Pentax currently has a slew of 5-megapixel cameras on the shelves. Among them is the Pentax Optio S55, an ultracompact model with a 3X zoom, tailored slightly more toward the novice than the company's S5z. Though remarkably similar to that model, the Pentax Optio S55 is a smidge larger and touts a help function to better explain its various modes and buttons without sending you to the operating manual. Like the S5z, the Optio S55 offers a large 2.5-inch LCD, point-and-shoot simplicity, and a 30 frames-per-second (fps) movie mode limited only by the capacity of your camera's memory card. Some features--a maximum movie resolution of only 320x240, for instance--are less impressive than the S5z's, and the S55 retails for about $50 less. This Optio offers slightly more than point-and-shoot control, and while its image quality won't wow most judges, it usually produces pleasing photos. The ultracompact Pentax Optio S55 is a handsome, solidly built, stylized rectangle with an aluminum exterior and a molded metallic grip. With two AA batteries installed, it weighs 6.3 ounces, a bit more than its lithium-rechargeable-using sibling, the Optio S5z. Due in part to its reliance on AA (or CRV3) batteries, the S55 has slightly larger dimensions, but even with the added thickness, it's still easily pocketable.
The basic control layout is logical and intuitive. We like the large shutter release on top of the camera and the small but easily adjustable command dial next to it, which lets you choose from seven photo-shooting settings as well as movie capture and audio recording. The power button sits flush in the middle of the command dial, where you aren't likely to accidentally push it.
Unfortunately, some of the icons on this Optio can be confusing. A green smiley face represents the fully automatic Auto Select mode, and the letters Pict designate something called Picture mode. Further investigation reveals that Pict provides access to nine additional, menu-selectable scene modes, such as Flower and Food. While in the Auto Select (smiley-face) mode, the camera offers access to a beginner's help function, in which pushing a tiny button labeled with a question mark provides explanations for the various settings and buttons. You'll need to spend some time with the manual just to know how to use that help function, but it's a handy tool for refreshing your memory.
Various buttons on the camera's back provide dedicated menu shortcuts. Some (flash, focus mode) are clearly marked, while others (exposure compensation, image size and quality) require pushing the mysterious question mark first. Once you know what you're doing, however, the system is convenient. The menus are clearly labeled, and you can zoom in to magnify the text on the spacious 2.5-inch LCD--a boon for those who have trouble remembering their reading glasses. The Pentax Optio S55 doesn't allow much photographic control: you cannot manually adjust shutter speed or aperture. You can, however, adjust exposure compensation (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV increments) and bump sharpness, color saturation, and contrast up or down. You can also choose from three preset scene modes on the command dial or nine additional scenes in Picture mode. The camera has manual focus, but using the focus-range indicator is usually more effective than trying to determine focus through the monitor.
In 35mm-camera terms, the f/2.6-to-f/4.8 Pentax SMC 3X zoom lens has a range of 35.6mm to 107mm. Aimed at the point-and-shoot crowd, the S55 saves photos only in JPEG format. The movie mode produces 320x240, 15fps or 30fps AVI files with sound; the capacity of your camera's SD/MMC card limits their size.
Useful extras include the Auto Select mode's help function, which explains settings and buttons. You can also choose from fun effects such as Pentax's color-filter or black-and-white-plus-filter modes, accessible when shooting in Digital Effects mode or during playback, at which point you can apply the same effects--or others--to any photos you've taken. The Pentax Optio S55 is no speed demon. After disabling the start-up screen, we clocked the camera's start-up time at 4.41 seconds; shutter lag isn't usually an issue, though it can be noticeable depending on what you're shooting. It came in at 0.55 second in our tests. Shot-to-shot times are worse: 4.5 seconds without flash, 6.74 seconds with flash. Continuous shooting is remarkably slow and, on this camera, more about endurance than speed: you can keep shooting until your card fills up but at the less-than-blistering pace of 0.5fps and 0.67fps. This is no action cam.
The 3X zoom is smooth and accurate, though not well suited to low-light conditions. Neither is the focus, as the Optio S55 doesn't have an assist lamp. Autofocus can be a bit sluggish in daylight conditions as well. We recommend switching from the default spot-focus setting to multi, as it improves responsiveness.
The Optio S55's 2.5-inch LCD provides plenty of space for composition and review, but it isn't very sharp or bright. It's sufficient for most uses, but bright sunlight can wash it out. The camera has no optical viewfinder.
Flash coverage is average for an ultracompact camera such as this, tending toward underexposure near the upper ends of its claimed range of 4.9 meters at wide angle and 2.8 meters at telephoto. The Pentax Optio S55 produces satisfying, good-quality, but not wonderful output. A number of flaws emerged in our test shots. They were usually minor and not enough to ruin the photo, but they were noticeable nonetheless. First of all, the Optio S55 is prone to slight underexposure and barrel distortion at the zoom's wide setting, as well as minor purple fringing in areas of strong contrast. Photos appear soft, on average, at the camera's default sharpness setting.
The S55 renders colors naturally in most instances, and we saw good detail in our test shots. On the other hand, it has limited dynamic range, often blowing out highlights and showing limited detail in the shadows. The latter problem probably has something to do with Pentax's noise-reduction algorithm, which automatically kicks in for long or dimly lit exposures. It's effective at limiting noise across the ISO spectrum of 50 to 400, but in addition to reducing detail, it slows processing time.
The Pentax Optio S55's movie mode produced clips of average, acceptable quality for the 320x240 resolution offered.