Pentax MX-1 review

4.5 out of 5
£399

For

Great battery life, wide aperture lens throughout zoom, built-in ND filter, responsive in use, decent macro mode, good image quality, solid build quality

Against

Chunky build, no manual lens ring, no hotshoe for viewfinder, images can look washed out and have off-colour white balance, would like wider-angle lens than the 28mm equivalent, tracking mode none too good

The Pentax MX-1 is a camera with historical grounding. This digital reimagining of the film-based MX-series isn't an interchangeable lens camera like the original DSLR, instead it's a smaller-scale, 1/1.7-inch sensor compact camera with a built-in 28-112mm f/1.8-2.5 equivalent lens.

It may seem a little strange to use the MX name for a camera that is a wholly different beast, but that's no reason to shun the MX-1. This burly compact has a lot going for it in terms of features - largely thanks to that wide-aperture lens - even if its boxy build and scale make it considerably larger than competitors such as the Panasonic Lumix LX7.

READ: Panasonic Lumix LX7 review

How well does the Pentax MX-1 hold up against its well-established, high-end compact competitors and is this retro-shaped chunk of camera worth its £399 asking price?

Bold as brass

First impressions make for a lasting impact. Upon first sight the MX-1 looked too large when we first saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show 2013, but using the camera for an extended period of time has confirmed that it's just fine in practice. It's larger than its nearest competitors, but by and large that's on account of a tilt-angle LCD screen to the rear and sturdy build quality.

When it's in the hand the MX-1's controls nestle well to the fingers and that's the important thing. As well as full manual controls available via the top mode dial, there's a separate exposure compensation dial also set to the side of the shutter and zoom toggle to control the lens. On the rear there's a DSLR-style thumbwheel, four-way d-pad and other quick-use buttons that are raised from the body and firm in their response.

The top of the MX-1 is made from a brass panel that's got the build quality box ticked, and while it's a weighty camera to handle, we don't see that as a downside at all - the heft is more an assurance than a hindrance. As the brass wears over time it will reveal its true golden colour as the black coat of paint gets knocked and bumped - not that we've scratched our way into this review sample to see exactly how that looks, but there's some very subtle golden presence on the harder-edged corners.

The MX-1's lens is a bright aperture offering - able to deliver a maximum f/1.8 at the 28mm equivalent and even holding up to f/2.5 at the 112mm equivalent. Now while that's great for blurred-background shots and for keeping lower ISO sensitivities selected in dimmer lighting conditions we'd still have liked a slightly wider-angle lens and while the 4x optical zoom isn't particularly long it's a much like those found in the MX-1's competitor compadres.

There may be no viewfinder or provision to add one - a real shame - but the rear 3-inch, 920k-dot, tilt-angle LCD screen can be adjusted from its flat position through 45-degrees downwards and 90-degrees upwards. Bright sunlight does make it hard to see what's going on - and the MX-1 has seen the sunny shores of Spain and even a smattering of light in the hills of Kent - as is typical of any LCD compact.

The front of the camera doesn't have a manual lens control ring as per the Olympus XZ-10 or other competitor cameras, which feels like a slight lack too. Add this and a hotshoe and we'd have few qualms about the MX-1's otherwise full feature set.

READ: Olympus XZ-10 hands-on

No nonsense

We've been using the MX-1 for a number of weeks now and the one thing that has really stood out is the camera's battery life. It goes on and on and then keeps going some more - we can't remember the last time we used a compact camera that lasted as long per charge as the MX-1. It'll even outlast many compact system cameras. That's something not to be overlooked as there's nothing more annoying than the battery dying on you in the middle of the day.

Pentax MX-1 sample image at ISO 100 - click for full size raw sample

The camera performs well in use, even if more luxury features such as a touchscreen or optical image stabilisation are absent. The lens moves smoothly through its range, but the sensor-based stabilisation system can't be felt in preview - and that can really be seen at the longer end of the zoom.

Autofocus is swift and comes in a variety of area options: a wide auto, tracking, single centre point and a select option which opens up a 25-point grid from whicto select the focus position. Of them all tracking is best ignored as we found it really slow to respond, but the other options are quick to operate in a variety of conditions. Close-up macro focus is possible just 1cm from the lens at the wide-angle setting too.

There are other gems tucked away in the familiar - but old-feeling - Pentax menu system: electronic levels can be displayed on screen for vertical and horizontal alignment assistance, there's an electronic shutter capable of 1/8000th sec speeds (1/2000th with the traditional mechanical shutter), while a built-in ND (neutral density) filter makes those wide-aperture settings all the more available to use in bright sunlight. This is all good stuff.

It may not have the all-singing, all-dancing modern features such as Wi-Fi, but the MX-1 focuses on its core performance. It's a big wedge, but its performance is equally stable - there's little fuss to be made.

High IQ

There's been a saturation in image quality of late. Manufacturers seem to be going down the path of throwing megapixels at sensors like nobody's business, but Pentax has always erred on the side of caution and, as a result, benefitted from decent image quality. In its DSLR cameras Pentax is known for producing some of the best results out there. How does the MX-1's 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch back-lit CMOS sensor hold up?

READ: Pentax K-30 review

In general we're impressed with what the MX-1 can output. For our money it betters the likes of the Panasonic LX7 when it comes to the higher ISO settings, while that lens delivers a crisp central sharpness. Less can be said about the edges of the frame which are a little soft, there's some slight purple fringing to be seen too, and the amount of distortion correction in JPEG shots goes to show how distorted the wide-angle settings can be. But otherwise it's a pretty good show.

Pentax MX-1 sample image at ISO 100 - click for full size raw sample

If anything it's the colour palette that lets the MX-1 down. We found that shots could look a little "washed out" and off colour in a variety of situations, or that colour saturation was to excess under artificial light. The camera can capture universal DNG raw files, however, so there's some space for adjustment - even if, in reality, there's less wiggle room from the shots than there might be from a DSLR, for example.

Pentax MX-1 sample image at ISO 1600 - click for full size JPEG sample

But we did find the MX-1 to save our bacon - when out in the sticks reviewing a Garmin bicycle computer our Sony DSLR ran out of juice so the MX-1 took the lead role in snapping all the shots we needed.

READ: Garmin Edge 810 review

The MX-1's images are a combination of all its parts. That wide-aperture lens opens up the door for creative control, but also helps to keep the ISO sensitivity down in lower-light conditions. We were able to snap some shots at ISO 400 thanks to the wide-open aperture - many other cameras would need to rest on ISO 1600 at the same focal length and therefore suffer image quality degradation.

Pentax MX-1 sample image at ISO 400 - click for full size JPEG sample

Even if shooting at ISO 1600 does become a necessity, it's not really a bother. We found that the MX-1 dealt with image noise very well and produced images that were still impressive at heightened sensitivities. This Pentax has a deft hand when it comes to processing - and even if the colours aren't always bang on, the quality is undeniable from such a sensor.

Verdict

First impressions can be lasting, but they can also be turned on their head - and the latter is what the MX-1 has done to us.

It might not have all the bells and whistles of some of its competitors - there's no hotshoe, touchscreen or fancy-pants Wi-Fi - and it is a hefty chunk of a camera. But we forgive that; we almost don't care. Why? - because the MX-1 focuses on things that matter: decent image quality with DNG raw files for tweaking to perfection, lasting battery life, a sharp 28-112mm f/1.8-2.5 wide-aperture lens and solid build quality. It's a camera for camera people.

Not being able to add a viewfinder is a big shame, and one thing that would push the MX-1's standing further up the ranks - but the tilt-angle LCD screen does go some way to save this.

The MX-1 may not quite have it all, but this burly camera delivers equally hardy performance and build quality and we've come to love it despite its shortcomings. One not to be overlooked.