Pentax seems to be taking the penta in its name to heart these days. With no fewer than six 5-megapixel models on the market, the company contributes even more than most manufacturers to this burgeoning group of digital cameras. The lead entry is the Pentax Optio S5z, a pocket-size camera offering a 3X optical zoom, high-resolution movies, and a large LCD. The Pentax's feature set goes a step beyond point-and-shoot but lacks the manual exposure controls that would take the Optio S5z to the next level. Although not quite small enough to fit into an Altoids tin like the original Optio S (we tried and it's just a hair too large), the Pentax Optio S5z is small and sleek, weighing in at 5 ounces with its tiny battery and an SD/MMC card installed. Even though the Optio S5z is basically a rectangle with curved corners, it's quite attractive. Aluminum alloy gives the digital camera a solid build, and there are no parts or pieces that will snap or fall off; we especially like the tiny sliding doors that cover the PC, A/V, and DC connections.
This Optio's control layout is logical and comfortable, although we have mixed feelings about the power button being flush with the camera's top surface. Granted, it helps prevent accidental power-ons, but it's a little difficult to find without looking. The large shutter-release button next to it is much easier to find by feel, but it's a bit stiff, and we had trouble keeping the Pentax still when shooting at low shutter speeds.
Controls are arranged neatly to the right of the large 2.5-inch LCD and, while some might find them too small to operate, are well spaced and easily accessed. Here you'll find the zoom lever, a programmable one-touch Quick button, a playback button, a four-way controller with a center Set key, and menu and mode buttons. The Quick button, by default, turns on the Pentax's Green mode, in which the only thing operational is the zoom. You can also program the Quick button to access a number of different functions, including resolution and ISO settings. All in all, this Optio has a very convenient setup, although first-timers will probably need to read the manual.
Clear and bright text and icons make navigating the LCD menus easy. The mode button displays icons and a text ID of the Optio's 16 exposure options, ranging from Program AE to a selection of scene modes and a custom User mode. Snapshot photographers--particularly those who want more control than just pointing and shooting--will appreciate the Pentax Optio S5z's feature set. In addition to automatic and scene modes and the standard exposure compensation, the S5z offers three-step individual control over sharpness, contrast, and saturation. Metering and focus choices are complemented by the ability to manually move and to set focus points. The Pentax Optio also offers several resolution and compression options, so you can choose the resolution/compression combination that best fits your intended output.
With the camera's 640x480/30fps movie mode, the Optio S5z offers better than average moving image capture, along with a time-lapse option. You can do some basic movie editing in playback, and you can even capture a still image from the footage.
In fact, the S5z offers a number of interesting options in playback, all easily accessed by pressing the mode button. These include adjusting underexposed images with a brightness filter, which actually works better than expected; you have a choice of overwriting the original or saving the adjusted image as a separate file. For fun and creative monochrome images, use Pentax's signature color filters to apply sepia, blue, yellow, and other tones to your photos.
The Optio S5z comes with software from ACDSee and an express version of Simple Star's PhotoShow for easy editing and for creating cool slide shows. The Pentax Optio S5z delivered uneven results in performance testing. Although not exceptional, the camera can hold its own when it comes to start-up; we took our first shot in less than 3 seconds when we disabled the default start-up picture. Shot-to-shot times under typical, nonflash conditions averaged about 2.2 seconds but more than doubled when we used a flash.
Continuous shooting at high resolution was only a fraction of a second faster than single-shot mode, and since the screen blacks out during shooting, you're almost better off using single-shot at high resolution. Setting the Pentax on low resolution delivered better--but not noteworthy--results at 1.29fps.
On the other hand, there was minimal shutter lag, and the camera was quick to focus under most conditions, although the autofocus was finicky in macro and supermacro modes. Equipped with an AF illuminator lamp, the Optio S5z did quite well in low-light testing, at least when our fingers weren't blocking the AF lamp while holding the camera, thanks to the lamp's positioning. The zoom was responsive, if a little noisy, but since it's nonfunctional during movie capture, the noise wasn't a problem.
The 2.5-inch LCD is bright and provides above-average viewing from angles, so it's easy to show your pictures to several people at a time. Superbright sunlight washes out your view, however, and the LCD doesn't gain up in low light, so it can be difficult to shoot in the dark, although we've seen worse.
Flash coverage was about average for a digital camera this size, so don't plan on illuminating anything more than a few feet away unless you're willing to let the Pentax boost the ISO to 200. Our test shots from the Pentax Optio S5z were about average: good, but not great. Colors were generally accurate, although slightly undersaturated on Program AE. Boosting the saturation setting helped, as did fill flash when the subject wasn't too close or too far away. In macro mode, the flash was sometimes overpowering.
While the Optio S5z captured good detail--down to the warp and weft of a piece of fabric--images weren't as sharp as we had hoped. Dynamic range was limited, particularly in highlights, resulting in loss of detail in brighter areas. We also noticed some purple fringing along high-contrast edges. Visual noise, however, was acceptable over the entire range of ISO settings.
Video capture was about average for an ultracompact digital camera as well; we expected better results, considering the specifications.