Pentax K-01 review

Pros

  • Features
  • Image quality
  • Available lens range

Cons

  • Handling
  • Design problems
  • Low-light focusing

All of the major manufacturers have now joined the compact system camera revolution, but Pentax is the only brand to be fielding two completely distinct mirrorless systems. I took a look at the tiny Pentax Q system back in June last year, and found it to be to be a competent and well-made camera, although somewhat restricted by its small 1/2.3in sensor. Also last year Pentax unveiled its second mirrorless system camera, the K-0, which overcomes that problem by employing a large 16-megapixel CMOS APS-C sensor. It also uses Pentax's venerable KA lens mount, which means that uniquely the K-01 is compatible with Pentax's entire range of SLR lenses without the need for an adaptor.

The K-01 is currently selling for around £380 body-only or £420 with an 18-55mm lens, which compares well with other APS-C compact system cameras. The Sony NEX-5R with an 18-55mm lens is around £460, the Canon EOS M is around £530, and the Samsung NX-210 is selling for about £570.

Design and features

In terms of technical features the K-01 shares a lot of its internal workings with the Pentax K-5. It has the same sensor, the same monitor, and the PRIME M processor is based on the K-5's PRIME II. It does have some differences; the maximum shutter speed is limited to 1/4000th of a second, and the maximum sensitivity is 12,800 ISO. The autofocus system is different too, due to the mirrorless design. Like other CSCs the K-01 has a contrast detection AF system, with face tracking, AF point selection and spot AF options. It shares many other features with Pentax's other DSLRs, including in-camera HDR capture, sensor-shift image stabilisation and full HD 1,920 x 1,080 30fps video recording with stereo audio and an external microphone socket.

As other reviewers have pointed out, because it uses the same lens mount system as Pentax's DSLRs the K-01 is much larger than its main competitors. In fact, discounting the handgrip and viewfinder turret, it's only a few millimetres smaller than the Pentax K-30 that I reviewed a few weeks ago. It is quite a bit lighter, however, weighing 557g body-only. The body is made from plastic, and the build quality really doesn't feel as good as I'd hoped. Most Pentax DSLRs are very sturdy, but the K-01 creaks when squeezed and the rear panel in particular feels quite thin.

The body of the Pentax K-01 was designed by acclaimed Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. Newson is best known for the flowing, organic shapes of his furniture designs, so the boxy rectilinear shape of the K-01 is something of a departure. Perhaps the kindest thing one can say about the design is that it's at least distinctive, but personally I'm not all that keen on it. The control layout is obviously designed more for aesthetic appeal rather than functionality, with far fewer external controls than I would normally expect to see on a serious camera. Apart from the main mode dial and the single adjustment wheel the controls look more like those of a budget compact.

My main problem with the design, however, is not aesthetic but practical. The hatch on the right of the body, covering the card slot and ports, is a floppy rubber flap that is flimsy, poorly fitted and extremely fiddly to re-seat after opening. It also forms part of the camera's handgrip, and unless carefully re-seated, a slight pressure in the wrong place can pop it open during use, potentially causing you to lose your grip on the camera. This makes me wonder if the esteemed Mr Newson has even tried using the camera he created, because it is a shockingly poor piece of design. Compounding that problem I also found the blocky body to be uncomfortable to hold, and the controls to be awkwardly positioned and unpleasant to use. As well as that, the rotary on/off switch around the shutter button is very easy to accidentally jog, especially when putting the camera into or taking it out of a bag.

As I've said many times before, the reason most cameras tend to look the same is because their designs have evolved over many generations to meet very specific requirements. When a fashionable designer with no experience in camera development comes along and rips up the rule book the result may look visually interesting, but it seldom produces a particularly good camera to use. Pentax isn't the first camera company to learn this lesson the hard way.

Performance

In terms of its overall performance the K-01 is actually a fairly capable camera, although not without its issues. If you go into the menu and turn off the start-up splash screen with Marc Newson's signature, then it can start up, focus and take a picture in approximately 2.3 seconds. In single-shot mode it can shoot a JPEG image also approximately once every 2.3 seconds, both of which figures are about average for a CSC but slow compared to most DSLRs, including other Pentax models. In Raw + JPEG the shooting rate the rate drops to approximately a frame every 2.6 seconds. In high-speed continuous shooting mode it shoots a three-shot burst in about a second, but then slows down, averaging approximately 1.3fps. High-speed shooting isn't available in raw mode, but the low-speed mode is nearly as fast in most conditions.

Like all CSCs the K-01 uses contrast detection autofocus, but despite the usual limitations of such systems it's a very fast and accurate system, at least in good light. It does start to struggle in dim lighting though, and even in a room lit brightly enough for reading it took several tries to focus on a high-contrast target. Once the light drops to night-time levels it starts to have serious problems. The K-01 has a built-in AF assist lamp - a green LED mounted beside the mode dial - but it is pretty weak and only has a useful range of about 1.5m, rather limiting the camera's usefulness in low lighting.

The pop-up flash appears to be identical to the unit on the K-7, K-5 and K-30. It has a useful range of about four metres and a recycle time after a full-power shot of around six seconds.

Image quality

Since the K-01 uses many of the same internal components as Pentax's digital SLRs, it's no real surprise that the image quality is exceptionally good. Thanks to the 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, the level of detail is a match for most mid-range DSLRs, with the best results obtained by shooting in DNG raw mode and applying a little sharpening in post-processing - a workflow that will please enthusiasts.

As you can see from the sample shots accompanying this review, the camera's high-ISO noise control is up there with the best on the market, offering virtually noise-free images at 3200 ISO, and images that are at least usable even at the highest setting of 12,800 ISO. It's a pity that the low-light focusing ability doesn't match this performance.

Dynamic range is also extremely good, with my usual very high contrast shot showing plenty of shadow detail and better than average highlight detail as well. Like all Pentax DSLRs the K-01 features in-camera HDR capture, which merges three consecutive shots at different exposures to record both highlight and shadow detail in the same image. The results can be impressive, and while HDR may be the most over-used photographic technique since push-processing, it is genuinely useful in very high contrast lighting. Things can look a little OTT at the highest setting, though.

Another feature common to both Pentax DSLRs and the K-01 is the Custom Image menu, which provides a selection of different pre-set tone control options suitable for different types of photo, ranging from natural colour to a psychedelic cross-processing option that produces deliberately distorted colour. The results in all settings are excellent, with the natural setting giving the best overall results.

Verdict

In face of competition from the rest of the industry Pentax had no choice but to join in the large-sensor end of the CSC market, and chose to do so trading on the unique feature of its widely-supported lens mount system. Unfortunately that means it loses one other advantage usually associated with mirrorless cameras; their compact size. I suppose the eye-catching Marc Newson design would also be a selling point to some, but in my opinion that design detracts from the camera's handling and usability.

Nevertheless, the K-01 performs well, with a fast and reliable autofocus system, a good range of features and accurate metering. The overall image quality is also excellent, with particularly good high-ISO noise reduction. It is also competitively priced, and with the huge range of Pentax-compatible lenses and accessories to choose from it is certainly worth considering as a low-cost entry point into the Pentax system. If only it was a little bit smaller…

ISO Performance

As usual these ISO test shots were taken using a table-top studio and tungsten studio lights, with tungsten white balance and +1EV exposure compensation. This is the full frame at 100 ISO, the lowest setting. (Click it for the full sized version).

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The images in the slideshow below are crops taken from the full size JPEG photos, shot at progressively higher ISO settings.

Sample Photos

Here's my usual detail test shot of the carved wooden door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter. See below for a full-scale crop.

The level of detail is pretty much identical to any of Pentax's recent DSLRs, and a match for most mid-range rivals. This shot was taken in DNG raw mode.

With the highlight and shadow preservation setting turned on the dynamic range is excellent, capturing plenty of shadow and highlight detail.

At its highest strength setting, the in-camera HDR feature can be a little too much.

The camera's pop-up flash is great for indoor shots, with accurate TTL metering to avoid bleaching out the exposure.

The K-01 took several tries to focus this low-light shot, but when it succeeded the result was a good picture.

Exposure metering is very accurate, and copes well with highlights and shadow areas.

In natural colour mode the colours are very…natural.

The natural greens and browns of this woodland scene are accurately reproduced.

The level of detail is extremely impressive, recording the fine texture of this beautiful carving.

The K-01 is a good camera for general photography, and handy to have around whenever the creative mood strikes you.

Specifications

Manufacturer and model

Pentax K-01

Image sensor

APS-C 23.7mm x 15.7mm CMOS, 16.28MP

Max. resolution

4,928 x 3,264 pixels

Zoom

By lens

Focal length (35mm)

By lens

Maximum aperture

By lens

Shutter speeds

1/4000th to 30 sec.

Auto-Focus

TTL Contrast detection

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

Auto, P, A, S, M, B, HDR

Exposure metering

TTL image sensor, multi-segment, centre-weighted, and spot metering

Image stabilisation

Sensor-shift

ISO range

ISO 100 to 12,800 (1/3EV, 1/2EV or 1EV steps)

LCD monitor

7.6cm (3in) TFT LCD, 921k dots

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

Pop-up, GN 12 (ISO 100/m)

Drive modes

Single, continuous low and high.

Image formats

RAW (DNG), JPEG (Exif 2.3)

Video

FULL HD: 1960x1080 (16:9) at 30/25/24fps

Memory card slot

SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1,860mAh

Ports

USB 2.0, HDMI

Dimensions (W x H x D)

121 x 79 x 59mm

Weight (body only)

557g body-only, inc. battery & card

Accessories

Body cap, neck strap, charger, software CD, manual

Software

SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.0 for PENTAX

Warranty

12 months