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Pentax MX-1 Review: So Much To Like
by Jim Keenan -  4/4/2013

[click to view image]With a compact digital lineup boasting a number of products offering 14 and 16 megapixel resolution along with prices below the $400 mark, the 12 megapixel MX-1 and its $500 MSRP might raise a few eyebrows. Laura's first look covered a number of the camera's specifications, but at the risk of being redundant I'll cover some of the same ground since the feature set on this camera is impressive and well thought out.

The MX-1 features a 4X optical zoom covering the 28 to 112 mm focal range in 35mm equivalents. More significantly, this lens offers fast maximum apertures of f/1.8 and f/2.5 at the wide and telephoto ends of the zoom, respectively. A faster lens permits higher shutter speeds in dim lighting conditions than a slower lens, all else being equal, and higher shutter speeds help reduce image degradation due to camera shake when handholding. Of course, with digital cameras we have the luxury of simply ramping up the ISO sensitivity to capture light more quickly, but at the expense of increasing ISO noise that can impact picture quality. Along with the fast lens, Pentax has included stabilization in the MX-1 to further assist with handholding image capture.

Another nice aspect of the MX-1 is the sensor - a 1/1.7 inch CMOS model that is physically larger than most other compact digital sensors. Beyond that, the sensor is a back-illuminated design with its circuitry located on the rear of the sensor, providing light a more unobstructed route to the pixels. Pentax has paired this sensor with a state-of-the-art imaging engine and their latest "Super Resolution" technology. This physically larger than average sensor combined with the back-illuminated design and 12 megapixel resolution suggests the MX-1 could provide good ISO noise performance.

Elsewhere, the camera offers full automatic and scene-specific exposure modes in addition to DSLR-like manual and semi-automatic shooting options; RAW and JPEG still image formats are available and the camera features an in-body RAW development capability. Full 1080HD video is onboard via one touch capture, there's a 3 inch articulating monitor and the camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media to complement its approximately 75 megabyte internal memory. Pentax includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger, camera strap, lens cap, USB cable and CD-ROM software with each camera.

The MX-1 features a retro design packaging  a nice assortment of modern technology, so all that's left is to get the camera into the field and put this juxtaposition of old and new through its paces.

[click to view image]BUILD AND DESIGN
While it's designated a compact digital camera and is packaged in a rectangular body that defines the class, the MX-1 is on the large size of the compact spectrum with dimensions of 4.8 x 2.4 x 2 inches. Shooting weight (battery, memory card, camera strap and lens cap attached) is 14.5 ounces, making the camera not really shirt pocket transportable. Some of that weight is attributable to brass covers and metal accents that give the camera a solid feel, along with added mechanisms and structure associated with the articulating monitor. There are panels composed of composite materials in the MX-1 construction but overall the camera body feel reminds me of my mid-1970s Nikon F2 film body (albeit smaller and lighter), right down to the pebbly material on the body and all black paint job. The MX-1 can be had with silver top and bottom covers as well.

Ergonomics and Controls
Like my old Nikon the MX-1 makes no real design concessions to structures designed to improve one's grip on the camera - the camera edges are curved and rounded and the material on the camera body has a tacky feel to it, but that's about it. There's a thumb rest on the right rear of the camera back but my thumb actually falls much more naturally towards the edge of the monitor, in close proximity to or sometimes resting on the e-dial. My right index finger falls naturally onto the shutter button and the zoom lever surrounding this button. The added size and weight of the MX-1 over many other cameras in the class actually makes it fairly pleasant to hold.

[click to view image]The camera controls are simple and nicely laid out, with the top of the camera body containing a pop-up flash, mode dial, zoom lever/shutter button, exposure compensation dial, the power button and a one touch video capture button. About two thirds of the camera back is taken up with the articulating monitor and frame; at the right top of the body is the e-dial and arranged vertically beneath it are the AV/AE-L, green/delete, play back and info buttons. To the right of this vertical row sits a four-way controller containing a central "OK" button surrounded by continuous shooting/self-timer, flash, macro and ISO buttons. Below the four-way controller array sits a menu button.

The MX-1 shutter may be tripped via an optional infrared remote control, and Pentax has thoughtfully included remote receivers on both the front and back of the camera body. Given a feature set and specifications that should prove attractive to advanced shooters, I was a bit surprised at the lack of a hot shoe, or at the very least an accessory shoe that could accommodate an optional viewfinder. There would seem to be ample space to include one atop the camera body, although the proximity to the lens with its zooming function may make this impossible.

[click to view image]Menus and Modes
Menus in the MX-1 are fairly simple and intuitive, and depending on the particular shooting mode can be quite minimal. For example, if you're shooting stills in "green mode" the only menu option is a four page set up menu - the camera is determining every other setting on its own. All the other exposure mode options, including scene and movie offer a three page shooting menu, one page movie menu, four page setup menu and two page custom setting menu. Your individual shooting mode will determine whether some or all of the items within these menus are available.

While they don't call it a menu and it won't appear on your screen if you select the menu button, the MX-1 does have what Pentax terms a "playback mode palette" that needs mentioning. If you have an image displayed by the playback button, press the down key on the four-way controller to give you a range of options for image modification in-camera: slideshow, image rotation, stretch filter, small face filter, collage, digital filter, HDR filter, original frame, RAW development, movie edit, redeye edit, resize, cropping, image copy, protect, DPOF and start up screen (which allows you to set a captured image as the start-up screen).

As mentioned in the introduction, shooting modes in the MX-1 are the standard mix of compact digital automatic and scene-specific options, along with manual and semi-automatic modes commonly associated with the DSLR and more advanced cameras. Here's a more specific rundown:

[click to view image]Display
The 3 inch LCD monitor on the MX-1 has an approximately 921,000 dot composition and is articulable: the monitor can be moved away from the camera back and can then rotate forward approximately 90° for use as a waist level viewfinder, or rearward approximately 45° which is handy for holding the camera overhead for image composition and capture. The monitor is adjustable for seven settings of brightness and color adjustable for fifteen settings along the blue -- amber and green -- magenta color axes, respectively. Flexibility of movement and brightness settings notwithstanding, the monitor could be difficult to use for image composition, capture or review in some bright outdoor conditions. There is no viewfinder.

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[click to view image]PERFORMANCE
Beyond the fast lens, advanced design sensor and state-of-the-art processing engine and technology, the MX-1 has a number of other interesting specifications that don't immediately jump out at you. Things like a shutter that can be set to stay open as long as 30 seconds and a manual focus capability -- both requisites to tackle a fairly challenging subject like night sky photography. If our local clouds cooperate, the MX-1 has a date with me in the Borrego Desert for some night sky work. Until then, let's look at some other parts of the MX-1 performance envelope.

Shooting Performance
When powering up the MX-1, the camera will refuse to start and prompt you to confirm that the lens cap has been removed from the camera if you have not already done so. Once that little formality is out of the way the MX-1 is about average as compact digitals go on startup, presenting a focus point on the monitor in about 1.5 seconds after power up; I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.5 seconds. Single shot to shot times ran about 2 seconds on a 32 GB Lexar 600X SDHC card. Continuous shooting rates varied depending upon the file format -- for JPEG fine quality images at 12 MP resolution the high-speed mode captured 10 images in about 2.5 seconds, approximately 4 frames per second. Low speed mode captured the same 10 images in about 3.5 seconds. Write times for the 10 JPEGs ran about 6.5 seconds.

RAW or RAW/JPEG image capture had only one continuous shooting rate, approximately 1 frame per second. RAW produced six images and had a write time of about 11.5 seconds; RAW/JPEG produced five images with a write time of about 12.5 seconds. While the camera is writing the images following a burst in either JPEG or RAW format, a "data being processed" advisory flashes on the monitor and the camera will not allow capture again until processing is complete.

Shutter lag and autofocus performance in the MX-1 are quite good -- the shutter seems to capture the image promptly upon the full push and AF is toward the quicker end of the spectrum for all the compact digitals I've reviewed. There is a focus assist lamp for dim light and the MX-1 does not seem to slow as much as many other compacts in lower light levels. No complaints here on shutter or AF performance in the MX-1.

And while we're on the subject of shutters, the MX-1 has two settings. The default setting provides a shutter speed range from 1/2000 of a second to 30 seconds; you can go to item number 7 on page 2 of the custom settings menu and enable "electronic shutter" to expand that range to 1/8000 of a second to 30 seconds. With a minimum aperture of f/8, that 1/2000 of a second might be marginal with a light subject on a sunny day, particularly if you bump to the ISO to 200 gain some extra speed without a significant noise penalty. Shooting the MX-1 with the electronic shutter both enabled and disabled I could detect no change in autofocus times or perceived shutter lag -- enabling the electronic shutter seems like a no-brainer to me.

Stabilization in the MX-1 is available for both still and movie capture and Pentax claims a maximum effectiveness of three stops for the system.

The built-in flash on the MX-1 requires manual deployment by a small slider on the upper left side of the camera body -- you will be prompted to deploy the flash if you attempt to access flash settings while the flash is stored. Pentax does not publish a guide number for the MX-1 flash, but quotes a flash range at wide angle and auto ISO of 1.3 to about 40 feet; the distant figure drops to 29 feet at telephoto. In addition to auto flash mode there are also flash off, flash on, redeye, slow speed synchro, slow speed and red eye, and trailing curtain sync options. Flash recycle times at wide-angle with a fully charged battery ranged from a second or less in good lighting conditions with auto ISO in auto picture mode to about 4.5 seconds in aperture priority at f/8 and 100 ISO in dim conditions -- a setting designed to promote a full discharge of the flash.

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Battery life for the MX-1 is listed as approximately 290 still images or 90 minutes of movie recording time. You'll probably want an extra battery as insurance for all-day shooting sessions.

The MX-1 offers the ability to shoot in four different aspect ratios -- 4:3 is the default setting and offers 12 megapixel resolution. 16:9 and 1:1 ratios offer 9 megapixel resolution; 3:2 has 10 megapixels. Here's a look at the same scene in each of these aspect ratios:

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4:3                                                                                16:9

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3:2                                                                              1:1

Another handy feature is a built-in neutral density filter, which can help counter the overall speed of the fast lens on the MX-1 for those occasions when a slow shutter speed may be desirable. The neutral density filter passes much less light to the sensor without impacting colors when enabled, producing significantly slower shutter speeds. In the example below, the first shot was taken in aperture priority with the neutral density filter disabled, and produced a 1/50 of a second shutter speed at ISO 200 and f/4 aperture. To try and blur the flowing water to create a ribbon-like effect, I dropped the ISO to 100 and selected the minimum aperture of f/8. These changes resulted in a net gain of -3 EV, which could be expected to produce an approximately 1/6 of a second shutter speed. Beyond that, I engaged the neutral density filter which produced the effect I was looking for due to a 1 second shutter speed.

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NO ND FILTER                                                           WITH ND FILTER

Lens Performance  
The zoom lens in the MX-1 consists of 11 elements in eight groups; four of these elements are aspherical and are designed to help minimize optical aberrations. The camera comes with a distortion correction setting enabled by default and available on the second page of the shooting menu. Images captured with this feature enabled tended to be fairly distortion free at both wide-angle and telephoto; with the feature disabled the wide-angle end of the lens shows some barrel distortion while the telephoto end displays a bit of pincushion distortion.

At wide-angle there is just the slightest hint of softness in the corners, but probably not to the degree that would become noticeable in even large prints with anything less than the most critical scrutiny; the telephoto end looks more consistent across the frame. With the lens zoomed to the full 7.8 X digital zoom setting the frame looks consistent, albeit a bit softer than at the 4X optical zoom setting. Additional sharpening in post processing can narrow this gap somewhat. Here's a shot with both the optical and digital zoom from the same location, and no additional sharpening to either image:

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OPTICAL ZOOM                                                                 DIGITAL ZOOM

The lens displayed some longitudinal chromic aberration (purple fringing) at the wide-angle end of the zoom, but this was not generally a problem at 100% magnifications, requiring 200 to 400% magnification to become more readily visible. The telephoto end of the zoom displayed no significant fringing problems.

The MX-1 offers what Pentax calls "intelligent zoom", encompassing the range from 4X to about 5.2X, but this feature is not available at full resolution in any of the four aspect ratios -- you have to downsize to a maximum of 7 megapixels or less to make use of this feature, depending on the particular aspect ratio involved.

Close focus distance in normal shooting modes is about 1.3 feet at wide-angle and 5.2 feet at telephoto, with distant focus at infinity in each case. The camera also permits two macro settings: macro provides a close focus distance of 2 inches at wide-angle, 8 inches at telephoto and a distant focus of 19.7 inches in each case. Super macro is available at wide angle only and produces a close focus distance of .4 inches with distant focus at 7.9 inches. Here's a shot of a rosebud (complete with aphid infestation) handheld at super macro.

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Video Quality
Video quality was quite good in the MX-1, producing pleasant images and good sound. When shooting in movie mode the camera takes about two seconds after acquiring focus and pushing the shutter button to begin movie capture; it takes about a second to cease recording when you push the shutter again. You can initiate movie capture from any of the still shooting modes with a single push of the red movie button, located adjacent to the shutter button. It takes about three seconds for the camera to begin capture in this fashion, and you must push the movie button again to cease recording -- the shutter button has no impact on video capture initiated by the movie button.

The camera can record sounds of the lens being zoomed during capture and can be susceptible to wind noise, but there is a wind suppression setting that may be enabled by the user. With a CMOS sensor the MX-1 can also be susceptible to rolling shutter effect, but the effect is well controlled in the MX-1, requiring exaggeratedly fast pans to produce fairly muted results. Continuous autofocus works fairly quickly to reacquire focus during rapid changes in subject to camera distance.

Image Quality
Default image quality out of the MX-1 is quite pleasant with regard to color rendition and sharpness -- I'm notorious for finding images out of compact digitals as being too soft for my taste, but the MX-1 is pretty close to passing muster with regard to sharpness. Shooting in the automatic or scene modes doesn't offer any in-camera sharpening, so your only option if sharpness isn't to your liking is through post processing. Folks shooting in the manual modes (P, Tv, Av, M) can increase sharpness in-camera by going to the custom image menu and making changes to the individual color options offered there.

If you're going to print images it's usually not a bad idea to set the level of sharpening at a point that appears to be just a bit too much to your eye, and for this reason I opted to increase the sharpening in-camera for most of the shots used illustrate this review. I also used the "natural" custom image (color palette) setting rather than the default "bright" setting, even though the histograms for both, including RGB, are virtually identical. In addition to the natural and bright settings there are also vibrant, reversal film and monochrome offerings. Monochrome users have the option to incorporate green, orange, blue, or infrared digital filters. Here's a look at the five MX-1 color palette options:

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BRIGHT                                                                             NATURAL

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VIBRANT                                                                      REVERSAL FILM

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MONOCHROME

With a clear sky in our local desert I took the MX-1 out for some night sky photography, in which I typically try to place a terrestrial object in the foreground with a generous portion of night sky and stars as the background. My foreground subject was the head of a large dragon sculpture in the desert near the small town of Borrego Springs. While the sky was clear, gusty winds made this a challenge for the tripod to hold the camera steady for the 20 second exposure required to expose the stars. ISO was 800, aperture f/2, manual focus set at infinity and I tripped the shutter using the two second self-timer to help minimize camera shake. Here's a look at the Dragon at dusk and again with a dark sky and some red illumination from my LED flashlight -- the night shot is the image just as it came from the MX-1:

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Next, I pointed the MX-1 to the southwest and took a shot of the night sky with the constellation Orion in the upper right quadrant of the frame. Here's a look at that shot and the same shot with some post processing added:

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ORION                                                       ORION POST PROCESSING

The MX-1 automatically applies noise reduction to shutter speeds of one second or longer and I was impressed with the output as it came from the camera -- a very credible performance from a compact camera in some difficult weather conditions. The one downside to the night shooting performance was the processing time for individual images -- both JPEG and RAW images took around 17 seconds to write. The SILKYPIX Developer Studio software supplied with the MX-1 offers a nice suite of tools for working with RAW files or post processing JPEGs, including noise reduction. I was happily surprised to find my Photoshop CS5 recognized the MX-1 RAW files as well.

I used auto white balance for all the images used illustrate this review and it worked well for most lighting conditions but shot just a bit warm under incandescent (tungsten) lighting. The MX-1 also offers daylight, shade, cloudy, four varieties of fluorescent, tungsten, flash and manual (custom) white balance options.

Multi-segment metering is the default exposure determination method and did a pretty good job across a range of light, although it tended to fairly consistently clip highlights in scenes involving areas of strong contrast -- a not uncommon occurrence in digital compacts. The MX-1 comes with a default setting of automatic highlight correction enabled which helps a bit in retaining highlights; this feature can be disabled and there is also a shadow correction setting that may be enabled. The MX-1 also allows for center weighted or spot metering methods.

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ISO 100                                                                           ISO 200

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ISO 400                                                                           ISO 800

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ISO 1600                                                                        ISO 3200

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ISO 6400                                                                        ISO 12,800

ISO performance is pretty good by typical compact digital standards -- 100 and 200 ISO are basically indistinguishable from one another and 400 requires close scrutiny to show that a few fine details are a tiny bit softer than at 200; 400 to 800 is very similar to the 200 -- 400 shift, with 800 being close, but not quite equal in terms of some softness of fine details. 800 impresses me as being the first sensitivity level where the slight increase in noise is more apparent. The drop off from 800 to 1600 is slight, but the most significant so far. Fine details have gotten softer in many areas and grain is beginning to become more easily apparent in the image. 1600 to 3200 presents a more significant change and becomes the new leader in deterioration between successive ISO steps. Grain is becoming more prominent and while color fidelity is holding quite well, fine details are losing more ground. 6400 represents a quantum leap in the wrong direction over 3200 -- smudging of details is becoming more widespread, mottling in the lighter areas is more prominent and color blotches are becoming apparent in some dark areas. The jump to 12800 demonstrates by far the greatest deterioration between any two settings -- colors are faded and shifting, grain, fuzziness and loss of fine details are pervasive.

I think sensitivities 100 through 800 are viable for large prints, with 1600 as a maybe. 3200 would be my maximum sensitivity of choice for small images if needed, with 6400 and 12800 clearly sensitivities of last resort.

Additional Sample Images

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