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Pentax Optio A40 Review
by CalebSchmerge -  4/11/2008

In the last year, photography has really gained importance among my hobbies and interests. I absolutely love taking pictures. There's just one problem: it can be really difficult to carry a camera, especially if it's a DSLR, at all times. I found, however, that with the Pentax Optio A40, the company's latest top-of-the-line compact, I could easily slip this camera into a pocket and go most anywhere.

Pentax Optio A40
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The A40 clearly has size and style down, so the only real question remaining is if this compact camera can really do the job from an image quality standpoint?


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Pentax Optio A40 is a 12 megapixel compact camera that packs a lot of features. Sporting a 3x zoom (37-111mm equivalent) lens, enhanced Shake Reduction image stabilization technology, a 2.5-inch high-res screen, and a plethora of in-camera modes and options, the A40 sounds like a capable camera. Included with the camera are a USB cable, audio/video cable, hand strap, rechargeable li-ion battery, charger, and CD-ROM with software.

The A40 features the following primary shooting modes:

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

As a top-tier compact, the Optio A40 is designed and built to appeal to serious users looking for a slightly more stylish or serious camera than your run-of-the-mill discount store compact. While it's classy black exterior and generally solid construction do a decent job of conveying this "premium product" message, against some strong competition in this class, it may not be quite enough to get the Optio noticed.

Styling and Build Quality

I find the styling of the A40 to be appealing. The black and silver exterior looks quite nice to me. While this is not as stylish as some cameras I have seen/reviewed, it certainly is no eye-sore.

Pentax Optio A40
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The build quality is good. I won't say this thing is built like a tank, but the plastic casings are quite sturdy. The more serious issue that I found was that in some small spills the battery door popped open and could potentially break off. However, I suspect that in a serious drop where there's risk of damage to the camera, you'd be more likely to damage the screen, lens, or sensor. Basically, I would trust this camera for quite a bit of use, not thinking twice about throwing it in a pocket whenever I leave the house.

Pentax Optio A40
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The buttons also feel good and sturdy enough to stand up to repeated cycles. They all have a nice, definite click to them, yet are easy enough to push to be comfortable in use. The power button is set in to the top of the camera to insure that you don't turn the camera on accidentally.

Ergonomics and Interface

Cameras in the compact range don't always do so well into the ergonomics department, though the A40 is better than many in this regard. The A40 is small to hold entirely in one hand. There is a well placed grip to help you hold the camera one-handed and snap pictures. The camera certainly can be used one handed – however for those important moments it's definitely a two-handed camera. Considering all of this, I find the camera to be comfortable enough for everyday use.

Pentax Optio A40
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The A40 is also light enough that its weight is hardly noticed in regular shooting or transporting. The buttons on the back of the camera are accessible, but, once again, they are much easier to use if you hold the camera with both hands.

I mentioned already that the buttons on this camera feel good to press, making the A40 easy to operate. Unfortunately (in my opinion, at least), the buttons only provide menu-based, rather than dedicated, control access: you can't just press the flash button to cycle through flash modes, for instance; rather, pushing the flash button directs you into the flash portion of the menu. For many users this isn't a big deal, but I found it a bit aggravating at times. For a higher-end camera, a little more interface work would have been appreciated.

In spite of the lack of dedicated access, switching parameters like the flash mode or shooting mode was usually simple and self-explanatory on the A40. On-screen advice tips will occasionally pop up to help explain the effects of specific settings changes. While this is helpful, multi-layer menus makes changing some settings deeper in the interface can often be confusing – I got "lost" more than once in the interface. As with other interface gripes, it usually was only an aggravation, but I did miss a few shots while trying to get the correct settings selected.

While I don't think these concerns are a fatal flaw, I do believe Pentax could have done better here.

Display/Viewfinder

This camera lacks an optical viewfinder. I found the screen to be pretty usable, even on bright days outdoors. I have never liked using a display to take pictures, but the A40 did an acceptable job all the same.

Pentax Optio A40
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Like most cameras in this class, exposure information, a composition grid, and focus indicators can all be added to the display if desired. Somewhat bizarrely, if you choose, you can also shut the display off completely while shooting (remember, there's no optical viewfinder, so how you're supposed to compose shots isn't clear). Seems like a bad idea to me, but who am I to say?

Overall I found the screen to be bright enough and have accurate enough color and detail reproduction for in-camera review and composition. Unless ambient light is overpoweringly bright, the A40's screen was viewable.


PERFORMANCE

As a compact for slightly advanced shooters looking for a little more control, performance is a key consideration for the Optio A40, which is slotted in terms of price and features to compete with the likes of the Nikon S700. While the A40 has a lot going for it, it also stumbled in some critical areas in this category.

Timings and Shutter Lag

With the camera pre-focused, the A40 exhibited almost no shutter lag, timing out at around .04 seconds at its best. Shooting without pre-focus, the A40 moves from press to capture in less than 2 seconds, but with some highly inconsistent focus performance (it defaults into pan focus, which performs strangely inconsistently on this camera – see the Auto Focus section for more). In order to get consistently focused shots, you have to half-press, focusing the camera, and then fire. At best, the camera was able to do all of this in just under a second.

Lens and Zoom

The lens on the A40 is decent, if not stunning. The 3x zoom is enough for a compact camera, though for an all-purpose do-everything camera, it leaves something to be desired.

I am a bit displeased with the actual zooming on this camera. It is acceptably quiet; however, the zoom is highly "stepped" with only six positions from one end to the other. Let go of the zoom toggle between two of these positions and the zoom will bounce forward or back out a little bit to the closest stop, making zooming feel a little jumpy and less well controlled than similar cameras with a similar number of zoom stops. As with the interface, this isn't a deal breaker for the A40, but I found it annoying nonetheless.

Auto Focus

Sadly, this is where the A40 falls apart: I had significant trouble with the focus on this camera. Some photos that just plain should be in focus were almost unrecognizable due to frequently (and often severely) missed AF. There were times when every other photo I tried to take was completely ruined due to missed focus.

The problem seems to be mode-specific (there were no observed focusing issues when shooting with the flash, for instance). As noted previously, the camera seems to almost require pre-focus to get consistent lock, and even when it finally attained lock, focusing tended to be a bit slow. While the A40's macro focus and infinite focus modes seemed just fine (not much to cause difficulty in infinite focus mode), its "pan" focus mode – which uses hyperfocal distance and the widest possible depth of field to put as much of the frame into focus as possible – had issues locking focus (which makes no sense, given that hyperfocal focusing is pure mathematics), even for subjects that should have easily been within its range. Maybe we got a bad test unit, but coupled with the fact that the mode's purpose and function is poorly explained in the manual, pan focus was less useful than it should have been.

Flash

Flash performance also left me a bit disappointed on this camera, with shots locking the camera up while the flash charged. In most cameras, the shutter is disabled until the flash is ready, but the A40 is among the handful of cameras that black out completely while the flash recycles. I also observed some odd delays in making the flash fire, even when fully charged; at times, the A40 took as much as 2 to 3 seconds after shutter press to actually fire.

Slow performance is doubly disappointing given that photos taken with the flash looked good. I saw no problems with either the color or harshness of the flash, and was pleased with the inclusion of a soft mode for the flash. In some shots, this setting really helped make a difference between a good shot and a completely blown out one.

Image Stabilization

Pentax's Shake Reduction sensor-shifting image stabilization in this camera seems to work quite well in testing.

Pentax Optio A40
Shake Reduction disabled (view large image)
Pentax Optio A40
Shake Reduction enabled (view large image)

Obviously, it is not a fix for all camera shake problems or blurry pictures, but it definitely seems to work as advertised. Similar to Pentax's DSLRs, Shake Reduction control is via a dedicated SR button.

The A40 also includes an ISO-boosting Digital Shake Reduction mode, though the trade-off is, of course, higher noise levels.

Battery Life

Pentax claims a rather meager 180 shots per charge of the battery. In my testing, however, this seems to be an underestimate of the battery (though I use flash less often than most). I will warn that the battery indicator was a bit jumpy at times, making it hard to know exactly how much power was left. The camera comes with a relatively compact battery charger, which can fully charge the battery in a matter of hours (Pentax claims a maximum of 100 min).


IMAGE QUALITY

The overall image quality on this camera was surprisingly good. The shots are sharp and have good, accurate, lightly saturated color. Perhaps most surprising for a 12 megapxiel compact, even shots up to ISO 1600 would be usable for most prints.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

I had little to no trouble with the exposure or processor-side performance on this camera.

Pentax Optio A40
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In many cases the results were better than expected, with extremely accurate metering performance requiring almost no retakes – even in touch scenes. The processing and color produced good results, with controlled saturation and a good balance on the sharpening side. Color was, on occasion, a little brighter than life, but this slight vibrancy bump usually resulted in better looking photos that most photographers will be happy with.

White Balance

The A40's white balance does a pretty good job. The auto white balance performed well indoors, outdoors, and in mixed lighting. Once again, I never had a photo where the color was off enough that I was concerned about the auto white balance's performance. A more limited range of presets than most cameras in this class may bother some, but the A40 makes up for it with a manual set mode with preview.

Lens Faults

The lens has a little trouble with barrel distortion at the wide end. In normal photos, however, it wasn't intense enough to be apparent (you caught me: I've been photographing graph paper). The tele end looked good all around, with no perceptible distortion.

Otherwise, I saw no problems with this lens. Sharpness was good edge to edge, fringing was kept under control, and I didn't notice any vignetting.

Sensitivity and Noise

As stated before, I found little problem with noise up to ISO 1600.

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 50
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 50, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 100
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 100, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 200
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 200, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 400
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 400, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 800
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 800, 100% Crop

Pentax Optio A40
ISO 1600
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Pentax Optio A40
ISO 1600, 100% Crop

While there is some dark-area blotchiness and you might not want to make enlargements at this end of the range, the photos had lots of detail for a compact camera – especially one with a 12 megapixel sensor, as higher-resolution compacts tend to show more noise. In all the shots I made, including in relatively low light with no flash, I found the noise performance to be consistently above average. Setting the camera to auto ISO will keep the sensitivity at ISO 800 or lower, which worked wonderfully for me.

Additional Sample Images

Pentax Optio A40
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Pentax Optio A40
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Pentax Optio A40
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Pentax Optio A40
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CONCLUSIONS

I wish that I could say there were only some minor bumps down the Optio A40 road, but there were some glaring problems. Focus issues are a major concern, and the flash difficulties only add to the struggle. Given the camera's very appealing overall image quality and quite good high ISO performance, it's sad that I ultimately can't recommend the A40 as tested given its issues. With some minor tweaks on Pentax's part this could be a very fun compact and a strong competitor for the class leaders.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Pentax Optio A40 Specifications:

Sensor12.0 megapixel, 1/1.7" CCD
Zoom3x (37-111mm) zoom, f/2.8-5.4
LCD/Viewfinder2.5", 232K-pixel TFT LCD
SensitivityISO 50-1600
Shutter Speed4-1/2000 seconds
Shooting ModesAuto Picture, Program, Shutter Priority, Picture (Scene), Movie
Scene PresetsNight Scene, Landscape, Flower, Natural Skin Tone, Portrait, Kids, Digital SR, Surf and Snow, Pet, Text, Food
White Balance SettingsAuto, Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Manual
Metering ModesMulti, Center, Spot
Focus ModesFace Priority AF, Multi-Point AF, Spot AF, Auto Tracking AF
Drive ModesOne Shot, Continuous, Frame Composition
Flash ModesOn, Off, Red-Eye Reduction, Soft Flash
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory FormatsSD, SDHC
Internal Memory
21MB
File FormatsJPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size4000x3000
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
BatteryRechargeable lithium-ion, 180 shots
ConnectionsUSB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional FeaturesFace Detection, Shake Reduction, Pentax Auto Picture Mode