Fujifilm is expanding its range of compacts with large-format sensors with the X-E1. While Fuji's X-Pro1 advanced compact is a practically pro-level camera, this more accessible model has a similar feel to the X100 but with the Fujifilm X lens mount and the internal electronics of its higher-end counterpart. Sounds great! Let's take a closer look.
On first contact, the X-E1 feels and handles a lot like the X-Pro1, with the same buttons in more or less the same places. That said, the playback button has been moved to the left of the screen, the button for switching between the optical and electronic viewfinder has been ditched, and a button for popping up the flash has appeared. However, the X-E1 is a fair bit lighter and more compact than the X-Pro1. In fact, it feels more similar in size and weight to the X100, Fujifilm's first compact camera with large-format sensor (and with a fixed lens). It's therefore still a dense-feeling and well-made camera with a stylish retro design, but it's closer in size to other interchangeable lens compacts with viewfinders, with dimensions that bring it closer to the likes of Sony's NEX-7.
The X-E1 doesn't have the same screen as the X-Pro1. Here, you get a 2.8" 460,000-dot display, like in Fuji's X10 compact. While you do lose a little precision, this screen is still very nice to use. The gamma and colour temperature are perfect and only the most saturated colours are really off the mark.
The viewfinder is also different in the X-E1, as it's a pure, 100% EVF rather than a hybrid electronic/optical viewfinder. It uses an OLED screen with 2.36 million dots. These tech specs are suspiciously similar to those of the EVF in Sony's NEX and Alpha cameras, and the viewfinder here gives the same high level of colour fidelity and excellent gamma and colour temperature. That said, the eyepiece is quite different in the X-E1, with lower magnification and a slightly visible trace of barrel distortion. It's still one of the best EVFs out there at the moment, but Sony's eyepiece is generally more comfortable.
The interface is classic Fujifilm fare, with linear menus, several user settings profiles and a rather chaotic interface to set them with. For example, the video mode is buried away in the same menu as burst modes and bracketing, the focusing settings are spread between the front face, the column of controls to the left of the screen and the macro button, while the clickable thumb wheel is almost useless in shooting mode but is indispensable in the Quick menu.
Otherwise, the X-E1 is a practical camera offering direct access to plenty of settings and some interesting custom options. However, to get the best out this camera, you first of all need to get your head around its way of doing things and explore it methodically. It's certainly not as instantly user-friendly as the likes of Panasonic's G-series cameras, a Sony NEX or even certain SLRs.
The initial start-up time is a little disappointing at just over two seconds. However, a "Quick Start" option in the internal menu can be activated to cut this down to barely over a second. In theory, you'd think the "Quick Start" mode would drain the battery more quickly, but we didn't notice any real difference (the X-E1 battery life is within average for an interchangeable lens compact—it's no match for an SLR, but it's still fine). In fact, it's hard to understand why this mode isn't activated by default.
The other results are all pretty standard. They're not quite up there with the best, but there's been a clear improvement on the X-Pro1 (although the latest firmware should give it a boost). In real-life situations, the X-E1 can be a bit erratic. In low light, sometimes it doesn't focus properly, shooting a blurred image, and sometimes it refuses to focus at all. Although Fuji has made clear and noticeable improvements to its autofocus over the last six months, the Olympus E-M5, Panasonic GX1 and Sony NEX-6 (if only to mention direct rivals) are clearly more reliable options. Ultimately, the X-E1 still has room for improvement.
UPDATE 27/08/2013: Tested with firmware 2.0
The X-E1 should theoretically behave in the same way as the X-Pro1 in this field—which is no bad thing, since the X-Pro1 snaps the best-quality images we've seen so far from an APS-C sensor (possibly with the exception of some of the latest Sigma cameras at low sensitivity settings). It'll therefore be more interesting to see how the new 18-55 mm lens gets on, as this is the first zoom lens for the Fuji X system. Plus, it's almost four times as expensive as a regular, standard zoom lens—let's hope it's worth it!
It's no surprise to see that the X-E1 handles noise just like the X-Pro1, shooting impeccable-quality images up to 3200 ISO. Shots taken at 6400 ISO can still feasibly be used too. At 12800 ISO (only available in Jpeg mode), noise becomes a bit more visible, but an 8" x 12" print (20 x 30 cm) will still hold up well with a good level of detail in the shot. All in all, Fuji has done a great job here.
The good news is that the lens is incredibly good! In fact, for taking wide-angle photos, you're better off using the X-E1 zoom lens than the 18 mm prime lens seen with the X-Pro1! One thing that's unusual and which shows how well this lens performs is that we used images shot at full aperture for our Face-Off (f/2.8 at wide angle, f/4 at telephoto)—closing the lens diaphragm didn't bring any visible improvement!
Pictures shot with this 18-55 mm lens are quite simply excellent at all focal lengths and at all apertures. There's only a slight trace of distortion, chromatic aberration is kept in check perfectly and, in the end, this lens is worth every penny of its high-end price tag. Apart from its sliding aperture, it feels closer to an advanced trans-standard lens (Pentax 17-70 mm f/4, Sony 16-50 mm f/2.8, Sigma 17-50 mm f/2.8, etc.) than other classic kit lenses.
UPDATE 27/08/2013: Tested with firmware 2.0
Fuji's DSLM cameras continue to dominate the market with high levels of sharpness and image quality that holds up very well at high ISO settings. This round of firmware updates merely confirms that. The X-E1 matures nicely with firmware 2.0 and continues along the same path at the very top end of the market when it comes to image quality. Shooting at 6400 ISO poses no problem at all.
Video quality is on par with the X-Pro1. The image is sharp (although sometimes prone to a little moiré effect) when properly focused, but the continuous autofocus isn't up to scratch. Sometimes the image stays completely blurred for a couple of seconds. Sound is recorded in stereo but sounds quite muffled and the stereo effect isn't that marked. On the whole, individual noises aren't always that easy to distinguish.
In this field, Fuji isn't really up to current market standards. Video performances are far from the kind of quality you get in equivalent camera ranges from Sony and Panasonic.