A 5x optical zoom lens, excellent macro capabilities, and a burst mode that doesn't know when to stop differentiate the otherwise average Pentax Optio SV from the proliferation of 5-megapixel snapshot cameras. One of four 5-megapixel Optio models introduced by Pentax alone recently, the SV is designed for the photographer who's content with letting the camera make all the decisions most of the time but who wants room to grow. However, discriminating punters will find the poor performance and the mediocre photo quality enough to send them looking elsewhere.
There are sufficient options, including manual exposure and focus, to let budding photographers spread their wings, along with a clutch of fun features to explore, such as a limited time-lapse movie mode, 3D stereo photography, and panorama assist. Excellent macro capabilities -- the Pentax Optio SV can focus as close as 30.4mm -- will appeal to those snapping flowers, insects, or hobby collections, and a slow but persistent burst mode lets you snap off sequences for as long as your SD memory card holds out.
Pleasingly compact at 91 x 56 x 28 mm and 164g with battery and SD card, the Optio SV's aluminium alloy body should fit comfortably in most pockets. Although the control layout is clean and easy to fathom, one-handed shooting is awkward if you want to keep a finger on the shutter release and zoom at the same time. Other than the shutter-release and power buttons, all the controls are on the back panel.
These include a Menu button to access both simple and full-featured menus at your option and a Function key, which displays an onscreen menu of four selectable functions that can be adjusted using the cursor keys; both are arrayed under the 1.8-inch LCD. There's a knurled mode dial above the display screen, and a four-way cursor pad with central OK/display-info button. There are four keys that activate picture review, cycle among flash options, adjust flash mode, and set self-timer/remote control/burst features. The focus button doubles as a delete key during picture review.
This Optio's lens prowess will catch the attention of most would-be owners. With many compact digital cameras still equipped with 3x optical zooms that sacrifice a wide perspective to squeeze out a little more telephoto reach, the SV's 5x zoom gives you a bit of both at 36mm to 180mm (35mm equivalent). Macro capabilities are excellent: you can focus as close as 114mm in the 36mm-to-80mm zoom range and move in as close as 30mm if you stick to the wide-angle view.
The autofocus system zeroes in on one of five selectable areas, and you can fine-tune the focus manually with the up/down buttons using a frame that enlarges the centre of the image. A handy focus-limit option can speed up the process by preventing the camera from trying to focus on distant objects while in either macro mode or from close range when snapping panoramas for example.
All the basic exposure options are there, including your choice of multisegment, centre-weighted, or spot metering, plus programmed exposure from 4 seconds to 1/2,000 second and f/2.8 to f/8, shutter- and aperture-priority modes, full manual exposure, and 12 scene modes (Landscape, Flower, Portrait, Self-Portrait, Sports, Surf & Snow, Autumn Colour, Sunset, Museum, Food, 3D, and Panorama Assist). Night Scene mode, which provides slow-sync flash exposure at a shutter speed slow enough to fill in background details using ambient light, has its own separate position on the mode dial. Exposures can be fine-tuned with EV settings, to ±2EV in 1/3EV increments, or you can use autobracketing to snap off three frames at different exposure, white-balance, sharpness, saturation, or contrast settings. If the lighting is especially dim, you can manually boost sensitivity from ISO 50 to as high as ISO 400.
While movie clips are limited to 320x240 pixels at 30fps, you can keep shooting to the full capacity of your memory card. Time-lapse mode is more limited than that found in some other cameras; you can't directly select interval, number of shots, or even start time for the sequence. It functions more as a way to increase the speed of your movie during playback, with four settings that reduce frame rates to 15fps, 6fps, 3fps, and 1.5fps.
The Optio's burst mode was relentless. At 640x480 pixels, we were able to shoot 570 frames in 15 minutes; the camera could have continued recording until the memory card filled up. At full resolution, we captured 55 frames in 109 seconds before we detected a slight pause and halted the test; the Pentax probably could have continued shooting 5-megapixel snaps for a while longer. Unfortunately, the LCD viewfinder, already prone to ghosting and fade under bright lighting conditions, blanks out most of the time while you're shooting bursts. The non-dioptre-corrected optical viewfinder is bright and large enough for most photography, however.
Seconds (smaller is better)
||Typical shot-to-shot time||
||Shutter lag (typical)||
||Time to first shot|
Frames per second (larger is better)
||Typical continuous-shooting speed|
The rest of the camera's performance was far less impressive. Time to first shot after power-on was a sluggardly 6.2 seconds, and thereafter, we could take pictures only every 4.5 seconds (6.21 seconds with flash). At its best, shutter lag ran a merely OK 0.9 second and 1.2 seconds when repeating the test under more challenging low-contrast lighting conditions, despite the lack of a focus-assist lamp.
The tiny 710mAh lithium-ion battery delivered a decent 464 shots after a full charge in the supplied camera dock, half taken with flash, and with lots of zooming, picture review, and media reformatting to give it a workout.
As long as you don't look too closely, the Optio SV's photo quality should be good enough for the average photographer. However, the automatic white balance tends to lean slightly toward cyan or yellow, depending upon the light source; manual white balance yielded much better results. There's little noise at ISO 50 and 100, but noise increases visibly at ISO 200 and 400. The camera slightly underexposes, which preserved the highlights of some brightly lit snow scenes we shot, but it also tends to compress the dynamic range. Furthermore, its photos simply aren't that sharp, and postprocessing artifacts become apparent when you look at images at full size. Red-eye control was good but not perfect.
Though this 5-megapixel snapshot camera has some admirable qualities, poor performance and disappointing photo quality keep the Pentax Optio SV from making the grade.
Edited by Lori Grunin
Additional editing by Tom Espiner