Pentax MX-1 review

The Pentax MX-1 is a beautifully designed camera, but some issues with image quality and performance prevent it from living up to its potential.
Photo of Pentax MX-1

The Pentax MX-1 ($499.95 direct) is the company’s first attempt at a compact digital camera with a larger-than-average image sensor. The 12-megapixel shooter packs a 1/1.7-inch BSI-CMOS sensor, but its exterior is what turned heads when it was announced at CES. Available in silver or black, it simply exudes style. The top and bottom plates are painted brass, and the paint will wear over time to develop a patina that classic camera lovers will appreciate. When it comes to performance, The MX-1 doesn’t come close to ousting our current high-end compact Editors’ Choice, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 from its perch, but its rating would likely improve if a firmware update is able to alleviate some of its quirks.

Design and Features
The MX-1′s design is reminiscent of its namesake, the Pentax MX, a 35mm SLR that was the company’s flagship camera in the late 1970s. The MX-1 is much smaller than an SLR, it measures about 2.4 by 4.8 by 2 inches and weighs 13.8 ounces. It’s not too far off in size from the 12.2-ounce Olympus XZ-2, which measures 2.6 by 4.4 by 1.9 inches. Both cameras feature a 4x (28-112mm f/1.8-2.5 equivalent) lens, but the Olympus features a hot shoe that can accommodate an external flash or electronic viewfinder.

Control layout is one of the MX-1′s strong points. You’ll find a Mode Dial, EV Compensation Dial, and Movie Record button on the brass top plate, along with the shutter release, zoom control, and Power button. The rear of the camera features a control dial so you can quickly adjust aperture, shutter speed, or other settings. Rear buttons include Exposure Lock, Drive Mode, Focus Mode, Flash control, and ISO control. There’s also the Pentax Green Button, which can be used to undo any changes you’ve made when shooting in Program mode. The Green shooting mode is equivalent to the “smart automatic” modes found on competing cameras.

The sharp, 921k-dot, 3-inch rear display boasts a 3:2 aspect ratio, slightly wider than the 4:3 ratio of the MX-1′s image sensor. And the display is hinged so that it can tilt up or down. Nikon’s take on this type of camera, the Coolpix P7700 also sports a 921k-dot display, but one with a vari-angle design that lets you swing it out to the side of the camera. One feature that works in the MX-1′s favor is the digital level that appears along the top and right side of the display, which checks both horizontal orientation and the camera’s yaw forward and back. This makes it possible to get shots where you are plumb with your subject, which be difficult when using an LCD for composition. The level can be turned on or off via the camera’s menu system. If it’s on, it’s always on—even when you minimize the information displayed on the LCD by hitting the rear OK button. There’s no optical viewfinder—the only cameras in this class that offer them are the Canon PowerShot G15 and the Fujifilm X20.

While neither is common enough to be an expected feature in this level of camera, Pentax chose not to include GPS or Wi-Fi in the MX-1. If you’re looking for a Wi-Fi-enabled camera with a bigger sensor and a fast lens, take a look at the Samsung EX2F, it has one of the better wireless implementations we’ve tested. The Canon PowerShot S110 also has Wi-Fi, and can add GPS information to your photos when paired with a smartphone.  The previous-generation PowerShot S100, which can still be found at retail, has a dedicated GPS module, but no Wi-Fi support.

Performance and Conclusions
On the outside, the MX-1 impresses, but its performance doesn’t live up to its attractive aesthetic. The camera requires 2.4 seconds to start and grab an in-focus photo and records a 0.3-second shutter lag. The Olympus XZ-2 is faster—it starts and shoots in 1.6 seconds and its shutter lag is only 0.2-second. Focus is relatively fast—in good light, the camera takes about 0.5 second to bring an out of focus shot into clear view and fire the shot. In dim light the time extends to a reasonable 1.3 seconds.

If you opt to shoot in JPG mode there’s a high-speed burst mode that can capture 10 images at 4.3 frames per second. Shooting JPGs in the standard Continuous Drive mode 1.6 frames per second, but extends your burst to 39 shots with only 3.5 seconds needed to clear the camera’s buffer to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card.

Shooting Raw slows the maximum shooting rate to just under 1 frame per second for a maximum of 6 shots with a long 12.5-second recovery time required to write the photos to the card. Recording in Raw+JPG is the slowest, lengthening the time between shots to 1.3 seconds, and registering a 13.1-second wait after only 5 photos.

If you’re not shooting in Continuous Drive mode, there is a period of time in which the camera becomes completely unresponsive after capturing a photo. It varies based on file format recorded—3.2 seconds for Raw+JPG, 2.9 seconds for Raw, and 2.5 seconds for JPG. During this time you can’t review images, adjust shooting settings, or fire the shutter.

The MX-1′s focus system has one issue of note. In standard autofocus mode, if you’re attempting to capture a quick photo and press the shutter all the way down, the camera will fire before it achieves a focus lock. Other point-and-shoot cameras, and Pentax SLRs, won’t fire until focus is confirmed when set to AF mode. There is a workaround if you want the camera to wait until it locks focus: Enable Macro shooting mode. It may slow autofocus a bit, but not to the point where it’s detrimental to performance. This will ensure that your photos are in focus, even if you have an itchy shutter finger.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the MX-1′s lens. The results were hit and miss, depending on focal length and aperture. At its widest (28mm equivalent) focal length, the MX-1 only records 1,468 lines per picture height at f/1.8. This is computed using a center-weighted algorithm, and we use 1,800 lines as the cutoff for acceptably sharp photos tested using this method. The center is actually quite sharp at this setting, but the edges and corners are murky and soft.

Reducing the aperture to f/2.8 improves the overall performance to 1,857 lines, although the corners are still a bit weak. Stopping down to f/4 improves again to 1,967, and while the corners aren’t tack sharp, they are acceptable. Normally we don’t recommend stopping down the lens on a point-and-shoot camera—high megapixel counts and tiny sensors rob images of quality as apertures get smaller due to diffraction. However, the relatively low pixel density of the MX-1′s 12-megapixel 1/1.7-inch image sensor actually improves the performance through f/4.

Zooming in to 56mm drastically improves image quality at its widest aperture, f/2.1. The camera records 1,947 lines here, and improves to 2,309 by f/4. At the maximum 112mm f/2.5 setting the resolution is a bit soft again, 1,746 lines, but stopping down to f/4 brings things back up to 1,985 lines. Still, having to stop down the lens of your fast-aperture camera in order to achieve acceptable sharpness is disappointing. Our Editors’ Choice in this category has a bigger 1-inch image sensor, and is equally fast at its widest angle. It scored 2,126 lines at 28mm f/1.8, topped 2,000 lines at 50mm f/3.2, and 2,250 lines at 100mm f/4.9. It doesn’t have quite as an ambitious zoom ratio as the MX-1, and its lens has a smaller aperture when zoomed in, but there’s no arguing with the sharpness of its images.

Imatest also measures barrel and pincushion distortion using our SFRPlus test chart. When shooting in JPG mode, we recommend that you activate the in-camera distortion correction (it’s on by default), as the lens design that Pentax has employed shows extreme barrel distortion at its widest angle. We converted a Raw file and ran it through Imatest and it showed that there is a serious amount—3.6 percent—of barrel distortion when zoomed all the way out. As you can guess by its moniker, it essentially makes straight lines in your image curve out like the ribs of a barrel, and a result this extreme approaches fisheye levels. Applying a +25 distortion correction modifier in Lightroom straightens the curved lines, but also cuts off the edges of your photo—so try and frame a bit loose if you are shooting at the widest angle in Raw mode.

We also use Imatest to check photos for noise, which can make images appear grainy as you increase the ISO setting. Using default JPG settings, the MX-1 keeps noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 1600. The camera does a decent job at retaining image detail at this setting, although it doesn’t quite match the quality of JPG photos from the more-expensive Sony RX100, which keeps noise under control through ISO 6400, but also starts to lose detail once you hit ISO 1600. If you opt to shoot Raw, and don’t mind a grainier image, you can eke a bit more detail out of the MX-1 through ISO 6400—but ISO 12800 should be avoided unless absolutely necessary to get a shot. When examining Raw images, the RX100 also beats the MX-1 in terms of detail at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400.

The MX-1 records video at 1080p30, 720p60, and 720p30 formats in QuickTime format. The quality is on par with other cameras in this class—it’s sharp with accurate colors, and while there is a bit of skew when performing quick pans, it’s not terribly distracting. The lens can zoom in or out when rolling footage, but the sound is noticeable on the audio track. Refocusing is quick and accurate. The camera has two interface ports, one proprietary for USB connection to your computer and a micro HDMI port to connect to an HDTV. SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.

If the Pentax MX-1 performed as well as it looks it would be an easy camera to recommend. Its classic design and excellent control layout are marred by some performance and image quality issues. The camera is unresponsive for a couple of seconds after capturing a photo, and its focus mode must be set to Macro in order to prevent accidental capture of out-of-focus shots. Images are anything but sharp at the edges and corners when you shoot at its widest angle and aperture, and Raw shooters will have to deal with a lens that introduces heavy barrel distortion at 28mm. Our Editors’ Choice, the Sony DSC-RX100 is a smaller camera with a bigger image sensor, although it’s $150 more expensive and its lens isn’t as fast when zoomed all the way in. Still, it’s worth the extra cash. Better cameras can be had for the same price, including the Canon PowerShot G15 with its fast lens and optical viewfinder, and the Samsung EX2F, which has a shorter 24-80mm f/1.4-2.7 zoom lens, but features built-in Wi-Fi. Those cameras aren’t nearly as pretty as the MX-1, but in this case, we’ll take function over form.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.4 x 4.8 x 2 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, micro HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 12 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.23 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Compact
GPS No
Optical Zoom 5 x
Boot time 2.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 13.8 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 1468
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization Sensor Shift
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 112 mm
Shutter Lag 0.3 seconds
Sensor Size 7.6 x 5.7 (1/1.7") mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Pentax MX-1 is a beautifully designed camera, but some issues with image quality and performance prevent it from living up to its potential.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc