DigitalCameraReview.com
Pentax Optio E50 Review
by Kevin O'Brien -  3/31/2008

The Pentax Optio E50 is Pentax's answer to the Canon PowerShot A470 and Nikon Coolpix L models – all basic entry-level, point-and-shoot digital cameras. With its low price and dead simple operation, this camera aimed directly at digital newbies and travelers who might not want to spend a lot on a camera, but want something that's compact, easy to transport, and worry-free to capture memories with should the need arise.

Pentax Optio E50
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Invariably, there are compromises in any budget-conscious compact, and the E50 is no exception. There's plenty of good stuff in the Optio's corner, but a few crucial issues kept us wishing for more – even at this price.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Optio E50 offers a wide range of features for a camera with a street price of around $130, including a 3x zoom, 8.1 megapixel sensor, 2.4-inch LCD, face detection, shake reduction technology, and a wide range of picture modes to let any beginner photographer take pictures with ease. Since the primary target audience of this camera are novice point-and-shoot users, many advanced controls or customizable options are left out of this model. Instead, you are left with some whimsically labeled shooting modes that make the E50 so unintimidating that even young children could handle its controls with ease.

Image stabilization on the Optio E50 is not the optical or mechanical type found on more expensive models, but instead uses ISO ramping to increase shutter speeds, which in turn prevents blurry images. As with all "digital" image stabilization systems, in theory the idea works just fine, but in practice you tend to get sharp but noise-saturated images that end up looking as bad or worse than the blurred image it may have prevented.

The Pentax Optio E50 has the following shooting mode options; pop-up descriptions help the user pick the best mode for a given situation:

While the E50 is a little sparse on features in some ways, it also has some fun options designed to give the camera appeal with younger users, in particular. Among them are an entire audio theme (menu beeps and shutter sounds) that make the camera meow like a cat, and some cheesy but amusing in-camera frame options.

Pentax Optio E50
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For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality

The Optio E50 has very basic styling – somewhat more basic than most cameras I have seen outside of Walgreens. While it won't win any awards, its plain Jane looks (which bear a striking resemblance to the Nikon L cameras, especially) don't come off terribly either. It has a clean silver finish covering its plastic body that helps the camera blend in with many others on the market.

Pentax Optio E50
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The E50 has a very solid and durable feel, if not a little bulky or heavy for its size. Flex by forceful twisting is minimal, and the camera feels like it could be thrown at a wall and keep ticking.

Pentax Optio E50
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The LCD is also durable, with a protective plastic shield over the screen. This should keep the LCD safe if the camera is dropped and bounces around on the ground.

Ergonomics and Interface

Controlling the camera is quite simple, with every button easy to access with a single hand holding the camera. All the buttons are located on the right side of the camera, where your thumb can easily trigger them.

Pentax Optio E50
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The Pentax's icon-based interface is easy enough to understand and navigate, with a highly limited number of menus/sub-menus.

Display/Viewfinder

The E50's 2.4-inch LCD is a little small by contemporary standards, though this spec is in keeping with competitive models in this price range. It's 110,000 dots of resolution are also a little grainy and more than a little jumpy.

Pentax Optio E50
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The screen gains up automatically in low light, though not quite enough in extremely dark shooting situations. Similarly, the screen doesn't quite have enough power to handle bright outdoor shooting.

There is no optical viewfinder on the E50.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag

Like most budget compact cameras, the E50 isn't exactly a speed demon. Startup time to snapping a picture takes a bit under 5 seconds – painfully slow by modern standards. As we've come to expect, shutter lag when pre-focused is nearly nonexistent: the split second you fully depress the shutter release, the shutter fires. Without pre-focusing, the camera has trouble locking sharp focus in under a second, and as noted below, 2 to 3 seconds for focus acquisition aren't unusual in difficult shooting situations. This performance, while slow by current standards, is about par for the course in this price range.

Continuous shooting speeds averaged 6 shots in 10 seconds at full resolution/best quality. At the lowest resolution of 640x480, however, the E50 only managed to increase its speed to 8 shots in 10 seconds. Combined with the lack of an optical viewfinder, if continuous shooting performance is important, the E50 may not be the way to go.

Lens and Zoom

Lens range appeared to be more than adequate during testing, with very useable telelphoto and wide angle settings. There was some slight color shift (skewing toward yellow) from one end of the range to the other.

Pentax Optio E50
Wide-Angle (view large image)
Pentax Optio E50
Telephoto (view large image)

Zooming was extremely fast, taking under a second to go from full wide to full telephoto. My only gripe with the lens was the action was very notchy, only giving you about 7 true increments.

Auto Focus

With the camera on most surfaces take about a half second to lock, with some difficult surfaces taking upwards of 2 to 3 seconds. Dark scenes are very tricky, with the camera giving you a focus error most of the time. Overall, a disappointing performance in this area.

Face detection was another key feature of this camera that worked reasonably well, but also liked to grab objects with the slightest resemblance to faces. One example of this was with a cheese cracker that (according to the E50, at least) resembles a face, and caught the attention of the face detection.

Pentax Optio E50
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Flash

While I won't call the flash completely useless, it didn't help that much for anything more than an arm's length distance or two away. If I could help it, I tried to bring in more external light, or use a tripod to get the shot I wanted.

Macro shots did appear to get bright and even lighting, which proved to be the most useful function for this flash unit during testing.

Pentax Optio E50
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Battery Life

Battery life overall was acceptable using 2200mAh NiMH batteries, giving above 180 shots with a few of those using the flash. Claimed estimates were 250 pictures with alkaline batteries, though this seems optimistic given the E50's NiMH performance. Carry a spare set (or two) for all day shooting.


IMAGE QUALITY

Even in well-lit outdoor scenes, image quality was hit or miss. While colors came through nicely, ISO noise, even at low sensitivities, kills the crispness of images. With lots of bright, controlled lighting and ISOs locked at the lowest setting, sharper images were slightly easier to obtain – as in our studio test shot.

Pentax Optio E50
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It should be noted that the studio image have an extremely strong yellow cast – the result of tungsten studio lights (with a temp around 3200K) combined with the E50's lack of any white balance adjustments.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

In bright outdoor scenes, the camera had a tendency to overexpose by around 1/3 EV. Luckily this was one setting still available in the oversimplified menu, making it easily adjusted for a better image.

The E50's images don't look especially processed compared to competitive cameras, with decent smoothness and no overly hard edges or sharpening artifacts. While color in the real world test shots seemed to come through accurately, the heavy tint in our studio shots makes it hard to do controlled analysis or direct comparisons in this case.

White Balance

As noted, the E50 is an auto only camera where white balance is concerned (contrary to some specs floating around on the internet that suggest otherwise). The camera does what could only be called a poor job of handling just about any lighting scene that falls outside the typical "daylight" white range.

Lens Faults

The biggest flaw that I found with this the lens on this camera is the amount of purple fringe that shows up in everyday images. Taking a shot of an afternoon skyline with lots of trees in the background can change the color of the sky from blue to purple as a result of heavy fringing.

Pentax Optio E50
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Pentax Optio E50
100% Crop

Otherwise, the lens is unremarkable, with some edge softness and unimpressive center sharpness but decent distortion control at both ends of the range.

Sensitivity and Noise

ISO noise gain in solid color fields was pretty intense, even between 100 and 200 ISO. This resulted in images that looked very muddy even though focus was spot on for the most part.

Pentax Optio E50
ISO 100
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Pentax Optio E50
ISO 100, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio E50
ISO 200
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Pentax Optio E50
ISO 200, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio E50
ISO 400
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Pentax Optio E50
ISO 400, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio E50
ISO 800
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Pentax Optio E50
ISO 800, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio E50
ISO 1600
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Pentax Optio E50
ISO 1600, 100% Crop

At high ISOs, fine detail in images was hardly legible with the amount of noise that was present. While performance at ISO 1600 is about in line with expectations for a camera in this price range, heavier than usual noise at ISO 200 and 400, especially, limit the camera's blur reduction abilities, flash range, and general low light capabilities.

As noted, the image stabilization system used on this camera is the ISO ramping style, which produces shots with higher noise as a trade-off for higher shutter speeds and less blur. Since this camera did not have the best ISO performance in the 200 to 400 range to begin with, shots taken at 800 to 1600 ISO with Digital SR enabled were less than appealing.

Additional Sample Images

Pentax Optio E50
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Pentax Optio E50
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CONCLUSIONS

As a digital camera sold at bargain basement prices the Pentax Optio E50 has a lot to offer – in both good and bad ways. It has a very fast zoom speed, good build quality, fast rapid fire modes, but also has lots of ISO noise, intense purple fringe on high-contrast shots, and a disappointing white balance system. For a beginner or notice who just wants something to carry "just in case" this camera could be an acceptable choice, though there may be better options in the budget arena. As expected, for someone who is expecting higher image quality, the E50 isn't the place to look.

Pros:

Cons:

Pentax Optio E50 Specifications:

Sensor 8.1 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Zoom 3x (37.5-112.5mm) zoom, f/2.8-5.2
LCD/Viewfinder 2.4", 110K-pixel TFT LCD with LCD Bright Mode
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600
Shutter Speed 4-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto Picture, Program, Movie, Voice Recording, Digital SR, Green Mode
Scene Presets Final list TBA
White Balance Settings Auto
Metering Modes Multi
Focus Modes Multi AF, Spot AF, Continuous AF, Macro
Drive Modes One Shot, Continuous, 16 Frame Composite
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Red-Eye, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
9.5 MB
File Formats TBA
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
Battery 2 AA batteries, 250 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features Face Detection, Digital Shake Reduction, Pentax Auto Picture Mode