Looking for an easy-to-use pocket snapper with a price tag to befit an age of austerity? With credit-card-sized proportions, a lightweight yet solid build, 12.1-megapixel resolution and internally stacked 5x optical zoom, the Pentax Optio M900 appears a close rival of Nikon's Coolpix S5100. The M900 has the street price advantage at around £100, costing £50 less than the Nikon. But does that make it any better, or has performance been compromised to hit that all-important low price point?
Flesh on the bones
Whereas the Coolpix S5100 wears a jazzy metal exterior, Pentax has plumped for a more sober matte finish. The M900 is available in two colours: the black-and-chrome version of our review unit, and a more enticing burgundy red. Its aluminium skeleton is enshrouded by a thin rubber coating to aid grip, a useful feature also seen on Pentax's high-zoom RZ10 model. It's a sensible move, as there's nothing else on the camera that allows a firm hold. A rocker switch for operating the zoom is located where your thumb would otherwise comfortably rest at the back. The tactile coating also makes the camera feel less plasticky than you'd expect from a £100 snapshot.
Press the power button and the lens extends from flush with the body to its maximum wide-angle setting. A lilac light illuminates and the rear screen blinks into life. The lens is rather noisy as it travels -- in fact, it sounds disturbingly like an old man wheezing. It's no surprise, then, that the zoom rocker switch is disabled in movie mode because of the grating zoom mechanism.
Pictures are composed via a modest yet adequate 2.7-inch, 230k-resolution LCD screen, which offers a 4:3 aspect ratio and anti-reflective coating. A large rectangular shutter-release button and smaller on/off control are set into a tapered chrome strip on the top plate, which also runs down each side.
Until relatively recently, a camera in this price bracket would have been powered by two AA batteries. Instead, the M900 packs a rechargeable lithium ion cell, which has helped keep the size of the camera down. The battery is stored at the camera's base, where it snuggles next to a slot for an optional SD/SDHC media card.
A Pentax that isn't taxing
Resolution options range from 12 megapixels down to 640x480 pixels, with JPEG-compression/image-quality levels set either at 'good', 'better' or 'best'.
A simple quick-start sheet is provided out of the box, with the full user manual loaded onto the software CD (ArcSoft MediaImpression and Adobe Reader 9, both for Windows). It's lucky, then, that getting a picture out of the M900 is as simple as pointing and shooting. Pentax obviously had this in mind when they pared the camera's features right down to the basics.
There's no standard mode wheel offered, just a button marked 'scene' on the back plate. Press this, and you'll be met with an array of 20 cartoonish icons for standard shooting modes, including a 640x480-pixel video option (no HD movies here) at 30 frames per second. Otherwise, the default option is 'auto picture' mode. The user tabs through scene and subject-optimised settings via the four-way control pad just beneath the scene button. Each setting's function is highlighted in a single word as its corresponding icon is selected.
The more interesting of modes here include a backlight mode to avoid silhouettes when shooting against the sun, auto-tracking to lock onto your subject and maintain its focus and exposure, and an auto-panorama mode that takes three shots in succession as you pan with the camera, then automatically stitches them together with reasonably seamless results.
Being a snapshot camera for the masses, who are likely to be taking most of their photos of family and friends, the M900 comes with the now ubiquitous features of face, smile and blink detection. For lower-light shooting, ISO speeds of between ISO 80 and ISO 1,600 are manually selectable by choosing program mode -- again, a range that feels standard issue for its class. For adding visual punch to dull days, there's a vivid colour option, alongside regular black-and-white and sepia effect filters.
Since this is supposed to be a point-and-shoot camera, pure and simple, we shot using its auto setting for the most part, with mixed results. Our images suffered unexpectedly from some odd colour casts -- deep red berries appearing the colour of satsuma, blue skies distinctly purple -- that in the days of film you would have put down to a mix-up with the developing fluid. Although the degree of detail captured is reasonable if you have a steady surface and a static subject, camera shake and blurred images are a problem in lower lighting. If the sun dips behind a cloud, the camera is all too ready to automatically fire its flash to compensate.
From shot to shot, it proved tricky to achieve consistent results with the M900. In fact its performance, at the very worst, reminded us of that of a webcam, which isn't good. To some extent, we were able to save images we'd otherwise have binned by firing up Photoshop, but the target audience for this camera is surely people who want decent results right off the bat with minimal fuss. We did get the odd shot we were pleased with, but two or three attempts at the same picture were required.
We weren't expecting a great deal out of the Pentax Optio M900 for its cheap stocking-filler price, and our expectations weren't exceeded. In fairness, build quality is more substantial than usual, the rubber coating affording a less-plasticky feel than competing models at this price.
If, at the end of this review, you're still tempted to plump for an M900, be sure to take plenty of pictures in order to end up with ones worth keeping, given its hit-and-miss auto performance. It may be churlish to carp too much considering the minimal outlay required -- at this price, it certainly has gifting potential. Sometimes, though, it really is worth spending a little more -- and this is one of those times.
Edited by Emma Bayly