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(Pocket-lint) - Pentax’s Q certainly puts the "compact" into Compact System Camera. But it this mini interchangeable lens system a worthy purchase?

The Pentax Q enters the photographic market at a time of change. Most manufacturers now have a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera in their lineup, with the likes of Sony and Samsung opting for large, DSLR-sized sensors, with Olympus and Panasonic settling on a smaller sensor Micro Four Thirds system. And most recently, the Nikon 1 series, which relies on an even smaller 1-inch sensor. Pentax goes one further by using a 12.4 megapixel, 1/2.3in backlit sensor in its Q system - a sensor identical in size to most compact cameras. Yet this little monster will set you back £600. Is it worth it, or has Pentax - recently bought by Ricoh, makers of the struggling GXR-series - totally lost its marbles?

Our quick take

Unique isn’t a word that should be used lightly, but the Pentax Q more than fits the bill. However, amid a competitive Compact System Camera market it fails to encapsulate true DSLR-like quality in a compact body. Images may be sharp, but other imaging issues and lack of depth of field control hold the Q back. While the camera certainly looks sweet enough, it just doesn’t have the inner guts to outperform its competitors. Plus the £600 asking price is more than most of its larger-sensor compadres.

It’s hard not to warm to the look and feel of this camera, but it lacks pack-leading strength in any key performance or image quality area that, as such, makes it hard to recommend. Think of it as a challenger to the Olympus XZ-1, Lumix LX5 and similar models and this is where the Q can more than holds its weight -perhaps it’s best thought of as a niche alternative option to those cameras.

Product shots by Dan Sung

Pentax Q

Pentax Q

3.5 stars
  • It’s super-small
  • Better than many high-end compact cameras
  • Small sensor limits depth of field control
  • Stiff dials
  • Awkward layout
  • Expensive

Actually, bigger is better

Small sensor means small size and it’s here that the Pentax Q can honestly, and without innumerable caveats and conditions, state that it’s the world’s smallest and lightest Compact System Camera. Pop it into the palm of your hand and it looks like a mini mock up of a camera. Perhaps more novelty than real, if you will.

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But the Q isn’t without its roots; it hasn't just appeared from nowhere. As is the fashion of late - think Olympus PEN series - Pentax has gone back to its Auto 110 Super days for inspiration, and the Q is very much a modern day reimagining of that model. Problem is, it’s reimagining gone awry.

The 110 Super, which shot 13 x 17mm frames on 110 film - more of less the same size as the Micro Four Thirds standard that Pentax has shunned - positively dwarfs the Pentax Q’s 6.17 x 4.55mm sensor. Yes, we’re going to geek-out here, because this is important: a sensor of such size, even with wide-aperture lenses such as the 8.5mm (47mm equiv) f/1.9, cannot produce the shallow a depth of field you'd get on larger sensor-equipped cameras. And the smaller microlenses are less able to produce sharp, low-noise images. Sorry Pentax, but bigger is better in this instance.

The main benefit a smaller sensor does bring, however, is smaller lenses. Even longer focal lengths are small, particularly by comparison to DSLR, SLT and CSC systems. The brand new Q-mount system has an approximate 5.5x magnification, thus the 8.5mm prime lens on our sample model equates to a 47mm equivalent, which is an ideal standard lens in full-frame terms. Problem here is that of the five lenses announced only two are currently available (as of September 2011).

Manual master

The Pentax Q is designed with manual snappers in mind, as there are a range of mode dials and controls around the body. Full manual controls can be adjusted using the rear thumbwheel, though Scene and Auto settings leave the camera in charge for the picture-taking process.

Elsewhere it’s easy to select from raw or JPEG in the quick "Info" menu, or there's a 1080p HD movie mode available from the top dial. Virtual filters, including an ND (Neutral Density) filter are also available, though these are process-based effects that can only be applied to JPEG shots.

Each Q-mount lens includes a manual focus ring should this be your preferred way of working. Sadly, the manual focus is hard to reach due to the 4-step function dial on the front of the camera.

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The Q’s 25-point autofocus system is arranged over a number of selectable options. There are face detection and Tracking modes and the 25 Points are arranged into nine main zones and can be selected on screen via the d-pad. The Single Point mode can be moved around all but the outer edges of the screen and there is a spot mode, which focuses on the centre of the frame.

In terms of focus speed the Q is reasonable, if not rather like a standard compact camera in its abilities. There’s lots of exposure ducking and diving on the screen where shots preview darker or lighter as the camera focuses and this can be offputting when trying to grab a shot. Furthermore, with the likes of the Panasonic’s G-series “sonic speed” AF system and Olympus’s “world’s fastest” claim for its third generation PEN cameras, the Pentax Q just doesn’t compare.

Quality or cringe?

With the Pentax Q put to the test in the real world, we were pleasantly surprised by its imaging capabilities. Granted, shallow depth of field isn’t going to match up to larger sensors, but the lower ISO settings from 100-400 were sharp and clear, with little image noise. Given the 1/2.3-inch sensor size, that’s an impressive spectacle to behold, so hats off to Pentax for squeezing the best out of such a sensor. However, at ISO 800 shots have image noise levels closer to ISO 1600 from a Micro Four Thirds camera, and when shooting at ISO 1600 and above the quality dips even further. It’s not awful by any means, but it’s here that the limitations of a small sensor reveal themselves.

With the 8.5mm lens attached, we captured some sharp shots - make no mistake, this is an impressive lens. Its main issue, however, is barrel distortion. A quick fiddle with the camera settings and the "Distortion Control" option does wonders in keeping lines that little bit straighter. But there are other issues too: blue and purple fringes can be problematic throughout shots, particularly in backlit scenarios; while over-processing can cause jagged edges subjects.

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Thanks to the sensor-based shake reduction technology, shots are also kept extra-sharp. We would like to see longer focal length lenses with lens-based stabilisation in the future for best performance though.

To recap

The Pentax Q is without doubt the smallest interchangeable camera system on the market. However the Q’s small, 1/2.3inch sensor may be good compared to compact cameras but has nothing against more serious models. As sweet as it may look, the Q lacks pack-leading performance in all the key areas.

Writing by William Perceval.