Pentax K-01 review

3 out of 5
£679

For

Great image quality, compatible with existing K-mount lenses

Against

Noisy autofocus that can be slow and is poor at longer focal lengths, no viewfinder possibility, boxy design, lack of prominent grip inconsistent with K-mount concept, too expensive, confused concept

The Pentax K-01 first fell into Pocket-Lint’s hands back in February this year, where we were left more than a little perplexed about what this mirrorless camera was all about.

Acclaimed designer Marc Newson is at the helm of this latest design, though the result has set the internet alight with all manner of both love and hate. So who is the camera aimed at, is it a design success, and -preconceptions aside - how does it feel and function as a modern-day camera?

Ditch the viewfinder: Mirrorless DSL, anyone?

Imagine a DSLR without a viewfinder. That’s what the K-01 is. It’s not compact enough to be considered a "compact system camera", and as it chops the mirrorbox out of a DSLR design, it’s not one of those either. However the K-01 does use the K-mount as per Pentax DSLR cameras, so it’s more a mirrorless hybrid all of its own making.

On the one hand - at least on paper - the use of this lens mount is great for those with existing Pentax lenses, while on the other it introduces obvious design constraints: The 45.6mm flange-focal distance (the measure from the rear of the lens to the sensor) is more than double the 19.25mm of the Micro Four Thirds standard. We don’t want to get too bogged down in numbers, but this stuff is important. For the lens to focus this distance is crucial, but also impacts the body size – meaning there was never any possibility of the K-01 being any less than at least 5cm in width. That may not sound huge, but sit it side by side with a competitor camera or even a DSLR and the size difference (or lack of it) is immediately obvious. This is a big old beast.

Without the mirrorbox it’s also not possible to use phase-detection autofocus, instead the sensor-based, and slower, contrast-detection system is employed. Hence is calling it “weird” in our initial preview: the K-01 is a mirrorless camera with none of the benefits of a compact system camera. It’s almost the same size as a DSLR but less capable. Is Marc Newson’s design really enough to elevate it to a level unseen by other cameras?

Marc Newson design

Marc Newson’s dealings with Pentax extend only to the camera’s exterior design. He’s not the man who decided to use the K-mount, nor is he the man to blame for the lack of a viewfinder - or connection port for an optional one.

The design he’s come up with, given the confines of the brief, is a simplistic yet considered look. It’s bold and bright, particularly in its yellow finish. But, in saying that, it’s not a look we’re fond of. It’s too boxy, the over-sized mode dial and spaced-apart buttons look like something from a different era, and not in the cool, kitsch way other manufacturers such as Olympus are pulling off with success – just take a look at the OM-D E-M5 to see how it should be done.

Hats off to Pentax for going down a different avenue and selecting a prolific designer though. Breaking with convention is the way to make great products, but something doesn’t gel here. The K-01 looks like a head-on collision between Pentax execs and the famed Aussie designer. We just can’t see existing Pentax users - the ones most likely querying, "Why all this R&D spend," and,"Where’s our full-frame DSLR?" - being enthralled by the design in terms of both its exterior or overall concept.

Where’s a significant grip to provide an ample hold when attaching larger lenses? Where are the additional function buttons to make it a true photographers’ camera? Why the flimsy and fussy rubber-like flap to the side of the camera?

However, buttons and dials fall naturally to the hand in use and menus are easy to navigate. There’s nothing difficult about using this camera which does make it feel part and parcel of the Pentax family.

New kit lens: 40mm f/2.8 XS

As well as the new camera, Pentax has also released a 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens. As the "XS" moniker in the name would suggest ,this is an extra small lens - in fact it’s the world’s thinnest, bar none. Great though that achievement may be, it’s positively dwarfed by the chunky body.

But the size becomes irrelevant when putting the lens to use. Oh, the autofocus motor is ever so noisy. And it’s not just restricted to the new lens - pop other glass on the front, such as the 18-55mm included in our review kit, and the whirring sound is far louder than many other cameras we’ve tested in recent years. Disappointing.

Performance

The fact the K-01 uses a contrast-detect autofocus system isn’t an immediate cause for concern. Just look at the super-fast focusing of the aforementioned Olympus OM-D E-M5 and there’s proof that the K-01’s screen-based only preview system can work well. But alas, again, this isn’t the case and Pentax has shot itself in the foot here. Although wide-angle settings aren’t a problem and the camera will slip into focus in good time, it’s still just not as quick as many of its near competitors. But it’s at longer focal lengths or when there’s a little less light that the camera can make a meal out of autofocus - often extending through the entire focal range before settling on a focus point.

Face detection, spot, single point selection and tracking are the four focus modes. Unlike a DSLR there’s no multi-area mode spread over a wide area. Focus points/areas don’t show on the screen in advance either. And as the focus system isn’t particularly fast, the modes that require continual updates (ie, continuous autofocus) in order to track subjects will often falter. It’s not a great result, particularly when considering the likes of the Panasonic GF5, Nikon J1 and Samsung NX200, or, indeed, the far superior system of the not-much-bigger Pentax K-5 DSLR.

Burst mode can snap five frames in a second if shooting JPEG only, but is slower if shooting Raw.

Movie mode is decent, offering good 1080p quality using H.264 compression at 24, 25 or 30fps (frames per second). There’s even a 3.5mm microphone jack for use with an external microphone to record stereo sound. Autofocus is possible during recording, and the Program, Aperture Priority and Manual exposure options add to the controls at your fingertips. It’s a good spread of options.

Image Quality

Where the K-01 really can shine is with its image quality. Taking the picture you want may be a little tricky in the first instance on account of the LCD-only and so-so autofocus system, but the likes of still lives, portraits and other stationary or slow-moving shots will sparkle with the right lens combination.

The sensor is the same 16-megapixel offering as found in the Pentax K-5, or neighbouring Sony NEX-5N model. It’s a cracking sensor that delivers decent amounts of detail and low noise.

The K-01 can shoot from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 25,600. All bar the top three sensitivities provide competition-beating results, meaning shooting from ISO 100-3200 will yield excellent results. Pentax also offers some staggering lenses that can be popped on to the front of the camera - we’ve no doubt that the limited-edition wide-aperture primes will produce great results, if you can find any to buy. Raw files can be captured in the DNG format - Adobe’s universal format - for immediate use in editing software. The files hold that extra bit of detail and offer bags more room to process than the JPEG equivalents.

And it doesn’t stop there. Within the camera’s menus are detailed settings to adjust JPEG sharpness, contrast, saturation, hue and high/low key points. Bleach bypass, sepia, black & white and other useful in-camera settings also feature, as does a HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode on the main mode dial itself.

HDR, used to expose for shadow and highlight in a single frame, can be shot in JPEG only and will require a tripod for modes 1-3, but can be used handheld in good light if selecting the "Auto" mode. The results are subtle rather than some of the over-worked HDR that’s all too common.

Verdict

Oh, Pentax. From the outset the K-01 looked like an oddity and, sadly, our “weird” view remains unchanged. Super-designer or not, the K-01 is boxy, big and has less - not more - than the competition to offer prospective buyers. It’s sandwiched somewhere between smaller compact system cameras and more advanced DSLR systems, albeit without the key benefits of either type.

Autofocus isn’t up to scratch in terms of speed or ability, plus it’s far too loud in use. The teeny grip won’t be deep enough for use with more serious lenses either - which seems a total mismatch to the K-mount’s presence.

Image quality is great though, and by far the camera’s strong point. Yet for just a little more cash - and the £679 outlay that the K-01 demands is already pricey - the far superior K-5 would make a much keener purchase.

Pentax’s website proclaims that the K-01 is "the first K-mount mirror less camera". We can only hope it’s the last too.