Pentax K-x Review

How Does it Compare?

When it was first announced, I wasn't terribly moved by the Pentax K-x. It seemed like just another entry-level digital SLR. After a survey of DCRP readers showed strong demand for a review of the K-x, I got my hands on one, and was quickly impressed with what Pentax has put together. The K-x is well built, feature-packed, responsive, and a great value for the money at just $649 (the street price is even lower). And it takes very good photos, too. It has its share of flaws, but the list is fairly short. The most annoying things about it are the lack of AF point illumination in the viewfinder, a mediocre LCD, and a tendency to clip highlights. Despite those issues, the Pentax K-x is a fine camera, and a great choice for those looking to step into the world of digital SLRs.

The K-x is a fairly compact digital SLR with a plastic outer shell and stainless steel frame. It feels quite solid in your hands, lacking the "plasticky" feel of many of its competitors. I found the camera easy to hold, thanks to a good-sized right hand grip. Pentax did a good job with the control layout on the camera, keeping buttons to a minimum and making them large and generally single-function. The K-x is available in four colors, ranging from quite black and navy blue colors to attention-grabbing stormtrooper white and Ferrari red. The camera uses the good old Pentax K-mount, and it supports all current Pentax lenses, plus all of the classics (even screwmount), though some of those will require an adapter. As with all of Pentax's D-SLRs, the K-x has a sensor-shift image stabilization system, so nearly every lens you attach will have shake reduction built right in. This same system can be used to shake dust off the sensor when the camera is turned on. On of the back of the camera is a disappointing 2.7" LCD display. While the specs list 230,000 pixels (typical for an entry-level D-SLR), in reality it seemed far less sharp than that, and the viewing angle was nothing to write home about, either. The viewfinder was also a let down, though not because of its size or coverage numbers. Pentax left out AF point illumination, so you never know what focus point the camera selected, unless you've done it manually. The K-x supports wireless flash control right out of the box, which is an unexpected extra on a camera in this class. And finally, the K-x uses AA batteries, which is something I always appreciate.

The K-x has a ton of features for an entry-level digital SLR. If you want to "set it and forget it", just set the mode dial to Auto Picture mode. The camera will select the proper scene mode for you, whether it's a portrait or macro shot. If you want to pick a scene mode yourself, there are plenty to choose from. Naturally, the K-x supports live view, which allows you to compose photos on the LCD display, just like you can on a point-and-shoot camera. You can detect faces, preview exposure and white balance, zoom in for precise manual focusing, and see a live histogram. As is usually the case, the live view feature has plenty of issues that come along with it. Those include very slow contrast detect autofocus (use phase difference for much better performance), difficulty focusing in low light, and poor low light visibility. The K-x also has a large selection of special effect filters, including a unique Cross Processing option. Enthusiasts will no doubt be pleased with the selection of manual controls on the K-x. You've got the usual manual exposure modes, plus Pentax's unique sensitivity priority mode, numerous ways to set the white balance (save for color temperature), and support for two RAW formats. There are also features to correct for barrel distortion, preserve highlights and shadows, and remove purple fringing. The K-x is also capable of recording movies at 1280 x 720 (at 24 frames/second) with monaural sound, for up to 11 minutes at the HQ setting. You can use the image stabilizer while you're recording, but the microphone will likely pick up the sound of the sensor moving around. The camera does not support continuous autofocus while recording movies, though I would be surprised if it did.

Camera performance was very good. The K-x is ready to go as soon as you flip the power switch. If you're shooting with the viewfinder, you won't wait long for the camera to lock focus, courtesy of the K-x's 11-point AF system. Things change dramatically if you're using live view, most notably with the two modes that use contrast detect AF. Instead of a half a second delay with phase difference AF, the contrast detect modes can take two or more seconds to lock focus. Shutter lag isn't a problem, though there is a slight delay when using live view and phase difference AF. Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, regardless of the image quality setting or whether you're using the flash. The K-x can shoot very quickly for a camera in the entry-level class, at frame rates of 4.6 frames/second. The only downside is that the buffer fills up relatively quickly, especially if you're shooting RAW. When equipped with decent NiMH rechargeables, the K-x's battery life is best in class. Pentax does not offer a battery grip for the K-x but then again, neither do most of its competitors.

Photo quality was also impressive. The K-x's weakest spot is in terms of exposure. Quite often the default exposure would be "off" a bit, so bracketing is a very smart idea. The K-x clips highlights more than I would like. Colors looked good, and the K-x has the sharpness set a little higher than on higher-end D-SLRs, which most consumers will appreciate (though the kit lens isn't terribly sharp toward the edges of the frame). Pentax has done a good job keeping noise levels at a minimum, with very clean-looking photos through ISO 3200 in good light, and ISO 1600 in low light. While there's a benefit to shooting RAW at middle sensitivities (e.g. ISO 1600, 3200), it doesn't help a whole lot when you approach the higher end of the spectrum. Purple fringing levels were moderate at times, though I blame the kit lens for that more than anything. To my surprise, redeye was a bit of an issue on the K-x, and there's no digital removal tool to help get rid of this annoyance.

I have just a few other things to mention regarding the K-x. There's no HDMI port, if you check the competition, most of them don't have one either. On a related note, Pentax does not include a video output cable with the camera, so if you plan on hooking the camera to your television, start looking for that cable. Finally, while it doesn't really effect overall camera behavior, the K-x's menu system feels very dated in the year 2010.

Despite a few flaws, most of which are minor, the Pentax K-x is an impressive entry-level digital SLR. It brings very good image quality (especially with a decent lens), snappy performance, tons of features, HD movie recording, and good build quality to the table for under $650 (with a lens). If you're looking for your first digital SLR, then the K-x should be high on your list.

What I liked:

  • A lot of camera for the money
  • Very good photo quality, with good high ISO performance
  • Well designed, easy to hold compact body; available in four colors
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Full manual controls, with unique sensitivity priority mode
  • Two RAW formats supported, plus way more custom functions than typical entry-level D-SLRs
  • Generally well-implemented live view feature
  • Fast startup, autofocus (with viewfinder), shot-to-shot speeds
  • Very snappy continuous shooting, though could use more buffer memory
  • Distortion, shadow and highlight levels, and purple fringing can be corrected as a photo is taken
  • Numerous digital filters in both record and playback mode
  • Built-in wireless flash support
  • Records HD movies at 1280 x 720 (24 fps)
  • Very good battery life; uses AA batteries

What I didn't care for:

  • Tends to clip highlights; exposure is frequently off slightly
  • Some redeye
  • AF points not shown in optical viewfinder
  • Kit lens is a bit soft toward edges of frame, and has moderate amounts of purple fringing at times
  • LCD isn't terribly sharp; viewing angle isn't great, either
  • Usual live view issues: slow contrast detect AF, poor low light focusing, image on LCD hard to see in low light
  • Image stabilizer noise easily picked up by microphone in movie mode
  • Dated menu system
  • No video output cable included
  • HDMI port would be nice

Some other entry-level digital SLRs worth looking at include the Canon EOS Rebel XS, Nikon D3000, Olympus E-620, and Sony Alpha DSLR-A380. The mirrorless, live view only Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and Samsung NX10 should not be overlooked, either.

As usual, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Pentax K-x and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out our gallery to see how the K-x's photos look!

Feedback & Discussion

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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.