Photo quality from the W90 is overall very good for its class. Point-and-shoots often produce soft-looking photos, and rugged cameras are even more prone to do so. Though the W90 isn't an exception, it is better than most. Noise will likely be a bigger concern for pixel peepers as it creeps in at ISO 80. Pentax does a good job of controlling it at the lower ISOs, though. At ISO 400 there's a noticeable increase in softness, which continues up to ISO 1,600, the highest available ISO at full resolution. When photos are viewed at small sizes there's still perceived detail at the highest sensitivities, but colors look washed out, making them of little use. Still, this is a camera designed for outdoor use and the W90 does very well when it has a lot of light. (View larger.)
Most digital cameras benefit from some sharpening with photo-editing software. In this case, the W90 lets you bump it up while shooting without a significant increase in noise. The flower on the left is shot at the camera's default sharpness, and the right is increased to the camera's maximum sharpness setting.(View larger.)
The W90's full-resolution continuous shooting is pretty quick at 1.4 frames per second, with focus and exposure set with the first shot taken. This is a 100 percent crop of the inset photo taken at ISO 200 with no sharpening applied. You wouldn't want to make a large print of this, but it's good for small prints and Web use. The camera also has a 5-megapixel high-speed burst that shoots at up to 2.7fps for six frames. (View larger.)
A 5x zoom is the maximum you can get on a rugged digital camera currently. The W90 starts at a wide 28mm going out to 140mm (35mm equivalent). That's a good range for a pocket camera, but the starting aperture is a somewhat slow f3.5.
The W90's wide-angle lens does exhibit some barrel distortion, but it's tough to see it because Pentax corrects it in still photos. The same for pincushioning when the lens is zoomed out. However, shoot a movie and you'll see it pretty easily. On the upside, the lens is pretty sharp and stays that way edge to edge and in the corners. Purple fringing is minimal as well, and definitely below average for its class.
Colors weren't accurate from the W90 in our tests with the exception of neutrals. The default color mode is Bright and it definitely churned out more-pleasing results than the Natural option, which tended to look flat and cool. Exposure was good, but white balance seems a bit hit or miss. The auto white balance was very warm under incandescent light, but the tungsten preset leaned toward cool. Outdoors, auto white balance performed better. However, and probably unsurprisingly, the manual white balance works best.