Pentax Q review

Pros

  • Versatility
  • Build quality
  • Compact
  • Handling

Cons

  • Small sensor for a CSC
  • Price

I've taken a look at several compact system cameras recently, including the Nikon 1 J1, the Samsung NX200 and the outstanding Sony NEX-7 which I reviewed last week. I have another CSC for you this week too, but this time it's something a little different. The Pentax Q holds the distinction of being the smallest compact system camera on the market, and by a considerable margin. It's a record that it's likely to hold onto for some time, because I can't think of any feasible way to make a smaller one that would still be usable.

Back in 1978, Pentax introduced the amazing Auto 110, a tiny SLR camera complete with a range of lenses and accessories, which used the 110 film cassette format. I suspect the Auto 110 may have been the inspiration for the Pentax Q, because it is very much a digital version of the same concept. While most CSCs use relatively large Four-Thirds or APS-C sensors, the Q uses a small 1/2.3in sensor, a type more commonly found in compact cameras.

As a result, the Pentax Q is absolutely tiny. It measures just 98 x 57.5 x 31mm and weighs just 200g without a lens, in other words about the size of a normal compact digital camera. However, while it may look like a toy compared to other current CSCs there's nothing trivial about its specification or design. The sensor is small but it packs a punch; it's a 12.4-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS chip, which is combined with the new Q Engine image processor derived from the one used in Pentax's award-winning DSLRs. It also features Pentax's well-proven SR sensor-shift image stabilisation system.

The overall design of the camera combines unashamedly retro styling with modern controls and features similar to Pentax's compact cameras. The body is made from strong but light magnesium alloy and feels very durable and well made, and a lot more solid and substantial than you'd expect from just looking at it. The fit and finish is of a very high standard, the hatches have metal hinges and all the controls feel solidly mounted and reliable. The camera body has a leather-textured soft plastic trim covering the lower two-thirds of the front panel as well as the small but functional handgrip included on the right-hand side.

The main external features are also of very high quality. The monitor screen is a 7.6cm (3in) unit with a nice fast refresh rate, excellent contrast and a resolution of 460k dots. It is bright enough for outdoor use, and has a very wide viewing angle in all directions. Not surprisingly the Pentax Q has no built-in viewfinder, although an optional optical viewfinder is available as an accessory. Special mention must go to the built-in flash, which can be used in two ways; either in its normal closed position where it works in the same way as a compact camera flash, or with the flick of a switch it can pop up into its extended position. This places the flash further from the lens, reducing the risk of red-eye in close-range portraits. There is also a hot-shoe for adding an external flashgun, although many current flashguns would be considerably larger than the camera!

The Q's controls are fairly straightforward, with a layout similar to Pentax's range of compact cameras. It has a main mode dial on the top panel offering a full range of exposure modes, including full auto, program auto, aperture and shutter priority, and full manual, as well as a scene mode with 21 programs, and something called Blur Control, which artificially blurs the foreground and background of images. Exposure values and other settings are adjusted by a control wheel mounted just above the thumb rest. The range of exposure control is quite impressive for such a small camera, with shutter speeds of 30 seconds to 1/2000th of a second, while the tiny 8.5mm prime lens supplied as part of the basic kit offers an aperture range of f/1.9 to f/8.

One unusual feature is a rather retro-looking five-position dial on the front of the camera, which is used to add Smart Effect filters to your pictures. The filters, which are assigned to each of the numbered settings, can be customised via the menu.

Although the Pentax Q is likely to be sold alongside cameras such as the aforementioned Sony NEX-7 and other expensive high-spec CSCs, and will no doubt suffer by comparison, it's not really designed to compete with such cameras. Pentax also makes the K-01, an APS-C mirrorless camera that I'm hoping to review in a week or two, which can reasonably be compared to other high-spec models. Instead, the Q should be compared to high-end compact cameras such as the Panasonic LX5 or the Canon S100, both of which are about the same price as the Pentax Q with the prime kit lens seen here. Measured against this competition, the Q offers comparable performance and image quality but with greater flexibility and creative potential. Its versatility will continue to grow as Pentax introduces more Q-system lenses and accessories.

In terms of overall performance, the Q acquits itself quite well. It can start up and take a picture in about three and a half seconds, which is about average for an advanced compact, and in single-shot mode its shot-to-shot time is approximately 1.7 seconds, which isn't bad at all. It has two continuous shooting modes; in high-speed mode it will shoot a sequence of six frames in about two seconds, but then slows down to a more sedate one frame per second, although it will shoot slightly faster with a high-speed SD card. In the low-speed continuous mode it can shoot at approximately one frame a second and keep it up until the card is full, but again this will depend on having a good quality card; slower cards mean slower shooting.

Like all CSCs the Q uses contrast-detection autofocus, and it has to be said this has never been Pentax's strong suit. The AF system in the Q is reliable, and even works well in low light, but you could never describe it as fast. It takes nearly a second to focus even in good light.

When it comes to image quality, unfortunately the Q is somewhat let down by its small sensor. As 1/2.3in sensors go it's really not bad, but I can't help but feel that Pentax has sacrificed quality for style.

In fact, image quality is pretty good by compact standards, and the tiny 8.5mm prime lens does an excellent job. Centre sharpness is very good, and doesn't drop off much towards the corners. There was a little chromatic aberration visible as a violet fringe in some shots, but it's not too serious.

High ISO noise control is also better than average, although it's a long way from the best on the market. It produces images at 1600 ISO that are just about usable, but beyond that the quality breaks down quickly (see the ISO results on page 2).

Overall image quality is really quite good, with surprisingly wide dynamic range for such a small sensor, accurate well-balanced exposure and nice natural colour rendition. The level of fine detail is certainly better than most 1/2.3in compact cameras, although naturally it's not even close to the likes of the NEX-7.

I should also mention the video recording mode. The Pentax Q can shoot 1080p full HD, although only with mono audio recorded via a single onboard microphone. Video output is via an HDMI socket concealed behind a rubber plug in the bottom of the camera. Video quality is very good for such a small camera, but sound quality does leave a lot to be desired.

Before I wrap this up, I'll quickly comment on pricing. The Pentax Q is currently selling for around £350 with the standard 8.5mm prime lens seen here, or around £500 for a two-lens kit with the addition of a 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens. This makes it the second-cheapest CSC on the market, beaten only by the £285 Olympus E-PM1. To be honest I feel it's a little over-priced, but then considering the mag-alloy body and its handling/operational performance it couldn't realistically be much cheaper. If you really need a CSC this small, or if you're just overwhelmed by the sheer cuteness factor of those tiny lenses, then go ahead and buy it, you certainly won't be disappointed. Personally, I'm going to save up and buy a Sony NEX-7 instead.

Verdict

The Pentax Q is a unique camera, and is therefore rather hard to summarise. In terms of sheer image quality it clearly can't compete with its larger-sensored CSC rivals, but such a comparison is rather unfair since it's not really intended as a competitor to the likes of the NEX-7. What it does represent is an alternative to high-end compact cameras, offering greater creativity and versatility than almost any of them, which will only increase as the range of lenses and accessories grows. It is also a real pleasure to use, with simple but flexible controls, some clever and innovative features, easy handling and exemplary build quality. It is something of a novelty, but that doesn't detract from what is a genuinely excellent little camera.

This is the scene I use for assessing ISO noise. Below are crops taken from the full-size photos captured at increasing ISO sensitivity. As usual the pictures were shot under tungsten studio lighting using custom white balance and +1EV exposure compensation.

f/8, 1/2 sec, 125 ISO. While it's not up to the standard of last week's NEX-7, at the minimum ISO setting the image quality is very good.

f/8, 1/3 sec, 200 ISO. At 200 ISO there's already a slight dusting of image noise.

f/8, 1/6 sec, 400 ISO. There's more noise visible at 400 ISO, but it's not too bad and colour reproduction is still OK.

f/8, 1/13 sec, 800 ISO. Noise is progressively worse at 800 ISO, but the overall quality is still pretty good.

f/8, 1/25 sec, 1600 ISO. At 1600 ISO the noise reduction has severely compromised image quality.

f/8, 1/50 sec, 3200 ISO. At 3200 the picture quality has deteriorated too far to be of much use.

f/8, 1/100 sec, 6400 ISO. I really wish camera companies would stop putting in high-ISO modes that produce results like this. Seriously, what use is it?

f/1.9, 1/400th, 125 ISO. The image processing includes automatic correction for lens distortion, so there's almost none visible in this shot.

This is a crop from the centre of the above image. As you can see it's certainly sharp.

Corner sharpness is pretty good too, with no corner blurring, although there is a little chromatic aberration.

f/5.6, 1/320, 125 ISO. Here's the usual shot of the carved door of 10 Cathedral Close for comparison.

And here's a crop from the full size image. The level of detail isn't up to the standard of an APS-C camera, but it's really not at all bad.

Click to see the full-size photos:

f/3.2, 1/160th, 125 ISO. Dynamic range is surprisingly good for a small sensor. Some highlights have been lost, but there's lots of shadow detail.

f/8, 1/80th, 125 ISO. Colour reproduction is nice and natural in the default mode.

f/8, 1/200th, 125 ISO. The automatic optical distortion correction is good for architectural shots.

Manufacturer and Model

Pentax Q

Image sensor

1/2.3in BSI CMOS, 12.4MP

Max. resolution

4000 x 3000

Zoom

By lens

Focal length (35mm)

By lens

Maximum aperture

By lens

Shutter speeds

30 sec - 1/2000th

Auto-Focus

Contrast detection

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

P, A, S, M, Auto, scene modes, blur correction

Exposure metering

TTL, multi-zone, C/W, spot

Image stabilisation

Sensor shift

ISO range

125 - 6400

LCD monitor

7.6cm (3in) LCD, 460k dots, wide angle

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

GN approx 5.6 (ISO 125)

Drive modes

Continuous lo and hi.

Image formats

JPEG, Raw

Video

1080p MPEG-4, mono audio

Memory card slot

SD, SDXC/HC

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1000mAh li-ion rechargeable, CIPA 230 images

Ports

HDMI, USB 2.0

Dimensions (W x H x D)

98 x 57.5 x 31mm

Weight (body only)

200g inc. battery and memory card

Accessories

Charger, neck strap

Software

SILKYPIX

Warranty

12 months