The Pentax Optio RS1500's design won't suit everyone and the swappable skins are a gimmick, but it's fundamentally a very respectable budget camera. Its only real weakness is its poor build quality.
If you're the sort of person who gets bored looking at the same camera day in and day out, then Pentax may have come up with the answer. You can change the Optio RS1500's appearance at will and, at around £80, you won't be charged the earth for the privilege. But is the RS1500 a one-trick wonder or is there more substance lurking behind its swappable 'skins'?
We'll admit to initially being sceptical about the RS1500's unique selling point. The idea is that you can customise the camera, also known as 'the Chameleon', by shoving a patterned piece of paper under the clear, Plexiglas-style fascia.
You can produce your own skins on Pentax's website, although five pre-prepared designs come with the standard model. There's also a slightly more expensive superheroes pack that comes with a bunch of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern skins, indicating that the RS1500 isn't aimed at grown-ups. It's a kids' camera.
The RS1500 is certainly attractively priced for a first 'proper' camera and it's not one of those 480x640-pixel toys, either. The RS1500 has a 14-megapixel sensor, a 4x optical zoom, 720p video-recording capability, and comparatively advanced automatic features, such as face detection and automatic tracking.
The RS1500's build quality isn't its best point. The camera is unpleasantly boxy and plasticky, and just doesn't feel terribly sturdy. We're unsure how durable the device would be in the hands of younger users. A particular point of concern is the door to the battery and SD card compartment on the underside of the unit. The door on our review unit was already loose, and kept coming open when we used the camera.
Another negative point is the fact that the RS1500 only has a single external connection -- a joint USB/AV port. This is left exposed with no rubber flap to protect it from the elements. HDMI connectivity is missing altogether, which means there's no easy way to watch your movie clips on a TV.
Several shooting modes are available, including 'night scene', 'portrait' and 'sport', as well as some less obvious offerings, such as a mode designed specifically for capturing text documents. The 'auto picture' mode is the default point-and-shoot setting, designed for hassle-free photography.
In general, the RS1500 is very easy to use. Its buttons are well laid out, and the list-based menus and icon-based mode selector are both very logical to navigate.
The LCD display isn't touch-sensitive, but it is large, measuring 3 inches, and it offers a comparatively high resolution of 230,000 pixels. It provides a sharp, clear means of lining up and composing your shots, or steering your way through the settings.
Given the RS1500's price, you might expect the picture quality to be fairly poor. In fact, we were rather surprised by just how well the RS1500 performs.
To give the bad news first: the amount of picture noise is rather high. Take a look at our test shot above and you can clearly see grainy artefacts in areas of solid colour. This is a problem even in bright light at low sensitivity settings. Check the red of the tortoise shell for a particularly good example. Unfortunately, the noise problem worsens in low light and at high ISO settings.
Apart from that, our test shots came out rather well. The camera produces vibrant colours and well-balanced contrast. Images are sharp without looking too overprocessed. Skin tones, foliage and natural browns all come out very well too.
Ready to take a shot in under 3 seconds from powering up, the camera is surprisingly fast, too. And, on a full charge, the rechargeable battery should be good for at least 210 shots, which isn't bad.
Jaded old journos aren't the target audience for the Pentax Optio RS1500, but we were pleasantly surprised by our experience with this cheap and cheerful camera. Its simple approach to taking photos is matched by better-than-average performance for a camera of its class. Its poor build quality and unappealing design are disappointing, but at least you can slap on a picture of your favourite superhero.
Edited by Charles Kloet