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Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS Review
by Jim Keenan -  5/11/2011

Announced in February 2011 as the company's 12th generation of adventure series compact digital cameras, the WG-1 GPS is accompanied to market by a WG-1 variant that, not surprisingly, omits the GPS function that tracks and records positional data with captured images. While the former camera is the subject of our review, aside from GPS the features of both cameras are identical, so for the sake of brevity we'll just call our camera the WG-1 unless stated otherwise.

Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS


The big attraction of the WG-1 is the hardened design that makes it able to withstand conditions that would play havoc with a standard compact digital: waterproof to 33 feet of depth and dustproof as well; shockproof, able to withstand falls of up to 5 feet; coldproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit and featuring a crushproof construction that can withstand a weight force up to 220 pounds.

Once you get past that tough outer layer, what remains is a fairly typical compact: the WG-1 is available in black or purple, the WG-1 GPS in gray or green. Both cameras share the same hardware, a 14 megapixel sensor and 5x zoom lens covering the 28 to 140mm focal range in 35mm equivalents. Here's a look at those extremes.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
28mm Wide Angle

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
140mm Telephoto

Beyond that there's a 2.7-inch LCD monitor, 720p HD video, digital shake reduction, face detection, smile capture and blink detection technology, and a nifty digital microscope feature that includes 5 LED lights arrayed around the lens to assist with lighting extreme close ups. The native ISO range is 80 to 1600, but 3200 and 6400 are available at greatly reduced resolution (4 and 5 MP). The camera uses SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and there is an internal memory capacity of about 97 megabytes. Pentax includes USB and AV cables, a rechargeable Li-Ion battery and charger, camera strap, carabiner strap, macro stand and CD-ROM software with each camera.

The WG-1 is tough enough to go in harm's way, but what kind of images does it produce in the process? Let's find out.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The WG-1 is a bit more elongated than the typical compact digital, with a contoured body sculpted out of rubberized composite material with a bit of metal thrown in. The gray color scheme was attractive and overall the camera's materials and construction seem in keeping with the price point.

Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS

Ergonomics and Controls
The first thing that jumps out at you with the WG-1 is there's no place for the thumb of the right hand on the camera back - where the LCD monitor leaves off, controls start up and the thumb has no place to go but over the controls. Even so, I didn't have any problems with inadvertent activations. The tripod socket is offset to the extreme right edge of the camera bottom and is made of composite material. The shutter button is likewise located fairly close to the right edge of the body, and I had to hold my index finger a bit away from the body in order to get the tip on the shutter.

Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS

Controls are simple and for the most part confined to the camera back - only the shutter and power switch can be found on the top of the body.

Menus and Modes
That simple control layout hints at things to come - menus are brief and quite intuitive, consisting of four pages of choices in a record menu and four pages in a setup menu. A two page "editing images" menu can be accessed when in playback mode to modify existing shots in the camera. Actual menu options will vary based shooting mode, with the single manual mode, Program Auto, offering the most user inputs to an otherwise largely automatic camera. Largely automatic, yes, but with the unusual feature of allowing user input for ISO sensitivity in many shooting modes.

Now that the cat's out of the bag on shooting modes, here they are:

Display/Viewfinder
The WG-1's 2.7-inch LCD monitor has a 230,000 dot composition and is adjustable for 7 levels of brightness. The monitor measured a peak brightness of 397 nits with a contrast ratio of 536:1. That peak brightness is fairly low, the contrast ratio falls on the low end of the desirable range and the WG-1 monitor proved difficult to use in bright outdoor conditions.

Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS

Viewing for composition or capture was difficult if the monitor was anything less than pristinely clean - fingerprints or smudges really took a toll on performance in the bright outdoor Florida sun. Coverage is not specified but appears close to 100%.

PERFORMANCE
With a 5x zoom topping out at 140mm, the WG-1 isn't going to set the world on fire with its telephoto prowess, but that 14 megapixel sensor gives it a boost by allowing for a fairly aggressive cropping capability to get us "closer" to distant subjects. Here's a little guy in one of the ponds near the Astronaut Memorial at Kennedy Space Center - the original shot measures out at about 14.29 x 10.72 inches at 300 dots per inch (dpi), and the crop is a 12.19 x 8.12 at 300 dpi.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Original
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Cropped

And a couple shots of the KSC visitor center...

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image

Shooting Performance
The WG-1 powers up fairly quickly, displaying a focus point about 1.4 seconds after pushing the on/off button. I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.25 seconds. Single shot to shot times ran about 2.75 seconds and focus acquisition in good conditions was a quick 0.21 seconds; there is a focus assist lamp for dim conditions, and while the WG-1 slows in acquiring focus in dim light, especially when and zoomed toward telephoto, it strikes me as about average for a compact digital.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-H20G 0.01
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.01
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 0.21
Casio Exilim EX-H20G 0.23
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.25
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS 0.48

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 10 9.8 fps
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS 3 3.5 fps
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 12 0.8 fps

*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.

Shutter lag was a bit disappointing - we measured 0.03 seconds but Pentax claims "approximately 0.037 seconds" so the WG-1 could be flirting with the 0.04 second mark. It's not overly slow, just slow enough that you need to make sure and hold the camera steady for that extra fraction of a second to ensure capture gets done before moving the camera.

Continuous shooting rate came out to 0.8 fps, a bit better than Pentax's claim of 0.68 fps, but there's a fairly sizeable blackout period after the first shot of a sequence, then a shorter gap between each successive shot - tracking a moving subject in continuous mode is a challenge.

The WG-1 features Pentax's pixel track shake reduction system, which uses software in the camera to attempt to decrease blur due to camera shake. The camera also has "digital shake reduction" which turns out to be bumping up ISO sensitivity in order to promote faster shutter speeds as a means to decrease blur due to camera shake.

Ratcheting up ISO on compacts with small sensors generally levies a heavy fine in the form of noise in captured images, and is my least favorite method. Both pixel track and digital shake reduction are disabled by default (and Pentax recommends leaving them off when using a tripod), but if you're going to enable one, my vote goes to pixel track.

Flash range varies from almost 13 feet at wide angle to just over 8 feet at telephoto, both with auto ISO. Recycle times ran in the mid-to-high 5 second range.

Battery life of the WG-1 is rated for about 260 still shots or 120 minutes of video capture.

Lens Performance
While the WG-1 lens is a bit slow at the maximum apertures (f/3.5 and 5.5 at wide and telephoto, respectively), the lens acquits itself admirably otherwise. There's not much in the way of geometric distortion at the wide or telephoto ends, and chromic aberration (purple fringing), while present, is fairly unobtrusive except at extreme magnifications. The wide end is a bit soft in the corners and edges; the telephoto is a bit better and overall the lens does quite well.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image

Video Quality
Video out of the WG-1 is on a par with most 720 HD compacts - OK, but not great. The camera displayed banding on a couple of occasions panning with moving trains - as the train moved from a regular background to one inhabited by the sun, a fuchsia-purple band was produced from the suddenly brighter background, returning to normal as the pan moved on to another normally lit background. Lens zoom is not available during video capture.

Image Quality
Default image quality out of the WG-1 is good as compact digitals go - possibly a little soft for my taste in the auto modes, but not bad overall. Colors are fairly accurate. Here's a sample of some default shots in auto mode:

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image

Files are output at 72 dpi, which means you have to resize them for either e-mail (unless you want the file to measure about 60 x 45 inches) or printing (to 300 dpi).

The WG-1 has a D Range Setting (DRS) feature (disabled as a default) that can be used to expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera. There are separate settings for highlights and shadows and you can enable either or both. This feature is not available in auto or green mode, and if you have ISO set to 80 or 100 with DRS enabled ISO defaults to 160. Here's a shot with no DRS, and the same with both highlight and shadow DRS enabled.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Default
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
DRS Enabled

 

Both shots look pretty similar at first, but a closer inspection, particularly looking at histograms shows the WG-1 has saved some clipped highlights and shadows as well.

The WG-1 offers a simple color palette ("image tone") consisting of natural, bright and monochrome.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Natural
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Bright
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Monochrome

For this review I ended up shooting the WG-1 almost exclusively in auto mode, even with the availability of Program Auto and its wider array of user inputs. I suspect most folks using compact digitals tend to shoot in auto or a scene mode rather than investing too much time in setting up their cameras with specific settings (if that's even an option), so I decided to just emulate them.

Multi segment metering is the default setting for exposure calculations, and did a good job with normally lit scenes. Scenes with high contrast displayed some lost highlights on occasion, but performance in this regard was on a par with most compacts. There are center-weighted and spot metering options available in Program Auto and other select scene modes.

Auto white balance worked well under a variety of lighting conditions, but shot warm with 3200 degree incandescent light. This tends to be a pretty standard result in compact digitals. Our studio shot with 5500 degree fluorescents looks warm also, but shooting under my fluorescents at home the WG-1 looked pretty true. There are daylight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent and manual WB options available in a few select shooting modes.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Noise performance appears average at best for a compact digital - 80 and 100 ISO are fairly hard to tell apart, but close inspection at 200 shows fine details being lost (bear's nose) and noise already ramping up in shadow areas. ISO 400 looks worse across the board - noise on the increase, more fine details being lost.

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 80
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 100
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 200
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 400
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 800
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio WG-1
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Quality at ISO 800 takes an even more dramatic downturn, with noise clearly on the increase and fine detail now being lost to smudging - the Auto Zone disc is now largely featureless. ISO 1600 continues the deterioration - lots more grain and smudging in the darker areas.

We didn't shoot the 3200 and 6400 low res ISO settings in the studio, but here's what they look like compared to a 1600...

Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
ISO 6400

If all else fails, they're available, but 3200 and 6400 are settings of last resort.

Additional Sample Images
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image
Pentax WG-1 Sample Image Pentax WG-1 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
I said at the outset that the WG-1 was notable for its ability to survive conditions that would kill or disable most other compacts, and after living with it for three weeks nothing has changed. Survivability is the WG-1's strong suit. But the camera also can produce nice images - not the best I've seen from a compact, but far from the worst - and that combined with the toughness to withstand the elements makes it a good choice for outdoor types or anyone wanting a bit more durable camera.

The ability to set ISO sensitivities in many of the automatic or scene modes is a plus, and the inclusion of a Program Auto mode offering a wide variety of user inputs gives a large degree of manual control for those folks who want to customize the camera's performance to suit their needs.


ISO noise performance could be better - I'd have gladly traded 4 of those 14 megapixels for less noise, particularly when enabling the digital range feature takes you to 160 ISO by default, a point at which the WG-1 is starting to show signs of noise. Shutter lag is not too bad, but just enough that care needs to be taken to hold the camera a bit longer to make sure capture is done.

Finally, the monitor on the WG-1 was a bit harder than most to see in bright outdoor light, and that can't be a good thing for a camera whose very nature pleads to be taken outdoors. The WG-1 travelled with us to Florida and back, but wind and water conditions at Key West kept us (and it) out of the ocean. Still, its 33 foot depth rating is more than most casual snorkelers will ever use.

If you're in the market for a compact that can brave the elements while producing good images, the Pentax WG-1 series deserves serious consideration.

Pros:

Cons: