Tiny, shiny and sensibly priced at around £100, the Pentax Optio S1 seems -- in theory, at least -- like an all-round attractive budget option. So how does it measure up in practice?
With the Optio S1, Pentax pulls off a clever trick by building a budget compact that doesn't necessarily look like it's a budget compact. The S1's simple yet effective design results in a small, glossy-looking device that, at only 20mm deep, will happily slink its way into a pocket or handbag without weighing you down. The camera comes in four colours, including an all-black model as well as chrome, turquoise and fiery red variants.
Simplicity extends to its controls, where a minimal selection of buttons and some straightforward menu screens provide access to the device's functions. The interface uses a familiar cursor-pad navigation scheme and menu options are abridged if you choose the Auto Picture mode, which bravely attempts to adapt the camera's settings automatically to suit your subject.
That's not to say that user-selectable options are limited. In fact, there's a relatively rich selection of shooting preferences to play with. Tap the Mode button and you can switch to Program, which un-greys-out all those useful menu settings for you. Alternatively, choose from one of the many other modes. These range from the usual suspects, such as portrait and pet modes, to high dynamic range or miniaturisation effects and a mode that's specifically for capturing text.
The Pentax Optio S1 isn't let down by a second-rate spec list either. The sensor's 14-megapixel resolution is well in line with cameras of double the S1's cost and the 5x optical zoom lens, with a focal length of 28mm to 140mm, is pretty good for the price too. High-definition video recording is also available, though only at 720p, and the camera lacks an HDMI port for direct connection to an HD television set.
Taking the shine off
A few hours of practical use reveals the S1's first obvious flaw. The shiny body is, somewhat predictably, a magnet for fingerprints and it doesn't take long for the whole surface to become a big smeary mess. This can, of course, be easily cured by rubbing the camera on your shirt or by wearing surgical rubber gloves wherever you go, like some kind of serial killer. Cosmetics aside, we also found that the small buttons can be a little fiddly for the more sausage-fingered among us to operate comfortably.
There are no major issues to report as far as the S1's image quality is concerned. In fact, we were surprised by the sharpness and detail the camera was capable of during our testing. We were also impressed with the camera's anti-shake feature, which helped to provide us with a relatively blur-less set of test photos. A certain amount of noise enters the picture when you use the camera anywhere other than broad daylight conditions, but that is to be expected with a camera of this price. Look closely and you'll also see a little purple fringing around the edges of contrasting-coloured subjects. Again, this is fairly normal.
Colours, on the other hand, don't always seem to come out quite the way you expect them to. On a few occasions, whilst shooting in Auto Picture mode, our photos appeared to have a markedly greenish tint to them. In these situations, retaking the same shot a few times eventually produces better results, which would seem to suggest that the camera's automatic white balance could be the culprit. All other auto settings, including a reasonably fast autofocus, work pretty well.
Movie mode isn't the best in the world, it has to be said. A dedicated button is provided for quick and easy capture but, apart from lowering resolution or frame rate, there are precious few video options available and you can't use the optical zoom whilst filming. Actual image quality when filming video is pretty poor, too.
The Pentax Optio S1 is a surprisingly capable compact that's neither expensive nor complicated. We noticed a couple of small performance issues when we were testing but, overall, we were fairly pleased with the results the S1 gave us -- especially when taking into account the camera's low cost. If you're not too fussy about video capabilities and the design suits your tastes, then the S1 could be worth considering. It's simple to use without having an over-simplified set of features and it's attractive in terms of both its size and price.
Edited by Jennifer Whitehead