We love the razor-sharp pictures achievable with a digital SLR camera and dedicated lens, but occasionally tut-tut at the dSLR's lack of portability. As an alternative, pocket-sized snappers with smaller, fixed lenses and sensors don't cut the mustard in terms of image quality. So, since 2008, manufacturers have been releasing hybrids of the two.
The goal is dSLR quality without the chunkiness. Olympus and Panasonic claim to have achieved this with their jointsystem, which removes the dSLR's mirror box to bring the sensor and lens closer. Leica, along with Ricoh (GXR system) and Sigma (DP2/DP2s), has come at it from a different angle. Leica has chosen to squeeze a dSLR-sized sensor -- in this case, an APS-C CMOS chip -- into a compact body to provide a best-of-both-worlds solution. As a broad rule of thumb, a larger sensor equates to better image quality. The £1,395 Leica X1's effective pixel count is 12.2 megapixels.
A camera fit for a king's ransom
While Leica's logic is admirable, would-be X1 owners have to confront the fact that the fixed-focal-length 24mm lens (36mm equivalent in 35mm film terms) on the front cannot be swapped. Plus, there's the lead boot of its price tag -- a whopper at £1,395, body only. Although we're used to paying top dollar for anything bearing a Leica badge, this makes the X1 one of the most expensive digital compacts ever.
If you want the X1's extras, such as the handgrip, clip-on optical viewfinder and natty case along with the camera, you'll be looking at a bundle price nearing £1,790.
The other thing to note is that, with a closest-focus distance of 30cm and no video-capture option, it's not the most versatile tool for our multimedia age, even if light sensitivity does stretch from ISO100 to ISO3200 and HDMI output is offered along with USB. The X1 gives you the chance to shoot JPEGs and DNG files -- Adobe's Digital Negative, raw equivalent format.
The fixed lens mightn't be as much of a hindrance as the price, however. It enforces discipline and affects the way you shoot. Without the ability to quickly try different framing options by zooming in or out, you're forced to stop, think and take a few steps forward or back. A more considered, thoughtful approach can potentially make for better photographs than just snapping away. This certainly isn't a camera for off-the-cuff snapshots.
At 69mm (2.7 inches), the X1's back-plate screen is sufficiently large for composing and reviewing shots. We expected a semi-pro resolution of around 920k to match the price. Instead, the X1 carries the standard 230k-dot resolution commonly offered by £100-£200 compacts.