There's something very appealing about a vintage camera; the patina of wear and tear on a decades-old camera tells a tale of its life and use that is highly valued by collectors. Modern manufacturers are of course keen to cash in on this fascination with the retro, and several digital cameras are available that are deliberately designed to resemble older film cameras from the 1960s and 1970s. One such model is the new Pentax MX-1, a 12-megapixel advanced compact featuring a large 1/1.7in back-illuminated CMOS sensor and a fast f/1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens.
The outward appearance of the MX-1 is designed with a particular eye on retro appeal, and even the name comes from the classic Pentax MX 35mm SLR, launched in 1976. The MX-1 has a chunky all-metal body with bevelled corners, strongly reminiscent of the shape of its earlier namesake, and is available in either all-black, as seen here, or with the leatherette-black and matt-silver finish of those 1970s cameras. To add even more to the retro look, the metal parts are brass rather than steel, so as the camera wears the brass will show through and it will take on even more of the look of the vintage camera it seeks to emulate. It's clever I guess, but doesn't really add much to the performance of the camera.
Design and features
While the retro look of the MX-1 will appeal to some, Pentax seems to have forgotten that it actually has to be used in the present day. The blocky rectilinear body isn't particularly comfortable to hold, and while the leather-textured rubber covering is quite pleasant, the lack of any front handgrip or rear thumb grip is an oversight that is hard to ignore. The thumb area on the back of the camera is very small, and the curved edge of the back plate makes it hard to grip securely. It's also quite a heavy camera for its size thanks to the brass construction, and is very awkward to use one-handed.
The control layout is part rangefinder, part digital. The large mode dial and the separate exposure compensation dial are welcome, as is the adjustment wheel for exposure setting, but the D-pad is very small and fiddly. Main camera settings are adjusted via a graphic interface activated by the Info button, or by a more traditional multi-page menu. The menu layout and font are the same as Pentax has been using on its DSLRs for as long as I can remember, and it's looking a bit dated compared to the slick graphical presentation of some of its major rivals.
In terms of features, the MX-1 is competent, but doesn't really offer anything special. The f/1.8-2.5 lens is fairly fast and its 28mm wide angle is useful, but it's outclassed by cheaper, smaller and much more practical cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix LX7 or the Samsung EX2F, among others. Similarly, its 12.76-megapixel 1/1.7in back-illuminated CMOS sensor, while a step up from the 1/2.3in sensors in most of Pentax's range, is merely average in today's advanced compact market. Compared to high-spec models such as the Sony RX100 or the Canon G1 X it looks distinctly underpowered, especially considering that both of those cameras are about the same price as the MX-1.
The video-recording mode is also good, shooting in full 1,920 x 1,080-pixel HD at 30fps, with stereo audio recorded by a pair of microphones on the top panel. However, as is often the case, the mics are very prone to picking up wind noise despite the wind suppression setting, and the lack of any manual level control means that recording anything such as music produces poor audio results. At least optical zoom and autofocus while shooting is available, although these options have to be turned on in the menu.
The MX-1 does have a few very outstanding features though. The monitor is excellent. It has a big 3in screen, with a 920,000-dot resolution, and a very wide 170-degree viewing angle with a good anti-glare coating. It is partly articulated, tilting down by 45 degrees or up by 90 degrees, useful for shooting over your head or from waist level. The pop-up flash is also excellent, with a very powerful maximum range of 12.2m at wide angle or 8.8m at telephoto.
Like its feature set, the MX-1's overall performance is not really bad, but just a bit disappointing. From a cold start, it powers up and takes a picture in a little under four seconds, which is a bit on the slow side, and in single-shot JPEG mode it has a consistent shot-to-shot time of approximately two seconds, which is also a bit slow compared to other similarly priced cameras. In raw mode, it slows down to a crawl after five shots, taking approximately seven seconds to record each shot, even when using a very fast memory card.
The autofocus system is fairly quick, at least in good light, but in dim evening lighting it does slow down a lot. It does, however, always find its mark eventually.
One very impressive facet of the camera's performance is its battery life. The MX-1 is powered by a big 1,250mAh li-ion rechargeable, and in the two weeks that I had the camera for testing, shooting close to 200 shots, the battery indicator barely dropped to the halfway mark. Pentax claims 290 shots on a full charge, but this may be a bit on the conservative side.
With mobile phones having all but taken over day-to-day snapshot duties, the only reason anyone has for buying a camera like this is for enthusiast-level hobby photography, and for that you really need superior image quality. The MX-1 can deliver very good quality in the right circumstances, but unfortunately it does have a few serious problems.
Overall exposure is very good, metering accurately and producing good results in all lighting conditions. Colours are bright and well-saturated, although it does have a tendency to over-saturate reds in both JPEG and raw modes, leading to loss of detail.
The sensor-shift image stabilisation system works well, turning in shake-free hand-held shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/20th of a second, and the in-camera HDR function produces very pleasing results in high-contrast situations.
Now for the bad news. First, there's the lens. It offers excellent corner-to-corner sharpness, with no visible chromatic aberration or corner blurring, and the centre sharpness is outstanding, but it does produce a lot of barrel distortion at wide angle, which the camera doesn't appear to be able to correct.
More serious, though, is the image noise. The whole point of a larger back-illuminated CMOS sensor is that it's supposed to produce less image noise in low light and high ISO settings, but for some reason the MX-1 just doesn't deliver.
The image quality at 100 ISO is very good, but as you'll see from the ISO Performance slideshow below, noise is a serious problem at all ISO settings above 100, with the kind of results at 1600 ISO that other recent cameras are producing at 6400. Compared to most of its current rivals the MX-1 is about five years behind the curve in this department.
All in all, it's hard to recommend the MX-1 as an enthusiast's camera. Compared to other cameras of the same price it just doesn't deliver the kind of image quality I'd expect.
The Pentax MX-1 is something of a disappointment for anyone hoping to see a really good advanced compact from this troubled veteran company. Its retro appeal and the gimmick of the brass bodywork only really work if the camera itself is likely to become a treasured possession, and sadly its clunky handling, lacklustre features, high asking price and some annoying image quality problems make this very unlikely.
It is outperformed, undercut and generally outclassed by smaller, cheaper and better performing cameras from other brands, and offers little incentive for the enthusiast shooter apart from that retro nostalgia, which really isn't going to be enough on its own to justify spending nearly £400 on a frankly rather average camera. In the highly competitive advanced compact camera market the Pentax MX-1 is unlikely to give Canon, Sony or Panasonic any sleepless nights.
All ISO test shots were taken using tungsten studio lights, tungsten white balance and +1EV exposure compensation. ISO sensitivity test shots were taken at progressively higher ISO settings and crops taken from the full size JPEG photos. These crops are displayed in the slideshow below.
Detail and lens distortion
Here's the usual shot of the carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter, which I take with all cameras so you can compare the level of detail. Click on the image to download the full-sized original. As you can see in the original file, the amount of detail that the MX-1 records is as good as any other advanced compact on the market.
While the lens does produce good corner-to-corner sharpness, the amount of optical distortion at wide angle is far worse than I would have expected. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
Lens zoom range
Standing from the same point, here's the field-of-view you can expect to capture when the lens is at its full wide and full zoom positions.
The MX-1's larger sensor produces better-than-average dynamic range, with good shadow and highlight detail. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
The in-camera HDR function works very well, producing a nice natural-looking picture with excellent shadow detail. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
The MX-1 is sold on its low-light capabilities, and to be fair it is pretty good. The sensor-shift image stabilisation and fast lens produce good hand-held results even at slow shutter speeds. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
The MX-1 really doesn't get on at all well with the colour red. This shot is massively over-saturated, losing fine detail in the flower petals. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
Shooting in raw mode and hand-processing lets the MX-1 really shine, but only under the right circumstances. Click on the image to download the full-sized original.
Manufacturer and model
Image sensor and size
12.76-megapixel CMOS, 1.17in
4,000 x 3,000
4x optical, 1.95x digital
Focal length (35mm)
6-24mm (28-112mm equiv.)
f/1.8 - 2.5
1/4 sec. - 1/2,000 sec.
TTL contrast detection
P, A, S, M, Auto
Multi-segment, centre-weighted, spot
100 - 12800
7.6cm (3in) 920k dots
Pop-up, wide: 0.4 - 12.2m, tele: 0.4 - 8.8m
Single, continuous, burst, self-timer, remote
JPEG, DNG raw
Full HD 1,920 x 1,080, 30fps
Memory card slot
SD, SDHC, SDXC
USB 2.0, HDMI Type D
Dimensions (W x H x D)
122.5 x 60 x 51.5mm
Weight (body only)
Neck strap, lens cap, charger, software disc
Silkypix Developer Studio 3.0 LE