Pentax Optio MX Review

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Steve's Conclusion

With its innovative styling, Pentax has produced a consumer digicam that will turn heads as well as photograph them. It's not an exercise in form over function, integrating a capable 3-megapixel digital still camera, MPEG-4 movie camera, and 10x optical zoom lens into a sleek exterior that will probably mistaken for a DV camcorder. The OptioMX is simple enough for a beginner to use, but offers plenty of advanced features for the advanced photographer to experiment with.

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 scifi. 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 OptioMX 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 OptioMX 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 OptioMX allows the lens to zoom through its 38-380mm 35mm-equivalent range internally. The lens produced sharp results throughout is zoom range, with barrel distortion present at wide angle 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 OptioMX's barrel distortion and introduces a certain amount of edge-softening.

I found the shooting performance of the OptioMX disappointing. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, measured a leisurely 4/10 second when pre-focused, and a lethargic 1.3 seconds including autofocus. During autofocus, the OptioMX freezes the live image on the LCD viewfinder, making it nearly impossible to follow a moving subject. "Rapid" shooting in single shot mode produced an image every 3.2 seconds without flash, and between 4.5 and 11 seconds using flash depending on the distance to your subject.

The OptioMX offers two continuous shooting modes: Continuous and High Speed Continuous. Continuous shooting captured 10 images in 14.6 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 1.1 seconds, leaving the LCD viewfinder blank during the entire image capture process. You'll find it very difficult to follow a moving subject using either continuous shooting mode. You'll also find it difficult to capture those unposed spontaneous moments; the OptioMX took 6.3 seconds from power-on until the first image was captured, and its wake-up from power-saving sleep mode measured 3.4 seconds. These performance measurements were made shooting 2048 x 1536 images in Best quality, with a SanDisk Ultra II 512MB SD memory card installed.

While I was disappointed with the responsiveness of the OptioMX autofocus system, I was impressed with its ability to focus in conditions of low ambient light. Its autofocus system and built-in flash were both stellar performers for 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. The LCD viewfinder was very effective indoors, "gaining-up" in conditions of low ambient light to help you compose the shot.

The OptioMX 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.

I was happy with the OptioMX outdoors -- images were consistently well-exposed and well color-balanced. 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 OptioMX could capture its image.

Pentax touts the OptioMX 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 I was 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.

I find myself scratching my head about the enigmatic Pentax OptioMX. While it is capable of producing good quality 3-megapixel images, its promises are largely unfulfilled. While it is billed as a dual role still/movie camera, its movie results were disappointing. And while its versatile 38-380mm optical zoom lens invites action and wildlife photography, its leisurely shooting performance will frustrate you. I found that the OptioMX was at its best doing interior flash photography, especially with the L-WC17 Wide Conversion lens attached. If you are looking for a super-zoom digicam with movie capability, add $100 to the $400 that Pentax is asking for the OptioMX and consider the Canon S1 IS; it offers an image-stabilized 10x optical zoom lens, more responsive performance, and a smooth 640 x 480 30fps movie mode.

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