You can't really appreciate the size of the Pentax Q until you have it in your hand. Pentax claims it's small enough to fit into your palm, but in truth you could put two there, side by side, and just about still see four fingers and thumb.
Despite this it has a 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor and a brand-new interchangeable lens system. With a 3-inch screen around the back and integrated HDR capture and bokeh control, it represents a lot of technology squeezed into a very small package.
The Pentax Q is available now in black and white from £499, although at the time of writing many retailers were offering a £100 cashback deal.
Build and design
Our test sample arrived with the 01 standard prime lens -- one of five in the Q range, which encompases a 17.5mm fish eye, 35mm and 100mm toy lenses and a 27.5-83mm zoom. All of those figures have been converted to match their 35mm equivalents.
Our standard prime has a physical focal length of 8.5mm with a maximum aperture of f/1.9, equivalent to 47mm in a 35mm camera. Minimum aperture is a fairly conservative f/8, and controlled by a horizontal thumb wheel at the back of the case.
The lens itself features just a focusing ring, which when paired with the optional 2x or 4x focus assist magnification -- which kicks in as soon as it senses any movement on the ring -- does a neat job of getting you a sharp, manual result with the least hassle.
If that sounds like too much work, then leave it set to auto, which is accurate and very fast.
It comes in black or white with a leather-effect front, under which you'll find a magnesium alloy chassis. That should protect it from all but the roughest knocks and bumps, so we were disappointed that the rear-mounted buttons don't feel as though they were built to match, as they're light and clicky, and most definitely made of plastic.
There's no viewfinder, but Pentax sells one as an option to mount on the hotshoe. You'll find the flash to the left of this. It's smarter than your average bulb, working just as well when seated in its recess as it does when popped out on a sturdy articulated arm that moves it away from the lens for more balanced results.
Don't let its diminutive dimensions fool you into thinking this is a cut-down sharp shooter, though. Shutter speeds run from 1/2,000 second to 30 seconds, with a bulb option for use in low light. In this mode you'll probably want to employ the remote sensor built into the grip to avoid touching it and blurring your results. Burst mode tops out at a respectable 5fps.
The Q's prime lens is extremely sharp, with its wide fixed aperture allowing for a gentle fall-off in the focus as backgrounds recede from the lens. This makes it easy to isolate your subject matter, and pick out fine detail in wood or cloth.
Colours were extremely well handled, with an even balance of tones across the frame at both ends of the colour spectrum. In this image of a winter fruiting tree, the warm tones of the fruit and the red bark are both true to the originals, while the level of detail in the bark itself is impressive, with notches and individual flakes easily discernible.
Likewise, in the image below, which is dominated by cool blues and greens, tones are representative of the original scene and the transitions between areas of similar colour are smooth and unstepped. There's good definition in the darker underside of the overhanging tree, and despite this no evidence of burned-out highlights on the front of the house, which directly faces the sun.
Neither was there any evidence of vignetting in the corners of our test images. The degree to which the incoming light has to be bent as it passes through this part of the lens, and the amount of glass it must negotiate can sometimes affect the level of illumination reaching the sensor, but not in this case, allowing the Q to deliver balanced, evenly lit and very pleasing results.
We did experience some very slight chromatic aberration in a few shots, however. This is an undesirable effect experienced where the various wavelengths that make up the visible light spectrum around us aren't quite focused in sync by the time they reach the sensor. The result can be a slight fringing on sharp contrasts, such as the rigging seen below where there's a pink blush to the right of each strand.
We were lucky enough to be testing the Q at the same time as the Panasonic Lumix GX1, which is similarly priced and also has an interchangeable lens system. The Q is considerably smaller, with a smaller sensor to boot, the result of which is a set of slightly less sharp results in some of our tests.
Fine detail in particular, such as the red sticks in the garden scene below, are better defined in the results we received from the GX1, although where colours are concerned there is nothing to choose between them.
In both instances the cameras were set to automatic. Examining the metadata, the Pentax Q favoured higher sensitivity (ISO 400 for the Q, ISO 125 for GX1) and a wider aperture (f/5 on the Q; f/8 on the GX1) to facilitate a shorter exposure of 1/1,250 second, compared to the GX1's 1/320 second.
Likewise, in this shot of boats the Q self-selected higher sensitivity and a wider aperture in favour of a shorter exposure. In this instance, however, while the Q's result was brighter than that achieved by the GX1, it nonetheless retained plenty of detail when zoomed to 100 per cent, as seen below, where the difference in size is explained by the differing relative focal length of each lens.
The Q, then, put in a good performance on the whole, and won't disappoint the more ambitious casual photographer for whom size is an important consideration. Anyone who puts quality above all else, though, may prefer the results delivered by a similarly priced camera with a larger sensor.
The Q shoots movies at 1,920x1080 pixels and 30 frames per second, and there's a built-in HDMI port for playback hidden beneath a flap on the underside of its case.
We tested it over two days for a mix of bright and overcast conditions, and in each case it performed well, with colours that were true to their originals, sharp contrasts and excellent compensation for changing light levels, allowing us to pan across the scene before us while the Q maintained well-balanced illumination and tone.
There's no setting in the firmware for reducing wind noise, yet despite this the effect on our soundtrack of an ambient breeze was far less pronounced here than on most rivals.
Our only criticism is that it deactivates the auto-focus system when shooting movies. The focal position selected when you half-depress the shutter is therefore used through the full duration of your current shot, regardless of its length and how many times you reposition. The upshot? Pan to something outside of the focal sweet spot and it'll be blurred in your finished movie.
We can't help wondering whether the Q was named in honour of James Bond's chief gadgetsmith. It's a great-looking device, smaller than you'd ever imagine, and produces some great-looking results when they're viewed full screen.
When zoomed to 100 per cent the limitations of the smaller sensor become evident, with slightly poorer definition in areas of high detail. You need to balance this, however, with the convenience and flexibility delivered by this form factor.
Its biggest hindrance, unfortunately, is the price. £499 when bundled with the Standard Prime lens, and £599 for the twin prime and 5-15mm zoom is too rich for our tastes. These prices put the Q close to what you'd expect to pay for a consumer dSLR and, crucially, the Panasonic Lumix GX1. With the £100 cashback deal, it's much more tempting.