Originally Posted: November 1, 2011
Last Updated: November 1, 2011
The Pentax Q (priced from $799) is the world's smallest interchangeable lens camera -- by far. Just how small is it? Look at this:
The Pentax Q versus the Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HS
Your eyes aren't playing tricks on you: the Pentax Q is actually smaller than this compact Canon ELPH! How did Pentax manage to make such a small interchangeable lens camera? The secret is in the sensor: the Q's sensor is exactly the same size as what you'll find on the ELPH in the above photo: just 1/2.3". That makes it significantly smaller than APS-C, Four Thirds, and even Nikon's new 1-System cameras. We'll see later in the review if the Q produces photo quality that's closer to a compact camera, or an interchangeable lens camera. Naturally, the Q also uses a new lens system (not surprisingly called Q-mount), and there are currently five lenses on the market (more on that below).
Other features on the Q include sensor-shift image stabilization, a 3-inch LCD, manual controls, lots of special effects and filters, 5 fps continuous shooting, and Full HD video recording. There are plenty of other features, as well, which I'll tell you about as the review goes on.
And with that in mind, let's begin our look at the Pentax Q!
What's in the Box?
The Pentax Q is available in two kits, with your choice of a black or white body (so that's four configurations in total). You can get the camera and its standard prime, 8.5mm lens (equivalent to 47mm) for $799, or get that plus the standard zoom, 5 - 15 mm (lens 27.5 - 83.0 mm equivalent) for $1049. Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those:
- The 12.4 effective Megapixel Pentax Q camera body
- F1.9, 8.5mm (47mm equiv.) standard prime lens
- F2.8-4.5, 5 - 15 mm (27.5 - 83.0 mm equiv.) standard zoom lens [dual lens kit only]
- D-LI68 lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring SilkyPix Developer Studio for Pentax
- 251 page camera manual (printed)
The Q with its entire lens collection
There are currently five lenses available for the Q-mount, and you can get up to two of them in the box with the camera. These lenses are the definition tiny, though build quality is mixed. The bundled lenses are of decent quality, while the optional fisheye and toy lenses feel like plastic toys (though I think that's the point, at least for the toy lenses). All of these lenses support image stabilization, since it's built right into the camera body. The table below tells you a bit more about the five lenses and their various quirks:
So those are the first five Q-mount lenses. While I'd like to think that Pentax has more lenses in the pipeline, they produced any kind of road map yet. All of these lenses have a much larger crop factor than you're probably used to seeing on an interchangeable lens camera: 5.5X. I found that the standard prime is a bit too telephoto for my taste, though portrait photographers may disagree. I found myself using the standard zoom lens a lot more often due to its more useful focal range. Both of the standard lenses have mechanical shutters, in addition to the electronic one on the camera. Lenses 03 through 05 are manual focus only, and they have focus rings on the lens (albeit not very precise ones) to help you adjust the focus distance. They are also fixed aperture, and the camera will operate in Av mode regardless of what the mode dial says.
I admit that I've done almost zero "toy photography" before I got the Pentax Q. Despite their flimsy build quality, the two toys lenses produced better quality photos than I was expecting. If you add the Q's Smart Effects into the mix, you can come up with some pretty crazy looking photos.
Interchangeable lens cameras (which include D-SLRs) never come with memory cards, so if you don't have one already, you'll need to pick one up. The Q supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, and I'd recommend a 4GB card for most folks. If you think you'll be taking a lot of Full HD movies, then an 8GB or 16GB card may be a smart purchase. Pentax recommends a high speed card (presumably Class 6 or better) for best camera performance.
The Q uses the D-LI68 lithium-ion battery for power. This batter packs just 3.4 Wh of energy, so that doesn't bode well for battery life. Let's see what kind of numbers the Q puts out:
As you can see, the Q's battery life is tied for the worst in this group of compact interchangeable lens cameras. Thus, I'd highly recommend picking up a spare battery, which will set you back around $38.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes about 115 minutes to fully charge the D-LI68, which isn't too bad. The charger does not plug directly into the wall -- you must use a power cable.
The Q with standard prime lens and optional optical viewfinder
There are plenty of accessories available for the Pentax Q. Here are some of the highlights:
So there you have the most exciting extras that you can buy for the Pentax Q. Some of them may be hard to actually find in stores (or online), so you've been warned.
Pentax includes SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.0 with the Q. This software suite is included with cameras made by several other manufacturers (such as Panasonic), and while it's powerful, the interface and poorly translated menus make it a bit hard to use. You can also use Adobe Photoshop to edit the Q's RAW files, as long as you have version 6.5 of the Camera Raw plug-in.
Oh, and in case you don't know: RAW files contain unprocessed image data straight from the camera's sensor. This allows you to adjust things like white balance, sharpness, color, noise reduction, and more -- all without degrading the quality of the image. The downsides are larger file sizes, slower processing speeds, and the need to post-process every photo on your computer before you can share them.
In many ways, Pentax is an "old school" camera manufacturer -- and I'm not just talking about their antiquated menu system. While other camera companies have mostly moved to "digital" camera manuals, Pentax stills gives you a thick, printed manual in the box with the Q. On top of that, it's actually pretty good, with lots of detail and a large typeface. Documentation for SilkyPix is installed onto your computer, and it's not nearly as good as what Pentax supplies.
Design & Features
As you've seen, the Pentax Q is a very small mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The camera has a magnesium alloy frame, and it feels very solid in the hand. I'm probably going to get raked over the coals for this comment, but I feel that the Q is actually too small. While it's fairly easy to hold, thanks to a small rubberized grip, your fingers end up resting on buttons and sit dangerously close to the various dials on the camera. In addition, most of the buttons are miniscule -- especially on the four-way controller -- making it easy to accidentally press the wrong thing. The playback button is located on the top of the camera, next to the hot shoe -- I wish its position was swapped with the "green button" instead. The bottom line here is "try before you buy".
Image courtesy of Pentax
As you can see, the Pentax Q is available in black and white.
Now let's see how the Q compares to other mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
The Q is the smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera in the world, though the Sony NEX-C3 isn't that far behind. The gap between the Pentax and Sony cameras widen as soon as you attach a lens, as the NEX's lenses are gigantic by comparison. The Q is really the only true pocket ILC, even with a lens attached!
Let's take a quick tour around the Q's body now. Use the tabs to see the camera from various angles.
I'm sure you're probably staring at that crazy flash right now, but let's save that for later. The first thing to talk about is the camera's 12.4 Megapixel, back-illuminated CMOS sensor. This sensor, developed exclusively for the Q, is the same size as what you'll find on most compact cameras, and is tiny in comparison to Four Thirds and APS-C. This chart gives you an idea of how the various sensor sizes compare -- the Q's would be somewhere in-between 1/2.5" and 1/1.8". We'll see if the Q is capable of producing better quality photos than your typical compact later in the review.
The sensor is mounted on a movable plate, which is part of the camera's image stabilization system. When the camera detects shake, the sensor is shifted to counter for it. Do note that you can't use sensor-shift IS in movie mode -- an electronic system is available, though.
With its sensor exposed to the elements, dust may be a concern to potential buyers of the Q (or any interchangeable lens camera, for that matter). As with most of its competitors, the Q will "shake" dust off of the sensor when the camera is turned on or off, so this problem should be minimized.
The lens mount here is the new Q-mount, which is as amazingly small as the rest of the camera. Lenses you attach will have a hefty 5.5X crop factor, due to the small sensor size. Remember that only the "standard" lenses (01 and 02) will support autofocus. To release a lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.
Now, about that flash. It can be in the normal "down" position (see the photo of the available camera colors for an example), and it can also pop up and away from the body, to prevent shadows from the lens, and to reduce the risk of redeye. While the mechanism is clever, I have to wonder how it'll hold up over the long term.
What about that dial? The Quick Dial can be customized to handle various camera functions, including Smart Effect (the default), Custom Image, Digital Filter, and aspect ratio. I'll tell you more about those later in the features section.
The other items of note here include the AF-assist lamp, receiver for an optional wireless remote, and the stereo microphones (bottom).
The main event here is the Q's 3-inch, 460,000 pixel LCD display. As you'd expect, the screen is quite sharp with that resolution. Outdoor visibility was about average, and in low light, the scene brightens up nicely, so you can still see what you're looking at.
Pretty much everything else here are buttons, most of which are self-explanatory. By default, that green button resets whatever value you're adjusting, but it can also be used for a DOF preview, one-push RAW+JPEG access, and a few more things.
The items on the four-way controller are only accessible here, as they're not in the menu. I'll go into a little more detail later about some of those in a bit.
The info button brings up a shortcut menu, which lets you quickly adjust fourteen less commonly used camera settings. Do note that you lose the live view when this menu is displayed -- just press Info again and it will return.
On the top of the camera is the manual release for the flash, the hot shoe, a pair of dials, three more buttons, and the speaker.
The hot shoe will work best with Pentax's flash, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. One thing that the Q cannot do is control external flashes wirelessly. If you're using a third party flash, you will likely need to adjust the exposure on both it and the camera manually. The Q can sync as fast as 1/250 sec with an external flash.
The black dial at the bottom-right of the photo is used for adjusting settings, and for playback zoom. Above that is the mode dial, and I'll explore the various options found there after the tour. Just left of those is the shutter release button, which is on the small side.
Just left of the power button is the Q's speaker.
Now here's something you don't every day (or any day): a battery compartment on the side of a camera! The Q's D-LI68 battery goes right in that slot, though extracting the battery can take a bit of work.
On the opposite side of the Q is its memory card slot. Why can't all manufacturers put it on the side, instead of on the bottom? The doors over both of these compartments are of average quality.
While Pentax put the battery and memory card compartments on the sides of the camera, they put the I/O ports on the bottom. Under that rubber flap you'll find HDMI and USB + A/V ports. Be sure to seal that flap well, otherwise the camera may not sit flat.
The only other thing to see here is the metal tripod mount, located right in the middle of the body.
The "view" in live view, complete with histogram
We're going to talk about camera features now, and the one I want to start with is live view mode on the Q. You get a live preview of exposure and white balance, reasonably fast autofocus, face detection, a live histogram, and three types of grid lines. When manually focusing (which you'll do with three of the five Q-mount lenses), the frame can be enlarged, to ensure proper focus. In other words, the Q performs just like the point-and-shoot camera you may be used to.
Now, let's talk about what you'll find on the camera's mode dial:
If you want to use the Q as a point-and-shoot camera, just set the mode dial to the Auto Picture mode. If you want scene modes, the camera has plenty of them, including two HDR modes. I'll tell you more about HDR in a moment.
The Q has full manual exposure controls as well, covering shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Speaking of ISO, you can select a fixed value (125 - 6400) or a range that you want the camera to use (e.g. 125 - 800). The only way to adjust the ISO sensitivity is via the four-way controller on the back of the camera.
Fine-tuning white balance
Speaking of controls only accessible via the four-way controller: let's talk about white balance. The Q has the usual presets, as well as the ability to use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting. There's also a Color Temperature Enhancement feature which will "keep and strengthen the color tone of the light source in the image". That said, you can't actually set the color temperature yourself on the Q, nor can you bracket for white balance. You can fine-tune WB, however, in the green-magenta and/or amber-blue direction (see screenshot).
The third and final "four-way controller only" feature is the drive menu, which holds the self-timer, continuous shooting, and bracketing options. I'll save the continuous shooting discussion for the next page of this review, but I do want to mention bracketing now. This feature will take three shots in a row, each at a different exposure. You can select how large of an interval there is between each shot in the menu. Exposure is the only thing you can bracket for on the Pentax Q.
Here's where you assign functions to the Quick Dial on the front of the camera. In this case, you're picking which of the Smart Effects you want easy access to.
The Q's Smart Effect feature is only available via the Quick Dial on the front of the camera. There are nine Smart Effects available on the Q (plus three custom slots for your own creations), and you can assign four of your favorites to the Quick Dial. Here's the full list of Smart Effects:
- Brilliant Color
- Unicolor Bold
- Vintage Color
- Cross Processing
- Warm Fade
- Tone Expansion
- Bold Monochrome
- Water Color
- Vibrant Color Enhance
I'll let you experience those for yourself!
Another neat trick the camera can do is save a RAW image at any time -- even if you have the image quality set to JPEG. After you take a photo, you have a few seconds to press the exposure compensation button, which will save a RAW copy of the photo you just took. I'm pretty sure that this feature is exclusive to Pentax cameras.
I've avoided discussing important menu options for quite a well, but I can't escape it any longer. Before I tell you about these features, I should tell you that the Q's menu system has the appearance of Pentax cameras from ten years ago. That said, they're easy enough to navigate. Okay, let's hit up those features now!
- Custom Image: each picture style contains settings for saturation, hue, high/low key, contrast, and sharpness, each of which can be fine-tuned; in addition to the usual suspects like bright, portrait, and landscape, there are several old-school film styles like bleach bypass, reversal film, and cross processing
- Digital Filter: Pentax has long had this feature, so it's not surprising that it's on the Q, as well. Some examples of the filters here include toy camera, HDR, extract color, water color, and fisheye
- Aspect ratio: choose from the native 4:3, as well a 16:9, 3:2, and 1:1
- File format: choose from JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; Pentax uses Adobe's DNG format on the Q; a RAW image is approximately 22.2 MB, while a three-star JPEG will take up 3.6 MB on your memory card
- Autofocus method: choose from face detection, subject tracking, 25-point select (choose 1, 3, 5, 9, or 25 points), select (choose even more points, and spot
- ND filter: reduces the amount of light coming through the lens, which allows you to use slower shutter speeds or larger apertures than you normally could
- HDR capture: combines three photos, each taken at a different exposure, into a single image with improved contrast; choose from Auto, HDR 1, or HDR 2
- Multi-exposure: combine up to nine exposures into a single image
- Interval (time-lapse) shooting: take photos at a set interval; you can start right away, or at a later time; use of the optional AC adapter is strongly recommended
- D-range setting: restore highlight and/or shadow detail; see examples below
- Distortion correction: on by default, this reduces lens distortion; check out the distortion test photo later in the review
- Quick Dial: here's where you customize what this dial does; you can assign different Smart Effects, Custom Image styles, Digital Filters, and aspect ratios to the various spots on the dial
- Green button: define what this button does, such as reset settings, quickly switch to RAW or RAW+JPEG, get a DOF preview, lock the AE or activate the AF system
The two features I want to describe in more detail are all related to contrast: HDR and D-range Setting. I'm going to start with HDR, which combines three exposures (each with a different exposure) into a single photo, with dramatically improved contrast. There are three HDR modes to choose from: Auto, HDR 1, and HDR 2. HDR 1 is a stronger version of Auto (you'll get even better contrast), while HDR 2 has the over-the-top contrast and color that can also be achieved using this technique. Below is an example of how the Auto HDR feature can improve contrast in our purple fringing tunnel shot:
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As you can see, the HDR feature dramatically reduces the highlight clipping on the left side of the photo. The image does get a lot darker, though, so that's the trade-off. You should be able to take the HDR sequence without using a tripod -- at least in good lighting.
The other feature is known as D-Range Setting. Here you can preserve highlights, shadows, or both. By default, both of these are set to "auto", but you can turn them "on" as well, which improves things a bit. Let's compare them all, shall we?
|Highlight corr: auto
Shadow corr: auto
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|Highlight corr: on
Shadow corr: auto
View Full Size Image
|Highlight corr: auto
Shadow corr: on
View Full Size Image
On some occasions (or if you have the ISO fixed to 125), the two auto D-Range settings just won't do it for you. The examples above show you what happens what you set the highlight and shadow correction settings from "auto" to on". As you can see, both make a difference. While I didn't show it here (oops), you can set both of those settings to "on", if you wish. Do note that the ISO will be boosted to 250 when this feature is on. If you have the ISO fixed at 125, the auto mode won't do anything, since boosting the ISO is required for this feature to work.
There are a few custom settings worth a mention. They include:
- Shake reduction options: you can have shake reduction when you're composing a shot, though it's at the expense of battery life
- AWB in tungsten light: whether camera keeps a warm tone when shooting in tungsten light with auto white balance, or applies strong correction
- Electronic shutter: whether the camera will use the electronic shutter with lenses with mechanical shutters (applies only to lenses 01 and 02); turning this on will reduce the noise produced by the camera while taking a photo
Moving on to movies, now -- the Pentax Q can record Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 (30 fps) with monaural sound. You can record until the file size reaches 4GB, or the recording time reaches 25 minutes. Two lower resolutions are available -- 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480 -- both at 30 fps.
Unlike most cameras, you can't take movies in every shooting mode -- you first have to set the mode dial to the movie position. Once there, you can go all automatic, or choose to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. The Q cannot focus continuously while recording a movie. You can't use the optical image stabilizer, either. There's a digital version available that works "okay" -- I think the real thing would do better.
One other thing the Q can do in the movie department is create a time-lapse video. As with stills, you can set the start time and interval between shots, and the camera will do the rest. Instead of saving a ton of images, you'll get a video.
Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the 1080/30p setting. Notice how the sound doesn't kick in for a second, and that the boat seems a bit jumpy (maybe due to the digital IS?).
Now let's talk about the Pentax Q's playback mode.
|There's little to see on the playback tab in the menu||That's because most of the options are found in the menu that is opened by pressing "down" on the four-way controller|
While it may not appear that way at first, the Pentax Q's playback mode is actually chock full of options -- you just need to press "down" on the four-way controller to open up a secondary menu. Here are some of my favorite options from playback mode:
- Digital Filters: there are almost twenty filters that you can apply to photos that you've taken; examples include fisheye, sketch, toy camera, and extract color
- Redeye edit: attempts to digitally remove redeye from your photos
- RAW development: change the parameters of a RAW image and save the results as a JPEG; very handy!
- Movie editing: divides or extracts segments from videos
- Image comparison: view two photos side-by-side
By default, the Pentax Q doesn't show a whole lot about your photos. However, if you press the Info button, you'll see more, including your choice of histograms and plenty of shooting data.
The camera moves between photos at a decent clip. A lower resolution version of the photo is shown instantly, with the high res version appearing less than a second later.
Performance & Photo Quality
Despite its price, the Pentax Q doesn't feel quite as snappy as similarly priced interchangeable lens cameras. The table below summarizes the Q's performance:
Average is definitely the take-home message when it comes to performance on the Q.
The Pentax Q can shoot at 5 frames per second, but only for JPEGs. For RAW and RAW+JPEG, you must use the significantly slower low speed option. Here's what kind of burst mode performance I was able to get out of the Q:
All-in-all, a pretty disappointing performance for an $800 camera. While the high speed burst rate is good, it's 1) limited to five or six shots and 2) the LCD is blacked out the entire time, so you cannot track a moving subject. In addition, burst sequences involving RAW images take a long time to be written to the memory card, during which time the camera is essentially locked up. When the Q reaches the limits listed in the table it pauses briefly, then continues shooting at a much slower frame rate.
Let's talk about photo quality now, starting with our infamous macro test.
I took the photo of our usual macro subject with the 8.5mm (47mm equiv.) standard prime lens. Colors look good here, and noise levels are low. The only real negative is that the figurine is on the soft side.
The minimum distance to your subject depends on the lens you're using. The standard prime has a minimum distance of 20 cm, while the standard zoom's distance is 30 cm across its range. Pentax doesn't make any dedicated macro lenses for the Q, and I have no idea if they ever will.
I used the the standard zoom lens (which is equivalent to 27.5 - 83.0 mm) to take our night test scene, and it's not nearly powerful enough to get as close as I normally do. I suppose I could've used the telephoto toy lens, but I figure this probably takes sharper photos. Anyhow, the camera took in plenty of light, as you'd expect given its manual exposure controls. There's quite a bit of highlight clipping here, but it's not surprising, given the size of the sensor. Sharpness is good at the center of the frame, but falls off slightly toward the edges. There is a bit of noise here, but it's not enough to concern me. Purple fringing was not a problem.
Let's use this same night scene to see how the Q performed at higher sensitivities:
There's a bit more noise at ISO 200, but it doesn't become really noticeable until ISO 400. I'd stop at ISO 800 in low light, saving it for small prints (and using RAW if possible) only. ISO 1600 and higher should be avoided, as there's quite a bit of detail loss.
I always enjoy showing off the benefits of RAW on digital cameras, so let's see if we can't make that ISO 800 night shot a little better:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
While the post-processed photo is a bit cleaner than the original JPEG, it's not dramatic. While it may be worth using at ISO 800 and 1600, don't expect miracles.
We'll do this all over again in normal lighting in just a moment.
Straight out of the camera
After using Redeye Correction in playback mode
Even with its pop-up flash, the Pentax Q still had noticeable redeye in our test. Thankfully, there's a tool in playback mode which did a perfect job of removing it. My guess is that you'll need to use this tool often, as the flash is quite close to the lens, even when it's popped up.
|Distortion correction on (default)||Distortion correction off|
As I mentioned earlier, the Q has automatic lens distortion reduction. Above you can see what the standard prime lens looks like at default settings: there's very little distortion to speak of. However, if you turn correction off, you'll see some very strong barrel distortion. You'll also see this if you open up the Q's RAW files, but most editors can correct for it fairly easily.
Now it's time to see how the Pentax Q performed in our studio ISO test. Since these photos are taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years, so now's a good time to perhaps open up the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 and Nikon 1 J1 reviews. Keep in mind that the crops only show a small portion of the test scene, so view the full size images too. Okay, let's begin:
Noise levels are reasonably low at ISO 125 and 200, and a bit more noticeable at 400. Details start getting fuzzy at ISO 800, so that's a good point to stop, or switch to RAW. If you are going to use ISO 1600, I would shoot RAW, as you'll get a lot more detail out of the photo (see below). The top two sensitivities are far too noisy to be usable. For those who didn't look at the Nikon and Panasonic reviews to compare, I can tell you that both cameras wipe the floor with the Q as the sensitivity increases. The Q's high sensitivity performance is closer to that of a good point-and-shoot camera, which isn't surprising, given that they use the same-sized sensors.
Can we close the gap a bit by shooting RAW and spending a minute post-processing? For the studio shots, the answer is yes. Let's look at the ISO 1600 and 3200 photos now:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
The biggest improvement here can be found at the ISO 3200 setting, where a fuzzy, seemingly out-of-focus image has gone to something you might be able to use for a small print. The difference between RAW and JPEG at ISO 1600 is noticeable too. Bottom line: shoot RAW at higher sensitivities on the Q for best results.
Overall, the Pentax Q's image quality is good at lower ISOs, but as the sensitivity increases, it quickly falls behind the competition. While exposure was generally spot-on, the Q loves to clip highlights. I'd make sure that you turn the highlight correction feature on, though do note that it'll increase the ISO to 250 (and thus produce noisier photos). Colors looked quite nice -- no complaints there. While sharpness will vary from lens to lens, overall things were slightly soft, but not enough for me to knock points off of the Q's score. Images have noise visible even at the base ISO, but it's not really an issue until you get to ISO 400. Higher sensitivities are not as good as what you'd get from an ILC with a larger sensor, though shooting RAW helps to a point. The Q smudges fine details a bit, though I've seen (much) worse. Purple fringing depends on what lens you're using. The two "standard" lenses didn't have much fringing to speak of, while the fisheye had quite a lot.
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:
- 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)
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!