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Pentax Optio V20 Review
by Howard Creech -  8/10/2008

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 light-weight, stylish, pocketable little digicams with amazing feature sets are turning up almost weekly. Many of these diminutive digital cameras share fairly similar specifications so manufacturers really have to out-do themselves to attract any notice.

Pentax Optio V20


Miniaturization requires serious compromises in camera capabilities, but ultracompact digicams like the Pentax Optio V20 are usually excellent choices for casual shutterbugs and snapshooters who like to bring their camera along just about everywhere they go.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The elegantly stylish and ultra-slim (0.9 inches thick) Pentax Optio V20 provides a useful combination of features including 8.0 megapixel resolution, a 5x (36-180mm equivalent) optical zoom, and a face recognition mode with Smile Capture function and Blink Detection that's directly linked to both the V20's auto focus and auto exposure systems for sharp, colorful, accurately exposed portraits. Other tech specs include a 1/2.35-inch CCD image sensor, burst shooting at 1.4 fps, 51 MB of built-in memory, and a bright, sharp (230,000 pixel) wide viewing angle 3.0-inch LCD display.

The Pentax Optio V20 is an auto exposure only digicam with no conventional manual exposure capability. The V20 provides a fairly typical selection of shooting modes, including:

Pentax includes a D-LI78 lithium-ion rechargeable battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, a wrist strap, a 32 MB "starter" SD card, a software CD-ROM, a "quick start" guide, and a printed user's manual in the box with the camera.

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
The Pentax Optio V20 is an auto-exposure only ultracompact point-and-shoot digicam. Not surprisingly, it looks, feels, and operates like most other ultracompact point-and-shoot digicams.

Styling and Build Quality
Pentax's Optio series have been all over the map in terms of design and engineering, but the pocket-sized V20 features a fairly conventional design with a definite "retro" look.

Pentax Optio V20

Build quality is very good – this diminutive digicam is tough enough to survive most of the rigors of modern life – but dust, water, and rough treatment should be avoided.

Pentax Optio V20

Ergonomics and Interface
The diminutive V20 weighs in at 4.6 ounces with battery and SD card and the physical dimensions are 3.9 in x 2.2 in x 0.9 inches. The user interface is uncomplicated. The front deck is uncluttered, with a small raised grip bar finger rest.

Pentax Optio V20

The top deck features a small on/off button and a large shutter button with the zoom control ring at its base. The back deck is dominated by the large 3.0-inch LCD screen.

Pentax Optio V20

The back deck also holds the four-way controller the Face Priority/Smile Capture mode switch, the menu button, the Green Mode button (which can be programmed to perform a variety of functions – I set it up as direct access to the exposure compensation mode) and the playback/review button. The V20's menus are simple and direct, easy to navigate, and logically laid-out – and all controls are logically placed and easily accessed. Operation quickly becomes intuitive.

In short, most users will have no difficulty using the V20 right out of the box.

Display/Viewfinder
I much prefer optical viewfinders for framing and composing images because, unlike LCD screens, OVF narrow the photographer's vision of the world by eliminating everything except the approximate field of view of the camera's lens. The Pentax Optio V20 (like many current digicams, especially in the ultracompact class) doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, however, so all composition and framing chores must be accomplished via the LCD screen.

Pentax Optio V20

The V20's wide viewing angle (170 degrees both horizontally and vertically) 3.0-inch LCD dominates the camera's rear deck. LCD images are bright, sharp (230,000 dots), hue-accurate, and fluid. The LCD gains up in dim lighting, and users can manually adjust screen brightness as well. The LCD screen shows approximately 100 percent of the image frame and is useable in bright outdoor lighting. The LCD info/status display provides all information that the V20's target audience is likely to need.


PERFORMANCE

The V20's no-nonsense approach makes it an almost ideal first digicam: an excellent choice for family shutterbugs, a very good choice for space/weight concious travelers who want a tough, "go anywhere" camera, and a super selection for casual photograhers and snap-shooters who want a camera that produces dependably decent pictures in point-and-shoot mode.

Timing and Shutter Lag
Timing and shutter lag results from the DCR test lab paint a positive picture of the V20's performance. First and foremost, pre-focused shutter lag shouldn't be a problem: the V20's pre-focused shutter lag – the time elapsed between pushing the shutter button after locking focus and exposure on a particular subject and when the shutter actually fires – is actually a bit snappier than some of the competition. Whereas the Canon Powershot SD1100 IS (when pre-focused) can capture a shot 0.1 seconds after the shutter button is pressed, the V20 does it in 0.06 seconds

The V20's shutter/focus lag from scratch (without pre-focus) is 0.4 seconds, which is pretty fast all things considered. In the test lab the V20 had a tendency when focusing from scratch to default to Pan Focus (hyperfocal distance mode – the camera selects the aperture that provides the broadest focus zone), which can result in shots that leave the primary subject out of focus, but I didn't have problem with this when shooting in "real world" situations.

The V20's boot-up cycle is between 4 and 5 seconds. In continuous shooting mode, the V20 can capture 2 frames in 1.3 seconds (1.6 fps) at maximum resolution before stopping to clear the buffer. The only serious performance slowdown is the shot-to-shot times, which are abysmally slow at 3.5 to 4.0 seconds between shots – even in good light with high-contrast subjects.

Pentax Optio V20

The above shot of an exuberant skateboarder nicely illustrates just how quick the V20 is when shooting action. The camera was pre-focused on the cooler and then re-framed.

Lens and Zoom
The V20 sports a surprisingly good f/3.5-5.6, 36-180mm equivalent zoom. When the camera is powered up, the lens automatically telescopes out of the body. When the camera is powered down, the lens is retracted into the camera body and a built-in lens cover closes over the front element. The Optio V20's 5x zoom isn't as fast as most of its competition (f/3.5 maximum aperture, versus many f/2.8 cameras), but then much of the V20's competition is still offering 3x zooms.

Ultracompact digicam zooms generally start at around the equivalent of 35mm, so a true wide-angle perspectivev(great for group shots in tight indoor venues and traditional landscapes) with ultracompacts is a real rarity. The V20's lens produces colors that are hue accurate and fairly neutral, though native contrast is a bit on the hard side.

Finally, the V20's minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 4 inches, close enough for genral close-ups and auction site shots, but not tight enough for dramatic bugs and flowers shots.

Pentax Optio V20

This blooming Tiger Lilly was large enough to fill the frame at the V20's 4 inch minimum focusing distace.

Auto Focus
The V20 features Pentax's 9-point contrast detection AF system. The camera analyzes the scene in front of the zoom, calculates camera to subject distance to determine which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject, and then automatically locks focus on that AF point (closest subject priority), even when the subject is not centered in the viewfinder. AF is consistently quick and accurate.

The V20 provides an impressive suite of options for portrait shooters – Face Recognition AF (which is linked automatically to the AE system), Smile Capture (which recognizes smiles and automatically trips the shutter when a smile is detected on the subject), and Blink Detection (which detects blinking during exposure and alerts the user to shoot again).

The Optio V20's face detection AF seems to work pretty well, but I can't say the same for its Smile Capture mode. In Smile Capture mode the V20 automatically trips the shutter when the camera detects a smile – at least in theory. In practice the camera often fires the shutter without warning and, somewhat disconcertingly, even when the subject isn't smiling. As best I could tell, the Blink Detection mode seems to be nothing more than a gimmick – I couldn't get it to work for me even with a cooperative model. I got a couple of closed eyes shots, but no re-shoot warning from the V20.

Flash
The V20's built-in multi-mode (on, off, auto, and red-eye reduction) flash is an adequate, but very basic and slightly underpowered supplemental lighting tool. Like all ultracompact digicams, the V20's built-in flash is positioned very close to and on essentially the same plane as the lens, so red-eye will be a problem. Shooters can rely on the red-eye reduction mode or defeat red-eye by disabling the flash and shooting without supplemental lighting – naturally lit portraits always look better than flash lit portraits anyway.

Pentax claims the maximum flash range is 14.4 feet using auto ISO, but realistically anything beyond 8 or 9 feet is going to be fairly dark unless shot against very light colored backgrounds or with lots of ambient lighting.

Up close, the V20's on-board flash produces images that are harsh lit with burnt out detail, but at slightly longer distances flash-lit shots show hue accurate color and decent detail capture. Full power flash recycle is 6.6 seconds. Flash recycle times averaged 1.9 seconds.

Image Stabilization
The V20's most troubling ommision is its lack of either optical or mechanical image stabilization – a very a useful feature that reduces blur in captured images by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom or rapidly shifting the image sensor to compensate for involuntary camera shake. 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, and the loss of fine image detail.

Battery Life
The V20 is powered by a proprietary Pentax D-LI78 Lithium Ion rechargeable battery. Pentax claims that the V20 with a fully charged battery is good for up to 200 exposures.

Pentax Optio V20

I didn't keep track of exposures, so I can't quibble with Pentax's numbers, but based on my experiences with the camera, 125 to 150 shots is probably more realistic. The included charger needs about 90 minutes to fully charge the battery.


IMAGE QUALITY
In the final analysis, only two camera assessment criteria really matter – how well does the imaging device meet the needs of its target audience and how good are the images it produces. As noted, the V20 is sturdy, stylish, small enough to be dropped in a pocket, incredibly easy to use.

In terms of image quality, the V20 is also remarkably consistent – auto exposure and auto focus systems dependably produce very good to excellent images for casual use. Image quality outdoors is consistently very good to exellent. Interior shots (in decent light) are better than most of the V20's competition. Exposure is spot on in most lighting, AF is quick, focus is acceptably sharp, and colors are accurate.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
The V20's auto exposure system is impressively accurate and in good lighting the camera dependably produces very good to excellent images. Highlights are sometimes blown out – especially in contrasty scenes – and shadow detail is sometimes lost in the darker areas of dimly lit scenes.

Pentax Optio V20

Images are consistently sharp in the center of the frame, but corners tend to be slightly soft. Colors are hue accurate, bright, vibrant, and fairly neutral. Overall, however, the V20's target audience will likely be very happy with this diminutive digicam's image quality. Images are crisp and colors are bright and bold, but not garishly oversaturated – like much of the V20's competition.

The following indoor portrait nicely illustrates the V20's capabilities in less than perfect lighting. High-ISO capture presents good color and acceptable, print-ready detail – if not perfection at 100 percent.

Pentax Optio V20

Pentax Optio V20

Likewise, the above informal outdoor portrait nicely demonstrates the V20's capabilities outdoors. The subject is very pale, yet the V20 captured some nice detail even under fairly bright lighting

In terms of processing options, the V20 allows for saturation, sharpness, and contrast to be fine-tuned in three steps (minus one/plus one for each value, plus the default/zero setting). The differences in final image look can often be dramatic.

Pentax Optio V20
Saturation -1

Pentax Optio V20
Saturation +1

In the above shots, saturation was set to a value of minus one and then plus one, covering a range of image toning from neutrally muted to extremely vivid.

White Balance
The Pentax V20 provides users with an adequate selection of white balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Manual WB. The V20's Auto WB mode produces dependably hue-accurate and well-exposed images in a broad variety of lighting situations. The one hitch is the expected one: indoor shooting under incandescent light using Auto WB

Pentax Optio V20
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Lens Faults
The V20's zoom is surprisingly good – it is sharp, contrasty, and exhibits no visible vignetting (dark corners) or pincushion distortion. There is some minor barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the range and some minor softness in the corners, but overall the V20's zoom is noticeably better than average. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled and, excepting extreme lighting situations, shouldn't be problem.

Sensitivity and Noise
The V20 provides an excellent range of sensitivity options for an ultracompact digicam, including an auto mode and user-selectable settings for ISO 80 to ISO 6400 (with the highest two sensitivity settings available only at a reduced resolution).

Pentax Optio V20
ISO 80
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 80
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 100
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 100
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 200
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 200
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 400
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 400
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 800
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 800
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 3200
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 3200
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 6400
Pentax Optio V20
ISO 6400

Whether shooting outdoors in bright light or indoors in lower light the V20 delivers very good to excellent quality (essentially noise free images) at ISO 80 and ISO 100. Noise levels begin to rise after ISO 200. ISO 400 images are pretty good, but show some minor loss of detail and slight but visible noise. Higher sensitivities produce correspondingly higher levels of noise.

Additional Sample Images

Pentax Optio V20

Pentax Optio V20

Pentax Optio V20


CONCLUSIONS
Pentax has been producing capable but generally unexciting film cameras and SLR optics for more than 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 many of their competitors, they've failed to develop a comprehensive camera design philosophy: Canon's small cameras, for instance, all share a signature "look" and very similar operation, giving the line a cohesiveness that has been lacking for the Optio models. 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 capability as a digital image-maker. The Pentax Option V20 consistently and dependably produces first-rate images for snapshot use, all controls and access to features are imminently logical, and operation 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 image stabilization, one of the best digital cameras in its class.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS: Pentax Optio V20

Sensor 8.0 megapixel, 1/2.35" CCD
Lens/Zoom 5x (36-180mm) Pentax zoom lens, f/3.5-5.6
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 230K dot wide-angle view TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 80-6400
Shutter Speed 4-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto Picture, Program, Scene, Movie
Scene Presets Night Scene, Landscape, Flower, Natural Skin Tone, Portrait, Surf and Snow, Sports, Kids, Pet, Food, Panorama, Digital Wide Angle, Digital Shake Reduction
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Manual
Metering Modes Multi, Center, Spot
Focus Modes Nine-Point AF, Face Detection AF, Spot AF, Tracking AF, Manual Focus, Auto Macro, Macro
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous, Frame Composite, Self Timer
Flash Modes Auto, Flash On, Flash Off, Red Eye
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
51 MB
File Formats JPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion, 200 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Blink Detection, Smile Capture