Pentax currently has a slew of 5-megapixel cameras on the shelves. Among them is the Pentax Optio S55, an ultracompact model with a 3x optical zoom, tailored slightly more toward the novice than the company's S5z. Though remarkably similar to that model, the Pentax Optio S55 is a smidge larger and touts a help function to better explain its various modes and buttons without sending you to the operating manual.
Like the S5z, the Optio S55 offers a large 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD, point-and-shoot simplicity and a 30 frames-per-second (fps) movie mode limited only by the capacity of your camera's memory card. Some features -- a maximum movie resolution of only 320x240 pixels, for instance -- are less impressive than the S5z's and the S55 retails for about £50 less. This Optio offers slightly more than point-and-shoot control, and while its image quality won't wow most judges, it usually produces pleasing photos.
The ultracompact Pentax Optio S55 is a handsome, solidly built, stylised rectangle with an aluminium exterior and a moulded metallic grip. With two AA batteries installed, it weighs 178g, slightly more than its lithium-rechargeable-using sibling, the Optio S5z. Due in part to its reliance on AA (or CRV3) batteries, the S55 has slightly larger dimensions, but even with the added thickness, it's still easily pocketable.
The basic control layout is logical and intuitive. We like the large shutter release on top of the camera and the small but easily adjustable command dial next to it, which lets you choose from seven photo-shooting settings as well as movie capture and audio recording. The power button sits flush in the middle of the command dial, where you aren't likely to accidentally push it.
Unfortunately, some of the icons on this Optio can be confusing. A green smiley face represents the fully automatic Auto Select mode, and the letters 'Pict' designate something called Picture mode. Further investigation reveals that Pict provides access to nine additional, menu-selectable scene modes, such as Flower and Food. While in the Auto Select (smiley-face) mode, the camera offers access to a beginner's help function, in which pushing a tiny button labelled with a question mark provides explanations for the various settings and buttons. You'll need to spend some time with the manual just to know how to use that help function, but it's a handy tool for refreshing your memory.
Various buttons on the camera's back provide dedicated menu shortcuts. Some (flash and focus mode) are clearly marked, while others (exposure compensation, and image size and quality) require pushing the mysterious question mark first. Once you know what you're doing, however, the system is convenient. The menus are clearly labelled, and you can zoom in to magnify the text on the spacious 64mm LCD -- a boon for those who have trouble remembering their reading glasses.