Pentax’s plain yet not unattractive Optio M900 pocket compact has an asking price of a mere £100 - so it can’t be all that much cop, can it? Our thoughts exactly - and yet the camera surprised us, up to a point, from the minute we eased it from its box and clasped it in our palm, its black or burgundy body barely wider and no longer than the average phone handset.
With lightweight yet sturdy aluminium skeleton wrapped in a tactile thin rubber “skin” that echoes Panasonic’s much higher end but similarly enshrouded Micro Four Thirds G-series hybrids, official measurements are 58.5 x 98.9 x 22.9mm. The M900 weighs a trouser pocket friendly 116g without SD/SDHC media card or slender rechargeable lithium ion cell, both sharing a compartment at its base.
The small dimensions mean that there’s no handgrip of any description, so that rubber padding is helpful in preventing finger slip.
For those looking for obvious rivals this Pentax is a near doppelganger for Nikon’s very similarly specified Coolpix S5100, £50 more, whilst Samsung’s similarly priced ST70 is another good value competitor. So how does the Pentax shape up in comparison?
Well its headline features include a 12.1 megapixel resolution, up to ISO 1600 light sensitivity, 2.7-inch, 230k-dot resolution rear LCD for framing and reviewing shots, 5x optical zoom that offers a wide angle 28mm lens, and 20 scene modes. These include a quite effective auto panorama feature that does the old school thing of stitching three shots together, but here the overlaps are rather easier to marry up at the shooting stage than usual thanks to on-screen direction arrows indicating both horizontal and vertical axis. Face detection, smile and blink detection are also on board, as is subject tracking, so in that respect Pentax has the basics covered.
In fact the first snag that we encounter with the M900 is that we don’t get offered much more than these basics. A case in point is that here video recording is a modest 640 x 480 pixels (albeit at 30fps), and, as the mechanics of the lens adjusting recall the noise of someone clearing their throat, the optical zoom cannot be deployed when shooting video. The lens freezes at the point recording commences.
Such a limitation is certainly not unheard of and also blights more expensive models, so to an extent can be overlooked because of the M900’s budget cost. As can the fact that no hard copy manual is provided, just a fold out quick start guide, with the actual information anyone might want hidden away on the software CD.
More positively, with a press of the top mounted power button the M900 powers up in just over a second, lens extending from storage within the body to maximum wide angle setting and rear LCD blinking into existence. It’s not without some style overall, its large rectangular shutter release button and smaller on/off control set into a tapering chrome strip, which continues down each side.
There’s no familiar bottle top style mode wheel here however nor even a button marked likewise at the back. But there is one indicated with “scene”, a press of which locates 20 cartoon icon-led options including auto and program shooting modes plus pre-optimised settings for common subjects - in general biased toward portraiture and landscape snaps. It’s here we find the aforementioned panorama mode amidst the sport, sunset, kids and pets modes. There’s also a backlight option - useful for shooting into the sun and avoiding silhouetting in the process. Face detection, smile and blink detection are also on board but colour adjustment options are few - there’s just a choice of vivid colour, sepia or black and white.
For low light photography, the ISO range extends a modest ISO 80 to ISO 1600 but there isn’t the usual comprehensive array of image stabilisation settings. Seemingly in response to this fact, the M900’s built in flash is rather too keen to fire, even if just shooting outdoors under a cloudy sky.
Unfortunately it’s when it comes to its imaging performance that the M900 more noticeably lets itself down and its inherent modesty cannot be cloaked any longer. Whilst its ability to commit full resolution JPEGs to memory in 2 seconds is respectable enough, its auto performance is variable. White balance seems distinctly off, with daylight shots occasionally taking on a purplish hue, the metering biasing whichever colour is more dominant in the shot and washing the rest of the image with it. In less than ideal conditions - read bright sunny skies - the camera struggles to maintain its dignity, camera shake a problem in the absence of a proper grip or effective image stabilisation system. Purple fringing is also very visible between areas of high contrast. In this respect the Pentax feels like a throwback to the performance of digital cameras almost a decade ago.
A tad harsh perhaps, and we won’t say that properly exposed, detailed images aren’t achievable, just that you have to work to get there. From a point and shoot camera the goal is surely to arrive at decent shots with the minimum of fuss, and having to take two or three pictures to get one usable image, and then dip into Photoshop to carry out cursory corrections, is less than ideal. The problem here is inconsistency, and that’s frustrating whatever the price.
Okay, so the cost does chime with our apparent age of austerity, but the feature set and performance of the M900 unfortunately lean toward the poor too. We’ve been surprised in the past by Pentax cameras bettering expectation and offering great value for money, but in the case of the M900 it appears that underneath its rubber exterior it's a case of us getting what we’ve paid for.
Our advice would be to spend a little more, either on Pentax’s own Optio RZ10 that offers the creative flexibility of a 10x optical zoom within compact proportions and better features and performance to boot, or the two rivals mentioned at the outset of this review.