The Pentax K-01 mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (ILC) certainly makes an impression. While it definitely looks like a camera -- unlike, say, the Lytro -- it has a distinctive aesthetic that I think most people will either love or hate. And as a camera it inspires some ambivalence as well. It's capable of delivering outstanding photo quality for its price class, and the ability to use K-mount lenses without an adapter is more than worth the tradeoff of the huge body. But the autofocus and image processing is sluggish, and a camera this large really should have at least the option of an add-on EVF and/or an articulated display. Plus, there are some aspects of the design that simply annoy.
The K-01 has possibly the best midrange noise profile I've seen in a camera under $1,000. The Sony sensor produces extremely fine-grained noise, and Pentax's uncommonly intelligent JPEG processing results in generally clean images as high as ISO 800, and extremely usable ones through ISO 3200. I couldn't get better results processing the raw files (it uses DNG as its raw format) at any sensitivity. It doesn't even seem to exhibit any of the normal issues at high ISO sensitivities, such as hot pixels on dark backgrounds (like night skies).
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By other measures the photo quality rates as excellent for its class as well. Though the default color setting of Bright is typical for Pentax -- it pushes the saturation and contrast until blues and purples shift surreally -- with the Natural Custom Image preset the colors look neutral and accurate with no loss of saturation or flat-looking contrast. Metering and exposure are consistent and appropriate, and there's a reasonable amount of recoverable detail in overexposed highlights and clipped shadows if you process the raw files.
The 40mm kit lens is quite sharp, and the photos come out sharp without looking overprocessed and without distortion. However, the lens seems to suffer from worse fringing that usual, which might be attributable to tradeoffs made to keep it so flat and its mismatch with the extremely deep flange focus distance necessary to support the K-mount lenses.
The video quality is a mixed bag, though. On one hand, it's bright, saturated, and sharp in good light. But there's also quite a bit of rolling shutter and some haloing on edges. Low-light video is soft and quite noisy.
The kit lens is completely unsuited to autofocus during video as well, which is annoying. The AF stepping motor and aperture make loud noises which get picked up by the microphone, and I found the AF completely inconsistent and unreliable. However, the manual-focus lens ring works very well for video; it's servo-electronic, so it operates quietly and smoothly.
In fact, the autofocus system was generally disappointing, along with the shooting performance. The kit lens is especially infuriating: it's a prime, yet hunts for focus as if it's a zoom. After every shot, it resets, so when you're taking multiple shots of a stationary subject it iteratively refocuses every time. In low light, it can't find a lock more often and not; manual focus is faster.
The K-01 is the slowest camera in its class. It takes 1.8 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot, which doesn't sound like much but it's enough to make you miss a shot. Time to focus and shoot in good conditions is 0.6 second and 0.9 in low-contrast settings; that's twice as slow as all its competitors and pretty poor for the price. JPEG shot-to-shot time is 1.6 seconds -- sluggish -- but for raw that jumps to a whopping 2.7 seconds. All that beautiful image processing takes its time toll, I guess. It's faster to use flash, which only takes about 1.8 seconds for two sequential shots. The continuous shooting runs about 2.9fps, but I really wouldn't buy this camera to shoot burst, so I don't weight that result very heavily. (The display blanks completely during continuous shooting and it fixes focus to the first frame.) The slap of the shutter curtain is also disconcertingly loud and introduces vibration.
The more I use these cameras the more I wished at least the expensive ones had an articulated display; this model, which is relatively large, should have at least the option of an EVF. The LCD is big and bright, but really difficult to use in bright sunlight. The only saving grace is the camera's peaking feature -- a camcorder carryover that highlights edges during focusing, which we're seeing a lot more frequently these days on cameras. It's the only thing that makes it possible to ascertain if the scene is framed correctly and in focus when shooting outdoors and off-angle.
Design and features
Love or hate how it looks, the design works overall and has just a few, um, well, let's call them "quirks." It's big -- there's no getting around that, since it needs to have a long flange-focus distance in order to work with standard K-mount lenses. And it's surprisingly heavy, given all that empty space between the lens and the sensor. Also, given the size, the grip could stand to be a little deeper. But it's covered with a ridged, rubberized material that helps, and the rest of the controls are big and (mostly) easy to identify and access.