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.
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.
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.