Pentax Optio W90 compact camera review

Looking to take pictures within a volcanic ash cloud, possibly? It's seemingly not enough anymore that a digital camera simply shoots 12.1-megapixel photos and records 1280 x 720-pixel high definition movies to the best of its ability. It has to stretch to Captain Scarlet-like levels of indestructibility too.

A case in point is the Pentax Optio W90 digital camera, long and slim in design so that it resembles a camera phone if turned on its side to enable its user to shoot portrait fashion. With dimensions of a manageable 59 x 107.5 x 25mm, it weighs 161g with accessories.

Not only does the rugged construction protect against dust and drops from 1.2 metres in height, it's also waterproofed to 6 metres and freeze-proof to minus 10 degrees C. In other words, the W90 can take pictures in conditions that make other cameras weep mechanical tears - according to Pentax's own tests that is.

Of course you pay a premium for such specification. The W90 at a suggested £269 costs a cool £140 more than the equally new Optio H90, which offers the same headline spec, including wide-angle 5x optical zoom with a focal range equivalent to a broad 28-140mm in 35mm film terms, but not the same degree of protection.

Having played with the W90 for a couple of weeks, however, the extra spend appears worth it. It offers not just peace-of-mind supplying brawn - complete with screw heads visible on the faceplate and a lens with a folded mechanism that ensures that at no point does it protrude from the camera body - but brains too.

One example is a new Digital Microscope mode that utilises the three LED lights unexpectedly ranged around the lens, set into protective padding that recalls Casio's G-Shock watch range.

These lights help pick up the most minuscule details, claims Pentax, and in using it we were indeed able to make humble gravel on a path resemble marbled boulders. The small becomes epic.

However if shooting in bright conditions anyway, the added lights result in a slight overexposure. The other caveat is that in exchange for a closer look, maximum 12.1-megapixel resolution drops to 2.1 megapixels - as the camera combines its 1cm macro mode with a digital zoom - and the images themselves are presented in widescreen 16:9 ratio, rather than the usual default of 4:3 utilised in the standard shooting modes.

Further clever features include, unexpectedly, a pixel mapping function, which, when activated, checks the camera's sensor and purportedly corrects any defective pixels. We particularly enjoyed the digital wide function found among its mode menu options that stitches together two images in-camera to create a slightly wider image than the lens will allow, plus you also get a proper panorama mode option too. However it proved difficult at times to marry up images correctly when viewing the camera's screen in bright light.

Fortunately if things get too complicated Pentax has included a Green button on the backplate, which is in effect its "easy" mode. Press this when shooting and nearly all functionality is removed, including on-screen icons, so all the user can literally do is point the camera and take a picture. The same button acts as a delete button when operating in playback mode.

Other under-the-bonnet tweaks include Pentax extending its face detection facility to cats and dogs - so that the shutter can be set to fire when either glances at the camera. We were disappointed though that no optical or sensor shift image stabilisation is deployed when shooting in low light or at the extremity of the zoom, just the shutter speed and ISO boosting digital variety. There is the ability to manually select ISO3200 and ISO6400 settings should you desire to attempt pictures in the dim without flash, but the trade off is again a resolution drop - this time to 5 megapixels - at these two top options.

With the lens packed in snugly and safely and at no point protruding from its protective housing, the camera powers up from cold in just over a second, which means that even allowing for the W90 to work out focus and exposure, the user can be taking a shot within 3 seconds of pressing the on/off button. Maximum quality pictures are committed to memory within 2 seconds. Both timings are not bad at all for what's basically a humble point and shoot camera under its additional padding.

The W90 is not only quick and responsive however. With pictures composed and reviewed via 2.7-inch, 230k-dot resolution LCD that takes up most of the space at the back, it proves reliable under a variety of shooting conditions too, captured photos saved to removable SD/SDHC card or modest 26.7MB internal capacity. Like the latest Canon and Casio compacts, the camera further offers compatibility with the more expensive Eye-Fi SD memory cards, offering the possibility of effortless wireless downloading whenever the camera comes within close proximity of your suitably equipped PC or laptop.

Aiding ease of use, an Auto Picture mode is Pentax's take on the Smart Auto modes of Canon and intelligent Auto of Panasonic - whereby the camera compares common scenes or subjects with on-board settings and automatically selects the most appropriate to deliver optimum results. Thus the camera can be used to simply point and shoot; and you don't want to be adjusting settings hurtling down a black run after all. To that end we could have done with a bigger grip on the camera itself than the manufacturer provides - the result being that the rear LCD becomes smeared with finger and thumbprints as you attempt to hold it steady and firm. That said, for extreme sports enthusiasts a chunky karabiner clip is provided in the box for attaching the camera to your person.

For those looking to shoot video as well as stills, Pentax has thoughtfully included HDMI output for direct connectivity to a flat panel telly. Again not bad for the price, although as expected the required lead isn't included in the box, just regular issue USB and AV cables.

A disappointment however is the battery life; just 205 shots from a full charge. So if you are going to be using this in both the wet and the wild, budget for a spare or make sure the charger is packed for foreign travel.

Picture quality, not usually a toughened camera's strongest point, is surprisingly good. Images are crisp, clean and clear with well-saturated, vivid colours even if left on the camera's default factory settings. This ensures results that will flatter without looking unnatural. At 28mm wideangle setting there's little in the way of visible barrel distortion, though at the other end of the zoom (maximum telephoto setting) we did notice softening of the image, though not to a problematic degree.

Verdict

It's only worth paying a £100+ premium for the W90's rough and tumble resistant padding if you're the sort of person who indulges in said rough or indeed tumble. However, even for the less adventurous the W90 is one of the more coolly styled examples of the toughened digicam, and a sight more presentable than Canon's reliable yet ugly PowerShot D10.

The image quality is also rather good, as we found when reviewing its non-protected little brother of sorts, the H90.

At the end of the day though the W90 will allow its user to take pictures in a greater variety of conditions - and at time extreme ones - than a standard digital camera will allow.

As that means more - and possibly more interesting - pictures, many may therefore conclude that the modest additional premium is indeed one worth paying.