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Pentax Optio S4 review: Pentax Optio S4

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The Good Stylish and ultracompact; nice selection of features for beginning and intermediate users.

The Bad Sluggish performance; finicky autofocus; below-average image quality.

The Bottom Line Few competitors can top the S4's style and features, but many deliver better pictures and performance.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 5

Review summary

Essentially a clone of its predecessor, the Pentax Optio S, the 4-megapixel Optio S4 ultracompact sports a retractable 35mm-to-105mm (the 35mm-film equivalent), 3X optical zoom lens and offers interesting, beyond-the-basics options that won't scare away beginners. While it won't win any awards for shooting speed or image quality, the S4 gives snapshooters plenty of features in a chic, portable package. Like its predecessor, the S4 is Altoids-tin tiny. In fact, some folks have told us that they've adapted a tin to use as a carrying case. Small and light--a mere four ounces even with a battery and media installed--the S4 can accompany you everywhere, be it in a pocket or dangling around your neck.

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Programmable left and right arrows help you avoid the menus. The proximity of the shutter and power buttons makes accidents likely.

The control layout is generally logical and comfortable, especially considering the camera's limited surface area. However, crowding did result in a few accidental photos; the shutter release is very close to the on/off button. A green light encircles the latter, but that wasn't much help because we usually shoot and operate the power without looking.

The battery and the SD slot live in a bay on the bottom of the camera, protected by a fragile cover. When you lift it, it hangs open by a small, plastic strip, inviting an accident to rip it off. Also, the compartment's location makes accessing the cell and the media all but impossible during tripod use, but you can get around the storage inconvenience by switching to the 11MB of internal memory.

A mix of dedicated and multifunction buttons on the back of the camera provides access to most activities. The four-way controller feels a little stiff and can be unresponsive, but we quickly adjusted to it. You can program the left and right arrows to govern your most frequently used settings, such as white balance and resolution, so you can change them without entering the menu. The controller also pulls up a virtual mode dial.

All things considered, the camera is relatively user-friendly. The text menu is readily understandable. On the other hand, some of the S4's features will force all but the most digicam-savvy photographers to refer to the manual.
The S4 is chock-full of features that should appeal to entry-level as well as more-experienced casual shooters. If you shy away from software, you'll especially appreciate the in-camera ability to resize photos for e-mailing and Web posting. You also get manual white balance--uncommon in a point-and-shoot--and scene modes that include some unique settings for colorful subjects such as flowers, autumn leaves, and sunsets. The biggest problem you'll have is identifying the different options' icons.

For when you're feeling creative, contrast, saturation, and sharpness are adjustable. While you won't find aperture and shutter controls, you do get exposure compensation and multi, center-weighted, and spot autofocus and metering options. A histogram, available during both capture and playback, guides you to properly balanced exposures. You can apply black-and-white, sepia, and color filters. You also get Pentax's trademark 3D mode, which is more trouble than it's worth, and a world clock.

The S4 captures 320x240-pixel, 15-frame-per-second movies with sound. But the video isn't high-quality, and clip length is limited to 60 seconds. We think users will find the time-lapse mode for interval shooting more attractive, anyway. The camera also doubles as a voice recorder.

The S4 has some nice customization features, although you'll have to dig into the manual to figure out how to access them. You can assign functions to the left and right arrows and save your favorite selections in the very helpful User mode, which holds only the settings you specify.
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The S4's tiny battery lasts a surprisingly long time.
Overall, the S4 didn't live up to its sprightly appearance. It began promisingly, taking its first picture within 2.4 seconds of start-up and pausing for a mere 2.3 seconds between nonflash photos. Unfortunately, performance declined from there. The S4 can buffer only two high-res images before slowing to a crawl. Flash use extended shot-to-shot time to more than 6 seconds, no matter how often or how decisively we pressed the shutter button. Even in continuous-shooting mode, the camera started dragging after two consecutive frames. When we picked the smallest file size, we gained a little speed in burst mode.

Autofocus performance, though not as lamentable as the shot-to-shot times, was middling. Shutter lag ran between 1 and 1.5 seconds. Scenes with dim lighting or low contrast proved challenging for the AF, and regardless of the conditions, the automatic focus-point selection had a mind of its own--we often had to coax it into the correct place by choosing different focus modes.

The S4's small size limits its flash performance, but it still ranks about average for a camera in this class. We liked both the Macro and Super Macro modes. You can't use the flash with the latter, but we prefer it for shots as close as 2.4 inches.

We do praise the tiny battery. It lasted for more than 440 shots (50 percent of them with the flash) and recharged in less than 1.5 hours. The power-status indicator is fairly accurate, running from full to empty in several steps. And the time between yellow alert and depletion is sufficient: we were able to squeeze out about 36 pictures.
Our test shots were just about acceptable for general shooting and printing. Overall, exposures were accurate with well-balanced colors. The S4 tended to mildly underexpose in all but the brightest sunlight, so you might want to fiddle with exposure compensation. Pictures taken with the Autumn Colors scene mode were a bit dark, but they had slightly richer oranges and yellows than images captured with a program exposure mode.

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Though the S4's images are acceptable, white balance, dynamic range, and sharpness are all pretty weak.

The automatic white balance worked passably in most situations. Water and sky scenes, as well as shots snapped under strong tungsten lights with the corresponding preset, had a strong blue cast. Indoors, we generally got the typical orangey-yellow on automatic and reasonably neutral colors on the manual setting; using the flash also helped.

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Notice how the focus degenerates from the bottom right to the upper left.

Dynamic range was similarly spotty. We saw clipping in both highlights and shadows, and oversaturation of yellows resulted in lost detail. But the camera admirably handled the colors in delicate lavender flowers.

Unfortunately, the sharpness of many of our pictures disappointed us. It fell off significantly at the edges of the frame, particularly in the upper-left corner. Close-ups weren't as sharp as we'd hoped, though they had a respectable amount of detail.

As with all cameras, noise increases with ISO speed. Though the S4 produces slightly more noise than average at its lowest sensitivity setting, ISO 50, the problem isn't obvious until you hit ISO 100. We recommend sticking with ISO 50 for the best image quality.

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