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Pentax MX-1 Review

Overview by
Posted: 01/07/2013

Shooter's Report by Tim Barribeau
Posted: 10/24/2013

Pentax MX-1 Review -- Angle

Until the Pentax MX-1, there's been a clear differentiation in Pentax's camera lineup. Between the company's various mirrorless, SLR, and medium-format models, the company provided quite a few options for experienced shooters and those looking for room to grow. Its fixed-lens models, meanwhile, are aimed at consumers who want to keep things simple and affordable. With the Pentax MX-1, that line is blurred: Pentaxians can now aspire to a camera that fills the middle ground between simple compacts and feature-rich ILCs. The MX-1 should appeal both to photographers looking for a second camera to complement their SLR, and those in search of a step-up camera, but who don't want to deal with an interchangeable lens design.

If the name sounds familiar, that's no accident: it pays homage to the Pentax MX film camera line, dating from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. And while it might not have that much in common with the interchangeable-lens MX of days gone by, the Pentax MX-1 eschews modern styling trends in favor of a similarly clean, timeless aesthetic. Its vintage camera feeling will only be enhanced once a little of the paint wears away -- just as it did on the film cameras we knew and loved -- revealing a hint of the rugged, solid brass plates that line the MX-1's top and bottom decks.

Pentax MX-1 Review -- silver and black

And the enthusiast-friendly design extends beyond mere styling. On the front, there's a bright 4x zoom lens that looks very much the same as that shared by the Olympus XZ-1 and XZ-2 -- and here's hoping it is the same optic, because it's one we praised for its excellent corner-to-corner sharpness. There's also that hallmark of the enthusiast-class camera, a 1/1.7-inch image sensor, with a resolution of twelve megapixels. On the top deck sits a dedicated exposure compensation dial, a nice touch that will likewise appeal to Pentax's target customer. And of course, there are plenty of other features aimed at enthusiasts, including fully manual shooting, a DNG raw file format option, sensor-shift shake reduction, dual remote control receivers and more.

Available from February 2013, the Pentax MX-1 originally listed at US$500, but now is readily available for a street price of US$400. As of this writing, Amazon has the Pentax MX-1 in black listed for only US$329, and the silver-and-black Pentax MX-1 listed for US$349.

Walkaround. In hand, the Pentax MX-1's body feels very solid indeed, with not a hint of panel flex or creak, and a reassuring heft. Like its main rivals, it's not terribly compact -- if you ignore the lens it's of similar size to many compact system cameras. Once you add the lens into the equation, there's a fair size advantage over most mirrorless models, though. That's achieved thanks to a sensor that, while larger than those in the majority of fixed-lens models, is a fair bit smaller than the Micro Four Thirds and APS-C sensors used by typical mirrorless cameras. Pentax has opted for a wider, shorter body than most of its peers, but the overall dimensions are similar. Loaded and ready to go, the Pentax MX-1 is also somewhat heavier than most rivals. Below is a comparison with the MX-1's nearest competitors:

Enthusiast compact camera comparison
Model
Size
Weight
Canon PowerShot G15
4.2 x 3.0 x 1.6 in.
(107 x 76 x 40 mm)
12.3 oz
(350 g)
Nikon Coolpix P7700
4.7 x 2.9 x 2.0 in.
(119 x 73 x 50 mm)
14.0 oz
(397 g)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
4.4 x 2.6 x 1.8 in.
(111 x 67 x 46 mm)
10.5 oz
(297 g)
Olympus Stylus XZ-2 iHS
4.4 x 2.6 x 1.9 in.
(113 x 65 x 48 mm)
12.6 oz
(357 g)
Pentax MX-1
4.8 x 2.4 x 2.0 in.
(122 x 61 x 51 mm)
14.1 oz
(399 g)

From the front, the Pentax MX-1 is dominated by its bright lens, which looks a lot like that used in the Olympus XZ-1 and XZ-2 both physically, and in terms of its basic specifications. When fully retracted, the lens barrel protrudes about 0.6 inches (15mm) beyond the otherwise-flat front panel. Adding the squeeze-fit lens cap takes the lens depth up to about 0.8 inches (21mm). Powered on and zoomed to the telephoto position, the lens reaches its maximum length of about 1.8 inches (46mm).

Pentax MX-1 Review --  Front

Most of the MX-1's front deck is wrapped in a soft, tacky rubber imprinted with a leather-like texture. This is quite comfortable to the touch, and makes it easy to get good purchase on the camera body with your fingertips even though there's no protruding grip. A small cutout in the rubber trim beneath the MX-1 badge is home to a bright orange LED that doubles as both an autofocus assist lamp, and a self-timer indicator. Adjacent to this is a small window for an infrared remote control, compatible with the same remotes as used with Pentax's digital SLRs. A second receiver lives in the center of the thumb grip on the rear panel, a nice touch that means remotes will work from most angles, regardless of whether you're in front of the camera or behind it.

The only other details visible from this angle are the MX-1's shoulder strap lugs. They're located on bevels that span either end of the front panel, but are closer to being on the same plane as the front than they are to the sides. That means the camera hangs with a slightly lens-up angle, even with the lens barrel fully extended.

Pentax MX-1 Review --  Top

The Pentax MX-1's top and bottom decks harken back to cameras of days gone by. Each is capped with a single piece of brass that's concealed beneath a layer of paint. Over time, the paint will wear away, gifting the MX-1 with the same lovingly-used patina associated with classic film bodies.

At the leftmost end of the top panel is a pop-up flash strobe that's released with a small mechanical lever at the top of the camera's left-hand side. When raised, the flash stands proud about 0.4 inches (10mm) above the top deck. The mechanism is reassuringly smooth, and extends swiftly with no bounce. If you hold the camera with a two-handed grip, the flash does retract slightly beyond the closed position with the pressure of your fingertip, though. Another nice retro touch: the camera's model name, resolution, and a reminder of its brass construction are etched into the top of the strobe. To the right, behind the lens barrel, are two tiny holes that mark the left and right microphone ports, together providing stereo audio for videos shot with the MX-1.

The top deck controls are all clustered on the right hand end of the Pentax MX-1's body. The Mode dial isn't very tall, but it's easily gripped and has strong clicks at each detent, making it unlikely to be accidentally bumped. Next to this is the shutter button, encircled in a zoom rocker. It's easy to identify the half- and fully-pressed positions for the shutter button, thanks to a firm click at each. The strongly spring loaded zoom rocker offers only one zoom speed, and the protrusion that gives your finger purchase is quite sharply angled, so if you spend a lot of time zooming in and out it can get a bit uncomfortable.

Nestled in between is a tiny dot that serves as the power button, illuminated in green when the camera is powered on. Its position between several deeper controls makes it unlikely to be accidentally bumped. Finally, at the very rightmost end is another tiny button that starts and stops movie recording, and a shallow dial that controls exposure compensation. Placing this as a separate physical control makes it clear the MX-1 is a camera aimed at enthusiasts, and it has even firmer detents, making it almost impossible to accidentally change your dialed-in setting.

Pentax MX-1 Review --  Back

Jumping to the rear of the Pentax MX-1, the 3-inch LCD monitor is articulated on a double hinge, allowing it to tilt downwards by 45 degrees, and upwards as far as 90 degrees. This is handy for waist-level, low-to-the-ground, or over-the-head shooting, but unlike some designs it doesn't help when shooting self-portraits. All of the remaining controls are clustered to the right of the LCD. From top to bottom, these include an e-dial that makes settings changes and controls playback zoom, an aperture / AE-lock button, Pentax's familiar Green button that instantly returns to a default exposure (and which deletes images in Playback mode), plus the playback, info, and menu buttons. There's also a four-way arrow pad with central OK button, and the arrows double as drive mode, flash, macro, and ISO sensitivity controls in Record mode. All of these buttons are very small, but easily located by touch once you're familiar with the layout, and they all have firm clicks that make it easy to tell when they've been pressed.

Pentax MX-1 Review -- Side

On the right-hand side of the Pentax MX-1 body, there's a small hinged plastic door. Behind this are the camera's only connectivity options: a combined Micro USB / standard-def composite video output, and a Micro Type-D HDMI high-def video output.

The opposite side is featureless, with the exception of the pop-up flash release slider we've already mentioned, and a tiny three-hole speaker grille near the camera's base.

Pentax MX-1 Review --  Bottom

Finally, the bottom of the Pentax MX-1 features a metal tripod socket, which is unfortunately both quite far from the central axis of the lens, and very close to the battery / flash card compartment door, making it impossible to access either while the camera is tripod-mounted. The locking, spring-loaded door has a small rubber cutout that permits access for a DC coupler, since there's no dedicated DC input on the camera body. Behind this door, the 1,250 mAh, 3.6V, 4.5Wh Pentax D-LI106 lithium ion rechargeable battery is held in place by a yellow, spring-loaded latch, and the battery itself is keyed so it can only be fully inserted with the correct orientation. The adjacent Secure Digital card slot accepts both SDHC and SDXC card types.

 

Shooting with the Pentax MX-1

by Tim Barribeau

Pentax MX-1 Sample Photo
The 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor inside the Pentax MX-1 is larger than those you will find in most compact digital cameras, resulting in better image quality and dynamic range.

The Pentax MX-1 wears its past on its sleeve, boasting a gorgeous body designed to mimic the look of 35mm film cameras. Crafted with brass top and bottom plates, and a pebbled rubber coating for a grip, it's a decidedly retro design, but one that still managed to look distinct from the aesthetic of other retro cameras from the likes of Olympus and Fujifilm.

Pentax MX-1 Brass Label

In fact, Pentax has so thoroughly embraced this look and feel, that it even marks the inevitable patina of the brass as a selling point, saying "As its brass wears with time, feel the good old days come back to life in your images of today with the PENTAX MX-1." That assumes you'll be using your digital camera for the next decade or so, which is probably pretty unlikely.

Design. As slightly peculiar as Pentax's claims are, it's a beautiful looking piece of hardware, and one that I've been happy having with me for a few weeks of shooting. But as solid and cool looking as the MX-1 is, there are some caveats that come along with the design.

For one, it's a bit bigger than most compact cameras, and on the larger side compared to other enthusiast models in its class. I guess I'm just used to compacts being fully pocketable. That said, the MX-1's size is pleasing in the hands and comfortable to grip, and you can stash it in a jacket or cargo pants pocket -- just don't expect to stow it in your jeans. Interestingly, the MX-1 is reportedly built on the same sensor/lens combo as the Olympus XZ-2, but the Olympus manages to squeeze it into a smaller and lighter package despite including a hot shoe, accessory port and touchscreen overlay, though its build is probably not quite as rugged as the MX-1's seems.

Pentax MX-1 Vs Olympus XZ-2

There are also a number of annoying minor issues that I can't help but feel could have been fixed with a few more iterations of the final design. A primary example is the lugs for the neck strap. They're placed on the front bevel, at an angle to the rest of the camera. Because they're so far forward, when it hangs around your neck, the whole camera tilts, the lens pointing upwards, rather than it sitting flush against your body.

Pentax MX-1 Buttons

On another front, originally the Pentax MX-1 bugged the heck out of me by forcing me to take off the lens cap any time I turned it on, even if I just wanted to browse through images. However, I then found a workaround: If you keep the lens cap on and hold down the playback button, it'll bypass that, so you don't have to take the lens cap off. Hardly intuitive (to me), but nice nonetheless.

Otherwise, the camera feels fantastic and responsive. The exposure compensation dial -- always appreciated when this is included among the physical controls -- is stiff enough that you won't accidentally change it in your bag. The buttons are well placed, and easy to use.

The articulated 3-inch LCD is always a nice touch for shooting from awkward angles, and it held up respectably under bright sunlight. It did seem to get smudged rather easily, but a quick wipe and it was good to go.

Pentax MX-1 Tilting LCD

One thing I would have liked to have seen is a second control dial, maybe around the lens barrel. There's already a small bit of ridged plastic there, and it just begs to be rotated. But the camera's usable enough in its current form.

Battery life is a bit below average. Pentax puts it at around 290 shots per charge according to CIPA standards. That's below the likes of, say, the Nikon P7700 and Panasonic LX7 which both come in at around 330. Still, it's enough for a day or two of solid shooting, depending on how snap happy you get.

Pentax MX-1 Sample Photo
Although not quite pocketable, the MX-1 is still very portable and makes for a cool, retro-styled street shooter.

Interface. As with any camera, the interface on the MX-1 has its quirks and foibles, but it's generally pretty usable. Settings are accessed either through the Main menu, or through a Quick menu that you can access by pressing the "Info" button. From there, you can change the setting either by entering a sub-menu, or just by browsing through the options quickly using the rear dial (with default settings helpfully highlighted in green-colored text, so you can switch back easily).

Pentax MX-1 Quick Menu

Quick Menu. Avoid digging through the menus with a simply press of the Info button to bring up an array of shooting and exposure options.

The MX-1 has a built-in horizontal and vertical level, which is either extremely useful for lining things up, or frustratingly nagging, depending on your shooting style.

Most of my interface complaints are minor. The Mode dial is also a bit peculiar for devoting an entire spot to HDR, which could just as easily have been tucked away in the Scene modes. The other slight bit of weirdness resides with the special Green Button on the rear of the camera -- which may be a bit confusing to those unfamiliar with Pentax models. There's very little information in the MX-1 manual or online about how it works. And in most modes the Green Button doesn't seem to do anything at all.

However, when shooting in manual exposure mode, you can use it to force the camera to calculate the correct exposure for the scene, which is a very handy feature -- sort of like a quick Program Auto toggle within Manual Exposure mode. And if you're in Program mode, if you shift the aperture/shutter pair, pressing the button will reset the camera to its default exposure. Additionally, when you select White Balance, the Green Button will allow you to make manual changes on the White Balance color axis, but only after you hit the Info button, select White Balance, and then make the adjustment before shooting. Once you start shooting, you have to go back and start the process over. Finally, while in Playback mode, it serves as the delete button and centers an image when in magnified view.

This is all to say that the Green Button serves a handful of handy functions, although it takes quite a bit of experimentation to figure them out on your own. In the meantime, it's somewhat limited reset functionality may disappoint some Pentaxians who've used it extensively on other models.

I also learned that the Green button doesn't have anything to do with Pentax's Green mode. Green mode is a special super-simplified shooting mode, denoted by the green square on the Mode dial. Green mode provides users with a very basic shooting experience, with no manual exposure adjustments such as ISO, aperture or exposure compensation, and most exposure settings are chosen automatically. Also, Face Detection is enabled by default in this mode. Users are also presented with a very limited menu. In other words, it's a simple point and shoot mode -- one which enthusiasts likely won't use very much, unless they're handing the camera over to a friend or family member to use.

Pentax MX-1 Sample Photo

Handling. The MX-1's autofocus was, generally speaking, fast and quick to draw a bead on most subjects. I had a lot of luck with shooting in poor conditions with it by manually setting exposure and aperture, and just wandering around taking photos. It makes a fairly competent street camera, and I was able to walk the streets of San Francisco's Castro district after the striking down of Proposition 8, and capture the crowds and excitement without ever feeling like the camera was see-sawing around, searching for focus.

Pentax MX-1 1cm Macro Mode

The Pentax MX-1 features an impressive 1cm Macro mode, as you can tell by this 100% crop of an iPhone 4S retina display.

The MX-1 also features a few alternative focusing modes, accessed via the Macro button on the right control dial. The MX-1 is unique in that it features two preset focusing distance options: Pan Focus and Infinity modes.

Pan Focus mode, which puts the lens at its hyperfocal length and makes you rely on depth of field to focus. It appears to be a throwback to Pentax's film days with their 110 SLR, for which there was an 18mm Pan Focus lens. Infinity focus mode, as the name suggests, sets the lens to its infinity focus distance; simply point and shoot, and distance subjects should be in focus. For macro fanatics, there's also a super macro mode (called 1cm Macro), which lets you take in-focus shots as close as 1cm (0.4 inches) from your subject.

Of course, there's also a Manual focus option that uses the up and down buttons on the control pad to control the focusing distance. The closer the focus distance, the more precise the focusing adjustments become. You're also given a magnified view as well as an approximate focusing scale on the left-hand side of the screen. There's no focus peaking, however.

Pentax MX-1 ND filter

The MX-1 has a built-in Neutral Density filter that helps cut down the amount of present light, allowing you to shoot at those wide apertures with less risk of overexposing the shot.

If you've ever tried to shoot an extremely narrow depth-of-field on a bright day, you know that your shutter probably isn't fast enough to let you shoot wide-open at a maximum aperture of f/1.8. Thankfully, the MX-1 has a built in 3-stop neutral density filter, which it can apply either automatically or manually.

The high speed burst mode fires off a 10 shot burst of JPEGs in a little more than 2 seconds (the IR lab found the MX-1 to shoot JPEGs about 4fps in a 10-frame burst at full-resolution). While certainly not class-leading, I found continuous shooting was fast enough to make an animated GIF of my friends dancing at a recent wedding.

But it was the processing speed that most disappointed me. Frequently when shooting (and even more so with RAW), I'd be hit with a "Data being recorded" warning. And when that happens, weird things start to occur. While it was writing data to my 16GB Class 10 SDHC card, I could continue to take photos without any trouble -- but if I tried to change any settings, that's when the warning hits. That puts the kibosh on quickly changing a setting if, for example, you noticed a photo went wrong on review. Not only that, but if you get the warning, then try and take a photo, it won't shoot immediately, instead taking the shot once the warning has disappeared. It's a weird way to handle a processing bottleneck, and one that I butted heads against frequently.

Pentax MX-1 Sample Photo
Despite the smaller sensor compared to DSLRs or most mirrorless cameras, the high ISO performance of the MX-1 is decent for this class of camera, and its fast lens really helps in low light. The above photo was shot as ISO 1600, and at that sensitivity, image quality starts to degrade with a loss of fine detail.

Image quality. By and large, I was extremely happy with the image quality from the MX-1. The noise levels are perfectly acceptable up to ISO 800 or even 1600 depending on the subject, but above there you're getting into pretty hairy territory, and detail gets lost awfully quick. I would strongly advise against using ISO 12,800 in all but the most dire of circumstances.

The MX-1 does feature a pop-up flash, too, but the camera sadly doesn't feature a hot shoe for attaching external flashes like a lot of competing high-end compacts. However, the MX-1 does include more advanced flash features than some, including a slow-sync speed and rear-curtain sync (aka, trailing curtain sync), and with its fast lens, the MX-1's flash range is actually pretty good.

Pentax MX-1 Auto ISO

Although the MX-1 does not offer control over noise reduction, it does let you set the range for Auto ISO, which is a nice touch.

With its RAW capabilities and high level of manual control, the MX-1 is a camera that seems aimed at skilled users -- but for some reason, Pentax has opted to omit any level of control over noise reduction.

If you're shooting RAW, you can handle that yourself in post, but there's no way that I could find to crank NR up or down for JPEGs. However, the ability to limit the range of the Auto ISO setting is always a nice touch, and something I wish was in all cameras.

My images came out sharp and clear, but the MX-1 had some chromatic aberration issues, especially in areas of high contrast and bright light. If you look at this shot of a seagull, its breast shows some pretty serious purple fringing.

Pentax MX-1 Purple Fringing
Overall, the Pentax MX-1's image quality is pretty good, but there was an issue with chromatic aberration. Notice the bright, purple fringing along the edge of the bird in the 100% crop inset above.

Creative filters and modes. Unlike many other cameras, the MX-1 has a relatively small number of color modes, just bright, natural, vibrant, reversal film, and monochrome. The first three can all be adjusted by saturation, hue, contrast, and sharpness; reversal film can tweak the sharpness, and the monochrome mode lets you apply color filters, tone adjustment, and tweak the sharpness and contrast.

Pentax MX-1 Color Modes
Pentax MX-1 Filters - Natural Pentax MX-1 Filters - Bright
Natural
Bright
Pentax MX-1 Filters - Vibrant Pentax MX-1 Filters - Vibrant 2
Vibrant
Vibrant (& Saturation +2)
Pentax MX-1 Filters - Reversal Pentax MX-1 Filters - Monochrome
Reversal Film
Monochrome

Most of the scene modes are the usual array of portrait, sunset, night shot and the like. But there are a few that deserve to be called out, for better or worse. The HDR mode, for instance, at its base setting does a very good job of combining three images to work around over and under-exposed areas. However, if you crank it all the way up, it'll give you full-on hideous HDR-ness.

Pentax MX-1 High Dynamic Range
Pentax MX-1 Filters - HDR off Pentax MX-1 Filters - HDR std
Off
Standard
Pentax MX-1 Filters - HDR strong 1 Pentax MX-1 Filters - HDR strong 2
Strong 1
Strong 2

The built-in Panorama and Wide modes deserve special attention for being all but useless. Many other cameras have the ability to take a sweep panorama, where you just pan the camera, and it stitches together the shots automatically into a panorama. With the MX-1, it does creates a translucent overlay so that you can line the shots up, and then attempts to stitch them together. Every single time I tried to use it, however, some part of the image lined up incorrectly, leading to stitching errors and some objects appearing twice. The resulting images were also somewhat soft. The Wide mode is a version of a panorama that stitches together two portrait orientation images to make one large, square-ish final picture. Unfortunately, it was plagued by the same problems.

Pentax MX-1 - Panorama
Panorama
Pentax MX-1 - Wide
Wide Effect

Playback mode. There are an impressive amount of editing controls in playback mode, but it's a fairly odd lot that appears to be aimed at a more entry-level user. On the plus side, there's a RAW development tool that lets you batch convert Raw to JPEGs -- that's very useful for all types of photographers. But stretching out parts of the image, shrinking people's faces ("for well-proportioned portraits"), and strange collages and framing options hardly seem worth the effort.

Pentax MX-1 Batch RAW

While many cameras have creative effects and filters displayed in real-time while shooting, with the MX-1, these are added in playback. You can apply filters for black and white, sepia, toy camera, retro, color, extract color, color emphasis, high contrast, starburst, soft focus, fish-eye, brightness, miniature, slim or inverted colors.

Video. Video is handled two ways on the MX-1. If you're just snapping pictures, you can hit the red button near the shutter to start recording a video. If you're in video mode, it's the shutter button that starts recording (and the red video button becomes useless, again an odd waste of space in this design).

Gallery Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (30.4MB MOV)

While in video mode, you can record at 1920x1080 at 30fps, and 1280x720 at either 30fps or 60fps, and there are options to set the color mode, enable optical zoom, autofocus, shake reduction and wind noise suppression. Confusingly, the MX-1 has two other movie modes that are never properly explained. There's a time-lapse mode and a high-speed mode, but neither on the camera nor in the manual does Pentax explain what speed those are shot at -- just that you're stuck with VGA resolution for both. With the MX-1 generally having a pretty full suite of manual controls, it's saddening to have these modes presented without explanation. (In case you're wondering, time-lapse mode shoots stills and assembles them into a video with accelerated playback and no audio. High-speed mode captures at 120fps and plays back in slow motion at 30fps, also with no audio.)

Pentax MX-1 IS modes

Shake Reduction. The MX-1 features two modes for image stabilization, or Shake Reduction, as Pentax calls it, for still images -- Sensor Shift, and Dual Mode. The sensor-shift technology physically moves the image sensor ever-so-slightly to compensate for camera shake. Dual mode IS enables Pixel-Tracking shake reduction for an additional electronic correction of camera shake. For video capture, the MX-1 only has a software-based Movie SR shake reduction option. Pentax states that the shake reduction system provides up to 3-stops of correction for still images, and overall it seemed to do a nice job at low shutter speeds.

Summary. The MX-1 has a lot going for it. With a relatively large sensor for a compact, fast glass, full manual capabilities and an impressive retro aesthetic, it really stands out in a crowd. Unfortunately, a series of minor design flaws quickly become nagging problems. For one, being classed as a compact camera, the MX-1 is not the most pocketable model around. I also got bogged down by slow cycle time and write speed with RAW files, and found the weirdly placed neckstrap lugs to be awkward.

But at a street price of around $400, the MX-1 is quite a good camera. And while it might not be small enough to just throw in your pocket when you go out shooting, when you do take it out, it's bound to draw some stares and take much better photos than your smartphone or typical point-and-shoot, that's for sure. That makes it an excellent backup camera for those who primarily use a DSLR or mirrorless system camera, or a solid upgrade for those wanting to get better images than they can with their camera phones or cheaper compact models.

 

Pentax MX-1 Technical Info

by Mike Tomkins

 

At the heart of the Pentax MX-1 is a 1/1.7-inch type, backside illuminated CMOS image sensor. That's the same size used by most enthusiast-friendly compacts, and much larger than those in consumer-oriented compacts.

Effective resolution is 12.0 megapixels, from a sensor resolution of 12.76 megapixels.

Pentax hasn't branded the image processing engine in the MX-1, but says it includes its "latest Super Resolution technology".

The MX-1 is manufacturer-rated for 4.21 frames-per-second burst shooting with a depth of ten shots. A lower-speed rate of 2.86 fps is also available, with the same burst depth.

The Pentax MX-1 offers an ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 12,800 equivalents, controlled automatically or manually.

When under automatic control, you can also specify an upper limit between ISO 200 and 12,800 equivalents.

Handheld Night Snap and Green modes have a fixed ISO 100 to 1600 range.

The MX-1's 4x optical zoom lens looks a lot like that in the Olympus XZ-1 and XZ-2. It has 11 elements in eight groups, and a 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 28 to 112mm.

Maximum aperture varies from f/1.8 at wide angle to f/2.5 at telephoto, and the minimum aperture is f/8. There's also a built-in 3-stop ND filter.

To combat blur from camera shake, Pentax has included a sensor shift SR image stabilization system, said to be capable of a three-stop correction. There are also software-based Pixel-Track SR and Movie SR functions.

Like the vast majority of compacts, the MX-1 uses contrast-detect autofocus. The system has 25 user-selectable focus points, and includes a tracking function. There's also face detection, able to locate up to 32 faces within the image frame.

Both the top and bottom deck of the Pentax MX-1 are machined from a single piece of brass, just like classic cameras of days gone by.

The panels are painted black or silver, depending on the body color, and over time the paint will wear away, giving the camera's body an attractive patina.

Images and movies are framed on a three-inch LCD panel with an anti-reflective coating, and a high resolution of about 921,000 dots. That equates to an array of 640 x 480 pixels, with each pixel made up of separate red, green, and blue dots.

The Pentax MX-1's display is articulated on a double-hinged, articulated arm. This tilts upwards 90 degrees, or downwards 45 degrees, and allows the display to be viewed from above or below the camera, but not from in front.

For those times when there's just not sufficient ambient light to get the shot handheld, Pentax has included a built-in flash.

The MX-1's strobe has a range of 40 feet (12m) when using Auto ISO at wide angle. By the telephoto position, the range falls to around 29 feet (8.8m).

Unlike most of the MX-1's enthusiast compact camera rivals, there is no external strobe, so there's no way to improve upon this maximum range unless you have an external flash that can be triggered when it detects another strobe firing.

The Pentax MX-1 offers all the Program, Aperture-priority (Av), Shutter-priority (Tv), and Manual modes you'd expect to find on a camera aimed at enthusiasts.

The Program mode has a Flexible Program function, which makes it easy to bias the exposure to your preference without having to select a specific aperture or shutter speed.

There's also a User mode to store one group of settings for quick recall, an HDR mode that maximizes dynamic range, a selection of user-friendly Green, Auto Picture, and Scene modes, and a Movie mode.

Exposures are determined using a multi-segment metering that operates on info from the image sensor. You can also opt for center-weighted or spot metering.

Exposure compensation is available within a range of -2 to +2 EV, set in 1/3 EV steps.

By default, the Pentax MX-1 offers a shutter speed range from 1/2,000 to 1/4 second.

However, if you enable set the exposure mode to priority or manual, and opt to use electronic shutter, you get a greatly expanded range of 1/8,000 to 30 seconds. There's also a Bulb mode.

Eleven white balance modes are available in the Pentax MX-1. There's a standard Auto, a Manual position, and nine presets: Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Daylight Color Fluorescent, Daylight White Fluorescent, Cool White Fluorescent, Warm White Fluorescent, Tungsten, and Flash.

To help combat tilted horizons and converging verticals, the Pentax MX-1 includes a dual-axis electronic level gauge.

Of course, you can shoot movies with the MX-1. There's a dedicated movie mode, but you can also start recording using the movie record button from any other recording mode.

You have a choice of two resolutions, both high definition. When shooting at 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels, aka Full HD), the frame rate is fixed at 30 fps. For 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels), you have a choice of either 30 or 60 fps rates. There's also a high-speed movie mode that records VGA (640 x 480 pixel) video at 120 fps, for 30 fps playback at 1/4 of real time speed, plus a time-lapse movie function.

Pentax has selected MPEG-4 AVC / H.264 compression, and audio is captured with a stereo microphone on the top deck. As noted previously, the MX-1 also includes Movie SR stabilization.

Connectivity options in the Pentax MX-1 include a combined USB 2.0 High Speed / standard-def audio/video port, and a high-def Type-D Micro HDMI audio/video port.

Both are concealed under a hinged, plastic door on the camera's right-hand side.

Images are recorded as JPEG compressed or DNG raw files. Data is stored in ~75MB of built-in memory, or on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types. Pentax says UHS-1 cards are supported.

The Pentax MX-1 is said to be compatible with Eye-Fi's Wi-Fi capable Secure Digital cards, as well.

Power comes courtesy of a proprietary D-Li106 lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack, included with a charger in the product bundle. Battery life is rated as 290 shots on a charge. An optional AC adapter kit will connect to the camera using a dummy battery connector, and a small rubber flap in the battery compartment door permits access for the dummy battery's power cord.

The product bundle also includes Pentax's SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.0 LE software, developed by Ichikawa Soft Laboratory.

 

Pentax MX-1 Lens Quality


28mm eq. f/4
112mm eq. f/4
 
~2x Digital Zoom

Zoom Series: The Pentax MX-1's lens is quite fast (bright) with a maximum aperture of f/1.8-2.5, covering a 4x optical zoom range equivalent to a 28-112mm zoom on a 35mm camera. At full wide angle and f/4, details are pretty sharp throughout most of the frame, with good definition overall. Coma distortion is present but low around the tree leaves in the corners (mainly against the sky) and details look pretty sharp in the corners as well. There is however some mild chromatic aberration visible around high contrast content in the corners, as well as a hint of flare around very bright objects. Performance at full telephoto and f/4 is also very good, with excellent sharpness and good contrast across the frame, with hardly any chromatic aberration. Digital zoom also performs well, capturing good detail with minimal interference from artifacts. Overall, very good results here.

Here's how aperture varies with focal length according to what the camera reports:

Focal Length (eq.)
28mm
30mm
38mm
50mm
60mm
72mm
93mm
100mm
112mm
Max. aperture
f/1.8
f/1.9
f/2.0
f/2.1
f/2.2
f/2.3
f/2.4
f/2.5
f/2.5
Min. aperture
f/8 at all focal lengths


Wide f/1.8: Sharp at center
Wide f/1.8: Slightly soft at upper left
Tele f/2.5: Sharp at center
Tele f/2.5: Mild blurring, upper left corner

 

Sharpness: Both the wide-angle and telephoto ends of the Pentax MX-1's zoom show very little blurring in the corners of the frame compared to center at maximum aperture, which is very good performance especially for such a fast lens.


Distortion Correction On (default)
Wide: Almost no barrel distortion; not noticeable
Tele: A tiny amount of barrel distortion, not noticeable
Distortion Correction Off
Wide: Strong barrel distortion (~1.2%)
Tele: Moderate pincushion distortion (~0.3%)

Geometric Distortion: There is only a trace amount of barrel distortion at the Pentax MX-1's wide-angle and telephoto settings (about 0.03%). Thus, the camera's processor works hard to keep distortion in check.

With Distortion Correction Off, barrel distortion at wide angle is about 1.2%, and pincushion at telephoto is about 0.3%. That's not unusual, though, and most RAW converters should automatically correct for it.


In-Camera JPEG
Wide f/1.8: Moderate
Tele f/2.5: Moderate
Uncorrected RAW
Wide f/1.8: Higher
Tele f/2.5: Higher

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide angle is moderate in terms of pixel count, with mainly blue pixels visible, though pixels aren't too bright. Telephoto also shows a fair amount of chromatic aberration, though with brighter and more purple pixels along the edge of the black areas. And as we saw in the shooter's report, very bright high-contrast subjects even near the center of the frame can cause purple fringing.

As you can see from the uncorrected RAW crops, the camera removes most of the green fringing in JPEGs, but leaves much of the blue/purple fringing.


Macro
Macro with Flash
 
Super Macro

Macro: The Pentax MX-1's Macro mode captures a sharp overall image with good detail in the finer areas, and very little blurring in the corners of the frame (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Minimum coverage area is on the larger side of average at 2.54 x 1.90 inches (64 x 48mm), though Super Macro mode captures an area measuring only 1.11 x 0.83 inches (28 x 21mm). The camera's flash is partially blocked by the lens at this range, resulting in a strong shadow across the lower right as well as overexposure in the upper left. Thus, external lighting will be your best bet when shooting this close.


 

Pentax MX-1 Viewfinder Accuracy


Wide: LCD Monitor
Tele: LCD Monitor

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Pentax MX-1's LCD monitor showed just a little over 100% coverage at wide angle and telephoto, which is very good.


 

Pentax MX-1 Image Quality


Color: The Pentax MX-1 produced pretty good overall color, though bright reds and blues, and some purples, showed strong saturation. Bright greens and yellows were closer to accurate. In terms of hue, cyans were surprisingly kept in check (we often see cyans strongly pushed toward blue), so the MX-1 performed well in that respect. However, oranges were pushed toward yellow, as were some lighter greens. Darker skin tones show a strong shift toward orange, while lighter skin tones were more accurate with a slight cool nudge. Overall, slightly above average mean saturation and about average color accuracy.


Auto WB:
Very warm
Incandescent WB:
Too cool, with magenta tint
 
Manual WB:
Good, a hint cool

Incandescent: The MX-1's Auto white balance setting produced very warm results indoors with a strong, orange cast. The Incandescent setting was better, but too cool with a magenta tint. The Manual white balance setting was pretty accurate, perhaps just slightly on the cool side.


Horizontal: 2,100 lines
Vertical: 2,000 lines

Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,100 lines per picture height horizontally and about 2,000 lines vertically. Extinction of the pattern occurred after 2,800 lines per picture height.


Wide at 29 ft.: Reasonably bright
Tele at 40 ft.: Dark

Manual, +1.0EV: Very dim
Auto: Bright, but very warm

Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) shows reasonably bright results on the test target at the rated distance of 29 feet and Auto ISO (the camera chose ISO 1600) at wide angle. The telephoto test came out dim at the specified 40 feet and Auto ISO (the camera chose ISO 125), despite using spot metering. Still, it's likely the bright surroundings affected flash metering, so results at telephoto are inconclusive.

Manual flash at ISO 200 and f/4 produced very dim results in our indoor portrait scene, and using positive flash exposure compensation made little difference. Auto mode produced brighter results, but with a strong orange cast due to ambient light contributing to much of the exposure at 1/13 second shutter speed. Image stabilization should help with the slow shutter speed, but movement of the subject could be problematic at slow shutter speeds unless detected by the camera. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.


D-Range Settings

Dynamic Range: The Pentax MX-1 offers separate Highlight and Shadow Correction options, designed to preserve detail in the highlights and shadows of high-contrast images like this. Highlight Correction has Auto, On and Off settings, while Shadow Correction has only On and Off.

Mouse over the links below the image at right to compare settings used with our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene at ISO 800.

As you can see, Highlight Correction does tone down highlights, though there weren't many blown so the Auto setting did nothing in this scene. The Shadow Correction option works as expected, boosting shadows, however both effects were somewhat subtle with this subject.

The MX-1 also has an in-camera HDR capture mode with three strength settings. See the Shooter's Report for details.


100
200
400
800
1600
3200
6400
12,800

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is strong and well defined at the lower ISO settings, though partially from high contrast. The first noticeable softening shows up at ISO 400, though detail is still good to ISO 800. At ISO 1600 on up, noise "grain" in combination with noise suppression efforts progressively deteriorates details and definition. Chroma (color) noise becomes stronger and more problematic at ISOs 3200 on up, as noise grain itself interferes with detail. See Printed results below for more on how this affects prints.


Print Quality: A good 16 x 20 inch print at ISO 100/200; a good 8 x 10 at ISO 800; and a decent 4 x 6 at ISO 3200.

ISO 100/200 prints are reasonably good at 16 x 20 inches, with only mild softness in the red channel. Pushing it to 20 x 30 results in the introduction of minor noise processing artifacts appearing in flatter areas, but this size is still good enough for wall display prints.

ISO 400 images are decent at 13 x 19, just making our standard for good, although most all contrast is now lost in our target red swatch. For more critical applications it would be best to remain at 11 x 14 and under at this ISO.

ISO 800 shots at 11 x 14 introduce too much noise in shadowy areas of our test target to score as "good", but may be usable for less critical applications. 8 x 10 inch prints are fairly good in all areas except for our tricky red swatch.

ISO 1600 prints a decent 5 x 7 inch print, although some noise is still apparent in flatter areas.

ISO 3200 images at 4 x 6 just barely pass our standard for a "good" print, but there are still issues similar to the 5 x 7 at ISO 1600 with noise in shadows and softness in reds.

ISOs 6400 and 12,800 do not yield good prints and are best avoided.

The Pentax MX-1 yields typical results in the print quality department compared to other enthusiast cameras in its class, producing good 16 x 20-inch prints at low ISOs, and a decent 4 x 6 at ISO 3200. If you generally print at 8 x 10 or smaller, or intend to mainly share photos online, you should be just fine with the MX-1 as long as you remain at ISO 800 and below.


 

Pentax MX-1 Performance


Startup and Shutdown Times: The Pentax MX-1 takes about 2.2 seconds to power on and take a shot. That's about average for its class. Shutdown is on the slower side, at 2.1 seconds.


Mode Switching: Going from Play to Record and taking a shot takes about 1.4 seconds, while switching from Record to Play after a shot takes about 2.1 seconds. It takes the MX-1 about 0.4 seconds to display a recorded image.


Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is quite good at 0.24 second at wide angle, and 0.25 second at telephoto. Enabling the flash raises full autofocus shutter lag to 0.30 second, which is still pretty good. Continuous AF mode lag is 0.25 second while manual focus lag is a fast 0.18 second. Prefocused shutter lag is 0.016 second, which is very quick.


Single-shot Cycle Times: Single-shot cycle time is about average for JPEGs, capturing a large/fine JPEG every 1.43 seconds , but that slows to 1.91 seconds for RAW files, and 2.10 seconds for RAW + JPEG files.


Continuous Mode: The fastest burst mode captures Large/Fine JPEGs at 4.04 fps for 10 frames, taking 8 seconds to clear with a fast 95MB/s UHS-1 SD card. In RAW mode, the fastest frame rate drops to only 0.94 fps for 7 RAW files with 12 seconds to clear, and RAW + JPEG captures 6 frames at 0.76 fps with 12 seconds to clear. These speeds are well below average.


Flash Recycle: The Pentax MX-1's flash recycles in about 4.8 seconds after a full-power discharge, which is fair.


Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, and in complete darkness with the AF assist lamp enabled, though autofocus speeds were quite slow in low light. Still, very good results here.


USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Pentax MX-1's download speeds are extremely fast. We measured 18,895 KBytes/sec.


Battery Life: The Pentax MX-1's battery life has a CIPA rating of 290 shots per charge, which is a bit below average.


 

Pentax MX-1 Review -- In the Box

The retail box contains:

 

Pentax MX-1 Review -- Recommended Accessories

 

Pentax MX-1 Review -- Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Stylish, retro design with brass top and bottom plates and soft, rubbery grip for a rugged build quality and nice feel in the hands
  • Fast, sharp f/1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens
  • Relatively large 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor for compact cameras delivers good image quality at lower ISOs
  • Built-in Shake Reduction, including Sensor-shift as well as Pixel Track SR
  • Full Mode dial with PASM exposure modes and custom User mode
  • Exposure compensation dial
  • Green button lets you quickly reset some settings
  • Fast autofocus and very low shutter lag
  • Able to autofocus in very low light
  • Tilting LCD is nice for shooting at challenging angles and is easy to view in bright sunlight
  • Easy-to-use menus (though design is a bit dated)
  • Built-in dual-axis level
  • Two macro focusing modes, including a super macro mode that allows autofocus as close as 1cm
  • On-screen focus scale for manual focusing with fine-grained control at close focusing distances
  • Built-in 3-stop neutral density filter
  • Full HD (1080p) video at 30p with stereo sound
  • Saves RAW files in standard DNG format
  • In-camera batch RAW processing
  • Separate highlight and shadow correction controls
  • In-camera HDR mode
  • Dual IR remote receivers
  • Extremely fast download speeds
  • Larger and heavier than most pocket cameras with a similarly sized sensor; not very pocketable
  • Inefficient use of physical controls; Certain buttons only work in specific modes
  • Manual focusing is button-based and slow
  • Slower than average burst performance, especially with RAW files
  • Slow image processing and recording can result in lost photo opportunities
  • Sensitivity ranges up to ISO 12,800, but image quality starts to degrade quickly above ISO 800
  • Noise reduction levels can't be adjusted by user
  • Very warm images indoors with auto white balance
  • Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) on edges of bright white subjects
  • Built-in panorama modes are awkward to use and produce less-than-spectacular results
  • Mediocre battery life
  • No hot-shoe for attaching accessories like an external flash or viewfinder

 

Quite a unique camera in more ways than one, the retro-styled Pentax MX-1 pays homage to the compact Pentax MX film SLRs from the 1970s and 80s. The premium enthusiast-geared MX-1 features all-brass top and bottom plates and a soft, rubberized coating around the middle, make it a joy to hold. But at the same time it's also fitted with advanced photographic features and functionality, including a tilting LCD screen and a sharp, fast f/1.8-2.5 4x optical zoom lens.

The camera's 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor is typical of what most other manufacturers feature in their enthusiast compacts of this class, and it's bigger (and better) than most point-and-shoots use. However, it's at a bit of a disadvantage compared to those models that manage to squeeze in slightly larger sensors (such as the Sony RX100 and Fuji XQ1). Those larger-sensor cameras, of course, come at even higher premium price (of $600 or more). In any case, the MX-1 still manages to produce pleasing images up to around ISO 800; any higher and the small sensor really starts showing its weakness.

Performance-wise, the MX-1 is no slouch -- for the most part. We found the camera's autofocusing system to be fast and accurate, and the camera overall is speedy to use with easy-to-navigate menus. It does slow down with image processing and writing data to the memory card, however, with slower-than-average continuous modes, particularly with RAW files. The Pentax MX-1 also features functionality that many enthusiasts will appreciate, including a physical Mode dial with full PASM controls, a dedicated exposure compensation dial, and DNG RAW file capture. One feature we particularly liked was its super macro mode that lets you autofocus as close as 1cm. You can literally rest the lens on your subject and still manage to focus on it!

The Pentax MX-1 offers some quirks, too, such as odd button choices including a dedicated movie record button that starts and stops video recording in all modes except Movie Mode. In fact, in Movie Mode, the record button is nonfunctional, and instead, you start and stop recording with the shutter button. One other major quibble is that the camera does not allow you to adjust the level of noise reduction applied to JPEG images.

All in all, the Pentax MX-1 is a capable, advanced camera with excellent design and build quality. It has advanced features that allow for considerable creative control, but can also be used in a pure point-and-shoot style. Truly anyone can use and enjoy this camera -- even if it's geared mostly for serious shooters. But these same enthusiasts may have grown tired of the 1/1.7-inch sensor that limits the MX-1's image quality at higher ISOs. After all, it's hard not to compare a camera of this class to the large-sensor compact models with noticeably better image quality that have invaded the space recently. Still, for its class, the Pentax MX-1 is a good enthusiast compact camera and earns a Dave's Pick from us.

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