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Pentax Optio MX review: Pentax Optio MX

Pentax Optio MX

David English
6 min read
It may not be the Holy Grail, but so far no one has figured out how to successfully squeeze high-quality photo- and video-recording into a single compact device. The Pentax Optio MX mostly succeeds because it doesn't try to be supersmall, and its specs aren't overly ambitious. In this case, you really do get what you pay for: a 3.2-megapixel digital camera, a VGA-resolution 30fps MPEG-4 camcorder, a 10X optical zoom, a swiveling 1.8-inch LCD monitor, and a selection of shooting modes that function much as you would expect with a full-size digital camera or camcorder. Compared with the shirt-pocket hybrids (such as the optical-zoomless Panasonic SV-AV50), it makes fewer compromises. We did experience performance lags with both photo and video captures, but on the whole, the Optio MX is worth considering if you're willing to accept the size and weight necessary to maintain a moderate level of image quality. In size and appearance, the Pentax Optio MX resembles a small camcorder more than it does a digital camera. As on a camcorder, the zoom lens doesn't extend on start-up; it expands and contracts internally. The silver-color plastic body feels relatively sturdy. A side-mounted grip swivels 180 degrees, letting you hold the camera securely with your right hand. Unfortunately, the weight isn't evenly distributed when the grip is extended, so the camera may tilt to the side unless you support it with your left hand. When the grip is retracted, you can mount the camera on a tripod.


Pentax Optio MX

The Good

Well-integrated photo/video functionality; 3.2-megapixel photos; VGA-resolution 30fps video recording; 10X zoom; swiveling LCD monitor.

The Bad

Slow automatic focus and wake-up time; LCD image freezes during prefocus; zoom and aperture changes create audible noise on video recordings; awkwardly placed zoom control.

The Bottom Line

The Pentax Optio MX blurs the line between digital cameras and camcorders by offering moderate-quality photos and video recordings.
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The shutter release for taking photos falls under your index finger on top of the swiveling grip.

The hand grip has a photo-shutter-release button aligned for your index finger and a video-recording button aligned for your thumb. Having separate photo and video buttons makes it simple to switch between the two functions. A two-speed zoom lever encircles the shutter-release button. The zoom lever is positioned close to the camera case, so there's a tendency for your finger to bump against the case when you zoom in. Other controls are mounted on the top and the left side of the camera where they're within easy reach of your left hand. The rechargeable battery fits into the hand grip. The battery isn't notched to prevent you from inserting it improperly, so you'll have to pay attention when replacing it.

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The simple mode dial and various other controls are easily accessible on top of the camera.

Menus are displayed on a bright 1.8-inch LCD monitor that swivels a generous 210 degrees vertically and 180 degrees horizontally. By twisting the LCD into the appropriate position, you can record overhead shots, self-portraits, and floor-level shots. You navigate through the menus with a small four-way controller. It's actually a five-way controller because by pushing it in the middle, you can select a menu. The controller is so small we sometimes mistakenly navigated left or right when we meant to select OK.

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Dedicated buttons on the camera body give you quick access to flash, continuous shooting, self-timer, and focus mode settings.

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The Optio MX records both photos and video to an SD card.

Photography buffs will be pleased to find a full set of photo and video capabilities, which is unusual on a hybrid device. The all-glass 10X zoom lens covers a range from 5.8mm to 58mm, equivalent to 38mm to 380mm on a 35mm camera. The aperture range of f/2.9 to f/3.5 is about average for a low-cost camera. According to Pentax, the handy Super Macro mode can focus photos down to 0 inches at the wide-angle setting. That's right: In theory, you can focus this camera down to the glass on the lens. In practice, however, it's nearly impossible to light an object that close. Video captures can focus down to 4 inches at the wide-angle setting.

For shooting, the camera includes program automatic, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, metered-manual, and automatic scene modes. There are 10 scene options, including a night mode for shutter speeds as slow as 4 seconds, a panorama-assist mode that works with the supplied ACDSee software to stitch together separate images, and a portrait mode that favors skin tones. The autobracketing mode lets you automatically capture three images with slightly different exposure, white-balance, sharpness, color saturation, or contrast settings.

Photos can vary in resolution from 2,048x1,536 down to 640x480, with a choice of three JPEG compression rates. On the video side, you can save your video captures as MPEG-4 files in resolutions ranging from 640x480 to 160x120 with either a 30fps or 15fps frame rate. There's also a frame-rate multiplier for time-lapse video that slows down the video recordings by a factor of 2, 5, 10, or 20. Unlike many digital cameras with a video mode, the Optio MX's zoom is fully functional when shooting video.

The most notable accessory for the Optio MX is a wide-angle lens adapter that screws onto the front of the standard lens and provides a 35mm-camera equivalent of a 28.5mm wide-angle lens. It works well with both photos and video shots, and it's ideal for those trendy big-nose close-ups of family pets.

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The proprietary 1800mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery lasted for an impressive 512 photos in our battery-rundown test.

Given the low price and the hybrid capabilities of the Pentax Optio MX, you might expect a middling performance. That's just what you get. On the plus side, the high-speed continuous-shooting mode can crank out three quick-burst photos in 1.12 seconds. The regular high-speed mode, which operates until the memory card is full, packs them in at a more leisurely 2.32 seconds per shot (on average). In single-shot mode, shot-to-shot times for nonflash and flash shots came in at 3.39 and 3.83 seconds, respectively, which is a bit slow. On the minus side, you'll have to be on your toes and react quickly, because the camera's wake-up-to-first-shot time of 6.43 seconds is one of the slowest we've seen recently.

The camera's zoom control has two speeds that are triggered by the pressure you exert on the control lever. Having only two speeds isn't a problem for photos, but it can be limiting for video. The slow speed takes about 10 seconds to travel the full distance of the zoom, while the fast speed runs about 3 seconds.

Some performance shortcomings manifest in both photo and video recording. The camera frequently had difficulty automatically focusing when the lens was extended to the telephoto position, even at a modest distance in broad daylight. Sometimes it would take several seconds; other times it couldn't focus no matter how long we held the shot. Both the manual process of zooming the lens and the automatic adjustment of the lens' aperture created noise that was barely audible to those near the camera. It was clearly audible on the video recordings, especially if there wasn't enough ambient sound to mask it.

The LCD image is easy to see, except in bright sunlight. It freezes for about 1 second during prefocus (when you half-press the shutter button), which makes it difficult to follow a moving subject. There's no optical viewfinder, so for better or worse, the LCD is your only guide for aligning the camera.

While the Pentax Optio MX's poor responsiveness meant some shots were slightly out of focus, when it did grab a satisfactory shot, the image was decent for a 3.2-megapixel photo. The colors were generally accurate and well saturated, with occasional blooming in high-contrast areas. Most of the bad shots occurred when the subject was moving or while the camera was attempting to determine the proper focus. Accordingly, this camera is better suited for static shots, such as portraits or tripod-assisted landscapes, as opposed to action-filled sports events or spur-of-the-moment crowd shots. Purple fringing was visible along some of the high-contrast edges in both the photos and videos. Red-eye was less of a problem with this camera than many others we've tested, because the flash mechanism pops into a position several inches above the lens.

With the recorded video, there was a tendency for the image to tear horizontally when panning the camera and for the image to blur, even at moderate panning speeds. Similar to the static photos, our static video shots were sharp and well defined, had accurate and pleasing colors, and were properly exposed. We were surprised that the 30fps video captures weren't as rock-steady as we've come to expect at that frame rate. Once again, the less movement there was, the less this was noticeable. The video recordings were relatively free of visual noise and compression artifacts. Low-light photos and videos did remarkably well in keeping the visual noise and color distortion in check.


Pentax Optio MX

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 6Image quality 6