Looking for an inexpensive bauble with which to turn heads every time you take a snap? Photography stalwart Pentax is better known for practicality than trend setting, yet recent(ish) pocket snapshots including the Optio I-10 and RS1000 have bucked that expectation with cool retro styling and funky swappable faceplates respectively. Pentax, it appears, is suggesting that yes you can have style on a budget.
The “gimmick” with the new Optio S1 - another inexpensive point-and-shooter at around £120 - is that our review sample sports a fully chrome outer shell with snazzy laser etched logo. It’s mirrored, so that you can see your face in it from just about every angle, making it an ideal aid to self-portraiture. If classy toaster manufacturer Dualit made cameras, they might look a lot like the Pentax Optio S1. Glossy black or aquamarine coloured versions are additionally available.
While the reflective surfaces look fantastic, they also inevitably mean that the S1 quickly becomes smudged with fingerprints, so you’ll be constantly wiping it clean. Width and height of the S1 are roughly similar to that of a business card, with a depth of 20mm, so thisPentax pocket rocket will slot easily into trouser or handbag. It weighs 126g when loaded with supplied rechargeable battery and optional media card - here a choice of SD, SDHC or SDXC. Battery life is rather underpowered however with just 180 shots provided by a full charge of the tiny rechargeable D-L178 lithium ion cell.
Still, give the top plate power button a press and the S1 is fast to respond, its lens shooting outwards from the body and rear LCD blinking into life with a happy “chirp”. You’re ready for the first shot (or 1280 x 720 HD video) in around 2 seconds, which isn’t bad.
Headline features are an equally respectable 14-megapixel resolution from a 1/2.3-inch CCD wedded to a 5x optical zoom starting out at a wide angle 28mm in 35mm film terms and winding up at 140mm, retracted within the body when not in use. Pictures and HD video at 30 frames per second (which gets its own record button at the back), backed up by sensor shift image stabilisation, are composed with the assistance of a regular 4:3 aspect ratio 2.7-inch back screen, which, although being almost small by current standards boasts the standard 230k-dot resolution.
Being an auto everything snapshot model, also featuring is a heavy degree of hand holding in the shape of face recognition, smile capture (shutter fires when a grin is detected), blink detection plus 22 scene modes with the usual bias toward portraits and landscapes. Give the shutter release a squeeze and with contrast detection AF deployed, there’s a brief wait whilst focus visibly adjusts and the AF point appears highlighted in green. Take the shot and a full resolution image is committed to card or small internal memory in around 2 seconds - which again isn’t bad for the entry-level price tag here.
Also found among the modes (a feature of the four-way command pad rather than being presented as a separate dial or button) are the default Auto Picture mode, which reportedly “recognises” up to 14 common scenes and subjects, plus regular Program Auto. We say “reportedly” because in our experience the Pentax’s default Auto Picture mode was a little more hit and miss than competing smart auto modes. The S1 was easily confused by busier scenes into opting for, to take one example, a close up setting when landscape would have been more befitting. The result: an entirely blurred frame. OK, so you can simply recompose the frame and try again, but the original “moment” will have been missed.
Including a top light sensitivity setting of ISO 6400 also seems to have been a little ambitious here. Images taken above ISO 1600 are just awful in appearance. To get the negatives out of the way in one go, it was also a let down that the 5x optical zoom could not be accessed in video mode. Instead we get a digital alternative that visibly and progressively crops in as you nudge the zoom lever; sophisticated it ain’t. Also, there’s a wait of a second or two between pressing the video record button and recording actually commencing - again, you can easily lose the moment.
Easing some of the hurt the S1 features a couple of fun digital effects modes in the now ubiquitous miniature and HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode - the former reducing the proportion of the image in focus to a narrow band (unusually, you can specify middle, bottom or top of frame), while the latter produces a weirdly coloured sketch-like effect verging on the “so bad it’s good”. As a default the colours are rather overly saturated - and though we did in fairness manage a handful of “keepers”, this was only by taking a lot of shots which we then whittled down.
There’s not much to the Pentax Optio S1; it’s your average, easy to use “auto everything” £100 pocket snapper disguised as the chrome domed Silver Surfer. Ironically, this flash exterior led us to unwisely hope for a much better performance when it came to still images and video than the S1 delivered, so the overall disappointment was that much greater. No doubt street prices will be cheaper still, which means that the S1 may be better viewed as a camera with gifting potential, or one for the kids to muck about with. Full marks for the design, performance must try harder.