Pentax Optio S5z Review

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Steve's Conclusion

The Optio S5Z is successor to theOptio S5i we reviewed last year. It shares a similar compact and stylish body, beginner-friendly features, 36.5mm - 107mm zoom lens and 5-megapixel resolution, but has been updated with a 640x480 30fps movie mode and a larger and more resolute 2.5-inch LCD monitor with greater playback magnification. The larger LCD came at the expense of the optical viewfinder which it does not have.

The ergonomics of the S5Z are good considering its diminutive size; the buttons are well placed and functional, and menu screens are legible and logically organized. Pentax corrected the poorly-designed power button of the S5i, relocating it away from the shutter button and recessing it into the body so that it can't be accidentally depressed. The S5Z's tripod mount is well-positioned at the center of the body, but it is made of plastic, raising concerns about its durability.

The S5Z's 2.5-inch LCD was difficult to use at times. In outdoor shade it was quite visible, but in open sunlight it had insufficient brightness and contrast to compose or review images; the brightness adjustment was of little help, washing out the image as brightness was increased. The LCD's visibility also suffers in low ambient lighting, failing to amplify the live image and making shot composition difficult. As with the LCD viewfinders of most consumer digicams, the screen goes blank between images in continuous shooting mode, providing only a brief glimpse of the live image just before the next shot is taken. Red eye reduction flash mode exposes another issue with the LCD; it goes blank from the pre-flash until the image is captured, a period of about 1 second, making it difficult to keep your subject properly framed. In playback mode, images can be magnified up to 8x, adequate to field check your shots for good focus. While it is large and resolute, the S5Z's LCD performance left me wishing that Pentax had included an optical viewfinder.

The S5Z's shooting performance was good. Power up to first image captured measured approx. 3 seconds. Shutter lag when pre-focused was approx. 1/10 second, and about 4/10 second including autofocus time; both times include about 1/10 second delay in the LCD's live image presentation. The shot to shot time in normal, single exposure mode averaged about 1.8 seconds without flash, and between 3 and 7 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance. When shooting in Continuous mode, the S5Z captured images at 1.5 second intervals, the number of shots limited only by the amount of remaining memory on the SD card. This performance was measured using a SanDisk Ultra II 512MB SD memory card with the image size/quality set a 2560x1920/ , and includes viewfinder delay, photographer response time, and image capture. All times may vary depending on lighting, camera settings, media, etc.

The Pentax smc 3x optical zoom lens has a focal length coverage equivalent to 35.6mm-107mm (in 35mm format), the moderate wide angle end useful for landscape and interior shots and the telephoto end good for portraits as well as distant subjects. There is moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle but almost no pin cushioning at full telephoto. There was slight Chromatic aberration (purple-fringing in high contrast areas) throughout the zoom range, and the lens exhibited some softness at the edges. The S5Z's AF system was a good performer indoors, helped by its focus-assist lamp.

The overall image quality in 2560x1920/ mode was average. Outdoor images were sometimes over exposed using standard settings, and the focus of distant subjects was soft. If you'll be making 4x6-inch prints, the softness will not be noticeable, but if you intend to make 8x10's or print cropped images, the S5Z's hard sharpness setting or post processing with unsharp mask will produce better results. When shooting indoors you will be limited by the flash range of 11.5ft. This is sufficient for portraits or small groups, but lacks the power to illuminate average to large sized rooms. The S5Z's red eye reduction flash mode was effective at close range, but ineffective with the subject positioned at the 11.5-foot limit of the flash. The camera comes with 9.3MB of internal memory but no SD memory card so you can only store about 2 of the large images before running out of memory. You'll need a larger (128MB to 512MB) size SD card to make this camera useful; the average file size of a 5-megapixel best quality image exceeded 3-megabytes.

The S5Z's movie mode suffers from aggressive compression. At 640x480 and 30fps, the S5Z's movies consume only 400-kilobytes per second, efficient from a memory perspective, but the resulting moving images have a very noticeable graininess caused by compression artifacts.

Battery life was good; the S5Z captured over 300 images on its proprietary D-LI8 710mAh Lion battery with full-time use of the LCD viewfinder. Because there are no off the shelf replacements commonly available, I suggest that you obtain a second D-LI8 and keep it fully charged, ensuring that a once in a lifetime photo op is not spoiled by a dead battery.

The Pentax Optio S5Z will tempt beginners with its under-$350 MSRP, 5-megapixel resolution, ease of fully-automatic operation, useful scene modes, and durable compact design. It trails the competition, however, with its average still image quality, poor moving image quality, lack of an optical viewfinder and sometimes unusable LCD viewfinder. If you're in the market for an easy to use compact 5-megapixel digicam, you should also consider the Nikon CoolPix 5900; at a comparable street price, it offers better still and moving image quality, an optical viewfinder and more usable (but smaller) LCD in a similarly-sized body.

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