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Pentax Optio S1 Review
by Andy Stanton -  5/31/2011

The Pentax Optio S1 is a small, stylish, compact camera that is the latest version of Pentax's venerable Optio S series. It is apparently designed to compete with Canon's ELPH and Nikon's "S" series of small cameras.

Pentax Optio S1


My previous experience with a Pentax camera was with the Optio I-10, an interesting point and shoot camera shaped like a small DSLR (or a retro toy camera) which I reviewed for this website about a year ago. While there was nothing outstanding about the I-10, I found it to be a quite competent camera in all respects, with surprisingly good image quality. So I expected good things from the Optio S1.

The Optio S1 has a striking appearance. The chrome model I reviewed has an aluminum skin that is reflective, like a mirror. Several people who saw me using it remarked that they found it very attractive. Its specifications are pretty standard - 14.1 megapixels, a 5x optical zoom lens covering a range of 28-140mm (35mm equivalent), a 1 /2.3-inch CCD sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization, macro focusing as close as 1 cm, HD movie ability at 1280 x 720 pixels at 30 frames per second and a 2.7-inch, 230,000 dot LCD screen. The Optio S1 does include a feature rarely seen in compact digital cameras - a remote control receiver which, when combined with a Pentax remote control transmitter, enables wireless operation of the camera's shutter.

While the Optio S1 does not allow independent control of shutter speed or aperture, it does have a program mode which permits considerable control over image quality and other camera functions, including image sharpness, saturation and contrast. The Pentax website shows the Optio S1 with a list price of $199.95 but it can be purchased for substantially less.

The Optio S1 comes with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a USB cable and wall attachment for plugging in the cable for recharging, a wrist strap, a 222 page paper operating manual (a rarity these days), a CD containing ArcSoft MediaImpression image organizing software and an A/V cable. The Optio S1 can use SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards and contains 97MB of internal memory. In addition to chrome, the Optio S1 is available in blue/green and black.

The Optio S1 is certainly a good looking camera, but let's see how it performs.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The Optio S1's body has an aluminum shell and feels solid and well-built. It is small but not tiny, at 4.49 inches wide, 2.28 inches tall and 1.1 inches thick (114 x 58 x 28 mm). It weighs in at 157 grams, including battery. Its rounded corners enables it to fit easily into a pocket or purse. Its buttons and dials are clear plastic. Overall the Optio S1 has a classy appearance.

Ergonomics and Controls
The physical layout of the Optio S1 is clean and straightforward. The flash is located at the top of the camera's front plate but more towards the center, rather than the corner, which makes it less likely to be blocked by a stray finger. A combination self timer/auto focus assist lamp is on one side of the flash and the remote control receiver on the other side. The telescoping lens is towards the side of the camera, rather than in the middle as is the case with many compact cameras.

Pentax Optio S1

The front panel also contains a pinhole opening for the microphone - the Optio S1 records monaural sound. At the top of the camera there is an on/off button and an oblong shutter button, both of which protrude just enough to make them comfortable to use, but not so much that they disrupt the camera's sleek lines. One side of the camera contains the wrist strap attachment and a port for the USB/AV cables. The bottom of the camera includes the speaker, a plastic tripod socket and a compartment for the battery and memory card, secured by a sturdy sliding door.

Pentax Optio S1

At the rear of the camera, you'll find the 2.7-inch 240,000 dot LCD screen in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The camera's controls are to the right of the screen. At the top is a rocker switch for controlling the zoom and, below that, a circular controller bordered by four buttons. The controller brings up a focus mode menu when pressed on the right, a drive mode menu (including continuous shooting, self-timer and remote control) when pressed up, a flash menu when pressed to the left and a mode menu when pressed down. An OK button is at the center of the controller. The four buttons include playback, a dedicated movie control, access to the general menu and trash can.

Pentax Optio S1

Despite the camera's glossy metal skin, I had no problem holding it to take pictures, even with only one hand, as the space between the zoom rocker switch and the playback and movie buttons is a convenient place to rest your thumb. All the camera's controls worked well without any problems.

Menus and Modes
As I referred to earlier, menus can be brought up by pressing several buttons at the rear of the camera. Pressing the bottom of the circular controller brings up the mode menu, which allows you to select from certain shooting modes including Auto Picture, Program and various scene modes.

Pentax Optio S1

A brief explanation of the selected mode is set forth at the bottom of the screen. Pressing the menu button permits you to select the desired movie mode.

The camera's shooting modes are as follows:

The Optio S1 includes several additional shooting options, including face detection, blink detection, smile capture (automatically takes the picture when the camera detects the subject smiling) and D range setting (compensates for high contrast areas that are too bright or too dark), and the ability to adjust for sharpness, saturation and contrast. The camera uses a sensor shift image stabilization system. The Optio S1 does not have a panorama mode.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
D Range Off
Pentax S1 Sample Image
D Range On

When the camera is in playback mode, the user has the opportunity to use various filters on photos that have already been taken. A photo can be transformed to black and white, sepia, toy camera, retro, color (six color filters), color extract, color emphasis, soft and brightness.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
Black and White
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Sepia
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Toy Camera
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Retro
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Soft

Display/Viewfinder
Like most small cameras, the Optio S1 lacks a viewfinder and users will have to rely solely on its 2.7-inch, 230,000 dot LCD. The screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio and can be adjusted to one of seven different brightness levels.

DCR tests cameras for LCD screen quality, measuring for contrast ratio and a brightness unit called nits. The best LCDs have a contrast ratio above 500:1 and at least 500 nits. The LCD screen of the Optio S1 was found to have a contrast ratio of 638:1 and to measure 255 nits for peak brightness and 0.40 for dark. While the contrast ratio is good, the peak brightness figure is rather low. With its brightness level set to the middle level, I found the LCD hard to see in bright, sunny conditions. Indoors it was fine.

PERFORMANCE
I was generally pleased with the performance of the Optio S1. The camera is quick in starting up and shutting down. Menu operations are quick and accurate. Shot-to-shot time without the flash is good, from one to two seconds. Shooting speed slowed considerably with the flash in effect, to about five seconds.

Shooting Performance
When using the Optio S1 I felt its shooting performance was good. The camera seemed to acquire focus quickly and accurately, even in low light. However, this is contradicted, to a degree, by the findings of DCR's labs. As shown by the performance tables below, the camera measured 0.20 seconds for shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter and taking the shot) when the camera is pre-focused, and 0.55 seconds without pre-focusing. Both times are slow, especially 0.20 seconds for shutter lag.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 0.01
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 0.02
Pentax Optio S1 0.20

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 0.20
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.25
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 0.36
Pentax Optio S1 0.55

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 10 9.8
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 3 3.8
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 1.3
Pentax Optio S1 0.9

*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.

The camera's continuous shooting speed is also slow, at only 0.9 frames per second, but there is no limit on the number of shots the camera can take in continuous shooting mode (until the memory card is full). The Optio S1 also has a high speed continuous shooting mode which will take a 10 shot burst at 3.2 frames per second but only at five megapixels of resolution.

According to Pentax, battery life for the Optio S1 is 180 shots. This figure will be less if the user frequently accesses the menu and/or takes movies. Thus it would be wise to purchase a second battery for backup if you plan to go out for a day's worth of shooting.

Lens Performance
The Optio S1 has a 5x optical zoom lens with a focal length of 28-140mm (35mm film camera equivalent), with an aperture of f/3.9-5.7, which is on the slow side. The lens range can be extended with digital zoom, which due to the large number of megapixels can provide decent results if not overused.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
Wide Angle
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Telephoto

The camera produces images that are sharp in the center but are sometimes blurry in the corners. I did not notice any vignetting (darkened corners), but chromatic aberration (fringing) in high contrast areas can sometimes occur. These issues are present in the image below:

Pentax S1 Sample Image

There is minimal barrel distortion at wide angle and no pincushion distortion at maximum telephoto.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
Wide Angle
Pentax S1 Sample Image
Telephoto

Video Quality
Although the Optio S1 can produce HD video at 1280 x 720, at 30 frames per second, there are two significant problems with it. One is the presence of overexposure when shooting outdoors in bright conditions. Another is that only digital zoom is permitted during video, although it does not work smoothly and is best avoided. Both of these problems are illustrated below.

Image Quality
The Optio S1 produces punchy images with strong, but realistic colors. I especially like the way it reproduces the colors of flowers.

Pentax S1 Sample Image

However, as I found when shooting movies, the camera tends to overexpose when shooting outdoors under bright skies. This causes images to look soft and washed out. This can be compensated for, to a degree, by the judicious use of the exposure compensation control.

Pentax S1 Sample Image

The flash has settings for auto, on, auto plus red-eye and on plus red-eye. The use of red-eye activates a pre-flash. Other options include slow synchro (brightens the background) and off. There is no flash setting for red-eye reduction. Flash coverage is approximately 12 feet at wide angle and 8.2 feet at telephoto. The flash gives appropriate brightness to the subject without overdoing it.

Pentax S1 Sample Image

The Optio S1 has white balance settings for auto, daylight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent and manual. I used auto white balance for all my pictures, which seemed to work well.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

ISO test results shows good color, sharpness and minimal noise through 200 ISO, but by 400 ISO noise reduction has softened the image and dulled the colors. The image is minimally acceptable at 800 ISO while 1600 ISO (and higher using certain scene modes) should be used only in emergencies.

Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 64
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 64, 100% crop
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 100
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 200
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 400
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 800
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax S1 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images
Pentax S1 Sample Image Pentax S1 Sample Image
Pentax S1 Sample Image Pentax S1 Sample Image
Pentax S1 Sample Image Pentax S1 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The Pentax Optio S1 is a very stylish camera with the features you would expect at its price point - with the exception of a panorama mode - plus it has a remote control receiver, a feature few point and shoot cameras have. The camera is solidly built and seems like it will stand up to normal use (and even some abuse).

Its menu system is logically laid out and works well. I like the fact that it includes color filters in playback mode, which gives users the option of making changes to their photos after they are taken. While our lab test shows rather slow shooting performance, I did not find this to be a problem and most users won't either. My only criticism of the camera's performance is that flash recovery time is somewhat slow, at about five seconds.


However, I did also have some issues with the camera's image quality and movie quality. While the camera produces very pleasing colors, overexposure in bright outdoor conditions is sometimes a problem, both with still images and movies. While sharpness is good at the center of the image, it tends to drop off at the corners. Images lose definition and color at higher than 400 ISO. Finally, optical zoom cannot be used when shooting movies and it would be best to avoid using digital zoom.

Another problem with the Optio S1 is that its competition is fierce. I recently reviewed the Canon ELPH 300 HS, Panasonic DMC-FH27 and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX9, three small cameras all of which are in the general price range of the Optio S1. I would recommend them all over the Optio S1.

Pros:

Cons: