The Fujifilm X-E1 is beautiful. Its looks are a straight derivative from the Fujifilm X100 to the X-Pro1 and before that from the rangefinders of old. It's classy and inspiring; inspiring you as the owner and inspiring looks from everyone else. We feel it's well-built, but there are some who complain about it feeling too plastic. Well, it's not any more plastic-feeling than a DSLR you'd get at the same price.
But this isn't a DSLR. The X-E1 invokes a more considered kind of shooting; not a camera you bring to snap bursts willy-nilly (although it can do that, up to six frames continuously). The X-E1 is quite a technical camera; it has its manual controls laid out on the body, which will certainly appeal to old-time camera users who know how to use them. But it might confuse beginners, especially when a button is accidentally knocked off course and images start looking weird.
The biggest difference between the X-E1 and the X-Pro1 is the removal of the optical viewfinder (OVF). It still comes with an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which might detract the purists in the camp. But it helps to reduce the cost of the camera. And the EVF is actually better than the one on the X-Pro1, it's slightly bigger (0.5-inch across compared to 0.47-inch), higher resolution (2.36 million dots compared to 1.44 million) and comes with a diopter (built-in versus none). Instead of LCD technology, it's using OLED. In the field, the EVF works pretty well, even with moving subjects. It's not as luxurious as an OVF, but if that's essential for you then there's always the X-Pro1.
Anyway, if you feel the lack of an OVF, X-E1 owners can always gloat about the inclusion of a built-in flash, which the X-Pro1 users have to do without.
Just like how the internals of the X-E1 are mostly the same as the X-Pro1, the layout of the controls is mostly the same as well. On the top plate, the shutter speed dial loses the lock button, but keeps the very useful, customizable Function (Fn) button. The back of the camera also remains mostly the same; the Play button shifts to the left-most row of buttons, while the highly irritating indicator lamp on the X-Pro1 mercifully moves to the thumb-rest, away from the right eyes of left-eyed shooters.
The power switch is surprisingly easy to trigger; simply taking the camera out our fingers would brush against it and turn it on accidentally. But the shutter release inside it has a beautiful feel to it. Not just from its materials, there's a clear two-step trigger when you press downwards that's not too strict and not too loose.
Overall, the X-E1 experience is a positive one, more like a 'concentrated' X-Pro1 instead of a watered-down 'X-Lite'. But we feel that the camera misses a few opportunities to further evolve the line's handling. For instance, the self-timer is still buried within the menu, instead of belonging inside the Drive overlay menu. Auto ISO doesn't let you set a minimum shutter speed, which can be quite frustrating if you prefer shooting in Aperture Priority - the X-E1 seems to prefer lower ISO settings and slower shutter speeds.
Fujifilm still thinks that shooting in Burst drive mode (3/6 frames per second) is some kind of special event. When playing back your burst shots, you have to press an additional button to get into them, instead of being able to review them as part of your entire library of shot images. They're even named differently from the rest of your images, and there's really no good reason to do any of this.
Auto-focus is much improved (more on that in Image Performance section coming up), but AF point selection still isn't. There's a dedicated AF button, just like on the X-Pro1, but its use is limited. In AF Multi mode, where the camera automatically selects an AF point, it does nothing. It's only when you're in AF Area mode, where you choose the AF point manually, that the AF button activates AF point selection.
Imagine that the X-E1 stubbornly refuses to focus on your subject in AF Multi and you want to switch to AF Area to determine the AF point yourself. To switch AF modes, you have to press Q to go into the Quick Menu mode, select the AF mode icon and make the switch with the control dial. It takes too long to make the switch, and when you do chances are that your subject would have moved on.
When in AF Area, selecting AF points then takes a little bit of finger gymnastics. You have to press the AF button, activating the AF grid selection screen and then use the d-pad to select a point. These two buttons are on opposite ends of the camera, which makes changing AF points a two-handed operation, sometimes with your face up to the EVF, in the way of your fingers.
By the way, these are minus points we already raised with the X-Pro1.
If there's ever a positive demonstration of how a camera can handle it, it's Olympus' OM-D E-M5. A quick press on the d-pad lets you determine AF point manually, and pointing the AF point out of the AF grid brings it back to automatic area selection. It's a simple and fast method, one that Fujifilm could learn from.