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If there's one area where Pentax can claim a market lead, it's in ultracompacts. The Pentax Optio S12 is a new nugget of metallic cool aiming to out-IXUS Canon with a headline-grabbing 12-megapixel spec squeezed into a beautiful, 21mm thin frame. It's available for around £150.
Pentax made tiny compacts popular with its original, all-metal, 3-megapixel Optio S camera back in 2003. Five years later, the resolution has quadrupled and the screen size has more than doubled at the cost of just 1mm extra on its waistline. Available in pink, silver, turquoise and black, the metal-clad S12 still looks great and fits snugly and solidly in the hand or pocket. The 64mm (2.5-inch) screen isn't huge but it's extremely crisp.
One of the real joys of the S range is the interface. All key buttons are clearly marked, easy to reach and quite responsive. Cartoonish menu options make it simple to select the dozens of pre-programmed modes, which are particularly strong on portraits, kids and pets.
A customisable, green button gives one-touch access to your favourite functions -- a really smart and useful feature for experienced photographers. Even the four-way pad is clever: a push on the macro button instantly brings up a sub-menu of focus choices including presets, super macro and manual.
Face detection is above average, tracking faces even when turned at an angle. Images come out looking natural and realistic, although you can boost colours if you prefer eye-popping tones. Movie clips (up to 640x480 pixels) are great, despite not being able to zoom the lens while shooting. Battery life is a respectable 270 shots per charge.
Build quality isn't perfect. The 3x lens -- which hasn't grown at all since its arrival half a decade ago -- makes a whirring noise while zooming. The viewing angle on the LCD is quite restricted and it also suffers in bright light. Also, we can't fathom the logic of interrupting the all-metal housing of the S12 with a flimsy plastic battery (and card) cover that isn't even colour-matched.
Even with all its myriad focusing options, the S12 managed to miss focus several times in our tests, most notably in low light. Noise is low, even up to ISO 800 in low light, but that's because the S12 is almost unbelievably conservative when it comes to capturing and processing detail. This Pentax applies a patina of smoothness over everything it shoots, even with full-quality 12-megapixel shots. Portraits, for instance, look flattering while landscapes or complex subjects such as trees feel vague. Burst mode was a frankly disappointing 1 frame per second.
Another impressive style camera from Pentax, the S12 continues its tradition of combining sublime ease of use with decent -- if not staggeringly good -- image quality. The S12 isn't constructed as flawlessly as Canon's IXUS range of cameras, but it isn't as expensive either. For a real bargain, hunt out the S12's predecessor, the 10-megapixel S10, for around £50 less.