DCRP

Pentax Q Review

Conclusion

In case you haven't noticed, the trend on recent interchangeable lenses has been "smaller". Those of you who thought the Panasonic GF3 and Olympus E-PM1 were small will be shocked to see the Pentax Q in person. As I illustrated at the top of the review, it's smaller than some point-and-shoot cameras. The problem with making cameras smaller is that it also makes them harder to use. Buttons are cluttered and poorly placed on the Q, and there's really nowhere to put your fingers without pressing a button or turning a dial. You'll definitely want to get your hands on this camera before you buy. You certainly can't complain about the build quality of the Q -- it's black or white body is made of a magnesium alloy, and it feels very solid. Pentax has kindly placed the battery and memory card slots on the sides of the camera, but that meant that the USB and HDMI ports had to go on the bottom, which is a bit awkward. The camera's flash is somewhat unusual in that it can be in the "standard" position, or pop up and away from the body (see photos on page two). If you want more power than what the built-in flash offers, you can attach an external flash to the Q's hot shoe.

A major compromise Pentax had to make in order to make the Q so small relates to the size of its sensor. It's just 1/2.3", which is the same as you'll find on most point-and-shoots, and way smaller than what other interchangeable lens cameras offer. Thankfully, Pentax managed to squeeze a sensor-shift image stabilization system in there somehow, so all of the lenses you attach have shake reduction. Speaking of lenses, the Q uses the aptly named Q-mount, which currently supports five lenses, with a whopping 5.5X crop factor. Two of the lenses are somewhat "serious", while the other three are more for "fun". Pentax hasn't published any kind of lens road map, but I hope that they release some more of those "serious" lenses in the near future. On the back of the camera is a pretty standard 3-inch LCD, with average outdoor and very good low light visibility. Being an interchangeable lens camera, you'll compose all of your photos via the LCD. The Q's live view feature is well-implemented, with face detection, reasonably fast autofocus, a live histogram, and the ability to zoom in for manual focus.

It's a bit hard to figure out who the target audience is for the Pentax Q. Is it enthusiasts? The person who has everything (AKA Leica buyers)? Or someone who wants a camera with a lot of creative options (it does have two "toy" lenses, after all). Its feature set covers pretty much all of those. If you want a point-and-shoot camera, the Q can do that too, thanks to its Auto Picture Mode. If you want to have fun, the Quick Dial on the front of the camera gives you easy access to four of nine Smart Effects, which range from unicolor bold (think selective color) to bold monochrome. Combine those with the toy or fisheye lenses and you can create some pretty crazy stuff. If you want manual controls, the Q has those too, covering exposure, white balance, focus, and RAW support. As an added bonus, the Q always buffers a RAW image, so if you take a JPEG and suddenly decide you wanted a RAW instead, it's just a button-press away. Two other features I like are D-Range Correction (which reduces highlight clipping and brightens shadows) and HDR (which does both). In playback mode you'll find several editing tools and special effects, plus a tool to edit your RAW images right on the camera. Not surprisingly, the Pentax Q has a Full HD movie mode, recording videos at 1920 x 1080 (30 fps) with stereo sound. The bad news is that you can't use the sensor-shift IS system, and the first second of audio is not recorded. Engadget noticed some weird jumpiness in their sample videos, as well.

Camera performance is not the Q's strong suit. It starts up slower than most ILC's, and it's focus and shot-to-shot speeds are just average. While Pentax advertises 5 fps continuous shooting, that's only for five or six shots, and only for JPEGs. To make matters worse, the LCD is blacked out the entire time, making the feature essentially useless. You can also shoot at around 1.2 frames/second, but the buffer fills quickly, and it takes forever to clear when RAW files are involved. Battery life is tied for the worst of any interchangeable lens camera, so you'll definitely want to buy yourself a spare.

Photo quality is generally good, though don't expect the Q to compete with larger-sensored cameras. Exposure was generally accurate, though highlight clipping is a problem (hint: turn highlight correction to "on"). Colors looked good, even in unusual light (and if it's not, you can fine-tune white balance to your heart's content). Images are slightly soft, and the Q will lighting smudge fine details at times. A bigger problem is noise: images start out with a bit of it, and by ISO 400, things look a lot like what you'd find on your typical point-and-shoot camera. ISO 800 and 1600 are usable, but only if you shoot RAW and clean them up a bit. Cameras from the likes of Panasonic, Olympus, Nikon, and Sony run circles around the Q at high sensitivities. Redeye is a problem on the Q (even with its crazy flash), but thankfully you can remove it via a tool in playback mode. Purple fringing was lens dependent; it wasn't a problem on the two "standard" lenses, but you'll notice it a lot more on the plasticky toy and fisheye lenses.

Overall, the Pentax Q is a pricey interchangeable lens camera whose biggest feature is its diminutive size and wide selection of special effects. Its photo quality, performance, and feature set certainly don't justify the price premium, so you're really paying for whatever Pentax did to make the Q so small. The Q isn't a great camera, nor is it a poor one -- it's somewhere in the middle. If you want the smallest thing out there, then it's worth a look. If you want more bang for the buck, I'd suggest looking at one of the models I've listed below.

What I liked:

  • Smallest interchangeable lens camera in the world; solid build quality
  • Good photo quality at low ISOs
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Sharp 3-inch LCD display has 460k pixels, good low light visibility
  • Full manual controls, with RAW support (including the ability to turn the last JPEG taken into a RAW image), WB fine tuning, and custom functions
  • Tons of special effects, many of which can be accessed via the Quick Dial on the front of the camera
  • Effective HDR and D-Range Correction tools
  • Multiple exposure and interval (time-lapse) shooting capability
  • In-camera RAW editing
  • Hot shoe for external flash
  • Records Full HD video (1080/30p) with stereo sound and full manual controls
  • Full, printed manual in the box (and it's pretty good, too)

What I didn't care for:

  • Expensive
  • Body may be too compact; controls are small, cluttered, and often poorly placed; hard to hold camera without accidentally bumping something important
  • Middle and high ISO image quality not as good as competition
  • Tends to clip highlights (use DR Correction to reduce that); images on the soft side
  • Poor battery life
  • Redeye a problem (but can be corrected in playback mode)
  • Movie mode annoyances: no sound for first second, can only record movies in dedicated mode, videos seem a bit jumpy
  • Unimpressive burst mode; buffer fills quickly at low speed (1.2 fps), slow write times, LCD blackout at high speed
  • Included prime lens a bit telephoto for most folks; limited lens selection at this point (obviously)

Some other cameras I'd recommend looking at include the Nikon 1 J1, Olympus E-PM1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, Samsung NX200, and Sony Alpha NEX-C3.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Pentax Q and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out our standard and Maui photo galleries to see how the Q's image quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.