With around 20 DSLR cameras currently on the market, trying to work your way through the minefield of which one is best for you is hard. Harder still when the pace of technology is moving so fast that some of the lower end models now have better specs than those on the next tier up.

In steps the Pentax K-7, a camera that is pitched at the "mid range" bracket, but what does that mean? We've being playing with the new camera to find out.

Pitched against the D300 from Nikon and the 50D from Canon, the new camera is solid in its build, sports a weatherproof casing and is light. It is lighter than the D300 by around 175 grams and the 50D by 72 grams. That lightness helps, but it doesn't make you think you've got something cheap. Compared to the lower end D5000 and 500D from Nikon and Canon respectively its some 200 grams heavier.

The camera design is straightforward with plenty, and we mean plenty, of buttons to give you shortcuts to change the settings without having to plough through a series of menus.

The back is dominated by a large 3-inch screen, the same as the D300 and 50D, and while it performs well in dull weather conditions, out in the sun it becomes pretty useless. Luckily the optical viewfinder is exceptionally good giving you near 100% coverage compared to the 50D, D5000 and 500D's 95%. The viewfinder offers you all the usual array of information including a digital spirit level, which we will come back to later in the review.

Back to those buttons and, as we've said there are plenty. The top of the camera to the right offers you the on/off button, a jog wheel, exposure, ISO, colour correction controls, and a largish LCD screen so you don't have to reply on the 3-inch LCD on the back. To the left of the lens you get the mode selection wheel, which comes with a locking mechanism so you don't change mode by accident - a nice touch. In addition to that there is a metering dial giving you spot metering, centre-weighted average and pattern metering setting at the flick of a switch.

On the front there is of course a flash button, a RAW button that lets you flip in to RAW mode just like that and a focus option AF.S, C and M that is independent of the lens.

On the back next to that screen, you get yet another jog wheel, AE-L button, more AF options, a dedicated Live View button, timer, white balance, colour correction and flash buttons, an info button for good measure and a menu button for any request that hasn't been answered.

The interesting thing however is that all those buttons don't make for that confusing a layout. All are well "signposted" and apart from a slightly short handgrip the camera felt comfortable in the hand.

Get past the buttons and you'll get an SD card slot rather than CompactFlash, remote socket, PC in slot, HDMI so you can connect it directly to your HD-Ready TV and importantly for the movie functionality, a mic in slot so you can use a wireless mic or at least mount one on the hotshoe.

Start to use the camera and the offerings are impressive with the camera coming with a number of distinctive features. The K-7 offers image stabilisation within the camera, something offered by Olympus, Samsung and Sony. A -5 to +5 exposure setting comparable to the D300 and D5000 but offering greater range than the 50D, 500D and 5D Mark II.

Then there is the movie mode. Supporting video recording up to 720p at 30 frames per second the offering means that it beats the D300 and 50D and equals the D5000 and 500D. Theoretically the 500D offers a better video resolution of 1080p, but only at 20 frames per second it can be a bit sluggish when doing fast pans.

In use and the video performance of the K-7 is very good, 720p is still good enough for most HD playback on your television (it is what Sky and the BBC use for their HD content). Turn the camera to video mode, press the shutter button and away you go. Like other DSLRs on the market you won't get autofocus so you've got to do all the focus pulling yourself as you move the camera around, but at least you get the mic-in socket so you get decent sound unlike the D5000 and 500D.

Of course there are areas where performance, from a spec sheet point of view aren't as good. The Pentax K-7 offers 14.6 megapixels compared to the 15.1 from the 50D and the 500D, the ISO settings aren't as high either although to some getting into the realms of over 6400 isn't worth the effort.

Get past all the tech specs and the software offers plenty as well. Perhaps inspired by Ricoh, the Pentax K-7 features a digital spirit level that will let you know whether your camera is level. It's displayed everywhere, on the LCD screen at the back (optional), on the LCD display on the right shoulder and even within the viewfinder. It's a simple system, basically a series of dots that appear on the side that the camera is tipped towards.

Elsewhere the camera supports a number of in-camera editing features, something we've seen recently from Olympus. Once you've taken your picture you get to rotate it if needed, resize it, crop it, play it amongst a slideshow, adjust the White Balance, convert your RAW images, create an index print page to compare images side by side, protect an image so you can't accidentally delete it as well as set up print instructions if you are connecting straight to a printer.

Finally you can also apply a number of digital filters ranging from toy camera to watercolour, all without touching a PC or Mac. The camera also offers an HDR mode that when selected will automatically take a three pictures at different exposures and then merge the image in-camera so you don't have to post-shoot.

With so many options available you would think that all this would be rather confusing to navigate, however for the most part its all very straight forward with most of the features being able to be turned on and off at the press of a button and the tick of a box.

So all that chat about specs and features, what about performance? Well in our test shots taken over a couple of days the results were very impressive. Colours are vivid, sharpness stunning, and overall even though this isn't the final firmware, the performance looks set to be very good.

First Impressions

It's fair to say that the camera is feature-packed. When we first saw the initial release, we compared it to the 500D and the D5000, as the video element threw us a little, now we've had a good chunk of time to play with the Pentax K-7 and talk to the chaps at Pentax in the UK, it's is fair to say that this DSLR is gunning for higher ground - i.e., the D300 and 50D.

The feature set is very impressive. The weatherproof body will certainly appeal to the more rugged photographer, while the movie mode, image stabilisation, Live view with Face Detection and 100% image viewfinder is well received too.

As we've already said although the unit we tested wasn't the final firmware, Pentax aren't sure what updates it will get when it does come around the 15 June, we were impressed by the quality of the image so far.

So the final verdict? Well we will have to wait and see when a full production sample comes our way, but from our time with it over the last 3 days, compared to the D300 and the 50D, we would have to say you get a more feature-packed camera, something that took us a little by surprise.