The competition for consumer dollars in the digital imaging industry is fierce and one of the major battle fronts is the ultracompact point-and-shoot camera class. It seems like new lightweight, stylish, and easily pocketable little digicams with almost amazing feature sets are turning up weekly. Most of these diminutive digital cameras share basic specifications and functions so manufacturers really have to out-do themselves to attract any notice.
The elegantly stylish and ultra-slim (it's only 0.9 inches thick) Pentax Optio V20 provides a useful combination of features including eight megapixel resolution, a 5x (36-180mm equivalent) optical zoom, a face recognition mode with Smile Capture and Blink Detection that’s directly linked to both the autofocus (AF) and auto exposure (AE) systems for sharp and accurately exposed portraits, a 1/2.35-inch CCD image sensor, burst shooting at 1.4 fps, 51MB of built-in memory, and a bright, sharp wide viewing angle 3-inch LCD display.
The Optio V20's 5x zoom isn’t as fast as most of its competition (f/3.5 maximum aperture, versus the f/2.8 maximum aperture on many ultracompacts), but then much of the V20’s competition is still offering 3x zooms. The camera doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder, so all framing and composition must be handled via the LCD screen.
The V20’s most glaring ommision is the lack of image stabilization – Pentax does provide what they call Digital Shake Reduction. DSR boosts sensitivity (to as high as ISO 6400), but higher sensitivity inevitably leads to higher levels of image noise, less punch with flat colors, and the loss of fine image detail. Finally, the V20’s minimum focusing distance in macro mode is four inches – close enough for online auction shots, but not nearly tight enough for dramatic bugs and flowers.
In the final analysis, choosing the best camera comes down to two basic camera assessment criteria – how well does the imaging device meet the needs of its target audience and how good are the images it produces. The V20’s no-nonsense simplicity makes it an almost ideal first digicam, an excellent choice for family shutterbugs, a very good choice for space/weight travelers who want a tough, "go anywhere" camera, and a super selection for casual photograhers and snapshooters who want a camera that produces dependably decent pictures in point-and-shoot mode. Image quality outdoors is consistently and dependably very good to exellent. Interior shots (in decent light) are better than most of the V20’s competition. Exposure (in point-and-shoot modes) is accurate, focus is sharp, operation is very fast, and colors are vibrant.
Pentax has been producing capable but generally unexciting film cameras and SLR optics for over half a century. Since the beginning of the digital imaging revolution they’ve has focused lots of corporate attention on developing and marketing ultracompact, feature-rich, easy-to-use, and innovative Optio series digicams. Pentax digicams have never been sales leaders, in large part because (unlike Canon’s small cameras, for instance, which all share a signature “look” and very similar operation) they failed to develop a comprehensive camera design philosophy. But if the snappy little Optio V20 is an indication of a new design philosophy at Pentax, that could change.
What makes the V20 exceptional in a flood of generally competent but mostly uninspired mini-cams is its capabilities as a digital image-maker. The Pentax Option V20 consistently and dependably produces first-rate images, all controls are imminently logical, and operation/access to features is intuitive and remarkably easy. The super capable little retro-minimalist V20 is, in my opinion and despite its slow maximum aperture and the lack of an optical viewfinder and image stabilization, one of the best digital cameras in its class.
Our full review of the V20 will be up in a few days.