Pentax Optio H90 compact camera review

Pentax's Optio H90 combines minimalist "functional beauty" with a 12.1-megapixel sensor, 5x wide-zoom lens, HD Movies and advanced auto tracking AF and a Face AF system able to "see" up to 32 faces.

The H90 we tested was the white and silver liveried model, with a black back panel adding neat contrast to the smart ensemble, the slender lines and urbane character of the camera making it attractive indeed. The body has an aluminium alloy upper front section into which are embedded two, flush-fitting top plate buttons.

These are the on/off and shutter buttons; while the white and silver face is punctuated by contrasting matte black lens surround and black lens barrel, making a neat-looking counterpoint to the pristine white. A small self timer lamp and a tiny flash unit, a flash that's really only good as a fill-in given its 0.15m to 2.4m range using ISO Auto mode, are the only other items to sully the otherwise clean face of the H90.

The back is dominated by the camera's 2.7-inch screen that's actually rather good to use which is handy given the fact the camera lacks an optical viewfinder, however the viewing angle, while decent, is still not as wide as we'd like. Controls include a small lens zoom rocker switch which can move the 28 to 140mm 5x optical zoom from wide to tele end very quickly, in around a second.

Playback, Face AF, Menu and Green mode buttons surround a central four-way jog button and its central OK button. The Green button can be set to control a range of options (one at a time) such as white balance or sensitivity, to quickly get at oft-used modes, but it's limited and other controls are left deeper within menus, which is not as user friendly as it could be.

The four-way jog buttons provide fast access to 2- and 10-second self-timer functions, flash settings, macro and super macro shooting and a Mode position. This last option opens up an icon driven menu of shooting options including a range of scene modes, such as portrait and landscape as well as neat digital wide and digital panorama settings that help stitch multiple images together to create very wide or panoramic pictures.

However, the image overlay system used to help align such pictures and that the camera will stitch together for you, is rather indistinct and we found a real challenge to get right. The latest Sweep Panorama modes on cameras such as Sony's TX7, where you simply scan a scene to build a panorama, are a real step forward when you have to drop back to this method of panoramic image creation.

To help keep the camera simple to use, another shooting feature is the Auto picture mode. Here the camera picks what it "thinks" is the best camera setting for the scene you're trying to shoot, be it a close up of a flower or a portrait. And it gets the settings right most of the time and as the far as the camera "sees" them, defaulting to a general point and shoot setting if it cannot make up its "mind".

Blink and Smile detection-focusing join a comprehensive and responsive AF set-up and work very well together; smile detection being almost too sensitive, as it'll take a snap for you as soon as a face changes from moody to very slightly smiley! Blink detection is great - it'll warn you if a shot is taken and someone has their eyes closed - allowing you to re-shoot if you want.

The camera has a 1280 x 720-pixel HD movie mode coupled to Movie SR (Shake Reduction), this digital stabilisation system is also used in still shooting, called Pixel Track SR and it compensates for shake during still shooting at longer focal lengths or in lower lighting. However, the lack of optical image stabilisation is disappointing as this digital shake reduction system combines higher sensitivities with image processing that's not always as effective as optical image stabilisation and means images can be loaded with unwanted noise.

There are, however, a couple of extra neat titbits of kit included in the H90. The first is built-in movie editing (in playback) to help trim and build your HD movie before playing it on an HD TV or before transferring to PC for burning or sharing. Talking of transferring, the camera is compatible with Eye-Fi memory cards so you can shoot and stream images using your home wireless network as you go, which is both very clever and neat to use if you have that set-up.

Still image editing includes digital filters that can be used to crop, remove red-eye and apply special effects such as colour enhancements and coloured filter effects which all makes the camera very versatile and given the relatively modest price tag, a pleasing set of features.

The first thing to say about image quality is that it's very good indeed, particularly at lower sensitivities, up to ISO 400. Above this setting noise becomes more noticeable but not dramatically so, ISO 800 noise is noticeable but acceptable. At ISO 1600 and above, the noise becomes intrusive but we have to say, it's not at a level to make you wince, so Pentax have done well here in our view. Granular but retaining detail, it's not until you get to ISO 6400 that things become unacceptable, but even here Pentax's image processing has managed to hold onto a modicum of detail.

Colour and white balance are both very good and provide perfectly acceptable results; auto white balance has good control but can leave a slight orange tint in artificial lighting or a bluish tinge in overcast daylight conditions, which is a shame.

Recorded detail is superb (with the caveat on higher sensitivities, as above) and particularity so in macro shooting modes, at low ISOs. Focusing is impressively fast and like the rest of the camera's performance, its overall responsiveness is pleasing. Face, Tracking and Smile AF systems all work well and quickly, tracking AF is particularity neat and help keep faces of moving subjects sharp once you've locked onto them.

Verdict

In the Optio H90, neat design meets functionality and usability at a great price. In short, the package as a whole works really well (and you could pay a lot more for these features from another maker) and is great value too, and although there are a few minor niggles, the H90 is well worth considering if you're after an easy to use, stylish and neatly designed compact. It really is more than the sum of its parts - and the sum of money you'd need to outlay in order to buy one.