DCRP Review: Pentax Optio S
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: April 29, 2003
Last Updated: April 30, 2003

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The most stunning camera this year has to be the Pentax Optio S ($399). This 3.2 Megapixel camera (along with its cousin, the Casio Exilim EX-Z3) packs a real 3X optical zoom into an ultra-slim body. In case you haven't heard, it fits into an Altoids tin. It's the DiMAGE X of 2003.

Fancy engineering alone doesn't make a great camera. How did the Optio S perform in our tests? Find out now.

What's in the Box?

The Optio S has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 (effective) Mpixel Pentax Optio S camera
  • D-LI8 rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • 3D Image Viewer
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring ACDSee software + drivers
  • 135 page camera manual (printed)

The only thing keeping the Optio's bundle from greatness it the lack of a memory card. The camera does have 11MB of built-in memory, which is really too little to be useful. So you'll want to buy a Secure Digital or MultiMediaCard right away. I'd suggest 64MB as a place to start.

A small camera needs a small battery, and the Optio S has one. The D-LI8 battery is one of the smallest li-ion batteries I've seen, and it packs a fairly low 2.6 Wh of power. Pentax estimates that you can take about 160 pictures (with 50% flash use) per charge, or spend 110 minutes in playback mode. That's not horrible for a tiny camera.


Battery charger + battery

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it in the included charger. It takes roughly 100 minutes to recharge.

One other thing to note about these proprietary batteries: they are very expensive. Buying another one (which I recommend) will set you back $40.

The Optio S has a built-in lens cover, so there is no lens cap to worry about. You can really get a feel for its size in this shot.

So what the heck is the 3D Image Viewer that's included in the box? The Optio has a unique feature which lets you take two shots in a row and combine them into a 3D image. To view the images in 3D, you can print them out and then use the 3D image viewer. Once you get the hang of it, you can probably do it without the image viewer.

There aren't too many accessories available for the Optio S. The only ones that I could find are an AC adapter, wireless remote control (two of them actually -- one is just a shutter release, while the other lets you control the zoom), and a leather case.

Pentax includes ACD System's ACDSee for both Mac and PC. The software is great for viewing and organizing your photos, but it's no substitute for something like Photoshop Elements when it comes to retouching. ACDSee is Mac OS X native.

Windows users will also get ACD Photostitcher, which can be used for creating panoramic images. I did not try it.

The manual included with the Optio S is about average. Everything you need to know is in it, but it may be a bit hard to read.

Look and Feel

The Optio's design can be described in one word: stunning. Its aluminum is "spindle-patterned", giving it a very unique look (which is hard to photograph, as you'll see). One thing about this camera is that you need to take good care of it -- it scratches easily. I kept my review unit in the foam packaging whenever I took it somewhere.

You've seen the Optio S in an Altoids tin numerous times, so here it is next to another stunning piece of consumer electronics (which is sadly now outdated).

The camera can fit in any pocket and can easily be operated with just one hand. The dimensions of the Optio S are 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs just 98 grams empty. For the sake of comparison, the Canon PowerShot S400's numbers are 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 and 185 grams, respectively.

Let's being our tour of this unique camera now!

The Optio's lens design is most impressive -- especially when you see how far it sticks out when you turn on the camera. This F2.6-F4.8, 3X optical zoom lens has a focal range of 5.8 - 17.4 mm. That's equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. This shouldn't surprise you, but there are no lens accessories available for this camera.

To the upper-left of the lens is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.2 - 3.5 m at wide-angle, and 0.1 - 2.0 at telephoto.

The other items on the front of the camera include a light sensor, remote control receiver, and self-timer lamp. The microphone can be found to the lower-left of the lens.

There's no AF illuminator on the Optio S.

Here now is the back of the Optio S.

The camera has a very bright and sharp 1.6" LCD display. Images on it move smoothly, though it can be hard to see in extreme light conditions (which is typical).

Straight above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is decent-sized, considering how small this camera is. There's no diopter correction -- typical for a tiny camera.

Below the LCD are three buttons: menu, display (for toggling LCD and info on/off), and playback mode. To enter playback mode directly when the camera is off, you can just hold down the playback button while turning on the camera.

To the right of the LCD is one of the worst four-way controllers I've ever seen. The range of motion is so small that you press the wrong direction more often that the correct one. In addition to navigating menus, the controller is also used for setting the self-timer, DPOF marking images, and switching modes.

The Optio uses a virtual mode wheel to switch between the various camera modes. The choices here are:

  • Standard mode
  • Picture (scene) mode
    • Landscape
    • Flower
    • Portrait
    • Self-portrait
    • Surf & snow
    • Autumn colors
    • Sunset
  • Night scene mode - why this isn't with the others is beyond me
  • Movie mode
  • Panorama assist mode
  • 3D image mode - for creating the 3D stereo images that I described earlier
  • Filter mode
    • Color filters
      • Black & white
      • Sepia
      • Red
      • Pink
      • Violet
      • Blue
      • Green
      • Yellow
    • Slim Filter - set the degree of "slimness" in 8 steps, vertically or horizontally
  • User mode - quickly access your favorite settings

Everything there should be self-explanatory, so let's continue.

Below the four-way controller is the speaker. Above it are two more buttons. These control:

  • Flash mode (Auto, flash off, fill flash, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash w/redeye reduction) / Delete photo
  • Focus mode (Autofocus, macro, super macro, infinity, manual focus, focusing area mode) / Protect photo

I'll cover the macro modes later.


Manual focus

The manual focus feature will put a distance meter on the LCD, and will also digitally enlarge the subject, so you can make sure you're properly focused.

The focusing area feature lets you use the four-way controller to choose the area of the frame that you want the camera to focus on. It's much like Canon's FlexiZone system, along a bit more restricted (the positions you can move to are fixed, but there are still many of them).

To the right of those buttons is the zoom controller. You can go from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.5 seconds. The zoom is quiet and fairly precise.

The only things on the top of the camera are the shutter release and power button. The two are too close to each other -- and too similar in shape for my taste. They have a slightly different feel, but you can still hit the wrong one.

The power button is also used to enter voice recording mode (by holding it down for two seconds). You can record as much audio as your memory card can hold. The audio is saved in WAV format.

Not much to see on this side of the camera. Look how long that lens sticks out when compared to the thickness of the body!

On the other side of the camera are the I/O port, which are under plastic covers. The ports are DC-in (for optional AC adapter) and USB + A/V (one connector for both).

On the bottom of the camera is the battery compartment, memory card slot, and tripod mount. It's a shame that with such a nice metal body, Pentax chose to put a cheap plastic tripod mount on the Optio. The mount is right in the center of the camera.

Let's open up the door covering the compartments and take a closer look. I'm not a huge fan of the door construction, by the way.

There's not much to say here that I haven't said already. The battery compartment is on the top, while the SD/MMC card slot is on the bottom.

Using the Pentax Optio S

Record Mode

The Optio S displays a startup screen, extends the lens, and is ready to shoot in about 3.5 seconds. The Optio's autofocus speed was about average -- a little under a second outdoors, a second or so indoors. There were many times where the camera couldn't lock focus under strong indoor lighting, and it wasn't any better in low light. Having an AF-assist lamp would've certainly helped, though I'm not sure if there's any room for one.

Things are better in the shutter lag department. I found the Optio S to be quite responsive, even at slower shutter speeds.


The Optio's LCD can show a lot of info in record mode

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent as well. Assuming you have the post-shot review feature turned off, you can take another picture in about 1.5 seconds.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Optio S. Pentax uses a "star system" to represent image quality. Here are the number of shots that you can store on an 16MB memory card. Keep in mind that this is optional and that the built-in memory will hold about 1/3 fewer photos.

Resolution Compression # shots on 16MB card
(optional)
2048 x 1536 Best (***) 7
Better (**) 13
Good (*) 19

1600 x 1200

Best (***) 11
Better (**) 20
Good (*) 28
1024 x 768 Best (***) 26
Better (**) 47
Good (*) 62
640 x 480 Best (***) 57
Better (**) 89
Good (*) 119

There's no TIFF or RAW mode available on this camera. The camera names files as IMGP####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The camera maintains the numbering even if you erase the card.

The Optio S has a simple-to-operate menu system. The menu items include:

  • Recorded pixels (see chart)
  • Quality level (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, manual)
  • Focusing area (Multiple, spot)
  • AE metering (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Sensitivity (Auto, 500, 100, 200)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this lowers the quality of your photos
  • Instant review (Off, 0.5, 1-5 sec)
  • Fast fwd movie (Off, x2, x5, x10, x20, x50, x100) - see below
  • 3D mode (Parallel, cross) - choose the viewing method for 3D images
  • Memory - the camera will store the selected settings in memory so they aren't lost when you turn off the camera. The available settings include:
    • Flash
    • White balance
    • Exposure compensation
    • Digital zoom
    • AE Metering
    • Sensitivity
    • Focus mode
    • Zoom position
    • Manual focus position
    • Display mode
    • File numbering
  • Sharpness (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Saturation (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Contrast (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)

The only thing that really requires any explanation is the "fast forward movie" feature. Basically this is a fancy way of saying "time lapse movie". You can reduce the frame rate by a factor of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100. When you play the movie back, they are played back by 12 frames/sec multiplied by the chosen factor. Sound is not recorded. I hope this makes sense -- try it and you'll see.

In addition to the record menu, there's also a setup menu. The interesting choices in that menu include:

  • Sound - adjust the annoying beep sounds
  • Start-up screen (on/off)
  • World time - view the time around the world
  • Language (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese)
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Quick delete (on/off) - took me a while to figure this one out. When on, it shortens the photo deletion process by one button press.
  • Quick zoom (on/off) - when on, "zoom and scroll" feature automatically jumps to highest zoom ratio
  • Function setting (Exposure compensation, recorded pixels, quality level, white balance, focusing area, AE metering, instant review, fast fwd movie) - define what the left/right directions on the four-way controller do.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The macro test results were mixed. The colors are right on, but the image is a little too soft for my taste. The Optio has two macro modes: regular and super. Regular macro mode has a focal range of 18 - 50 cm, while the super mode's range is 6 - 20 cm. In super mode, the lens is fixed in the middle of the zoom range. If you'd like to see a super macro sample (just a closer view of the normal shot), click here.

Look, a different night shot location! I was out and about and wanted to try something new. The exposure wasn't nearly as long as my typical night shot -- be warned. Anyhow, the image turned pretty nicely, though there's some noise in the sky. Also, and I'll discuss this more below, have a look at the left side of the photo -- does it seem blurry?

The Optio can keep the shutter open for as long as 4 seconds, though you cannot set the shutter speed manually.

I'm not surprised at all about the redeye test results -- with the flash practically on top of the lens, it's a given. Redeye can be removed to a degree in software.

Finally the distortion test comes in handy! What stands out the most here is the higher-than-average amount of barrel distortion and the blurriness is the corners.


A blurry corner of this image

That blurriness doesn't just show up in that test shot either -- you can find it in the majority of my sample photos. While incredibly innovative, new lens designs like those found on the Optio S and Minolta's DiMAGE X series seem to have a lot of trouble in the corners of the frame. Images are soft and a little noisy as well. Purple fringing was not a problem in my test shots, and both exposure and color were good.

As always, don't just take my word for it -- have a look at the photo gallery and judge the quality for yourself!

Movie Mode

I briefly covered the movie mode in the previous section, when I tried (not very well) to explain the fast forward movie feature. Now here's some info about the standard movie mode.

You can record up to 30 seconds of video at 320 x 240, with sound. Files are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Here's a sample movie for you. Note the "banding" in the sky.


Click to play movie (1.1MB, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Optio S has a very nice playback mode. There doesn't seem to be a way to switch between internal memory and the memory card slot, if you've got a card inserted. So they only way to view photos in internal memory is to remove the memory card, or to copy the photos from internal memory to the card.

The Optio has the basic playback features nailed: slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, and image protection are all here.

The zoom and scroll feature is here too, allow you to zoom in as much as 4X into your photo, and then scroll around. both the zooming and scrolling are sluggish, though, and the poorly designed four-way controller doesn't help matters either.

Two of the more advanced features include resizing and trimming. You can resize an image to any of the smaller resolutions, and you can change the quality as well. The trimming feature allows you to crop a photo -- the resolution and quality settings are the same as the original image. In both cases, the original image is kept.

The Optio can show plenty of information about your photos -- just press the display button. The camera moves through images extremely quickly -- there's no delay between images.

How Does it Compare?

In terms of design, you can't beat the Pentax Optio S. It's a stunning work of engineering that gets attention wherever it goes. That's nice and all, but what about photo quality? In general, it's good, but it has one big flaw: blurry edges and corners. The Minolta DiMAGE X -- which also has a unique lens design -- had the same problem. Every picture didn't have the blurry edges, but most of them did. Whether it's a deal breaker is up to you. I see the Optio as more of a "second camera", which you can take anywhere, rather than your primary camera.

Some other notes about the Optio S: startup, shot-to-shot- and playback speeds were all very good. The autofocus system could be better though -- it was a little slow, and low light focusing was challenging. Two other minor issues are design-related: the power button is too close/similar to the shutter release button. Also, the four-way controller leaves much to be desired.

All-in-all, I do like the Optio S quite a bit -- but mostly for its design. A lot of people are comparing this camera to the Canon PowerShot S400, which in my opinion is the better of the two cameras, especially in terms of photo quality. Of course, the S400 is a lot bigger (relatively speaking). I can see the S400 as a primary camera, but not the Optio.

Food for thought -- I hope.

What I liked:

  • Incredible design and engineering
  • Good value at under $400
  • Good battery life for a tiny camera
  • Quite a few controls for a point-and-shoot
  • Impressive playback mode
  • Unique 3D photo, fast forward movie features

What I didn't care for:

  • Photo quality -- blurry edges/corners, some noise
  • Poorly designed four-way controller; Power/shutter release buttons too close together, too similar
  • No AF illuminator
  • Redeye
  • Body scratches easily
  • No memory card included; paltry 11MB of built-in memory.

Some other small 3/4 Megapixel cameras include the Canon PowerShot S230 and S400, Casio Exilim EX-Z3 (similar to Optio S) and QV-R3/R4, Fuji FinePix F410, Minolta DiMAGE Xi (and forthcoming Xt), Nikon Coolpix 3100/3500/4300, Olympus Stylus 300/400, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P8.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Optio S and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality stacks up in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read a review of the Optio S over at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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