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 joint Micro Four Thirds system, 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.
The drive of your life
Hold the smooth, cold metal of the Leica in your hands and it might as well be the crown jewels. Dispensing any plastic accoutrements, the X1 is lovingly made and exquisitely detailed. You can't mistake that this is a premium product, the Rolls Royce of digital compacts. In terms of portability, it's one for a coat pocket rather than your jeans, with dimensions of 124 by 32 by 60mm. Its lightweight construction avoids clunkiness at just 286g, excluding the rechargeable battery. Said battery is good for a modest 260 shots, so there's room for improvement there. Taken as a whole, the X1 is reassuringly old-fashioned, in the sense of quality being timeless.
As well as ensuring the camera is a tactile joy to use, the X1's key functions can be adjusted via its top-plate wheels and dials without delving into menu screens, therefore acting as time-savers.
Image detail from our review model, loaded with Final Firmware, was crisp and stunningly lifelike. The results were closer to the fine detail produced by a dSLR and top-quality optic than the X1's compact shell would suggest. Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras with Leica lenses have smashed close competitors in the Olympus Pen range in the past, especially when it comes to delivering smooth, film-like colour tones and pin-sharp detailing. The X1 takes that smooth look and lifts it up a notch with eye-catching effect.
The X1's images have less of a flat, digital quality to them. The X1 displayed an attractively shallow depth of field that came close to the success we achieved with the Sigma SD15 and its Foveon X3 CMOS chip, without the horrible noise at higher ISOs. This camera's incredible image quality is the result of the lens and sensor working in perfectly tuned harmony. Which is why you're paying a price equivalent to a decent dSLR and a quality lens.
What we have in the Leica X1 is a hybrid, rangefinder-like compact camera with a dSLR-sized sensor, for a price that pitches it against semi-professional dSLRs, such as the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s. Is it worth the extra spend? If optimum picture quality is your key concern, the answer is yes.
Its target market, as well as being cash-laden, will undoubtedly already own a dSLR and be browsing the displays of Harrods and Selfridges for a capable back-up. The rest of us can only dream as we go out and buy a Panasonic LX5 from the local Currys, instead.
Edited by Emma Bayly