There is such a wide variation in digital camera designs and specifications that fitting them all into neat, easily distinguished categories is almost impossible. This is especially true with the broad and rather nebulously defined category known as compact zooms or "travel cameras". Generally a travel camera is any medium sized compact camera with a long zoom lens that folds flush (or nearly so) with the body, and which usually has above average video capabilities. Specifically, at least as far as the manufacturers are concerned, it means "anything that tries to compete with the Panasonic TZ30".
Travel cameras are usually fairly expensive, with the aforementioned Panasonic TZ30 and its arch-rival the Canon SX260 both costing around £330, and even lower-spec models such as the Nikon S9300 or Fujifilm F660 cost well over £200. There would seem to be a bit of a gap in the market for a good low-cost travel camera, and that is where Pentax has positioned its new Optio VS20. Launched in January of this year, the VS20 is currently on sale for around £145 from many retailers, less than half the price of some of its rivals.
One might expect that the design of the VS20 would show some influence from Pentax's recent merger with Ricoh, which is of course the originator of the compact zoom concept. The VS20 does bear a slight superficial resemblance to the Ricoh CX6, but only to the extent that it is a rectangular box with a big zoom lens on the front. In the case of the VS20 that box is made of plastic, and not particularly sturdy plastic either, with panels that flex slightly when squeezed and joint lines that look worryingly wide.
It's quite a large camera, measuring 108 × 60 × 34mm, but it weighs only 191g including battery and card, making it feel rather insubstantial. However the size does mean that there's plenty to grab hold of, with a handgrip moulded into the front panel and a large textured area on the back for extra grip. The main controls are large, clearly labelled and well spaced out for easy operation, and the camera handles quite well, although the flash is annoyingly positioned so that your right knuckle inevitably casts a shadow. The VS20 is available in either the "brilliant white" finish shown here, or "noble black".
The VS20 has one very unusual feature; a second shutter button and zoom control located on the right-hand end of the body. This is a feature found on some large high-end digital SLRs, where it comes in handy when shooting in vertical portrait format, but on the VS20 it's just a bit of a gimmick. There's no way to hold the camera comfortably or securely while using the second shutter button, and it's always easier to just use the normal button.
It also has a second tripod bush on the left end, but again this is a pointless gimmick; all photo tripods can tilt. Another slightly unusual feature is the inclusion of a neck strap, which attaches to the right-hand end of the camera so that it hangs end-upward. This works perfectly well and makes a nice change from the usual wrist strap.
The VS20's main selling point is its very powerful 20x zoom lens, one of the longest on any travel camera and all the more impressive because it folds almost flush with the body. Its zoom range is equivalent to 28-560mm, making the VS20 an extremely versatile camera, capable of covering everything from wide angle to long telephoto. The camera is equipped with Pentax's excellent sensor-shift image stabilisation system, and even at full zoom it can take shake-free hand-held shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/40th of a second, a gain of around three and a half stops, which pretty impressive. It also has an auto levelling feature, to keep your horizons straight.
Like a lot of travel cameras the VS20 is essentially a simple point-and-shoot compact, and lacks the sort of creative manual exposure options found in some more advanced models. It is extremely easy to use and only has automatic exposure modes, with program auto, the simplified "auto pict" mode, and 22 scene modes covering all the usual contingencies, such as landscape, sport, sunset etc. One slightly unusual option is the "handheld night snap" mode, which takes three shots at 5MP resolution and then combines them into one shake-free shot. It does work surprisingly well, providing some useable results even in very low light conditions. One significant omission is any metering options. The VS20 has only multi-segment matrix metering, with no spot or centre-weighted options available.
Naturally the VS20 also features Pentax's comical trademark "frame composite" mode, a feature I've enjoyed on every Pentax compact of the past ten years. It only has three frames built-in, but there are 90 more wonderfully kitsch examples available on the CD-ROM.
Most travel cameras feature high quality video recording capabilities, often with full HD quality and stereo sound. Unfortunately the VS20 isn't one of them. It has 720p with mono sound, clips are limited to ten minutes and there's no optical zoom while recording. It does have a dedicated button to instantly start recording though.
The camera's overall performance is adequate, although not exactly sparkling. It can start up and take a shot in approximately two and half seconds, which is quite impressive for its class and price, but its shot-to-shot time in single exposure mode is also approximately two and a half seconds, which is less impressive. The screen also goes dark for a second between shots, which can get annoying if you're trying to track a moving subject. In the full resolution continuous shooting mode its shot-to-shot time is still around two seconds, and again the screen display flickers and vanishes, making tracking impossible.
Apart from its utterly boneheaded location, the flash is actually very good. It has a useful range of about four metres indoors at night, and takes approximately nine seconds to recharge after a full power shot.
The autofocus system is fairly good most of the time, although its surprisingly large minimum focusing distance at longer focal lengths can cause problems when zooming in for close-ups on subjects less than about five metres away. At wider settings, or with distant subjects at longer settings, it focuses quite quickly and reliably.
One serious performance concern is battery life. The VS20 is powered by the same D-LI122 battery that powers Pentax's tiny pocket compacts. It says 1000mAh on the label, and the spec sheet claims it's good for 200 shots, but I fully charged the battery before I started testing and the battery indicator was showing empty after only about 100 shots. Bizarrely it then went on to take another 80 shots, many with flash, and even shoot a few video clips, before it finally quit. That's with a brand new battery, and Li-ion batteries are known to get a bit better after a few charge cycles, but even so 200 shots isn't exactly a lot.
So far the VS20 is looking like a pretty good choice if you're after a simple, reasonably priced zoom compact. A few minor problems perhaps, but nothing too serious, but then we come to image quality, and that's when the klaxon goes off.
I wish Pentax would stop doing this to me. I've owned and used Pentax cameras for over 30 years, I use a Pentax DSLR professionally, and in my opinion Pentax has made some of the finest cameras and lenses in the world. I mean, have you seen the 645D? It's amazing. So why, oh why, do I keep finding Pentax compacts with such horrible image quality?
For all I know the VS20's lens may be very good, but it's impossible to tell because the images are so massively over-processed and over-sharpened that they look like they were coloured in with felt tip pens. The sharpness is adjustable in the menu, as are contrast and saturation, but even the lowest setting makes no appreciable difference. Colour rendition looks about as natural as Kraft Cheese Spread, it has the dynamic range of a drawing on a blackboard and if the images were any noisier the neighbours would have called the police. Despite the absurd 16-megapixel resolution, the image files are so over-compressed they're only around 3.2MB on the card.
Noise reduction kicks into overdrive at 800 ISO and basically erases any detail from the image, but even that can't stop the images at 1,600 ISO looking like a pointilist painting. The pixel-binned 5-megapixel images at 3,200 and 6,400 ISO look like they were shot on a webcam, and not a good one either; one of those cheap crappy ones from the 1990s.
When are manufacturers going to learn that you simply can't cram 16-megapixels worth of photocells onto a 1/2.33in CCD chip and expect to get a decent picture out of it? If the VS20 had half the megapixels it would have been twice the camera.
Despite the daft gimmick of the second shutter release the VS20 could have been a pretty decent camera. The image stabilisation is superb, it looks good, handles well, has fairly good performance, and the 20x zoom is very useful. Unfortunately some idiot then decided to ruin it by giving it a pointlessly overcrowded sensor, resulting in utterly execrable image quality. What a shame.
Here's the full frame picture at 100 ISO. These pictures were shot using tungsten studio lights and custom white balance. Click to see a bigger version.
100 ISO, 1/10th, f/3.9. Even at the lowest ISO setting there is some mottling in the green areas, and the effects of chronic over-sharpening are visible.
200 ISO, 1/20th, f/3.9. At 200 ISO there is clearly visible noise in all areas, and already the noise reduction is reducing detail.
400 ISO, 1/40th, f/3.9. At 400 ISO the noise is worse, colours are losing saturation and the noise reduction is getting even heavier.
800 ISO, 1/80th, f/3.9. I actually had to check that I hadn't taken the picture out of focus, but no, that's actually what the noise reduction does at 800 ISO. Unbelievable.
1600 ISO, 1/160th, f/3.9. 1600 ISO is basically unusable. Despite the almost total lack of any detail the image is still incredibly noisy.
3200 ISO, 1/320th, f/3.9. Why would you bother putting a mode like this on what purports to be a serious camera?
6400 ISO, 1/640th, f/3.9. And you though it couldn't get any worse.
For what its worth, here's the full frame at 6400 ISO.
Here's my new standard detail shot, which you will be able to compare with other cameras. It's the 15th century carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter. Click to download the full-sized version. Don't worry, it's massively over-compressed so it's only 3MB.
Here's a full resolution crop from the above image. As you can see it is over-sharpened to the point that it looks more like a painting then a photograph. How could anyone have thought this was a good idea?
The massive 20x zoom appears to produce very little barrel distortion at wide angle, but that is most likely the result of digital processing rather than optical quality.
The lens is sharp enough in the centre of the frame, but the image is again over-sharpened.
The corner of the frame shows more over-sharpening, some distortion from the optical correction, and chromatic aberration.
Despite the D-Range setting the highlights are all burned out and the shadows are all murky black, with not much range in between.
The wide angle end of the zoom is equivalent to 28mm.
The telephoto end of the zoom is equivalent to 560mm.
Colour rendition is muted, lacking saturation or contrast.
The vertical mode shutter button doesn't really help with vertical shots. I mean, does anyone actually find it hard to hold a camera sideways?