Flexible automatic-exposure options, easy manual focus, and histogram-assisted exposure adjustments will please snapshooters who want to fine-tune pictures on the fly, but the Pentax Optio S40 lacks the manual controls enthusiasts look for. This ultracompact, 4-megapixel Pentax loses points for its average image quality and performance, but its biggest shortcomings are found in optical and LCD viewfinders that give you the worst of both worlds. Pentax made a lot of good choices in designing this pocketable 6.5-ounce, 3.5-by-2.3-by-1-inch aluminum-alloy snapshooter. On top of the Pentax Optio S40, the large shutter-release button is right where you want it, and the knurled mode dial with center-mounted power button manages basic shooting modes, from a no-brainer Easy mode denoted by a happy face, through programmed exposure, movie, voice-recording, color effects, and scene modes.
If you hate making a trip through a convoluted menu system for common settings, you'll love this Optio's double- and triple-threat control buttons, especially because four of them are user definable. The four-way control pad's arrows adjust the flash options; activate the burst mode or the self-timer; and cycle through normal Autofocus, Macro, Super Macro, and Manual Focus modes. Press the Function key, and the same arrows can change the resolution or the compression ratio or bump the exposure up or down 2EV in 1/3EV increments. Alternately, you can select your own special functions from other options, including exposure mode, white balance, ISO setting, and autofocus area.
When the camera is set to Easy mode, the Function key pops up a useful help display on the screen that explains the functions of each control. The Display button turns off the LCD or gives you a screen with basic status information, a full-disclosure readout--including current ISO, white-balance, and exposure-mode settings as well as a live histogram--or grid lines perfect for those "rule of thirds" compositional moments. The histogram remains active when you're adjusting exposure settings.
Most of the other buttons on the Optio S40's back panel also serve multiple functions: the Trash button can erase the most recent picture or delete all the photos in the camera's internal memory or SD/MMC card; the Review button can review single photos, array nine thumbnails, and zoom in up to 12X if you want to examine the details of a shot.
You can access the Recording and Playback menus regardless of the mode you happen to be in. Just press the Menu key, and the LCD defaults to the one appropriate for the current mode. You can switch to the other menu or a setup screen by tapping the left or right control-pad arrows.
The feature set on the Pentax Optio S40 is oriented toward snapshot photographers who find exposure compensation and a choice of automatic-exposure modes more attractive than manual f-stop and shutter-speed settings or even aperture- and shutter-priority options. You can choose multisegment, center-weighted, or spot-metered autoexposure; opt for Night Scene, Portrait, or Landscape mode; or shift into Picture mode, which includes 10 different scene variations with names such as Flower, Self-Portrait, Surf, Art Museum, Text, and Marine. Pentax makes an optional waterproof housing to go with the last option.