With a look that reminds us of a 1920s-era Leica A (if it were modified for the digital age), Leica’s X1 hopes to offer a high-end approach, with a classic feel, to the compact camera. The twist is that this $2,000 (street) model contains a 12.2MP (effective) APS-C sized sensor in an attempt to produce image quality that goes beyond that of most compacts. In our tests, it certainly did.
The tough part is that it faces competition from all sides. Its fixed 36mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens compares directly to the Fujifilm FinePix X100, but both of these also bear comparison to large-sensor ILCs. The Leica stands its ground well in some areas, but its quirks may limit its appeal.
In the Lab
If there’s one area in which the X1’s APS-C sensor really delivers, it’s resolution. The tiny sensors in compact cameras squeeze so many pixels into such a small space that they require resolution-robbing noise reduction even at lower ISOs. The sensor in the X1 delivered 2230 lines per picture height in our test, for a Very High rating, contributing to the Leica’s overall image-quality rating of Very High at ISO 100.
Color accuracy was another high point for this Leica. It earned an Excellent rating with an average Delta E of 7.7 for 8-bit TIFFs converted from the DNG RAW files captured by the X1.
Like all Leica digital cameras, the X1 captures DNG files, Adobe’s standard RAW format. The camera also comes with a download of the most recent version of Adobe Lightroom at the time of purchase. But, since DNG is a standard, you can also convert the X1’s images with earlier versions of Photoshop that use Adobe Camera RAW, or any other RAW converter that recognizes the DNG file format.
Since we process test images using the default settings for noise in the software provided with the camera, the official results for the X1 look less than impressive—the defaults in Lightroom don’t apply any luminance noise reduction at all, though they do reduce chrominance noise.
By reprocessing the test images with luminance noise reduction set higher for each successive increase in ISO, as some RAW converters do, we were able to keep overall noise to acceptable levels for the entire sensitivity range. But this also resulted in a loss of 70–180 lines per picture height of resolution at ISO 800 and above. With a noise-reduction setting of 60 at ISO 3200, noise scored 2.5 and resolution was 1930 lines. At its default noise reduction setting, resolution was 2060 lines.
Compare this with the Fujifilm FinePix X100, which barely enters the Unacceptable level with a 3.1 at ISO 6400, where it held a resolution of 2125 lines. Plus, we could have applied extra noise reduction to the X100 at ISO 6400 to bring it into acceptable territory while still beating the X1 on resolution.
Luckily, image stabilization lets you handhold the Leica at lower ISOs. While the Fujifilm doesn’t offer it, the X1 includes the sensor-shift variety. In our test performed by multiple members of the our staff, we were impressed with the X1’s ability to steady the shakiness of our hands, averaging 3 extra stops of leeway in shutter speeds. So, if you’d normally shoot at 1/60 sec to get a steady shot, you can expect to be able to shoot at 1/8 sec and still get acceptably sharp results.
The X1’s 24mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit lens is similar in design tothe one in the FinePix X100, with 8 elements in 6 groups, including a single aspheric element. With the APS-C sensor, you get an equivalent field of view of a 36mm lens. In tests with DxO Analyzer 4.0, we found Slight barrel distortion, and light falloff was gone by f/3.5.
Those are respectable results for such a wide-angle lens. Though the Fujifilm has the X1 beat on light falloff, it showed complex distortion and, at its worst, more pincushion than the X1 did barrel distortion. However, we doubt that in practice you’ll be displeased with the lens performance of either of these cameras.