Yet another entry into the increasingly crowded field of 5-megapixel snapshot cameras, the Pentax Optio S50 boasts more features than such form-over-function offerings as the Canon Digital Ixus 30, but lags slightly behind Pentax's own S5i for versatility. Overall, the Optio S50 is a decent entry-level digital camera whose affordable price and strong image quality fail to offset some serious performance issues.
Though less sleek and a bit heftier than its stylish sibling, the S5i, the S50 still fits easily in a pocket and weighs little enough -- 187g with battery and media -- not to tire your hands during a shoot. Sturdily constructed, the S50's silver brushed-metal body has every button within easy reach, whether you have tiny hands or enormous mitts. The problem lies in labelling. If you don't spend some serious time with the S50's user manual, some of its unique pictograph labels won't make any sense; for example, Pentax represents the automatic setting as a bright-green smiley face on the mode dial. In another case, it took a few furious minutes to figure out that enabling colour filters in digital-effects mode requires pressing the unlabeled down button on the camera's four-way selector.
The S50's par-for-the-course 46mm (1.8-inch) LCD screen doesn't distinguish the camera but performs serviceably in daylight. You'll find yourself using the LCD to compose your shots far more often than with the camera's woefully inadequate optical viewfinder, which shows, at best, 70 percent of the image captured by the CCD. If you like your camera batteries rechargeable, you'll have to buy them yourself; the S50 ships with AA alkaline cells, though it takes a disposable lithium CR-V3 as well. This will save on charging time but can get expensive; luckily, the S50 boasts better than average battery life, and we were able to cram in 760 shots with our standard 1,850mAh rechargeable nickel metal hydride cells, half of them with flash, before the battery died.
With 10 selectable scene modes and dial settings for digital effects, portrait photos, night shots, and landscapes, the S50's feature set won't bowl anyone over but goes toe-to-toe with most entry-level snapshot cameras. We appreciate the inclusion of a continuous-shooting mode, even one that lags considerably at 2 seconds per frame; for a more seamless effect, the S50 also captures 320x200-pixel AVI video at 30fps for a duration limited only by the capacity of your SD media card. Vacation photographers will like the 3X-zooming lens's middle-of-the-road focal range of 35.6-107mm (35mm equivalent).
The Pentax Optio S50 logged shutter-lag times of 0.5 second in the best case and 0.9 second in the worst case; these are average but not great numbers for a snapshot camera. In practice -- or more accurately, at a football game -- the S50's performance was simply frustrating. We would frequently press the shutter release with our running subject framed in the centre of the scene, only to find that the photo showed only a foot exiting the right side. The camera's lag was significant enough that even attempting to lead our young player by snapping the photo ahead of time could not produce consistent results, and with the S50's poor shot-to-shot time of 3.5 seconds, we often didn't have the opportunity for a second-chance shot. Given the capricious nature of children as photographic subjects, parents may want to look elsewhere for a camera less apt to miss precious moments.
When we managed to get the shots we wanted, the Pentax Optio S50 produced pleasing results. Despite higher-than-average noise even at low ISO-sensitivity levels, most photos were evenly exposed and showed good dynamic range. Colours were neutral rather than oversaturated, and though they tended to look a bit cool indoors, we achieved more vivid results in daylight. We were a bit disappointed by the S50's weak low-light performance, though underpowered flashes aren't uncommon among smaller point-and-shoot cameras. The S50 captures details sharply and crisply, though the lens blurs objects along the left of the frame. While the S50's photo quality is certainly less of a mixed bag than its performance, only photographers with the most stationary of subjects should consider it as a first option.
Additional editing by Mary Lojkine