With blind dates, you don't usually get a second chance to make a first impression. Fortunately, camera manufacturers live by a different set of rules. They're free to refine a camera until it hits a sweet spot with price, features, and performance. We had a lukewarm response to the ; now Pentax has replaced that product with the Optio MX4. It has a 4-megapixel CCD, as opposed to the previous model's 3-megapixel sensor. It also has performance enhancements that make the MX4 more responsive. Like the previous model, the Pentax Optio MX4 is a hybrid photo/video camera with a 10X optical zoom, 10 scene modes, and three metering options. Even with the improvements, the photos don't quite measure up to those produced by many dedicated 4-megapixel cameras, and the video recordings fall short of what a typical MiniDV camcorder captures. If you're on a tight budget and quality is less important to you than having an integrated device, this could be a worthwhile choice. The Pentax Optio MX4's unusual design is something you either love or hate. When the swiveling pistol grip is extended, the camera resembles a futuristic ray gun, so be prepared for jokes about whether your new weapon is set to kill or stun. The grip feels comfortable and balanced across a wide range of positions. You'll need to extend the grip out enough to avoid bumping your finger into the case when pushing the zoom control to its extreme wide-angle setting. This problem occurs even when you mount the camera on a tripod. It's not a fatal flaw, but you'll need to adjust to it.
Constructed mostly of a hard plastic that resembles brushed aluminum, the camera body feels sturdy, as do the various buttons and dials. Unlike some inexpensive cameras, the Optio MX4 appears able to withstand a reasonable number of bumps and tumbles. With the battery and SD card installed, this device weighs a hefty 13.1 ounces. That's more than a typical 4-megapixel camera but less than most MiniDV camcorders.
The 1.8-inch LCD screen rotates 210 degrees vertically and 180 degrees horizontally, allowing you to position the camera for high- and low-angle shots, as well as self-portraits. There's no other viewfinder. Because the screen is attached to the top of the camera, it can block access to the top-mounted mode dial, power switch, menu button, and four-way controller, the last of which is used mostly for navigating LCD menus. It incorporates a center-placed OK button that can be tricky to select due to the small size of the controller. The onscreen menus are bright, distinctive, and well illuminated. That's especially important, given the generous selection of photo-specific, video-specific, and manual settings.
While the Pentax Optio MX4 is billed as a hybrid camera, its feature set is weighted toward photo capture. In addition to the fully automatic mode, you can use the mode dial to choose aperture priority, shutter priority, manual exposure, or a scene mode. The scene-mode selection gives you access to 10 options via the LCD. These include a night-scene setting that allows the shutter to remain open for as long as four seconds, a soft setting that applies the flare effect of a soft lens filter, and a panorama-assist setting that helps you stitch together overlapping photos. You can selectively save as many as 14 manual settings when the camera is turned off. All the photos are saved as JPEG files.
On the video side, you can select the resolution (640x480, 320x240, or 160x120), quality (three levels of compression), and frame rate (30fps or 15fps). There's also a time-lapse option that slows down the recording process to effectively speed up the recorded video by 2, 5, 10, or 20 times. You can create extraordinary time studies that are limited only by the available storage space on your SD card. All video recordings are stored as MPEG-4 files.
You'll also find some advanced features, such as a histogram display that analyzes light levels during shooting or playback to help you get better exposure. You have a choice of three metering options: spot, multisegment, and center-weighted. And the autobracketing option varies exposure, white balance, sharpness, color saturation, or contrast in a series of shots.