Pentax Optio M50 Review
The Pentax Optio M50 is the 2008 replacement of last year's Optio M40. Both models
feature similar specifications, with 8 megapixels of resolution, a 2.5-inch LCD, 9-point AF system, VGA sized movie mode, Digital
Shake Reduction, etc. The M50 has been updated with a more versatile 5x optical zoom lens, Pentax's new Smile Capture function,
a higher resolution LCD screen, greater ISO capabilities (up to 6400) and more internal memory (51MB compared to 21MB on the
Like previous "M" series cameras, the Optio M50 is a simple point-n-shoot model with fully automatic operation when used in the Green, Auto Picture or any of its 11 Scene modes. While perfect for the beginner, the M50 offers some more advanced control using the Program exposure mode. Here, novice users can adjust the ISO, Metering, White balance, Exposure compensation, Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, etc. Combined, these modes make this a camera that can easily be used by anyone in your office or home.
The M50 is what we consider an ultra-compact mode, similar in size to a deck of playing cards. Like its predecessor, I was pleased with the design of the M50. It fit comfortably in my large hands, with my right hand holding the side and my left hand "pinching" the other side. Its diminuitive size meant that I had no problems tucking it away in a pants pocket. The M50 features a body that is made mostly of metal, ensuring its durability. The camera controls are identical to the M40 with the addition of a new button for the Face Recognition feature which also activates the Smile Capture mode. Overall I felt the various controls were well placed and are within easy reach of your fingers. Navigating the menu is a breeze and the Guide Display function shows helpful info when hovering over certain exposure modes and settings.
While the size of the LCD has remained the same, these are two completely different displays. The 2.5-inch screen on the M50 offers 230,000 pixels of resolution, compared to the 115,000 found on the previous model. This means you will see a much nicer image with more detail, both when framing and reviewing stored photos. I found the display to be quite usable outdoors, however it would benefit from an anti-reflective coating, and is prone to fingerprints. When in marginal lighting the LCD brightens or "gains up" to help with framing your subject. It does get a bit grainy but is still a very helpful feature.
Shooting performance has improved over the previous model, but remains average for a camera in this price range. Power up to first image captured measured approx. 3 seconds. Shutter lag when pre-focused was approx. 1/10 of a second and only 2/10 of a second including autofocus time. When shooting in single exposure mode, we got mixed results when trying to take a sequence of images. The shot to shot delay jumped around a bit as the camera would sometimes focus for each shot and others it would display a PF (Pan Focus) icon a the top of the screen. When Pan Focus was used, the delay was about 1.8-1.9 seconds between frames. When the AF system would refocus all together, the delay averaged about 2-3 seconds. With the flash, these times only slowed by about 2-5/10 of a second. There's also a Continuous mode, which allowed me to capture 3 images in 1.5 seconds. Our performance times were measured using a Sandisk Extreme 512MB SD memory card with the image size/quality set a 8M ***, program mode, flash off, Face Detect Off, full wide angle, preview off and all other settings at default. All times may vary depending on lighting, camera settings, media, etc.
Because both models feature the same 8-megapixel imaging sensor, our image quality results were very similar between the two. When shooting outdoors with plenty of sunlight, the M50 captures photos with vibrant colors but the exposure is occassionally inaccurate. On the M40, we saw a bit of edge softness, which is common with consumer models. However, this was not the case with the M50. The 5x optical zoom covers a much greater range than the 3x zoom on past models. It offers the same wide angle coverage (equivalent to 36mm), but a longer telephoto range (equivalent to 180mm). This means you can capture nice landscapes at the wide end or zoom in closer on a subject in the distance. Noise levels are typical for a consumer model. As you increase the sensitivity, the noise also increases. The M50 can use ISO settings as high as 6400, but once you go above 1600, the resolution drops to 5-megapixels. Above ISO 800 is pretty much useless if you plan on making large prints. Luckily, the Auto setting seemed to keep the sensitivity to 400 and below even in marginal lighting.
Smile Capture (also called Smile Shutter by other manufactures) is a new feature that is becoming more popular on consumer digicams these days. When enabled, the camera will automatically capture a shot when it detects someone within the frame is smiling. This feature worked quite well on the M50, snapping a picture quickly whenever the subject smiled. I found it worked a bit better when farther away, rather than up close. This feature will help you capture nice big smiles; not to mention help you get the pictures of those who don't like having their photo taken.
The M50 offers an average flash range of about 14 feet at wide angle, using ISO Auto. I found it was sufficient for individual and small group shots, but it lacks the power to properly illuminate a large group. I also recommend you stick to smaller rooms. When shooing in a large open area (like a bowling alley), the camera will raise the ISO to help brighten the background. This adds plenty of unwanted shadow area noise. While you may not see it when printing a 4x6, it's sure to be seen on larger prints or when viewing images on your PC or television. Red-eye was something I noticed in a large majority of our flash portraits, however, the M50 does feature an effective in-camera Red-eye removal tool. You can see an example by taking a look at our Samples page. I was glad to see that Pentax allows you to use the Face Recognition AF/AE option in any exposure mode. On the M40, it was only available in Portrait and Natural Skin tone modes. The Face Detect AF system on this model was quite fast. It was able to find and lock onto the subject's face within a second or so. The one annoyance I found was the system would mistake certain round objects in the frame for faces when shooting a landscape or "non-people" shots. My advice is to turn the feature off then you're not shooting portrait type photos.
Movie mode allows you to record video at either 640x480 or 320x240 resolutions (30fps or 15fps, with audio). Because sound is recorded, the optical zoom may not be used during recording, but can be preset before starting. I was able to capture nice smooth video with good sound. The only issue I saw was when in lower lighting there is visible noise in the video clips. This is due to the camera boosting the sensitivity higher to help record a brighter image.
Power comes from a tiny 3.7v 680mAh Li-Ion battery pack. Pentax claims you can capture up to 210 shots or 240 minutes of continuous playback. We found the battery life was good, capturing over 108 samples (both images and short movie clips) as well as concluding several of our other tests before the battery needed to be recharged. I highly recommend you purchase a second battery pack, especially if you are planning on taking the M50 along on vacation.
Bottom line - as with past "M" series models I was pleased with the Optio M50's features. Pentax didn't change too much from the previous model but we welcomed the addition of the 5x optical zoom and Smile Capture feature. With average performance, great outdoor image quality, plenty of user-friendly exposure modes, and a street price of US$199 or less, I feel the Pentax Optio M50 will make a great digicam for the average consumer. Especially if you're in the market for a pocketable model that won't put a huge dent in your pocketbook.
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