Pentax SVI digital camera review

4 out of 5
£200

For

Size, weight, build quality, range of functions and features

Against

Slow autofocus, under-powered flash

I feel dirty: like I need a shower. You see, I’ve been unfaithful. Worse than that, I’ve enjoyed myself too. Let me explain: I’m a Canon man. Every camera I’ve ever owned has been a Canon (apart from a brief and misguided dalliance with a sexy little number from Olympus). So I was ready to pour scorn on this shiny little upstart from Pentax when it landed on my desk. But there was something about it from the start...

The camera itself is small - not the smallest on the market by any stretch, but unless you’ve got fingers like a hobbit that’s no bad thing. In fact, this aluminium-bodied little minx strikes a good balance between weighty substance, compact portability and ease of handling.

If, like me, the first thing you do with any digital camera is to turn off the digital zoom, then, like me, you’ll be intrigued to hear that the SVi has a 5x optical zoom. This it an equivalent to 35mm range of 36-180mm - and 2x more than enough for your average snapper.

In testing, the lens delivers good results at both ends of its focal length. Combine this (at your peril) with the 4x digital zoom and you’re almost in paparazzi territory.

The SVi’s versatility doesn’t stop there; the range of functions on offer was something I only expected to see in far more sophisticated outfits. On top of the usual white balance, sensitivity (Pentax-speak for film speed), file size and quality settings, here you have the option to bracket your shots. This choice isn’t restricted to just the overall exposure. Contrast, saturation, hue and white balance are all bracketable. So if you’re not sure about your setup you can review three shots of the same composition and choose the final image you prefer. It can take a while to figure out all the variables, but the results add total flexibility in all shooting conditions.

Another neat little feature was the digital filters. These are preset effects that you can add to an image after capture. So if you think something might look better in sepia, just add the filter. Other cameras let you take sepia pictures, but the Pentax idea means you don’t have to commit your chosen composition to just one effect.

But now to the acid test, so to speak: does it take good pictures?

The autofocus is just a little bit too slow for my liking. I found with moving subjects that the delay between composition and focus acquisition just too long, very often resulting in off-centre images. This I know is a problem with many digital compacts, but it still irks. Shutter lag however wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated.

Something that always takes a little getting used to for the novice digital photographer is camera shake. When using a screen to compose your pictures, as you would nearly always do with this Pentax, most snappers will hold the camera at arms’ length. Without the body to brace your arms against, as with a traditional shooting position, you’ll find your hand wobbling a bit and the resulting blurred images a disappointment. This is a problem I found gets worse as the camera’s size decreases, but with a little practice you can steady yourself and soon be producing pin-sharp photos.

With 5.2 megapixels to call upon, the actual quality of the captured images wasn’t a problem - although these days I think anything below this mark is starting to look a little outmoded. Also, I would advise keeping the settings set to maximum at all times. With high-capacity SD cards readily and affordably available, it seems silly to sacrifice image quality simply for disk space. If you don’t agree, let’s face it: file sizes are easily adjusted within most photo-editing software packages.

Talking of software, I felt that the suite that came in the box was probably best left there. The image preview in the ACDSee suite was awful and to be honest, if you buy a card reader you might as well bypass the whole thing and let your operating system import the pictures. As for the editing software, it was just too basic. With so many others to choose from (many available for free), I think it’s an area Pentax need to look at.

Back to the camera itself: on the full auto settings, which I’m sure a lot of users will spend much of their time using, the resulting images tended to have a slightly cool appearance (a blueish colour cast was very noticeable). This means almost immediately you’re into territory where changing the settings becomes obligatory. With a custom white balance function and the usual selection of preset colour temperatures correcting the problem was easy. Thankfully, the SVi also has a lovely little feature tucked away in its menus that allows all your settings to be kept whenever you turn the camera off.

So with colour corrected, what of the overall exposure? In optimum conditions, it performed very well and with three different auto-exposure settings (whole frame, centre-weighted and spot) it proved flexible in more challenging environments. The built-in flash was adequate at short range but struggled with subjects further afield, but this wasn’t too much of a surprise in such a compact unit.

One area where this little camera excels is in its variety of shooting modes. With the camera set to manual, you can choose aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual. This is where you can let your creativity run riot with long slow exposures or lightning quick shutters speeds.

However, like many manufacturers, Pentax have tried to make creativity easy with preset modes that you can select depending on what you want to do: Night Mode; Landscape Mode; Macro and Super Macro settings (the last of these allowing focusing at as little as 3cm). These modes I found easy to use and produced results that although nothing special were perfectly acceptable. A notable exception was the sports setting which with the slow autofocus I just found frustrating.

Viewing your stored images is straightforward and you can add a commentary to your masterpieces at the touch of a button. Scrolling through the images was a little sluggish but this is true of most compact cameras I’ve seen.

There’s the usual movie capture mode, which is fine for short, fun clips, but obviously is no match for a camcorder, but that’s not why anybody would really buy this camera.

For the money (£200ish) this little box of tricks is a very good buy - especially for somebody new to digital photography. All my grumbles come from having been spoilt by handling more sophisticated (and grossly more expensive) hardware.

Verdict

So for me, the Pentax SVI was a fun little fling - a dirty weekend perhaps? For many people, this could be the only digital camera they would need to buy. It packs into a very small frame, all the features and functions that digital photography can offer and it looks good too.