The compact, 4-megapixel Optio 430RS will appeal to novices who want a camera they can grow into. Although the camera has a competitive street price for its class, it comes with only a fixed 11MB of internal memory, so you'll need to build the price of a CompactFlash card into your budget. While you're at it, you may want to spring for an optional remote control or waterproof case, too. At 8.3 ounces with battery and media loaded, the Optio 430RS is quite compact and pocketable. You can even wear it around your neck like a pendant with the supplied strap. The camera's boxy steel body is solidly built, and its 3X zoom lens retracts behind a built-in cover when you shut the camera off. Pentax conveniently locates the CompactFlash slot on the side of the camera so that you can open it even when you're using a tripod, but the hinge and latch are a little stiff, so the cover doesn't always close properly.
Control layout is functional and tidy, with a large mode dial surrounding the shutter- release button on the top of the camera. On the back of the camera, three multifunction buttons and a four-way controller with a slightly raised OK/Playback button in the center provide instant and convenient access to many commonly used features.
When set on default, the 430RS is novice-friendly. But both beginners and advanced users will benefit from reading the manual to discover this camera's many hidden talents. Its text menu structure is straightforward and easy to navigate via the bright and clear 1.6-inch LCD. Even beginners will feel comfortable scrolling through the menu to experiment with different settings.
Rather than reverting to the defaults on start-up, you can save favorite settings, such as white balance, exposure compensation, and flash selections, so that the camera boots up just the way you want it. Photographers who insist on total manual control will want to look elsewhere. The 430RS offers no aperture- or shutter-priority exposure modes, and its manual mode allows you to select from only two f-stop options. But Pentax loads the camera with other features, ranging from the useful to the whimsical.
On the practical front, a dynamic histogram, activated by pressing the Display button, shows the distribution of brightness levels across the scene so that you can adjust exposure or composition accordingly. More standard features, such as exposure compensation; light sensitivity settings of ISO 100 and ISO 200; average, center-weighted, and spot metering; preset and manual white balance; and several focus options, including user-selectable spot and manual focus, are also available for those who want to venture beyond point-and-shoot. Sharpness, saturation, and contrast adjustments allow minor preshoot tweaking.
You can easily crop or resize images in-camera to conserve space or create e-mail-ready files. And if you want to save more space on your CompactFlash card, copying files from the card to the internal 11MB of memory proves equally convenient.
While you can't record sound with the 430RS, it does offer several interesting motion options in addition to 30-second-movie and continuous-shooting modes. Interval shooting, with selectable interval time and number of frames to record, allows you to record events over a long period of time; for example, a flower going from bud to bloom. Even more fun is the time-lapse movie mode, which lets you select the number of frames per second (fps) to capture, then plays your clip back at 15fps.
Other extras include in-camera digital filters in a variety of colors, a Slimming filter that expands or contracts images, and a 3D-capture function for creating stereoscopic images. And yes, the camera comes with a 3D viewer so that you can get the full effect.
A World Time function lets you know what time it is in 62 cities, and a built-in alarm clock will keep you on schedule. You can customize the alarm and the start-up screen with one of your photos for fun. Overall, the 430RS performs well. Start-up time is average at about 4 seconds, while shot-to-shot times using flash and midlevel resolution are quite respectable at slightly longer than 3 seconds. We could barely perceive a shutter delay under most conditions.
But the camera's autofocus operates a bit slowly, particularly under low-light conditions, and it tends to lag when the lens is zoomed out to a wide angle. We fared somewhat better with the selectable four-point autofocus than with the center autofocus. We found manual focus a little imprecise, but an auto enlargement feature zooms in so that you can check the sharpness at the center of the scene while focusing.
Like the lenses on many digital cameras, this one makes a bit more noise and moves a bit less smoothly and precisely than we'd like when zooming, although it's perfectly functional. On the other hand, the built-in flash provides relatively even coverage and delivers surprisingly minimal falloff at distances for a unit in a camera this size.
As is typical of ultracompact cameras, the 430RS has a small optical viewfinder that offers an incomplete view of the image frame and a visibly distorted view of close-up subjects. However, those with less than 20/20 eyesight will appreciate its diopter, which allows the viewfinder focus to be adjusted. For accurate composition, turn to the LCD; it offers 100 percent coverage. The 430RS's image quality both surprised and disappointed us. Overall, images are evenly exposed, with generally good white balance even on automatic (though automatic delivers a rather peachy color cast under tungsten lights). In fact, bright colors that are usually problematic for digital cameras, such as purples, reds, and oranges, are quite accurately reproduced by the 430RS. And the images display a minimal level of noise, fringing, and other artifacts.
Unfortunately, while the camera captures rich blacks, highlights are often clipped and shadow detail compressed. The 430RS also falls slightly short in sharpness. We expect consistently crisper images and better detail from a 4-megapixel camera.