Pentax OptioSV

As I wrote in my review of the Epson L-500V elsewhere in this issue of Digital Camera magazine, the 4 to 5-megapixel subcompact has come to be the definitive all-purpose, take-everywhere digicam for virtually everyone. The price/performance/size equation all work well.

Canon pioneered the boxy little metal-bodied design with their PowerShot S-series/Digital ELPH models. They‚re still here and doing quite well ų we review their latest S-500 elsewhere in this issue. Other makes have caught up to Canon‚s pioneering efforts, with one exception: shutter speed. Canon‚s DIGIC chip is phenomenally fast and getting better with each new release, if you‚ll pardon the pun. They are the box to beat, and the usual suspects are doggin‚ the little ELPH like Creative, Rio, Dell, and Archos are hounding Apple for a little sliver of the iPod‚s overwhelming marketshare.

Pentax brings a few neat tricks to this party with their popular Optio S line, the latest of which is the lovely and talented Optio SV. Built in the mold of the 5MP, 3X-zoom Optio S5i, the SV offers an unprecedented 5X zoom to the feature mix using Pentax‚s unique „foldingš lens design. You get a slightly fatter lens that zooms to 185mm equivalent telephoto that magically extends non more than your typical 3X zoom optic does. Unlike Minolta‚s original „flatš zoom technology for subcompacts, the Pentax design does not compromise image quality perceptibly. In fact, this camera exhibits a welcome lack of pincushion and barrel distortion at the zoom extremes. It‚s second only to the Epson L-500V in this respect, but the Epson only zooms to 3X, making Pentax‚s accomplishment all the more remarkable.

I‚ll admit to not really warming up to the original few Optio models; they seemed derivative, overpriced, and somewhat slow compared to the cameras of the day. On my recommendation, our publication director took one to Comdex (RIP) a couple of years ago, and I never heard the end of it: the thing looked great, but it was slow and didn‚t seem to be able to focus on anything under anything less than ideal conditions. These were the kinds of cameras you‚d like if you were given one as a present but probably not if you‚d paid for one yourself. Obviously, Pentax figured out how to hit the ELPHin sweet spot, as the latest Optios are fine cameras that can even please grumpy, nitpicking photo editors like us.

Except for one little thing: speed. The Optio SV, as nice as it is in all other respects, is still comparatively pokey in the shutter lag department. If you routinely take pictures of anything that moves quickly, you may not be totally happy with the SV. Look instead at the Optio S5i, an equally nice camera with a snappy „sportš mode for about a C-note less than the SV.

Model-Pentax Optio SV
List price-US$399
Sensor res-5.0 megapixels
Image dimensions-2560x1920 down to 640x480
ISO-auto, 50/100/200/400
Lens-F:2.8-4.7 Pentax smc zoom
Lens focal length-5.8-29 mm (36-180 mm equiv.)
Shutter-1/2000 to 4 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/- 2.0 EV in 1/3 EV steps
Storage-SecureDigital (32MB card inc.)
Autofocus-Auto, no focus assist light
LCD screen-1.8 inch (118k pixels)
Flash modes-Auto, Fill, Off, Red-Eye
Viewfinder-real image
Battery-Pentax D-LI8 lithium-ion
Weight-5.8 ounces „loaded and readyš
Dimensions-3.96 x 2.2 x 1.1 inches
Included-Win/Mac software, cables, strap

If you can get past the speed issue, you have much in the Optio SV that will make you happy. It has the longest zoom in its class, the aforementioned superb optical performance, a super-macro mode that gets you in insanely close (3cm), an auto-throttling flash for close-ups, auto-bracketing, 320x240x30fps movies limited only be SD card size, USB2, AV-out port to connect to your TV, and a very sharp, 115,000-pixel LCD you can see outdoors. You also get a trick docking station that can charge an optional spare battery pack. Speaking on the dock, it does not let you face the back of your camera outwards, as the excellent Casio Exilim docks do, meaning you can‚t use them as mini-digital picture frames.

No matter how much we obsess over details and compare features to competitive models, people want a subcompact digicam to do two things: get the shot with minimal hassle, and produce attractive output for print and screen. Everything in between is academic. The Optio SV has a better than average user interface, with clearly marked controls and a well-organized menu structure. But the output will delight you, with sharp, contrasty detail and naturally saturated color. Pentax brings plenty of image making experience to the table, with lens technology that is world-class. At around $400 street price, the optio SV is no screaming bargain, but it is worth adding to your short list of quality, subcompact digital cameras.

ŲDavid MacNeill



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