Appearance of the S1 is fashionable, yet straightforward. Smaller than most smartphones, the camera is available in black, green, or chrome, and fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. The sleek design, especially the bubble-like buttons, creates an almost impossible-to-snag unit that makes retrieving it effortless, especially from those tight jean pockets. The bubble-like buttons are also translucent, giving them a fashionable substance. Even more, the button layout is a simple, and quickly understandable, design with no confusion. This makes the operator an instant expert within moments of first handling the camera. Next to the playback button, is the video capture button, which records widescreen HD videos at 720p. This handy control generates an easy transition between photo and video capture. Increasing the vogue look of the S1 is the colored side panels of the optical lens on the black and green models; black with red panels, and green with green panels. The face of the S1 also labels some of its features for quick reference of its capabilities. Over all, the S1 will complement all of your other handheld devices both with function and fashion.
Mode and menu settings for the S1 are easily understandable. The preprogrammed exposure modes are shown in logically pictured icons, and are provided with short in-camera descriptions of each, making the multiple modes to choose from fast and uncomplicated. Among these exposure modes is the convenient Auto Picture mode. Auto Picture is what we call a camera intelligence that utilizes OODA (Observe, Orientate, Decide, Action). Auto Picture will intelligently observe and then orientate to its environment, decide which preprogrammed exposure mode will employ the best settings, and then act by automatically putting the camera in that mode when focusing. If you prefer to set your own exposure settings, the S1 enables basic control over these in a well-ordered menu. Pentax has also included its Green mode that allows for basic image capture through auto exposure and sensitivity. However, unlike Auto Picture, Green mode will output lesser image quality, and have little to no exposure adjustments. With the convenient, clear-cut mode and menu interface, the S1 allows great image and video capture a breeze.
Aside from a potentially annoying time-out option, the S1 includes a smaller, yet clearly viewable LCD. The compact nature of the S1 constricts it to a 2.7-inch LCD, but with 230,000 dots, this hardly seems to affect the visibility. A reduced LCD is a profitable sacrifice for the handy compact design. In the sunlight, the backlight performed well, until the screen time-out kicked in. It appears that this battery saving feature is the default setting for the S1, and while a thoughtful feature, we found it more annoying than useful. While trying to capture outdoor shots on a sunny day, the time-out kept interrupting the process. Fortunately, the screen time-out can be turned off (or lengthened), and we were then able to view the LCD with no problems. If you are shooting in a darker room and need to conserve battery life, this would be a useful option for you. Otherwise it would be smart to remember to turn the LCD screen time-out off, especially if you know you are going to be taking pictures of time sensitive outdoor images. One small issue we had with the S1's LCD was due to the lack of a protective cover. Most LCD screens today are behind a plastic cover, which protects the actual display, That's not the case with the S1. If you touch the LCD to point at a funny face, you'll notice that the screen reacts to your touch; much like it does if you poke your computer monitor. While testing the S1, we actually noticed some damage in the screen; in the form of what looked like a small "shattered" area. While it didn't effect our view, it was annoying and worrisome; thoughts of how long this camera would actually last being carried in our pockets came to mind often.
Pentax supplies the S1 with respectable zoom capabilities, but a jumpy operation creates a less than desirable situation. The S1 5x optical zoom operates on a rocker style control at the upper right next to the LCD. It has the capability of 28mm wide angle coverage, and a 140mm telephoto (in 35mm equivalence). Operating the zoom control for us proved to be slightly difficult for capturing images with precise framing. Because of the non-continuous zoom on the S1, we found ourselves having to use "zooming with your feet" to capture a desired frame for a subject. This method forces the photographer to physically move closer or farther from their subject to obtain a desired frame. This could be a possible issue if you are shooting in a limed space environment, like a crowded room for example. Besides this handicap, the S1 zoom capability is up to par with typical point-and-shoot digital cameras.
While the S1 is an inexpensive camera, that doesn't mean it can't take pleasing photos. With 14-megapixels, you have plenty of resolution for printing anything from a 4x6-inch, up to 13x19-inch enlargements and beyond. The intelligent Auto Picture mode produces the most pleasing photos to the eyes, however colors are not exactly "true to life". Like we've seen with many intelligent Auto modes on various different cameras, the S1's Auto Picture setting seems to boost color saturation a bit to enhance the overall look of your photos. Many will appreciate this, however it can go a bit overboard at times, creating unrealistic looking colors. Switching to Program mode, which is also fully automatic, will net you more natural looking photos; that will look more like the scene did with your own eyes when the photo was captured. Looking closely at our photos (aka pixel peeping), I was surprised at the amount of fine detail in our outdoor photos. Exposure is good for the most part, however we did not at times that the S1 produced strong exposures, which can cause blown out highlight details.
Let's face it, our cameras get used indoors a lot. This is why indoor image quality and performance is so important; and unfortunately many ultra-compacts struggle indoors. The S1 is no exception. In an attempt to make the camera extreme portable, you have to compromise somewhere else; in this case it's the flash. Like the camera, the built-in flash unit is tiny, and while they may claim it can cover up to 12 feet, that's with the zoom at full wide angle with the ISO set to Auto (where is should be on this camera anyway). Unless you are shooting a group, chances are you're going to be zooming in on your friend or pet; and as the zoom increases, the effective flash range decreases. When shooting close-up portrait style photos, we found staying within 4-5 feet from your subject would produce the best results. Image noise levels are typical for a sub 14-megapixel point-n-shoot, and we recommend you keep the ISO at 400 and below; which will produce images that you'll more than likely be satisfied with.
Like just about every single point-n-shoot on the market, the Optio S1 can record 720p HD video, along with standard definition at 640x480 (VGA), and 320x240 (QVGA). The frame rate can be set at 15 or 30fps, and audio is also recorded; what good is video with no sound right? We found the S1 captures typical quality video from a point-n-shoot, with video playing back smoothly, but lacking any real fine detail. Also, like we mention in almost every single camera review we publish, the camera's built-in microphone is Very sensitive; picking up all sorts of background noise you might not have noticed when originally recording your movie. So, being aware of your surrounds, and positioning yourself away from loud objects or people will greatly improve your chances of capturing better audio.
When it comes to battery life, the S1 falls a bit short. Again, due to the size of this camera, Pentax has stuffed a tiny Li-ion battery pack into it. This pack is only rated at approx. 680mAh, which they claim can provide you with up to 180 shots on a single charge. This will leave one wanting more power; especially if you plan on any trips lasting more than a day or so. Another shortfall is the way the battery is charged. Instead of an external AC charger that replenishes the battery out of camera, the S1 charges the battery internally using the supplied USB cable and either the AC adapter or a powered USB port. This might not seem like a shortfall to some, as you can top off the camera easily. But, it makes having a spare pack charged and ready a bit more difficult, since you can't charge on pack while you're using another.
Bottom Line - The Pentax Optio S1 is a stylish ultra-compact camera that is made to slip into the smallest of pockets or handbags; while at the same time offer simple operation. If you're looking for a Sub $200 US camera that takes nice photos for mid to large sized prints, the S1 will more than likely please you. However, it's slower shooting performance when compared to its siblings (even less expensive models) might deter some. With a MSRP of $199.95 US, we feel the S1 is a bit overpriced for the performance and features you are receiving; especially when its sibling the Optio RS1500 performs better, and boasts a much more wallet friendly price tag of just $150 US or less.
Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.
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