resting on the flat, smooth surface of the camera anyway. Third and worse still, the positioning of the grip's edge and the toggle switch for the lens ring make it so that your fingertips come to rest awkwardly pinched between the two. So, in short, there's not enough grip, and what grip there is is positioned poorly.

Aside from the grip, we had a few other complaints as well. For one, the rear control cluster is tiny, and virtually impossible to manipulate one-handed. For another, several of the buttons are mounted flush against the surface of the body, which makes them quite difficult to find in dim light, or without looking. Finally, while the situation is mitigated somewhat by the addition of the dual-function lens ring, we still wish Olympus would bow to tradition and include proper front and rear e-dials.

Handling Photo 1

So, now that the negatives are out of the way, what actually works with regard to the XZ-2's handling? Well, that lens dial, to begin with. The dual functionality is superb, the tactile feel of the digital (clicky) mode is great, and the damping on the analog mode is just about perfect. When using the analog rotation mode to zoom or manually focus, the response time and precision are superb. And while the ability to adjust aperture is less vital on a small-sensor compact camera, there's probably not a more satisfying way to do it than the method the XZ-2 provides.

Button tactility in general is also great, even from the buttons we criticized for sitting too flush against the body. You might have to hunt to find the right button, but once you find it you'll be certain you've pressed it. The layout is also logical and well thought out (aside from our complaint about the two-handed control cluster)—everything falls neatly under your right hand, which is ideal.

The tilting touchscreen LCD is another handling win for the XZ-2. The tilting functionality is very useful when composing outdoors in bright light (your body can shield it from the sun to minimize glare), and when you want to shoot at a low angle for a dramatic effect. It can also be tilted up to shoot at a high angle, though we found ourselves doing this a lot less often. The touch interface is well engineered, though frustratingly inconsistent. For instance, it can be used with the Super Control Panel, but not the default shooting menu overlay. It can't be used in the main menu, either.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

When it comes to manual controls, there have only been two big changes since the XZ-1. First is the customizable lens ring. The XZ-1 had a ring of its own, but like the implementations on competing cameras, it had only one function per shooting mode and was limited to a "clicky" rotation style. The XZ-2 one-ups it with a dual-function control ring that toggles back and forth between clicky ("digital") and smooth ("analog") rotation. The user can set what each type of rotation controls for each shooting mode, which opens up a whole world of customization.

The second change is the touchscreen. The implementation here is virtually identical to what you'll find on the latest Olympus PEN and OM-D cameras, allowing you to tap to focus or shoot, manipulate (some) menus, and swipe through or touch to zoom photos in playback mode. We're not the biggest fans of touchscreens on cameras, but in general it works pretty well here. It's not as good as what you'd get from the Canon T4i, which we feel sets the bar for touchscreens in this generation of cameras, but it's close.

Buttons Photo 1

Beyond these new additions, the XZ-2 maintains the course set by the XZ-1. The top plate features the hot shoe, on/off switch, zoom ring and shutter release, and 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, with a four-way control pad also providing direct access to exposure compensation, focus area, drive mode, and flash settings while shooting in the PASM modes. Playback, menu, info, video recording, and a customizable function button are also found here. Around front, the only control is the digital/analog toggle for the lens control ring, which also features a secondary function button.

Buttons Photo 2

The XZ-2's rear LCD is 3 inches on the diagonal, like most high-end camera screens these days, and offers a resolution of 920,000 dots. Relative to the G15, it has a couple of big advantages. First, it can tilt through about 130 degrees of motion (80 degrees up and 50 degrees down), which can be a great help in composing shots. While we prefer full flip-out 'n' tilt-style screens, Olympus's tilt-only solution is nevertheless a big improvement over the fixed screen on Canon's G15, at least in terms of versatility.

Second, the screen is touch-sensitive. Olympus's touchscreen implementation on the XZ-2 is virtually identical to what you'd find on the flagship OM-D, and that's a very good thing indeed. It allows you to touch the screen to focus or shoot, and also to manipulate or page between images during playback. And it's a capacitive screen, which means it's extremely responsive (like any modern smartphone).

While the XZ-2 does not have a built-in optical viewfinder, as does the Canon G15, it can accept the tried and true Olympus VF-2 and VF-3 electronic viewfinders—the same EVFs that can be used with the earlier XZ-1 and several of the company's PEN-series Micro Four Thirds bodies.

The XZ-2's mode dial marches in lock-step with the competition, offering the usual PASM modes as well as iAuto, ART, and SCN settings. Also present are two user-customizable modes, which are handy if you use a particular configuration or two on a regular basis.

In good light, the XZ-2 focuses quickly and very accurately, though it will often fail when trying to lock on to low-contrast targets. To a certain extent, this characteristic is shared by all contrast-detect autofocus systems (and therefore all compact cameras). However, the XZ-2 fails more often than some of its competitors (most notably the Canon G15). In dimmer light, it uses its orangey-red AF assist light early and often, but even so it often has trouble locking on when the illumination drops below a certain level.

The XZ-2's manual focusing action is superb for a compact camera, thanks in large part to a sharp LCD and the excellent feel of the "analog" lens ring. Sure, it would have been better if Olympus had seen fit to include focus peaking technology (which helpfully outlines the edges of in-focus objects), but we suppose we can always hope for a firmware update.

Like any advanced compact worth its salt, the XZ-2 offers RAW capture, as well as RAW+JPEG. As you'd expect from Olympus, the RAW+JPEG functionality is totally granular, allowing you to choose Large Fine, Large Normal, Medium Normal, or Small Normal JPEGs to go with your RAWs. Those, incidentally, are also the size and quality options available when shooting JPEG-only. In addition to these options, you can choose from four different aspect ratios: 4:3 (default), 3:2 (DSLR-style), 16:9 (widescreen), and 1:1 (square). In total, there are 16 different resolution options.

The XZ-2 has a primary, full-resolution continuous shooting mode, as well as a secondary high-speed mode that shoots much faster, but at a lower resolution. It also has two self-timer options—certainly not the most we've seen in this class, but enough to get the job done in most cases.

The baseline continuous shooting mode achieves about 5 frames per second, and it can shoot like that for about 10 seconds before reducing speed to clear the buffer. Once the speed drops, it can shoot pretty much forever—or at least until the memory card fills up.

Self-timer options are 2-second or 12-second presets. Unlike some competing models, the XZ-2 does not offer a customizable timer option, nor does it have an interval shooting mode.

In good light, the XZ-2 focuses quickly and very accurately, though it will often fail when trying to lock on to low-contrast targets. To a certain extent, this characteristic is shared by all contrast-detect autofocus systems (and therefore all compact cameras). However, the XZ-2 fails more often than some of its competitors (most notably the Canon G15). In dimmer light, it uses its orangey-red AF assist light early and often, but even so it often has trouble locking on when the illumination drops below a certain level.

The XZ-2's manual focusing action is superb for a compact camera, thanks in large part to a sharp LCD and the excellent feel of the "analog" lens ring. Sure, it would have been better if Olympus had seen fit to include focus peaking technology (which helpfully outlines the edges of in-focus objects), but we suppose we can always hope for a firmware update.

Fine, granular control over everything from shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to the intensity of its art filter effects makes the XZ-2 one of the more feature-rich advanced compacts available today. While it doesn't offer much in the way of video options, it makes up for this lack in other areas. At times, the vast range of control may be too much for those new to photography, but it also gives them room to grow, provided they can get through the rough learning curve.

Olympus is known to provide some of the best scene modes and creative filters in the business, and the XZ-2 is further evidence to support that argument, packing 15 scene modes and 11 art filters. The scene modes encompass practical situations like fireworks, underwater shooting, landscapes, and portraiture, as well as more creative options like multi-exposure compositions, panoramas, and HDR shooting. All of the art filters can be fine-tuned, either to control the intensity of the effect or to add further filters on top of filters, like artsy frames and vignetting.

In general, the art filters work very well, instantly adding mood, pop, or depth to photos that might otherwise be drab and ordinary. If you find yourself shooting on a grey and dreary day, they might just save your shots—or at least keep you entertained.

Neutral Density Filter

A built-in neutral density filter blocks some of the light entering the lens, allowing a camera to shoot at a slower-than-normal shutter speed. It's a boon to shooters who like to employ shallow depth of field or flash work in bright daylight conditions, where normally shooting at f/1.8 (as the XZ-2 can do) would lead to massive overexposure. Like many recent advanced compacts (including the Canon G15, Nikon P7700, and Samsung EX2F), the Olympus XZ-2 is equipped with this feature, and it does indeed come in handy from time to time.

Toshiba FlashAir WiFi Card Support

Like the latest PEN-series Micro Four Thirds bodies, the XZ-2 accepts Toshiba's FlashAir cards, which create their own wireless hotspot from within the camera. This feature allows your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to connect directly to the camera and browse or transfer the files on the memory card.

Colored Accessory Grips

In addition to making the XZ-2's grip larger, Olympus also made it removable. As such, they're providing add-on grips in a variety of colors, including red, beige, and purple. We would have preferred that they make different grip sizes and shapes available instead, but we suppose that task will be left up to third party manufacturers.

The XZ-2 doesn't really give you any choice when it comes to video compression. You have the option of shooting at either 1080/30P or 720/30P, each using a H.264 codec in a .MOV container. There's not even a standard definition (VGA) recording option. To be honest, we don't miss it in the slightest, but those who don't yet have a HDTV may disagree. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

It would appear that the only manual control available during video recording is manual focus (it's actually integrated rather well, using the "analog" setting on the lens ring). All other adjustments—shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and so on—are set automatically by the camera, regardless of the shooting mode you've selected.

Auto Controls

You can shoot videos using scene modes and art filters with the XZ-2. To do so, simply turn the mode dial to SCN or ART, select the creative effect you want to use, and hit the big red button to start recording. Most scene modes do not affect the video framerate, but the art filters cause massive framerate lag, to the point that your video looks like a relatively fast-moving slideshow of blurry stills. Unless you're specifically going for a funky look, we can't really recommend it.

Focus

As described above, the XZ-2 allows for direct control of manual focus during video, using the customizable lens ring. If you choose not to avail yourself of that option, the camera will attempt to focus for you. In general, it's very accurate but also pretty slow. Tap-to-focus doesn't work during video, as it does during stills shooting, presumably because you can't shut off the automatic focusing without going to full manual.

The XZ-2 features an on-board stereo microphone that does a pretty good job of picking up clear sound. Like most other built-in mics, it also picks up the sounds made by the camera itself, which can be distracting if you do a lot of zooming or refocusing during a take. The built-in mic does have a wind cut feature, and it can be completely disabled if the user prefers. There is no traditional jack for an external mic, but the Olympus accessory port built into the hot shoe can be used to mount the SEMA-1 microphone adapter.

Mic Photo

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.

Meet the testers

Ben Keough

Ben Keough

Contributor

@ben_keough

Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.

See all of Ben Keough's reviews
Ben Keough

Ben Keough

Contributor

@ben_keough

Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.

See all of Ben Keough's reviews

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