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 ), 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.
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.
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.
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.