Review: Pentax Optio S Ultracompact 3.2 Megapixel Camera

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Date: Tuesday, May 13th, 2003, 11:23
Category: Accessory

Smaller than a business card, this is the first ultracompact camera to match or exceed the features of full-size cameras. 3.2 megapixels, 3x optical zoom, TV output, limited video/audio recording, highly customizable, great picture quality, and supported in OS X. A great PowerBook companion.


I was tempted by an iPod, and bought the new ultracompact Pentax Optio S instead. User and magazine reviews were glowing, so I took the plunge. This is a GREAT camera–the one I’ve been waiting years for. No other camera currently seems to offer quite this level of features/quality in something so small.
* Great quality: 3.2 megapixels, 3x optical zoom.
* Totally automatic, yet loaded with custom control when I want that.
* Rechargeable right out of the box.
* And unlike all previous cameras that match the above… it’s TINY.
Why buy a camera I won’t have with me? I NEED it to be small or it will just sit home. This camera is about 3/4″ thick, and a bit smaller than a business card! And aluminum, a nice match for my future PowerBook. Picture here.
Other tiny cameras make sacrifices–this one does not. It doesn’t even cost much different ($399 street) from similarly-featured cameras that are much bulkier. Supposedly the innovative compact “sliding lens” can result in some side-effects pros would notice–maybe a little reduced focus along the edges. I’m no pro, but I haven’t seen that–detail is razor-sharp at 2048×1536 pixels, even zoomed large. Quality is FAR superior to my old 35mm film camera. Some reviews call it prosumer–seems fair to me. Complaints that the 4-way controller is small are true–but you get used to it. The screen is the same 1.6″ found on larger cameras. The rechargeable battery is proprietary and obviously small, and some recommend getting a second one (about $30). I haven’t had that problem, but on a trip I suppose I might wand a second battery.
My main problem–fear of damaging it! It doesn’t feel fragile, but it is tiny and has all that nice aluminum… plus the LCD screen takes up more of the back than usual, so it’s easy to touch. I need a case!
The manul is needlessly complex, but the menus are actually pretty easy to work with. Feature-wise, this camera is BEYOND loaded. Also very customizeable, from the shutter sound to the startup image to being able to store frequent controls for one-touch access. You can even tell the camera which settings are saved when you power off, and which are restored to your chosen defaults. They thought of everything. My parents have a highly-rated Kodak camera, and it has everything but the kitchen sink. This little camera has even MORE features.
A random handful of the features:
* Output to TV (NTSC and PAL)–for the world’s best viewfinder, or for showing slideshows right off the camera, or just playing with the menus. I think if I name my JPEGs properly, I can even copy ANY image back to the camera and give client presentations out of my pocket!
* 30-second motion clips with audio (mic AND speaker built in) and time-lapse feature. I watched ants building a home at 100x! That’s 50 minutes compressed to 30 seconds. (You can fit many clips, but each clip has the 30-sec limit. QuickTime plays the AVIs just fine–they’re 320×240, 12fps, compressed but still decent.) This is great for recording a little video of a memory, to go with a high-res still. Having even a LOW quality camcorder the size of a business card is fun!
* Voice recorder you can use without having the camera on. Can add voice annotations or ambient sound to photos (WAV).
* Alarm clock with 4 alarms, automatic daylight savings time, and tracking of time for other cities when you travel.
* Cropping, scaling and color-filtering built-in.
* Stereoscopic 3D mode.
* Panaroma mode that actually shows the previous shot semi-transparent so you can line the next one up.
* Animated histogram (a pro thing? looks cool anyway).
* Super-macro shots as close as 2.4″. Very sharp detail!
* Automatic or manual focus, F-stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance, sharpness, contrast… you name it!
* And all the usual camera stuff–multi-thumbnail view, red eye reduction auto-flash, date stamping, battery meter, shots-remaining meter, zoom, self-timer, etc. etc.
But with all that, you really can just turn it on, point, and shoot, letting the camera handle everything automatically.
I got a 256 MB SD Card (TINY!) for $60 from CompUSA after rebate. (The camera comes with 11 internal stoprage). That stores over 2000 nice 640×480 web-quality images, or over 100 maximum-quality, highest-res images.
To make transfers easier, I got a $40 MacAlly cardbus reader for my PowerBook G3. (Yes, SD readers come cheaper, but this is a 4-in-1 that reads other types as well.) No software or drivers needed–I keep the MacAlly reader installed full-time, and just put the SD card in and out like a microscopic floppy drive in the side of my laptop. It’s cool, cable-free, and faster than USB (which also works). I can even back up files onto the card, just like any hard disk.
OS 9 drivers are included with the camera, but OS X support is automatic and so far flawless, with no drivers needed. Plug and go. iPhoto will auto-launch regardless if whether I connect via USB, or simply insert the SD card. Nice. (I did, as someone here suggested, have to connect once via USB before iPhoto would launch from the SD card.)
Pentax officially supports both OS 9 and OS X, and the included CD has “ACDSee” photo software for Windows and X and 9. The X installer beachballed and had to be force quit, but I see there is a newer version of the software available, so there’s probably a fix. Besides–you won’t even want ACDSee–you have iPhoto. The only thing I might use in ACDSee is panorama-stitching, but I have Photoshop and/or QTVR Authoring Suite for that anyway.
What you get:
* Camera, battery, and optional neck strap.
* Charger (holds battery externally, 100 minutes to charge). An AC adpter to charge the batt inside the camera (or run without batt) is available for about $30 or so.
* USB cable and TV/audio cable
* Cheap plastic stereoscope… but it works! Even on the screen without printing. 3D photos really do look 3D, with a little practice.
* CD, book, etc.
Apparently you can get a wireless remote, case, and other accessories too.
I am very happy–I recommend this camera.
I could never give a complete feature list–even the reviews and company site didn’t list every feature I found in the camera–but here’s a massive review with lots of detail, photos and a QTVR:

http://www.steves-digicams.com/2003_reviews/optios.html

Official product page:

http://www.pentaxusa.com/products/cameras/camera_overview.cfm?productID=18263

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