Most of the interchangeable lens cameras we've seen to date seem to follow a standard mold: they have similarly sized bodies, comparable designs and either an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensor at the core. But recently, some manufacturers -- namely, Nikon and Pentax -- have begun shrinking camera bodies in an attempt to make them even more appealing to point-and-shoot users. The result: a smaller, lighter, more fashionable ILC -- that also happens to have an itsy bitsy image sensor. Sensor size, not megapixel rating, translates directly to image quality, but also lens and body size, so you can either have an incredibly small body with an incredibly small sensor, or a larger body with a larger sensor. Are you willing to pay a premium for the "world's smallest" interchangeable lens camera, even if it has the same size sensor used in many point-and-shoot cams available for a fraction of the cost? Pentax seems to think that you are -- to the tune of $800.

The 12.4 megapixel Pentax Q is tiny -- it's so small, in fact, that you wouldn't be alone in mistaking it for a toy. There is a fully functional camera inside that petite magnesium alloy housing, though it's admittedly not as powerful as you'd expect an $800 camera to be. The pricey kit ships with an 8.5mm f/1.9 lens, and you can grow your collection from Pentax's modest selection of Q-mount lenses, which also happen to have laughably small focal lengths (a 3.2mm fish eye, anyone?), due to the 1/2.3-inch backlit CMOS sensor's massive 5.5x multiplication factor. So how does the Q fare when it comes to performance and image quality? Jump past the break to find out.

Pentax Q review

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Pentax

Pentax Q

Pros

  • Incredibly compact
  • Option to save last image as RAW

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Short battery life
  • Inconsistent image quality
  • Multiple issues with video capture
Summary

Pentax may have managed to create the world's smallest mirrorless camera with this $800 ILC, but if image quality is more important than body size, the Q is not for you.


Hardware


We would be doing the Pentax Q a disservice by not focusing on its adorably compact size, since, after all, that's by far its strongest selling point. Measuring 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 inches, the Q is absurdly small -- even advanced point-and-shoot cameras like the Canon G12 tower over it. But despite its modest size, the camera is still quite usable, with a handful of dedicated buttons offering direct access to key settings, and a customizable front dial launching a variety of creative modes.


The camera's rear is dominated by a 460,000-dot, 3-inch LCD with a 100-percent field of view and roughly 170-degree viewing angle. The display is recessed slightly, so while you can see it fairly clearly when viewed from above or below, some on-screen indicators may be blocked by the camera housing, depending on the angle. The display is bright enough for use in sunlight, and offers an adjustable color temperature -- though you'll want to take any adjustments made into account when previewing white balance settings. Oddly enough, the live and playback images you'll see on the display don't appear very sharp, despite its moderate resolution, making it difficult to use the LCD to manually focus or verify sharpness in playback mode.

To the right of the LCD, you'll find exposure compensation, delete, ISO, info and menu buttons, along with a five-position selector with dedicated buttons for flash mode, ISO, shutter release timer, white balance and an OK button. Up top, there's a flash release, playback and power buttons, and an elevated shutter release. A front dial offers direct access to shooting modes, including auto, program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual, Blur Control and scene modes. An identically sized dial is positioned directly behind, and serves multiple functions depending on the mode -- in Blur Control, for example, turning the dial to the right decreases the depth of field (we'll revisit this later on).


There's an SD card slot on the right side of the camera and a battery slot on the left. A micro-HDMI port and proprietary PC / AV connector are secured beneath a protective rubber flap on the button, just to the left of the tripod mount. As you'll find on any ILC, there's a tiny lens release button on the front of the camera -- pressing it lets you rotate an attached lens counterclockwise for removal.

Like the Nikon J1, the Q includes a clever retractable flash. Flipping the flash slider releases a three-position arm, allowing the flash to rise above the lens for unobstructed coverage, while reducing the amount of space it occupies when docked to the left of the full-size hot shoe. Unlike the J1, however, the Q's flash also functions while retracted, and you can tilt it vertically as well -- overall, it's a very impressive design.


Like any interchangeable lens camera, the Pentax Q is only as good as its glass, and the lens it ships with looks and feels like a showroom mockup. It's constructed of plastic, though it does employ a metal mount. It's so lightweight, however, that you can toss it in your shirt pocket and easily forget that it's there -- that would be great if it performed well, but unfortunately that isn't the case.

The Pentax 01 Standard Prime that ships in the box is just one of the five lightweight plastic silver lenses that are compatible with the Q. The 02 Standard Zoom Lens ($300) includes a 27.5-83mm equivalent focal length with an f/2.8-4.5 maximum aperture -- it weighs just 3.39 ounces. The 03 Fish-Eye ($130) offers a 17.5mm equivalent focal length and a fixed aperture of f/5.6, while the 04 Toy Lens Wide ($80) offers a 35mm equivalent focal length with an f/7.1 fixed aperture. Looking to have some fun while getting a bit closer to the action? The 05 Toy Lens Telephoto (also $80) packs a 100mm equivalent focal length and an f/8 fixed aperture. That means three out of the five available lenses are intended for casual shooting, though as you'll find after reading the rest of this review, it's quite clear that the Q isn't destined for any pro's kit.

Performance

Mediocre cameras don't carry $800 price tags, right? They cost $150, or $99, or $39 in the "As Seen on TV" bin at your local pharmacy. When you spend nearly a grand on a camera, you expect the very best, and we think you should get it just the same. The Pentax Q is not the very best, however. It's small. It's cute. It's diminutive and light enough that a child can likely hold it quite comfortably. But it is not the best. No, not even close.

There's nothing impressive about the Q's performance. It's sluggish to boot and focus, and while it offers a continuous shooting mode that captures up to five frames per second, its buffer only support five continuous captures -- in other words, you can capture five frames per second, but only for one second. There's also a 1.5 fps mode that lets you snap 100 consecutive images -- both speeds support full resolution JPEGs, though only the slower mode also allows for RAW capture. The Q's boot speed is noticeably slow, taking five full seconds from power-on to first image capture. Shooting a frame after the camera is already on can take up to a second from the time you press the shutter release. In other words, if you're trying to capture a photo in the moment, there's a very good chance it'll be over before the camera even fires (see photo below for an example).


We're also slightly perplexed by a few issues we've had while trying to record video. The first is quite a doozy -- fairly often, pressing the shutter release in record mode will simply cause the camera to lock up. A video file is created, but no footage is captured. Pulling out the battery is the only option for recovery, so if you happen upon a scene that you want to capture right away, having a camera that occasionally fails is far from ideal. For example, when "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon was accidentally blasting throughout the newsroom last week, our attempt to capture the excitement was foiled by a Q that decided to get an early start on the weekend, taking a long unapproved nap.

The second issue is also quite significant, but can likely be fixed with a firmware update. Even when holding it perfectly still, the camera appears to be tracking subjects that walk into the frame, resulting in the video to jump to the left or right, as you can see in the clip below. And finally, the Q doesn't begin recording audio immediately at the start of a clip. You can correct this by cutting your clip in a video editor, but the first second or so of each clip gets the silent treatment.


One of the most frustrating performance issues with the Pentax Q is the camera's absolutely pitiful battery life -- worse than any cam we've used in recent memory. During one day of shooting, the 940 mAh battery lasted for fewer than two hours, allowing us to capture about 230 photos and roughly five minutes of 720p video. It's lightweight enough to carry around on a full day of touring, but if you tend to shoot more than a couple photos every few minutes, 230 stills certainly won't cut it.

Image quality

When reviewing images produced by the Q, there's nothing to indicate that they were shot with an interchangeable lens camera. Everything in the frame is in focus at f/1.9 -- most of the time -- though not overwhelmingly sharp. Images shot at lower sensitivity settings (ISO 100-200) appear clean and free of noise, even in the shadows, while noise becomes noticeable though not overpowering at ISO 500, likely due to the camera's auto noise reduction feature, which compensates for noise by reducing sharpness. The built-in flash is small, but reasonably powerful -- it was able to light our sizable workroom. The camera did a fine job white balancing in bright daylight, but indoor shooting didn't yield the same result -- most images appeared with a slight yellow tint. Images shot in low light were also often out of focus and underexposed. Noise was even an issue outside, as you can see in the image below, shot at ISO 500.


Advanced shooters will be relieved to find that the Q does in fact shoot RAW, even taking its uncompressed shooting abilities a step further, adding the unique option to save a RAW version of the last captured image, even if you're shooting only JPEGs. It won't work for high-speed continuous shooting, but if you happen to snap a frame that you really don't want to lose, but failed to properly adjust the exposure or white balance, you have the option to save a buffered RAW version, essentially letting you step back in time to right a wrong. We haven't found a need for this function during our test shoots, but we can definitely see how it could come in handy at some point. It's a clever addition either way -- one that we'd love to see other manufacturers adopt as well.

Pentax Q review sample images

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Shooting modes

The Pentax Q includes auto, shutter- and aperture-priority, program and manual modes, just like any other interchangeable lens camera. But it also features a handful of scene modes -- some typical, like macro and Night Scene, but a few that we haven't seen before, like Forest, which "enhances colors of trees and sunbeams through foliage and produces a vivid color image." Hovering over each scene mode brings up a complete description, though most graphics are quite accurate -- a fork and knife for the Food shooting mode, for example.

One of the effects synonymous with DSLR shooting is shallow depth of field -- crisp subjects with smooth, creamy backgrounds. Despite the kit lens's f/1.9 aperture, however, the Q is quite limited when it comes to this feature, due to its incredibly small sensor. Pentax has added a Blur Control mode to help battle this issue, which contrary to its name doesn't reduce blur, but instead increases the blur amount by capturing multiple frames with different focus positions, compiling them into a single image. You can use the rear "e-dial" to adjust the amount of blur. It works fairly well, keeping your focal point sharp while blurring the rest of the image, but advanced photographers won't have any issue noticing that a digital filter was used.


User interface

For one reason or another, manufacturers always seem to struggle with system menus -- even some of the most powerful (and most expensive) DSLRs have frustrating menu layouts that leave you constantly searching for obscure (and even some often-used) settings. The Pentax Q's no-frills interface isn't pretty, but it's generally intuitive and easy to use. The main system menu is arranged on a simple grid. You need only navigate to the left or right to load a new page of settings (there are a total of ten) -- scrolling up and down lets you select only the options already visible on the page. Most of the functions have dedicated controls, as we've already outlined, so you should only need to visit the main menu to adjust top-level settings.


The competition

So, you've saved up your $800, and you're ready to buy a new interchangeable lens camera. Do you take the plunge and pick up a tiny Q? Do you opt for a much less expensive point-and-shoot camera with image quality that rivals Pentax's ILC runt? Or do you put it all towards a competitor's model that's not quite as slim, but will almost certainly make up for what it gains in size with excellent performance? If you need a camera to always have around, then you'll probably want to opt for a point-and-shoot, but if you're set on adding a new mirrorless cam to your collection, you're surely not without some top-notch options.

Sony's NEX-C3 has been, and still remains, our first choice in the mirrorless category. While still compact, it's significantly larger than the Pentax Q, though its APS-C-size sensor offers far superior image quality, shallow depth of field and improved low-light performance. Oh, and it costs just $600. While a bit pricier at $900, the Olympus PEN E-P3 remains our second choice, with a top-notch focusing system and an attractive design. And if style's what you're after, we were far from blown away by the Nikon J1's performance, but it's hard to argue that the $600 ILC is ugly. Just don't get it in white (or pink).

Wrap-up


Pentax really has managed to design the world's smallest interchangeable lens camera -- and yes, it does work. But there's no magic at play here. The Q is small because all of its components were downsized -- Pentax took everything from the lens to the image sensor to the mode dial and shutter release and gave them the shrink ray treatment. Everything but the full-size hot shoe, LCD and SD card slot are miniature versions of what you'll find on larger, more capable cameras. The result is an attractive, pocketable ILC that doesn't quite follow its powerful pedigree.

The Q is a very unique camera -- one of a kind, even -- but that doesn't mean it's the one for you. If money is no object and you're not keen on capturing incredible images and video footage, then perhaps you'll still consider picking up a Q. As for the rest of us -- we're perfectly happy with our larger, much more capable ILCs, and wouldn't dare consider making such a sacrifice just to carry a bit less weight on our shoulder.

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Pentax Q interchangeable lens camera review