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Steve's Conclusion

Pentax has continued the "MX" series of Optios this year with its second entry, the Optio MX4. It is identical to the 3-megapixel Optio MX that we reviewed back in July, but has greater resolution at 4-megapixels.

The styling is the first thing that will attract your, and everyone else's attention. The camera's most comfortable shooting position is at eye level a foot or more away with the grip rotated into a vertical position; many will see a resemblance to a Buck Rodgers raygun from 1950's Sci-fi. But you won't be zapping Martians in a black and white movie, you'll be taking digital color movies of the sometimes strange beings that inhabit earth today.

Despite it's unusual appearance, The ergonomics of the Optio MX4 are quite good. The grip is comfortable to hold, just remember to extend it from the body to provide more room for your fingers. In a normal shooting position, the shutter button and zoom control fall conveniently under your forefinger, while the separate movie record button is easily activated by your thumb. You'll have to use your left hand to actuate the rest of the camera controls while holding the camera by its grip. The only difficulty I had was with the small 4-way controller; I occasionally hit the center "OK" button rather than the intended up, down, left or right.

Both the grip and LCD monitor provide a versatile range of movement, allowing overhead, waist-level and even self-portrait shooting positions. Tripod mounting the Optio MX4 requires rotating the grip alongside the camera body, placing both the shutter release and movie buttons in an unusual, but usable, position. Doors for the memory card, IO ports and battery are accessible while tripod-mounted. Battery life was acceptable, allowing me to capture just over 100 images using either the standard D-L17 Lithium-Ion or a rechargeable CR-V3.

Unlike the protruding glass of most competitive super zoom digicams, the unusual shape of the Optio MX4 allows its 38-380mm 35mm-equivalent lens to be packed inside of its body. The lens produced sharp results throughout is zoom range, with barrel distortion present at wide angle with the and pin cushioning at telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was most noticeable at the telephoto end of the range, diminishing as the focal length was reduced to wide angle. I liked the 2-speed zoom control; low speed is effective for fine adjustment while high speed provides responsiveness when you need it. I also tested the L- WC17 wide conversion lens. It extends the wide angle end of the zoom range to 28.5mm in 35mm-equivalence, and is quite a benefit for shooting in cramped interiors. The L-WC17 does magnify the Optio MX4's barrel distortion and introduces a certain amount of edge-softening.

Like the Optio MX, we were a little disappointed with the MX4's shooting performance. Power up to first image captured measured about 5 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, averaged a respectable 2/10 of a second when pre-focused, but a lethargic 1.1 seconds including autofocus. Also During autofocus it freezes the live image on the LCD viewfinder, making it nearly impossible to follow a moving subject. "Rapid" shooting in single exposure mode produced an image every 3.2 seconds without flash, and about 4.5 seconds using flash (depending on the distance to your subject.) It also offers two continuous shooting modes: Continuous and High Speed Continuous. Continuous shooting captured 10 images in 16.4 seconds; the LCD viewfinder alternated between blank and a display of the last captured image as each shot was taken. High Speed Continuous captured 3 shots in about a second, leaving the LCD viewfinder blank during the entire image capture process. You'll find it very difficult to follow a moving subject using either of the continuous shooting modes. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Extreme 512MB SD card, Program exposure mode, 2304x1728/Best size/quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

Although we were not very pleased with its autofocus performance, we were impressed with its ability to focus in low ambient lighting conditions. Its autofocus system and built-in flash performed well for most interior shooting, producing sharp, well-exposed images at distances well beyond the claimed flash range of 16 feet. The field of view of the 38mm wide angle zoom can be limiting in cramped interiors, but the attachment of the Pentax L-WC17 Wide Conversion lens and its 28.5mm focal length will help; this lens does not block the output of the pop-up flash, which is a plus. The LCD viewfinder was very effective indoors, "gaining-up" in conditions of low ambient light to help you compose the shot, though the live image does tend to get a little grainy.

The Optio MX4 macro modes produced mixed results. You'll find the normal Macro focus range useful for well-lit objects, but use of the flash frequently produced overexposure. Super Macro can focus as close as 0 cm - that's not a typo; it will focus at the front of the lens, allowing you to more than fill the frame with an object as small as a dime. But the extremely short working distance in Super Macro mode makes it difficult to adequately light the subject; best results were obtained tripod-mounted and using the self-timer to avoid camera shake.

Our outdoor sample images were consistently well-exposed and colors were nicely saturated. The versatile 38-380mm optical zoom lens produces pleasing landscapes and brings your distant subjects close, very close. I especially liked the two speed zoom control; I found low speed effective when finely adjusting shot composition, and high speed was responsive enough to accommodate spontaneous events. A camera with a 38-380mm zoom begs to be used to capture wildlife or sports action, but the combination of shutter lag and LCD freeze during autofocus will frustrate your efforts; a moving subject will frequently have left the frame before the Optio MX4 could capture its image.

Pentax touts the Optio MX4 as both a still and movie camera. It records compressed MPEG4 movies at 30 frames per second, and allows the use of the optical zoom and autofocus during recording without introducing camera noise into the audio. But again we were disappointed with the jumpiness of the results - it fell far short of the smoothness expected of a 30fps recording. I was also disappointed with shutter lag during movie recording; I measured a consistent delay of 2.2 seconds between depressing the movie button and recording the first frame.

Bottom line - When we first received the MX4 we were hoping Pentax had corrected some of the weaknesses found on its predecessor. While it's capable of producing good quality 4-megapixel images, its promises are largely unfulfilled. Pentax claims it is "Two Great Cameras in One" (still/movie), however its movie results were disappointing. And while its versatile 38-380mm optical zoom lens invites action and wildlife photography, its leisurely autofocus and shooting performance will dampen your fun. However, we did find that the MX4 was at its best doing interior flash photography, especially with the L-WC17 Wide Conversion lens attached.

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