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Pentax X90 Overview

by Mike Pasini, Mike Tomkins, and Stephanie Boozer
Review Date: 10/14/2010

The second digital camera in the company's X-series, the Pentax X90 follows in the footsteps of 2009's X70, and like that camera is what's commonly known as a "megazoom." The Pentax X90 offers even more reach than its predecessor, with a 26x optical zoom -- everything from a generous 26mm wide-angle to a whopping 676mm telephoto equivalent. Macro shooting is possible to as close as just 0.4 inches (one centimeter) in Super Macro mode. With a lens that powerful, you'd expect to find some form of mechanical image stabilization to prevent blur from camera shake -- and Pentax doesn't disappoint, mounting the X90's image sensor on a moveable platter to allow for CCD shift-type image stabilization. Like its predecessor, the Pentax X90's 4:3 aspect ratio image sensor has a native resolution of twelve megapixels (4,000 x 3,000 pixels). The ISO sensitivity range has shrunk just slightly, extending from 80 to 1,600 equivalent at full resolution, where the X70 offered a low of ISO 50. The X90 also offers a selection of alternate aspect ratios, including 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1

In low-light or when high shutter speeds are a must, resolution can be traded off against further increased sensitivity, for a maximum of ISO 6,400 equivalent at five megapixels or below. As well as increasing the maximum sensitivity, shooting at reduced resolution also brings a potential increase in frame rates on offer. At the X90's maximum twelve-megapixel resolution burst shooting is possible with a modest rate of 1.12 frames per second, but when shooting at five megapixels or below, the camera can offer an impressive 11 frames per second for up to 15 frames -- a little less than the 21 frames the X70 was rated for.

Focusing is achieved using contrast detection, and the Pentax X90 also includes an autofocus tracking function that helps deal with moving subjects. Face detection functionality is also offered, capable of identifying up to 32 faces in a scene within just 0.03 seconds. Once detected, the locations of your subjects' faces are taken into account when determining both autofocus and exposure variables. The face-detection function is also used for two related features - a Smile Capture mode which triggers the shutter when your subject smiles, and a Blink Detection function which warns you when your subject blinked during an exposure. Face-detection capability is said to have been upgraded, and should now better handle faces that are tilted, or turned sideways.

For photographers wanting maximum ease of use, the Pentax X90 offers a Programmed AE exposure mode, and a wide selection of twenty scene modes, some of which automatically reduce the camera's resolution. There's also an Auto Picture mode which can detect the subject and then automatically select the relevant option from a subset of eight common scene modes. If you desire a little more control over the creative process, the Pentax X90 also offers both Aperture- and Shutter-priority modes as well as the ability to shoot completely manually, specifying your own choice of shutter speed and aperture. An unusual "Digital Wide" mode automatically stitches two images together in-camera to yield a single extra-wide-angle image.

Pentax X90 owners will frame and review their images and movies either on the camera's 200,000 dot electronic viewfinder, or on a 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 dot resolution. Movie resolutions up to 720p high definition (1,280 x 720 pixels) with sound are available, with a frame rate of either 15 or 30 fps at all resolutions.  Usefully, Shake Reduction is also offered when shooting movies. Images are stored on Secure Digital cards, including SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) types, or in 31.2MB of built-in memory, a couple less than in the X70. Power is provided by a proprietary D-LI106 lithium-ion rechargeable battery, rather than the D-LI92 used by the X70. Other changes from the previous model include high-definition HDMI video output connectivity, and Eye-Fi wireless SD card support which can be configured via the camera's own menu system.

A year after the X70, the Pentax X90 went on sale in the USA from April 2010, with the same pricing, starting at about $400.

 

Pentax X90 User Report

by Mike Pasini

A minor -- but rather annoying -- error came to my attention shortly after I received the Pentax X90 for review. In reviewing the Exif header data for the camera, I noticed my location was tagged. Since the Pentax X90 doesn't have GPS, I wondered what was going on. Then I realized that it had merely picked up the time zone city I'd selected when setting the clock. Except it spelled it "San Fransisco" on every image. It isn't the first time I've seen this typo in a digital camera, but I really have to wonder why it happens. If you live near Pentax HQ, perhaps you could drop by and show them how we spell San Francisco.

With that attention to detail, you mightn't expect the Pentax X90 to earn a Dave's Pick. At least, unless it's the exception that proves the rule.

Look and Feel. As megazoom digicams go, the Pentax X90 is compact. It's mainly a barrel of a lens with a grip attached. The grip itself is a little cramped for my average-size hand but thanks to a relatively light and well-balanced body, it isn't particularly uncomfortable. The camera body itself is quite attractive -- in part thanks to the color. It isn't obvious from the photos (and wasn't immediately obvious to me) but it isn't black. It's gunmetal blue -- a refreshing variation on black, with nearly all the advantages, including the fact that it's not reflective.

Another refreshing touch is the angled controls. The body is actually sculpted to fit the hand and the controls follow those contours. A very nice touch. The command dial on the back panel, for example, isn't parallel to the ground but runs downhill at a slight angle, perfectly aligned to your thumb as it moves up to adjust it.

Compact as it might be for a megazoom, you won't be pocketing the Pentax X90. You don't have to put a shoulder strap on it, though. I was quite happy walking around with it tethered to nothing more than a simple wrist strap. It comes with a shoulder strap, though. And you'll have to find some sort of cord to attach the removable lens cap to the strap because none is included -- a bit of a strange oversight given that there's an eyelet on the lens cap to which a strap can be attached.

The Pentax X90 cries out for a small case of its own. On longer jaunts, I holstered it with a Lowepro camera holster.

But mostly I just hung the small grip from my index finger, preventing the camera from slipping out by keeping my thumb on the thumb pad on the back. That was quite comfortable, especially considering the camera loaded with card and battery weighs less than a pound.

The front of the camera is dominated by the large lens barrel with a curious knurled ring on the front. I couldn't resist grabbing it and trying to give it a twist, but it's only a design element. There's no way to attach a filter to the lens, either.

The flash pop-up release button sits right next to the flash, and a focus assist/self-timer lamp sits on the other side of the lens right above the monaural microphone.

Under a rubber flap on the left side of the camera is a standard Type-D HDMI port, but Pentax does not include the cable for it. There is also a combined USB/AV connection, allowing standard definition output on NTSC and PAL displays.

A plastic tripod socket is right next to the battery/card compartment hinge on the bottom of the camera, which actually extends out a bit in a finger-like shape to support the lens barrel when you set the camera down. Another nice touch. The tripod socket is a short distance from the central axis of the lens, making it less than optimally placed for shooting panoramas -- although it's a lot closer than on some cameras, such as the Olympus SP-800UZ, which I reviewed alongside the Pentax X90.

I should also applaud Pentax for providing a nicely produced 268-page printed manual with the camera. It gave me the impression the company actually wants me to learn how to use the Pentax X90.

Controls. I very much liked the layout of the Pentax X90's controls and how they followed the contour of the body design, which almost molds itself to your hand.

Controls are placed in two locations: the right side of the top panel and the right side of the back panel. Or, you might say, around the Pentax X90's grip. It's a right-hander's dream.

There are two small, infrequently used buttons on either side of the electronic viewfinder -- one to switch between the EVF and the LCD, the other to cycle through the display options. And there's a dioptric adjustment wheel next to the EVF, too. But everything else is around the grip.

On top a nice large chrome Shutter button is ringed by a Zoom control. It zoomed a little too fast for me (well, a lot too fast) in both Still and Movie modes.

Behind the shutter button, and adjacent to the EVF, is a large Mode dial which is far enough out of the way to prevent accidental mode changes. A small EV button sits behind the Pentax X90's Shutter button, a location I found a little hard to reach with any finger, although photographers with larger hands will find it comfortable to reach with an index finger, even single-handed. Behind this is the Power button, which illuminates in green when the camera is powered on. The Power button is small, something I never like, but it's in a shallow recess, making it accessible with larger fingers. A good thing, too, because it's the only way to power the camera on -- pressing the Playback button with the Pentax X90 powered off won't bring it to life.

On the back of the Pentax X90, the EVF with its two small buttons and diopter adjustment sit above the 2.7-inch LCD, with 230,000 dot resolution. The anti-reflective coating on the LCD resists smudges well, and the display was usable in bright sunlight. The Pentax X90 thus avoids two fairly common issues we've seen in competing cameras.

A command dial -- or in Pentax parlance, an e-dial -- sits on top of the control panel to the right of the LCD. You use it to adjust exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture. Below this is a Face button (which toggles through Face Detection On/Off and Smile Capture,) and below that is the Playback button. The four-way controller beneath these is composed of single buttons for the arrow keys, and a central OK button. At the base of this column of control are the Menu button, and the Delete button, the latter of which can also be assigned a function in Record mode.

The four arrow buttons on the four-way controller also have distinct record mode functions. The Up button cycles through the Drive modes (Standard, Continuous, three Burst modes [L, M, H], Self-Timer, 2-second Self-Timer, Interval Shoot, and Auto Bracket). The Right button cycles through the Focus modes (Standard, Macro, 1cm Macro, Infinity, Manual, and AF Area Selection). The Down button accesses the Capture Mode Palette in Scene mode, and has no function in other Record modes. The Left button cycles through the Flash modes when the flash is popped up (Auto, Off, On, Auto with Red-Eye, On with Red-Eye, Slow Sync, and Slow Sync with Red-Eye).

Lens. With the equivalent of a 26mm to 676mm on a 35mm camera, were there such a beast, the Pentax X90's lens is nothing if not flexible. The 6.25X digital zoom stretches its 26X optical reach to 162.5X at VGA image sizes. Add a nice macro capability (which can be set automatically through a menu item) and there isn't much missing when you drop the Pentax X90 into your bag.

While you can set the lens to slip into Macro mode automatically, a Super Macro mode is also available from the Right arrow button. That sets the Pentax X90's lens midway in its focal range, at around the 52mm position, but lets you get as close as 0.4 inches from your subject.

You can also manually focus the Pentax X90 quite easily. The option is on the same Right arrow button. When selected, you use the Up and Down keys to change focus, in 14 steps from 0.1 meters to infinity, unless the lens is set to the 53mm-equivalent position. In this case, the manual focus range is extended by almost 50 steps, to as close as one centimeter. In either case, the manual focus distance is indicated on a gauge at the left of the LCD.

Optical image stabilization is available on the Pentax X90, as you'd expect with a lens this powerful, and uses a sensor shift design. A Digital Shake Reduction option is also available, which automatically selects ISO sensitivities as high as 6,400 equivalent, and reduces image resolution to five megapixels. Movies use Movie Shake Reduction, which uses only part of the sensor area for movie capture, and moves this area around the sensor as needed to stabilize the video feed. This prevents noise from the sensor shift mechanism being picked up in videos, but also increases the focal length crop slightly -- which is good if you're shooting at the telephoto end of the lens, but not if you need to shoot a wide-angle clip.

The lens design incorporates 14 elements in 11 groups, with four aspheric elements, and three extra-low dispersion (ED) elements. Maximum aperture at wide-angle is f/2.8, and at telephoto this falls to f/5.0.

At wide-angle, our lab tests showed blurring in all four corners, extending far into the image area. Performance at telephoto was better. Any distortion -- both at wide-angle and telephoto -- was corrected by the Pentax X90's image processor, a nice touch in a lens with this sort of range. Chromatic aberration was moderate across the focal range, and more noticeable in high-contrast shots.

Modes. The Pentax X90's Mode dial sports a full range of options, minus some of the more exotic offerings seen on recent Sony and Panasonic models. I happen to like exotic offerings on digicams. They're one more reason to pick up the digicam over the dSLR.

But Pentax is taking this mode thing more seriously. So you have your traditional PASM modes -- Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual. Manual mode itself is quite easy to fiddle with. You use the Pentax X90's EV button to switch between adjusting aperture and shutter speed, and roll the e-dial to change the value.

I did find it difficult to evaluate exposure while making manual adjustments, though. Even enabling the live histogram with the Pentax X90's Display button didn't quite tell me where on the exposure meter I was living. I'd have liked to see a scale displayed with +/- EV values.

Scene modes are right next to the PASM options on the Pentax X90's Mode dial. With the dial set to Scene, press the Mode (or Down button) to select among the following options: Landscape, Flower, Portrait, Backlight, Half-length Portrait (3-Mp), Night Scene, Night Scene Portrait, Stage Lighting (hurray!), Surf & Snow, Baby, Kids, Pet, Food, Fireworks, Frame Composite, Party, Museum, Sunset, Digital Wide, and Digital Panorama.

Next on the Mode dial is Auto Picture mode. Options are somewhat restricted compared to Program mode -- for example, fixing Image Tone to Natural, where in Program mode you can select from among Bright, Natural, or Monochrome. The Pentax X90 automatically selects among a subset of scene types in Auto Picture mode: Standard, Landscape, Portrait, Night Scene Portrait, Night Scene, Sport, or Flower.

The Pentax X90's Mode dial also has individual settings for a few special functions like Sport mode, Digital Shake Reduction, Movie and User settings. Movie mode options include high definition 1,280 x 720 pixel (720p) video, or two standard definition modes -- 640 x 480 pixel (VGA), or 320 x 240 pixel (QVGA). In all cases, you can select a frame rate of either 30 or 15 fps.

Click to view movie.

HD movie. 720p at 30 frames per second. (Click to download 16.7MB AVI file.)

I found Movie mode hampered by a couple of limitations. First, optical zoom is not supported. You can zoom optically before recording starts, but only digital zoom is available while recording. Second, the Pentax X90 doesn't refocus during recording, so if your subject moves out of focus, you've no way to correct for this except to follow-focus with your feet. Likewise, if focusing manually, you can't adjust the point of focus during video capture.

Menu System. It seems like there are two kinds of digicam menu systems -- those whose layout and design are a pleasure to behold, and those that look like they were designed as a summer school project on a Commodore 64. The Pentax X90 is the latter kind.

Unfortunately, you spend a lot of time in the menu system of the Pentax X90, so it isn't a trivial issue. The menu layout is straightforward, but doesn't attempt to group similar options together, nor to let you jump directly to a specific menu page. Instead, you have only tabs for the Record and Setting menus, each of which has four pages of options, and a scroll bar to indicate how far you are through the list. The type is also blocky, hard to read, and occasionally uses rather awkward abbreviations to fit within its space constraints -- for example, "ISO Corction" rather than the more correct, "ISO Corr" for ISO Correction. But maybe it's asking a bit much of a company that can't spell San Francisco to invest in a little graphic design.

Pressing the Pentax X90's Menu button gets you into the menu system which uses very wide tabs to tell you which menu you are addressing (Record or Setting), and how many pages it has. A small grayed-out tab indicates what other tabs are available). Scrolling with the Up or Down arrow keys selects individual menu items, while the Left and Right arrow keys switch between tabs, or access available options for a specific menu item. If you're currently midway through a menu, you can change tabs by rolling the Command dial to switch between menus, but you'll be deposited at the top of the menu, rather than at the last option you accessed, which can lead to unnecessary button presses. Some Pentax X90's menu options are adjusted via a dropdown, while others bring up their own fullscreen menu, and return you to the main menu either when you press OK, or cancel the change by pressing the Menu button. The distinction between the two is rather vague -- if they have a dropdown, a small triangle is displayed to the left of the current value for the menu item, while if they open their own fullscreen menu, the triangle appears to the right of the current value. Pressing the Menu button from the main menu or tapping the Shutter button exits the menu system.

Storage & Battery. While the Pentax X90 includes about 31MB of internal memory, you'll want to invest in a high-speed SDHC card. Pentax doesn't specify a minimum class of card for video capture, but because the Pentax X90 is capable of capturing HD video, I recommend investing in a high-speed card.

Another reason to go high speed is how long it takes the Pentax X90 to write to the card. With slower cards, I often had to wait to turn the camera off or change a setting, while the LCD informed me that data was being written to the card.

The Pentax X90 has a menu setting for Eye-Fi's Wi-Fi capable cards, that effectively prevents them from transmitting while the camera is on. That's a good thing in airplanes, and other environments where Wi-Fi isn't permitted, such as in a hospital, but it can prove a nuisance otherwise. The checkbox defaults to off, so even when I enabled Eye-Fi use, as soon as I turned the camera off and back on again, it was automatically disabled.

Pentax says only Eye-Fi Share and Eye-Fi Share Video cards are supported, but I used an original with no problem.

The Pentax X90 uses a rechargeable, 3.6 volt, 1,250 mAh lithium-ion battery (D-LI106) that Pentax claims will last for about 255 shots or 360 minutes of playback. Movie recording capacity is 100 minutes, the company calculates. An optional AC adapter is available. I found the battery lasted quite a while, and was able to go days between modest sessions of a couple dozen shots without recharging.

Image Quality. I wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the image quality from the Pentax X90, frankly. In a word, it was disappointing.

At first, that was my fault. The Pentax X90 arrived set at -1.0 EV and that was one setting that I missed as I went through the menus, because it isn't on a menu, but on a dedicated button on the top deck that doesn't show EV unless you press it twice. Ugh.

But once I was shooting at 0 EV, I opted to preserve highlights and shadows by enabling both in the D-Range setting. Why wouldn't you? Who wants to blow out their highlights and muddy up their shadows? Anyone? Didn't think so.

And, indeed, the Pentax X90's images held onto highlight and shadow detail, although you'd never know it from the LCD. What looked blown away on the LCD actually revealed color and tone on the computer monitor. That's generally true, but on the Pentax X90 the discrepancy was so great that it was misleading.

Our lab tests showed some notable color shifts, which I found undesirable. Green, red, and blue are oversaturated, and hue shifts toward the pure color: cyan to blue, orange to yellow. The effect in the real world was to make a vibrant dahlia dull and a rich poppy flat, even though I set Image Tone to Natural.

Shooting. One of the first things I shot was a small carousel horse sculpture on top of a bookcase. I zoomed in to about 170mm to frame it, even though I was pretty close, and then fired the flash. I don't usually use flash, but I wanted to see how well the Pentax X90 throttled it back. As you can see from the gallery shot, it did very well. I repeated the experiment with other close-up subjects, and all were well exposed by the flash.

Zoom Range. 26mm to 676mm to 6.25x digital zoom.

The very first thing I did, though, was shoot a macro shot with the Pentax X90. I enabled Auto Macro from the AF Setting option in the Record mode menu settings, so I wouldn't have to toggle the Focus mode on the navigator's Right button. Then I shot the black Pentax lens cap. Focus was achieved quickly despite my close distance.

One of the last shots I took was a Super Macro (1cm Macro, Pentax calls it) shot of a ballpoint pen. The lens was almost touching the pen. Pretty good depth of field at f/3.5, too. You can read the scribble on the paper beneath the tip of the pen.

On that shot, I had an Auto ISO Range of 80 to 800 set. In addition to fixed ISO settings, you can limit the Auto ISO Range five ways: 80-100, 80-200, 80-400, 80-800 and 80-1,600. Very nice.

When I finally got out of the house with the Pentax X90, I hiked up Twin Peaks to give the megazoom a workout. One day I'll find a megazoom that can take a circular polarizing filter. This wasn't the day. But it was the day for it. The air was clear but if I had been able to knock out some haze, I would have gotten shots you don't usually get.

On the way up the hill, I shot a black and white of some old wood. It's easy to slip into Monochrome mode using the Image Tone option available when shooting in Program mode. You can turn any image into a black and white on your computer, of course, but shooting in black and white is part of the fun. And the Pentax X90 lets you in on it easily.

I could hear the Pentax X90's sensor-shift image stabilization clunk when I raised the camera to my shoulder to avoid the brush as I climbed the hill. Don't be alarmed, nothing's wrong. Sensor-shift cameras all do that.

On the other hand, my zoom shots were unsatisfactory. The three-shot series goes from wide-angle to full telephoto and then to full digital zoom. Maybe it was the haze from the 73-degree day, but my full telephoto shot was very disappointing, almost as degraded as the digital zoom images usually are.

Lily. My favorite close-up. Very sharp right out of the camera.

I wasn't happy with the detail captured in any of my distant shots made with the Pentax X90, but I did like my close-ups. The flower close-ups are just a joy. Sharp (when the wind didn't move them) and with good color generally (although a few of them were surprisingly washed out), my favorite is the close-up of the lily.

Flowers aren't a reason to buy a megazoom, though. Birds are. And for once, I was able to capture a bird. A hawk, in fact. It was a very considerate hawk, hovering over the top of one of the peaks in a ferocious wind, waiting for me to uncap the camera and fire it up.

Logs. Looked terrible on the LCD but extended dynamic range options helped.

The Pentax X90 starts up and shuts down pretty quickly. At least if you don't take a picture before shutting down. I often had to wait for it to finish writing data to the card before this was possible.

Anyway, I used the Pentax X90's LCD to frame the hawk, zoomed it and tried to keep it in the middle of the frame. You can see from the gallery shot that I didn't quite manage that. At long focal lengths expect the subject to jump around the frame quite a bit.

Dahlia. A bit flat.

I looked for a button to enable Continuous Drive mode, but didn't think it would be with the Self-Timer options. Silly me. That's the solution for bird watchers. Shoot a few images at a time. One of them will be what you wanted.

You won't be able to tell from the LCD, though, if you're trying to judge exposure. The shot of the row of logs running up the hill looked dreadful on the LCD. No color in the sky, the logs bleached. It really took the fun out of it for me. But when I got home and saw the image on the computer, the sky was blue and the log had detail. Not the same shot at all.

It was the same for the adjacent picture in the gallery of the side of the hill, where deep shadow and bright highlights made a tough subject. I had both of the Pentax X90's D-Range options enabled to preserve highlight and shadow detail. On the LCD I saw only a high-contrast mess. But on the computer I saw the scene had been captured the way I expected -- with detail in the shadows and the highlights preserved.

So shooting with the Pentax X90 was something of a mixed bag. A troubling mixed bag. Especially if you happen to be in San Francisco.

 

Pentax X90 Lens Quality

Note that the Pentax X90's full telephoto focal length (119.6mm or 676mm eq.) is too long for our lab lens quality test shots, so most telephoto lab shots below were taken at approximately 77.5mm (438mm eq. or about 17x).


Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Quite soft in the corners (upper right)
Tele: Sharper at center
Tele: Mild blurring, upper left corner

Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Pentax X90's zoom shows noticeable blurring in all four corners of the frame, which extends far into the main image area. The effect isn't severe, but will be noticeable in some shots. At about 17x telephoto, performance is a little better, and softening much milder in the corners. Performance is likely not as good at full 26x telephoto, but that focal length is too long for this test shot.


Wide: Very slight barrel distortion; hardly noticeable
Tele: A hint of pincushion, though barely visible

Geometric Distortion: There is very little barrel distortion at wide-angle (0.2%), and almost no pincushion distortion (<0.1%) at 17x telephoto. No doubt, the Pentax X90's processor is hard at work.


Wide: Moderate
Tele: Moderate

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle and 17x telephoto is moderate in terms of pixel count, with moderately bright blue and red discoloration visible along the target lines. The effect is noticeable in high contrast shots like this, but will not be much of an issue with lower contrast subjects. Again, performance is likely not as good at the Pentax X90's full 26x telephoto, but that focal length is too long for this shot.


Super Macro
Super Macro with Flash

Macro: The Pentax X90's 1cm Super Macro mode captures strong detail at the very center of the frame, though with some blurring and visible chromatic aberration in the corners and along the edges. Exposure is very bright along the left side, while a shadow deepens along the right. Minimum coverage area is 1.61 x 1.21 inches (41 x 31mm), which is quite good. The camera focuses so closely that the flash is ineffective at such short range. Thus, external lighting will be your best bet in Super Macro mode, and exposure will be better if you back off of the subject a little to allow more ambient light in.


 

Pentax X90 Viewfinder Accuracy


Wide: EVF
Tele: EVF
Wide: LCD Monitor
Tele: LCD Monitor

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Pentax X90's LCD monitor and electronic viewfinder showed about 99% coverage accuracy at wide-angle and almost 100% at 17x telephoto. Very good results.


 

Pentax X90 Image Quality


Color: The Pentax X90 pushes strong green, red and blue tones quite a bit, presumably to achieve that vibrant, brighter-than-life color that many consumers prefer. Hue is also shifted noticeably, such as cyan toward blue, and orange toward yellow. Darker skin tones show a strong shift toward yellow, while lighter skin tones are more accurate. Overall performance is fair, depending on your preference for high or low saturation.


Auto WB:
Quite warm
Incandescent WB:
Pretty good, hint of magenta
 
Manual WB:
Good, but a hint yellow

Incandescent: Under our household tungsten lighting, the Pentax X90's Incandescent and Manual white balance settings performed fairly well. Incandescent had a slight magenta cast, while Manual was slightly yellowish (though with a more natural look and feel). The Auto setting was much too warm and red.


Horizontal: 1,600 lines
Vertical: 1,600 lines

Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,600 lines per picture height in both directions. Extinction of the pattern occurred at just beyond 2,000 lines per picture height.


Wide: Inconclusive at
29.9 feet
Tele: Dim at 16.7 feet
Auto Flash
Portrait Mode, Auto Flash

Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) doesn't work well at wide-angle when the reported distance goes beyond 16 feet, because that takes the camera out of the main lab, so the wide-angle result is inconclusive here. The full 26x telephoto test shot came out a little dim, but you might expect that at 16.7 feet, despite an ISO boost to 500.

Auto flash produced dim results in our indoor portrait scene, retaining little ambient light at the 1/100 second shutter speed (ISO 200). However, switching to Portrait mode brightened things considerably while still keeping the same shutter speed and ISO settings.


80
100
200
400
800
1,600
3,200
(5MP)
6,400
(5MP)

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is slightly soft at ISO 80 on up to about 200. (Higher contrast is helpful here.) By ISO 400, details soften suddenly. Chroma (color) noise becomes more visible at ISO 800 on up, as does luminance noise. Though the Pentax X90 attempts to do damage control by limiting resolution at ISOs 3,200 and 6,400, results are still quite blurry and color balance is off. See Printed results below for more on how this affects prints.


Printed: The Pentax X90 produces usable 13x19-inch prints at ISO 80, with good color.

ISO 100 shots, though, are a little soft for 13x19 inches, looking better printed at 11x14 inches.

ISO 200 images are soft but usable at 11x14 inches, but become better at 8x10.

ISO 400 files are good at 8x10.

ISO 800 images are too soft at 8x10, but look better at 5x7.

ISO 1,600 shots are grainy but usable at 5x7, of course a bit better at 4x6.

ISO 3,200 shots would turn in a decent 4x6 so long as your subject is close with little fine detail, but they're a little soft otherwise.

ISO 6,400 shots are better left unprinted.

Overall, the Pentax X90's printed performance is a little below par. It doesn't earn our top recommendation, but it's also not bad. We recommend limiting your ISO to 800 or lower.


 

Pentax X90 Performance


Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is average, at 0.65 second at wide-angle and 0.62 second at full telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.009 second, which is excellent.


Cycle Time: Cycle time is sluggish, as the Pentax X90 captures a frame every 3.25 seconds in single-shot mode. We tested the Pentax X90's full-resolution continuous mode at 1.15 frames per second for 9 frames with 8 seconds to clear, which is also sluggish for its class. The camera does, however, have high-speed burst modes rated at up to 11.11 frames per second at a reduced resolution of 5 megapixels, however we did not test those modes.


Flash Recycle: The Pentax X90's flash recycles in about 6.5 seconds after a full-power discharge, on the slower side of average.


Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was not able to focus down to the one foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, which is subpar. However, with AF assist, it focused in near darkness.


USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Pentax X90's download speeds are very fast. We measured 12,132 KBytes/sec, which is quite zippy.


 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Pentax X90 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Wide-angle megazoom with sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Compact body for its class
  • Good build quality
  • Command dial
  • Generally good placement of controls
  • Very fast prefocused shutter lag
  • Low geometric distortion (automatically corrected in-camera)
  • Good macro mode
  • D-Range feature worked well at preserving highlights and shadows
  • Smile Capture and blink detection
  • Interval timer
  • Up to 11fps burst mode (at 5MP)
  • Fast download speeds
  • 720p HD movies
  • HDMI output
  • Good documentation
  • Soft corners at wide-angle
  • Detail drops off noticeably at telephoto
  • Zoom control is too fast
  • Menu navigation is confusing
  • Menu font can be difficult to read
  • Poor low-light focusing, though AF assist helps
  • Slowest shutter speed is only 4 seconds
  • Sluggish full-res cycle times and burst mode
  • Mediocre battery life for its class
  • No RAW file support
  • Colors not very accurate
  • Auto white balance too warm indoors
  • Optical zoom and autofocus not supported when recording movies
  • Difficult to judge image quality on LCD
  • No support for filters or accessory lenses
  • Subpar print quality

 

The Pentax X90 is physically a very well-designed megazoom: compact and sturdy, with no shortcuts taken on the glass, controls, or LCD. There's also some intelligence at work inside with an image processor that corrects for distortion, and can extend the dynamic range of the JPEGs the camera records.

Pentax includes a wealth of small features like five auto ISO ranges, three burst modes (plus a continuous mode), a Stage Lighting scene mode, both an Auto Macro and a Super Macro mode, Auto Scene selection, 720p HD movie recording with an HDMI out port. And if you're looking for manual exposure or aperture priority or shutter priority modes on the Pentax X90, they're there too.

What's the catch? Image quality at middle to long distance is poor, green, red and blue are oversaturated and noise suppression is overactive even at ISO 100. Print quality wasn't terrible at the lowest ISO setting, but it wasn't as good as we've seen from others recently.

In the end, even though I wanted to love it for its design, the Pentax X90's performance stifled any affection. Any way you spell it, the Pentax X90 is close but gets no cigar. The Pentax X90 is not a bad camera by any means, but we'd steer you toward others for better quality and performance for the price.