Pentax Optio W90 review: Pentax Optio W90

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MSRP: $329.95
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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Outstanding design; excellent feature set and shooting options for its class.

The Bad Short battery life; no optical or mechanical image stabilization.

The Bottom Line The well-designed Pentax Optio W90 offers up very good photos and performance at a reasonable price for a rugged pocket camera.

See a price from Amazon.com

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Image quality 7.0

There are a lot of rugged point-and-shoot digital camera options this year, but while most manufacturers are new to the market, Pentax is on its 11th generation with the Optio W90. The 12-megapixel camera is waterproof down to 20 feet, shockproof to 4 feet, and freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. It's got a body that can be held securely in and out of water and controls that are easily used with or without gloves. In fact, there's almost nothing worth changing about the design, and its feature set is robust for its class, going a bit beyond a basic point-and-shoot while still remaining simple to use.

When it comes to rugged cameras, though, much of the price you pay goes for the protection and not photo quality or shooting performance. If you're considering the W90 as a primary camera, you may want to consider just how much you need the durable construction. Overall, the W90's photo quality and performance are very good for its class, but a nonrugged model with a shockproof/waterproof case might be a better fit. This one is really best suited for adventurers wanting a well-appointed point-and-shoot that they don't have to worry about knocking around or getting wet.

Key specs Pentax Optio W90 (green)
Price (MSRP) $299.95
Dimensions (WHD) 4.2x2.3x1.0 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 5.7 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 12 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch CCD
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 2.7-inch LCD, 230K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 5x, f3.5-5.5, 28-140mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/Motion JPEG (.AVI)
Highest-resolution size (still/video) 4,000x3,000 pixels/1,280x720 at 30fps
Image stabilization type Digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Li ion rechargeable, 205 shots
Battery charged in camera No; external charger supplied
Storage media SD/SDHC; Eye-Fi support
Bundled software MediaImpression 2.0 for Pentax (Windows, Mac)

The W90 is built from reinforced polycarbonate plastic, though it does have a brushed-metal faceplate. The plastic could easily give the impression that it's a cheaply made camera, and it does make it feel slightly less rugged than the full-metal bodies of other rugged cameras. However, after testing, there is little doubt that the W90 can take the abuse Pentax claims, and the plastic keeps it very lightweight compared with metal-body models, so you won't be adding significant weight to your pocket or pack. A nice bonus is the included carabiner strap for quickly securing the camera to a bag or belt loop, and if you're afraid of dropping it while in the water, Pentax makes a floating strap for it as well. As with all rugged and waterproof cameras, there are handling precautions you need to take to keep water and dust out of the camera. These are clearly detailed in the front of the full, printed user manual that comes with the W90. (By the way, Pentax is one of the few manufacturers that still includes a full, printed manual with its cameras.)

In front is a 5x f3.5-5.5 28-140mm-equivalent lens protected by glass and surrounded by three LEDs that can be used to help brighten macro photos or as an impromptu flashlight. As with all rugged cameras, the lens is completely internal, but it's designed differently than typical internal lenses, allowing it to be positioned lower and more centered. This means the chances of getting fingers in your shots is far less likely to happen than on other internal lens cameras. On back is a reasonably bright 2.7-inch LCD. It has an antireflective coating, but you'll probably still struggle to see it in direct light.

Controls are easy to press with bare, gloved, or wet hands. They're fairly large considering the size of the camera's control panel. They're slightly raised from the body and well-spaced, so, again, pressing them isn't a problem. On top is the shutter release and power button, and the back has a zoom rocker; Play, Menu, and Face Detection buttons; a four-way directional pad with an OK button for selecting things; and Pentax's Green mode button.

The Face Detection options include a smile-activated shutter release setting, and the OK button doubles as a display button that cycles you through three information options as well as shutting the LCD entirely off, though I'm not sure how much use that is without an optical viewfinder. The directional pad navigates menus and photos and changes settings for the flash, focus, self-timer, and shooting modes. Lastly, the Green mode is Pentax's fully automatic you'll-get-no-control-over-anything-and-like-it shooting mode. What's great is that if you don't need that mode, Pentax lets you use it as a user-selectable shortcut button for accessing up to four settings such as exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, and metering.

The only real feature disappointment is the lack of optical or mechanical image stabilization. The camera instead has two electronic stabilization options. One is the traditional use of high ISOs and reduced resolution to keep shutter speed as fast as possible. It's effective to a point but really hurts image quality. The other option is Pentax's Pixel Track SR, which tracks motion blur at the pixel level, determining in real time the amount of blur. Once you've taken a shot, it filters the effect motion has on each pixel to sharpen them and remove blur (all of this takes a few seconds after the photo is captured). In my tests it works better than boosting ISO and shutter speed, as Pixel Track doesn't introduce more noise. However, in some of my shots it sacrificed sharpness in order to remove a slight blur. So it's not perfect, but it would be worth turning on if camera shake is unavoidable or if you're using the zoom lens.

The battery and memory card slots are behind a locking door in the bottom of the camera. Battery life is short; it's CIPA-rated for 205 shots, but using the LEDs, the zoom lens, shooting movies, etc., will bring that number down. If you're planning to take the W90 on a trip away from power outlets, you'll want to consider buying one or two extra batteries. Plus, the batteries aren't charged in the camera, so you'll need to take a charger with you, too. Under a locking door on the left side are Micro-HDMI and Micro-USB/AV ports. Cables for the latter are included, but you're on your own for the HDMI cable; Pentax sells one, but you can find it cheaper from other online retailers. A $29.95 waterproof infrared remote control is available, too, for those who want to shoot from a distance or reduce camera shake.

General shooting options Pentax Optio W90 (green)
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,600
White balance Auto, Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Manual
Recording modes Auto Picture, Program, Night Scene, Movie, Underwater, Underwater Movie, Landscape, Flower, Portrait, Digital Microscope (2 megapixels), Digital Wide (5 megapixels), Surf & Snow, Digital SR, Kids, Pet, Sport, Fireworks, Candlelight, Night Scene Portrait, Text, Food, Digital Panorama (2-megapixels per frame), Frame Composite (3 megapixels), Report, Green
Focus modes 9-point AF, Spot AF, Auto Tracking AF, Macro, Super Macro, Infinity Landscape, Pan Focus, Manual
Macro 0.4 inch (Wide); 2 feet (Tele)
Metering modes Multi, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects Natural, Bright, Monochrome
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

The W90's shooting modes are really geared for point-and-shoot users. You will not find any control over apertures or shutter speed with the exception of the Night Scene mode that uses up to a 4-second shutter speed. In fact, Pentax doesn't even bother sectioning off all its scene modes into a separate menu; they're simply lumped in with Pentax's scene-recognition Auto Picture mode and Program Auto. Program Auto gives you the most control over results, including settings for sharpness, contrast, and saturation. You can choose to shoot in three different color modes, but in playback you can apply several filters, including Sepia, Toy Camera, Retro, Color Extract, High Contrast, Soft, and Fisheye.

If you like to take a lot of close-ups, the W90's macro settings allow you to shoot as near as 0.4 of an inch from the camera and captures plenty of fine detail. One of the hyped features on this model is the Digital Microscope mode, which uses the three LEDs around the lens to brighten tiny subjects for macro shooting. The benefit of this mode over the regular macro options is that you can use the zoom lens to enlarge the subject before you shoot. The downside is the images are only 2 megapixels.

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