(Pocket-lint) - Setting yourself apart for the mass of compact cameras on the market can be something of a challenge. The Pentax Optio RS1500 looks to solve this problem with the option for customising the faceplate to make it unique. But does this compact point and shoot camera from Pentax impress, or is it simply a gimmick?
Design and Chameleon skins
Priced to be affordable, the Pentax Optio RS1500 is finished in plastics, our review model featuring a matte black back and silver front. The front is where the customisation comes into play, a clear plastic face can be removed, allowing you to insert a printed skin behind, lying over the ridged silver front.
The system is simple. The lens surround pops off, letting you remove the clear face. We had a range of skins to choose from, with Pentax throwing in the DC Comics edition covers, including the likes of Batman, Superman and Green Lantern, along with their regular selection. Included blank Chameleon skins mean you can print your own designs via their website, making a truly customisable result with a little fiddling around.
The result of this customisable front is that the RS1500 is a little boxy in its design, to allow for the recess on the front in which the skin fits. There is little in the way of grip as there is no contouring in the design, so it's simply a case of gripping the thing firmly. It’s a light camera, weighing in at 127g and measuring 56 x 92 x 22.5mm, so perfectly pocketable, even if there are more sophisticated cameras out there with slimmer dimensions.
The bottom the camera sees the normal tripod screw thread and a flap into which the battery and SD card slot, the former offering you around 210 shots.
Controls and features
The top plate offers the power and shutter buttons, with all the other controls lying on the back of the camera, to the right of the 3-inch display. The display isn’t anything to get excited about. The resolution is rather low at 230k-dots and the viewing angles are poor, so if you’re not square on viewing the screen it will darken dramatically; that said, the image it gives isn’t that good even when viewing at the best angle.
Zoom is controlled via the thumb rocker on the back, powering the 4x optical zoom, which offers 27.5-110mm (in 35mm terms), which is fairly average on this type of camera. The usual menu and playback buttons can be found here, the menu button used to change settings, with shooting options adjusted using the Mode shortcut on the four-way controller.
Other options for shortcuts on this four-way controller include flash control, self timer and macro toggle, with a central OK button to confirm selections (which also changes the information displayed on the screen). Elsewhere face detection gets its own button, so you can switch between smile shutter, face detection, or simply “off”, although the toggle options depend on the shooting mode selected. A green button can be customised to your liking with the option of movie mode, exposure compensation, ISO or resolution.
As mentioned, shooting modes are determined through the appropriate button, which brings up a graphical grid on the display, so you can thumb through and select the appropriate preset. All the usual suspects are in there, from food to pets, with a catch-all Auto being the default shooting mode and a P (program) mode being the closest you’ll get to wrestling control away from automatic.
Given the lack of other controls, changing settings can be a little fiddly once you step out of simple point and shoot functionality, but on this level of camera, we doubt that users will be looking for high degrees of manual control. The green button does alleviate this position slightly, but given that you’d otherwise have to select movie mode via the “Mode” button before capturing a movie, we imagine that most people will use the green button toggle movie mode.
There are a number of digital filters that can be applied to shots (as well as some in-camera editing options), but unlike more expensive rivals, these digital effects can only be applied after the shot is taken. When viewing the image back you can opt to edit and apply these effects, with the likes of a toy camera vignette, various colours and antique effects.
The lens shows obvious signs of barrel distortion at the wide angle, especially noticeable as the subject nears the camera. This affects the macro mode so it’s worth zooming in to minimise this distortion; in macro mode the zoom is restricted to half the normal range too, which is just about right for dealing with the problem at the far end.
Focusing is a little suspect, the defaulting face detection mode finding faces in the most obscure places, so it’s worth switching off for general scene shooting if it raises problems. In low light and on close-up focusing can be a little slow and inaccurate, often settling for nothing in focus and letting you take the shot. This isn’t helped by the display, which isn’t really sharp enough to determine accurate focus anyway, often looking softer when composing the shot than when you’ve taken it.
The ISO range (under the “sensitivity” setting) runs up to an ambitious ISO 6400 through manual selection, although noise is very obvious from ISO 800 upwards so is probably best avoided. In Auto mode, the flash will swing in well before you reach these sorts of levels though.
Overall, in terms of image quality, the results are average, but that’s not unexpected on a camera at this price point and we suspect that those attracted by the fun customisable exterior won’t expect top class shots from it as well. One characteristic we noticed was over-saturation, especially in reds, which does add some punch, but can result in images that don't look completely natural. It doesn't deal with high contrast scenes especially well and highlights often blow out and lose detail, but that's not uncommon on this level of camera.
Movie shooting offers up a maximum 1280 x 720 resolution, at 30fps, with various lower resolutions and shutter speeds on offer. As mentioned, in the absence of an instant capture button in movie modes, it will take a couple of button presses before movie capture can be started.
Focus is determined when movie capture starts and is then fixed and you can’t use the zoom whilst filming, so it isn’t hugely accommodating, but gives acceptable results.
With a wealth of compact cameras to choose from, and some great performers for your money, the real appeal of the Pentax Optio RS1500 has to be the customisation option. It manages to escape being simply a novelty camera by virtue of its reasonable performance, but if performance is important to you, then perhaps forgoing the changeable covers for something more conventional would better suit your needs.
The Pentax Optio RS1500 is likely to appeal to those who want to stand out, eschewing the typical black or silver camera body for something all the more personal. One thing is undeniable though: putting a DC superhero on the face of your camera will make people look at it, especially kids.