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Pentax X90 Review
by Jim Keenan -  7/12/2010

While Pentax has been producing compact digital cameras for some years now, it took until 2009 to introduce their first entry into the ultrazoom class comprised of 10x and up optical zoom lenses. The X70 opened to somewhat mixed reviews, with battery life, HD video quality and speed of operation drawing fire from some reviewers. On the other hand, still image quality got generally positive comments.

Pentax X90


Pentax is back in 2010 with the successor to the X70, and while the new X90 is virtually a carbon-copy of the old camera, Pentax has addressed some of the criticisms leveled at their first superzoom. Battery life in the X90 is reportedly 50% greater and the 720p HD video has been upgraded to a 30 frame per second capture rate in addition to the previous camera's 15 fps.

The X90 retains the 12 megapixel sensor, 2.7-inch LCD monitor and electronic view finder of the old camera, but the EVF picks up a diopter adjustment. The zoom grows from 24x to 26x and now covers the 26 to 676mm focal range (35mm equivalent). Here's what that range looks like:

Pentax X90 Test Image
26mm

Pentax X90 Test Image
676mm

In addition to the optical zoom there's a digital zoom of approximately 162.5x and "intelligent zoom" options that make use of reduced resolution to offer 33.9x to 162.5x multiplications depending on resolution. The camera also provides full manual exposure controls along with the typical compact digital auto and scene-specific options, face detection auto focus and auto exposure, and a high speed shooting rate of about 10 fps (at reduced resolution).

ISO sensitivities range from 80 to 6400 (with 3200 and 6400 at reduced resolution), there's about 31 megabytes of internal memory and the camera can utilize SD/SDHC memory media, including Eye-Fi wireless cards. Pentax includes USB and A/V cables, a lithium-ion battery and charger, camera strap, lens cap, CD-ROM software and printed user's manual with each camera.

Pentax X90

The first order of business for any X90 owner is to affix the lens cap to the camera so that when you forget to remove it before powering up, it doesn't get irretrievably lost as the extending lens slides it off. Now that our lens cap is accounted for, let's see what the rest of the X90 has to offer.

BUILD AND DESIGN
As mentioned earlier, the X90 is virtually identical to the X70, featuring the mini DSLR look that characterizes practically every entrant in the superzoom category. The new camera is a tiny bit deeper to accommodate the longer lens, weighs a fraction of an ounce more and carries "X90" and "26x" badging in addition to a diopter wheel for the EVF. That's about it for the external differences. The body is composite with some rubberized non-slip material in the handgrip and thumb rest areas, and appears well built.

Pentax X90

Ergonomics and Controls
The deep handgrip provides a secure hold on the body for one or two handed shooting and the index finger of the right hand falls naturally across the shutter button - in my case the middle joint. The thumb falls naturally onto the thumb rest on the camera back. There was ample clearance between the lens barrel and the fingers of my right hand when gripping the camera. Folks with large hands may want to check and see if the camera is just a bit small for shooting comfort, both in the shutter and lens barrel areas.

Pentax X90

Controls are arranged in a simple, logical manner. The shutter button/lens zoom lever, exposure compensation button, power switch and shooting mode dial all sit atop the camera body. At the rear, the EVF/LCD and display buttons are arranged horizontally on either side of the EVF. The e-dial, face recognition, replay, green and menu buttons vertically sandwich the four way controller and its OK button along the right side of the monitor. The flash is deployed manually via the flash button located on the left side of the body just below the flash housing.

Pentax X90

The green button allows you to instantly revert to a default set of camera settings ("green mode") for still shooting, or, in the alternative, to bring up a function menu of specific settings that you have assigned to the each of the four points of the controller.

Menus and Modes
There are two primary menus in the X90, each comprising four pages: recording mode and setting. Recording mode offers inputs to shooting settings such as image size and quality, ISO, white balance, etc. The range of settings varies with the particular shooting mode chosen: manual controls such as aperture or shutter priority and full manual offer the most settings while automatic shooting modes provide fewer choices, and these may also vary from mode to mode.

When an image is displayed in playback, an editing menu may be accessed via the "mode" section of the four way controller and offers options such as resizing, cropping, etc. The "digital filter" option provides some color creativity over and above the "natural", "bright" or "monochrome" initial shooting settings found in the recording mode menu. Overall, menus are quite simple and intuitive in the X90. Here's a page from each of these three menus:

Pentax X90 Test Image
Record
Pentax X90 Test Image
Setting
Pentax X90 Test Image
Playback

While the X90 has the usual range of automatic shooting modes found in cameras of this class, it also offers a fairly broad assortment of inputs, even in the full auto mode. This can be a big plus, particularly when it comes to being able to designate a low ISO sensitivity for the automatic modes where the camera might have raised ISO into the objectionable noise range given free reign over all the decisions on settings.

Display/Viewfinder
The 2.7-inch LCD monitor has an anti-reflective coating and 230,000 dot composition. It is adjustable for 7 levels of brightness, but none of these can defeat bright outdoor light in some instances and the monitor can be difficult to use in these conditions. Area of coverage is not specified but appears to be about 100%.

The electronic view finder retains the 200,000 dot composition of the X70 and adds a diopter adjustment missing from the earlier camera. Area of coverage is also not specified but appears to be about 100%.

PERFORMANCE
Pentax reports increased battery life and a 30fps, 720p HD video mode in the X90, and these should hopefully address a couple of the oft-repeated gripes about the X70. As to the reports of speed of operation, read on.

Shooting Performance
The X90 displayed a focus point about 1.6 seconds after power on, and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.5 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.25 seconds. Shutter lag came in at 0.01 seconds and AF acquisition time at wide angle was 0.43 seconds - both of these figures are among the best times we've observed for superzoom class cameras, and the AF time is a noticeable improvement over the 0.82 seconds we measured for the X70. AF acquisition time gets slower at telephoto, a common occurrence in the class, but the X90 seems among the slower cameras in this respect. A focus assist lamp may be enabled via internal menu to help with AF in dim light.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.01
Pentax X90 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.02
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.06

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.40
Pentax X90 0.43
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.44
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.64

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 7 12.3
Nikon Coolpix P100 6 11.3
Pentax X90 5 1.4
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 1.1

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Continuous shooting rates at full resolution ran about 1.4 fps, but the X90 is a bit difficult to use in this mode with fast moving subjects. There's about a one second blackout of the monitor or EVF after the first shot in continuous mode, and then a slight delay before each subsequent image is displayed, so keeping the camera on the subject can be a job, particularly if you're zoomed in close and the subject is tending to fill the frame. There are low, medium and high speed shooting options at 5 megapixel resolution that offer frame rates up to 10 fps, but the monitor and EVF go blank while shooting the entire burst so tracking can really become a chore.

The X90 has "triple shake reduction" stabilization - CCD shift and high ISO adjustment for still images and an electronic movie shake reduction setting. I shot most of the images for this review with the X90 mounted on a monopod, and would recommend some sort of camera support for anyone who expects to be shooting a lot toward the telephoto end of the focal range. Pentax claims up to a 3 stop advantage for the stabilization system of the X90, which in theory would allow you to hand hold the camera with shutter speeds in the 1/80th of a second range at maximum telephoto and still keep camera shake from negatively impacting image quality. Sounds good in theory, but it's not easy to do for real, and any ultrazoom being shot at the telephoto end would benefit from some additional support to help minimize shake.

At auto ISO, Pentax rates the X90 flash for a range out to almost 30 feet at wide angle, or about 16.7 feet at telephoto. Flash recycle times with a 2/3 full battery were about 4.25 seconds for a partial discharge and about 6.5 seconds for a full discharge. Exposure was good with flash at the shorter distances - the flash didn't tend to overpower the subject.

Pentax X90 Test Image Pentax X90 Test Image

Battery life for the X90 is rated at about 255 shots, up from 170 in the X70.

Lens Performance
The X90's 26x zoom goes from a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide angle to f/5 at telephoto - right in the ballpark with the leaders in the class. The lens looked to be free of geometric distortion at wide angle, with just the slightest hint of pincushion at telephoto. Corners and edges were a bit soft at wide angle; telephoto showed some soft corners and edges as well. There seemed to be some light falloff in the corners of some shots with the lens zoomed to 250 mm and up (35mm equivalent). Notice the slightly darker corners in the shot of USS Lake Champlain's bow:

Pentax X90 Test Image

There was chromic aberration (purple fringing) in some high contrast shots at both the wide and telephoto ends of the lens, but the effect was more dramatic at telephoto - a few images showed purple at 100% enlargement, such as this worst case tree and bright sky.

Pentax X90 Test Image

The lens can focus as close as about 3.94 inches in macro mode, and 0.394 inches in "1 cm macro" mode.

Pentax X90 Test Image Pentax X90 Test Image

Video Quality
Video quality of the X90 is average. Clip length is 2GB and the optical zoom is unavailable during recording - but digital zoom is. The microphone can be sensitive to wind noise but there is no "wind cut" feature available. I tried video capture with and without the movie shake reduction enabled and image quality did not seem to be impacted either way; enabling movie shake reduction is a good idea if you're hand holding.

Image Quality
Default images out of the X90 were generally pleasing as to color rendition and sharpness. Here's a shot of the default sharpness and the same shot with sharpening maxed out in the camera. Sharpening, saturation and contrast adjustments are available with the manual modes and some scene modes.

Pentax X90 Test Image
Default Sharpness

Pentax X90 Test Image
Maximum Sharpness

Somewhat surprisingly, the manual shooting modes all had "bright" as the default color mode; auto modes used the "natural" setting in most cases, but "bright" was the default for some of the scene modes as well. In many cases, the alternate image tones (natural or bright and monochrome) were available in auto modes. Here's a look at the three basic image tones:

Pentax X90 Test Image
Bright
Pentax X90 Test Image
Natural
Pentax X90 Test Image
Monochrome

Here's the natural and bright tones again on a rose - the natural tone is the more accurate of the two, which is why I was surprised to find "bright" the default for so many shooting modes.

Pentax X90 Test Image
Natural

Pentax X90 Test Image
Bright

The X90's edit menu gives you a number of ways to modify images in camera once they've been captured: image rotation, digital filter, frame composite, movie edit, red-eye compensation, resize and crop options, among others. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is virtually every effect for each image has to be done individually so if you come up with an effect you really like and have a bunch of shots to work, the time involved can get lengthy. But the good news is if the effect you like is "frame composite," that option is available as one of the shooting modes in the scene menu (at reduced resolution) and you can capture away to your heart's content.

Here's an original shot with "frame composite" and "fisheye" effects applied after capture (there are 90 frames available - you're not stuck with Christmas) and another shot done with the scene menu.

Pentax X90 Test Image
Original
Pentax X90 Test Image
Frame Composite
Pentax X90 Test Image
Fisheye
Pentax X90 Test Image
Frame Composite Scene

Here's the "natural" color shot again with red, blue and green color filters, as well as "toy camera" and "retro."

Pentax X90 Test Image
Red
Pentax X90 Test Image
Blue
Pentax X90 Test Image
Green
Pentax X90 Test Image
Toy Camera
Pentax X90 Test Image
Retro

As with most digital cameras these days, the X90 has settings to expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera, aptly named D-Range Setting on page two of the record menu. There are highlight and shadow correction options (both are off by default) and you can apply both simultaneously. Here's a default shot in aperture priority, one each with highlight and shadow correction only, and finally both enabled.

Pentax X90 Test Image
Aperture Priority
Pentax X90 Test Image
Highlight Correction
Pentax X90 Test Image
Shadow Correction
Pentax X90 Test Image
Both Shadow and Highlight Correction

Close examination of the histograms for each shot discloses that the camera loses highlights in the AP shot, but with highlight control enabled the loss is much less. Shadow control brings out more detail in the dark areas, and with both enabled you have gains on both ends of the histogram. In short, the D-Range settings work. When you enable any of the D-Range corrections the 80 and 100 ISO sensitivities can no longer be manually set - you're limited to 160 ISO as the starting point. If you have no need for the lower sensitivities I'd be very tempted to shoot the camera with both highlight and shadow enabled most of the time.Processing of images takes longer with any D-Range enabled.

Auto white balance was used for the images in this review and did a good job overall with light ranging from cloudy to sunny daylight and fluorescent. The X90 shot warm under incandescent light in our studio, however. There are daylight, shade, tungsten, three fluorescent and manual white balance options.

Pentax X90 Test Image
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Multi segment metering was used for images in this review and did a good job on scenes with average light distribution. Scenes with contrast frequently displayed some lost highlights when shot with the D-Range corrections disabled, and in this regard the X90 was perhaps a bit worse than average for cameras in this class that I've reviewed. It's a candidate for using the D-Range options or some exposure compensation for any high contrast situations. There are center-weighted and spot options as well.

ISO noise performance in the X90 is about average overall and perhaps a little above average from 400 to 800. ISO 80 and 100 are hard to tell apart and 200 shows just the slightest increase in noise under close scrutiny. ISO 400 is a bit worse and overall image crispness falls off a tiny bit.

Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 80
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 100
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 200
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 400
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 800
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 1600

ISO 1600, 100% crop

ISO 800 is decidedly worse than 400 but usable for small images and 1600 really looks like the only ISO of last resort in the full resolution range. The X90 will shoot 3200 and 6400 sensitivities at reduced resolution (5 megapixels), and while we didn't shoot them in the studio here's what they look like on our garage wall dartboard. For comparison purposes I'm including 800 and 1600 as well so you can see things continue downhill above 1600, even with the reduced resolution.

Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 800
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 1600
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 3200
Pentax X90 Test Image
ISO 6400

Usable for small images if nothing else will do, but best kept out of your ISO shooting quiver otherwise.

Additional Sample Images

Pentax X90 Test Image Pentax X90 Test Image
Pentax X90 Test Image Pentax X90 Test Image
Pentax X90 Test Image

CONCLUSIONS
While it took Pentax longer than most to get into the compact digital ultrazoom class, their X70 was by most accounts a worthy addition to that field. Pentax has improved on the original a bit and the new X90 has corrected some of the X70 deficiencies, notably battery life and AF acquisition time at wide angle. Still image quality got generally good reviews in the first camera and the X90 follows suit with good image and color reproduction. The camera affords the user an above average number of inputs into some automatic settings, most notably ISO sensitivity.


There's an annoyingly long blackout after the first shot in the full resolution continuous shooting mode and AF acquisition times at the telephoto end of the lens seem slower than the class norm. While video got upgraded to include a 30 fps capture rate, overall quality seems only average at best. Considering how good the still images look, this was probably the most surprising aspect of the X90 performance.

Of course, if video is your main concern you should really be looking at a dedicated video camera. On the other hand,if you're looking to get into the superzoom class the X90 is a good way to go.

Pros:

Cons: