A long time ago, Leica more or less invented the standard tools of the trade for photojournalists: their equipment was compact (for the time, at least), used affordable 35 mm film, had incredible lenses, and a basic--but indestructible--frame.
In some ways, the X1 is a modern interpretation of this approach: it's compact enough to fit in a large pocket, has a bare minimum of extra features, an all-purpose fixed lens, a great sensor and faultless build quality. And although it's easily the most expensive compact digital camera amongst our selection, it remains an affordable option for a Leica, with a launch price of around £1500.
Faithful to Leica's traditional aesthetics, the X1 is a simple slab with rounded corners. Its minimalist retro styling is instantly recognisable, and has a timeless quality that's miles away from the sparkly bling found on some of its competitors. It's not much smaller than a film-based compact, making it a large digital compact. That's perfectly normal for a camera with a large sensor, though, and the Sigma DP line is hardly any smaller.
The build quality is absolutely faultless, with a lot of attention to detail paid right down to the smallest elements, although the buttons at the back felt a little plastic. That could change in the final version, though, as we were testing a preview. While we were looking at the back of the camera, we were bitterly disappointed by the quality of the screen: the viewing angles might be reasonable, but a 230 000 pixel LCD screen on a camera like this is nothing short of a scandal with even mid-range compacts like the Samsung WB1000 now feature 460 000 pixel OLED displays. Worse, the display tends to flicker when light levels drop.
Leica's user interface is a little special (see inset), and there's no automatic ISO in manual mode, meaning you can play with the depth of field by adjusting the aperture, the appearance of movement by changing the speed and also adjust the exposure yourself by controlling the sensitivity. The menus can also be a little complicated, with all of the options listed one after the other without any organisation. The distance between the button which toggles between automatic and manual focus (at the bottom of the four-way switch on the right) and the choice of area to focus on (to the left of the screen) is hardly the simplest.
Another problem--which is almost unforgivable this time--is the manual focus, which is controlled using an on-screen loupe, with a simple indicator of the focal distance. Back in the day, though, Leica fans would set their lens to a given hyperfocal distance so they could keep on shooting on the fly without needing to refocus, but that's impossible here: there's no special mode to take care of it, or even a depth-of-field scale--something available on the Ricoh GR Digital III for instance!
The X1 has a fixed lens which lets in plenty of light, and we're familiar with its specs, leaving us enthusiastic to discover some impressive results--but we were instead very disappointed! The X1 isn't fast to start up, with the lens taking a while to extend. It's only just about average when focusing normally at around one second and the autofocus in dark environments is frankly pretty slow at over two seconds! Saving a photo takes as long for a JPEG as it does for a RAW, and in both cases, it's too long. Overall, the German manufacturer doesn't come off at all well when compared to a camera like the Panasonic GF1 and its 20 mm pancake lens.
'Wow!: that's the first thing that came to mind when I saw the results of the test shots we took using the X1. It has quite easily set a new standard for compact cameras--which is the least you'd expect given that it's based on the same 12 Megapixel Sony sensor as the Nikon D90--but it's perhaps the most impressive thing we've seen in our test lab.
At the widest possible aperture, the sharpness is 'merely' very good--and that's across the whole frame. Adjusting it to f/5.6 is incredible: the detail is razor-sharp, thanks in part to a little accentuation but mostly to the incredibly high resolution. Looking at these images makes the case for Lecia's fixed-focus lenses loud and clear, as well as the need to post-process photos: RAW files (in Adobe DNG format) leave slight traces of green and red fringing in the corners, which are totally absent from JPEGs. A similar approach is used by Panasonic's Venus Engine, but attracted a lot of criticism from purists.
Noise handling is also exceptional, with almost identical results up to 800 ISO, and blurriness which is almost invisible, on regular prints in any case, up to 3200 ISO. Compared to SLRs that use the same sensor (the D90, D5000 or K-x for example), the X1 introduces less blurriness, preserves more detail and produces JPEGs with hardly any more noise: it's a real success.
The only negative comment in this section is that the shortest possible focus in the so-called 'macro' mode is 30 cm, making it difficult for close-ups; some people might also be put-off by the lack of zoom.
The X1 is a thoroughbred digital stills camera, and has no video mode.
- Classic design and top-quality construction
- Incredible quality JPEG photos
- Controls are wonderful if you know the basics
- Top quality fixed lens
- Scroll wheel to control different settings
- Can be complex for a newcomer
- Menus are bursting at the seams with no organisation
- Screen isn't worthy of the rest: low resolution and very glossy
- No depth-of-field indicator or hyperfocal
The Leica X1 is a very attractive concept, which produces photographs the likes of which we have never seen. Unfortunately, though, it has some weaknesses which are disappointing both from this manufacturer and at this price, like the screen or how slow it is.