Pentax K-x £599
14th Oct 2009 | 13:21
A terrific DSLR for beginners with masses of headroom for those learning the ropes
Pentax K-x: Overview
Pentax has been a strong name in the burgeoning budget DSLR market for a long time. The Pentax K-m, for instance, is a surprisingly good 10.2MP camera that can be had for as little as £330.
The £599 Pentax K-x continues in a similar vein. Indeed, hold both cameras at the same time and it's only the branding that allows you to tell them apart.
Their outward specifications are identical - they're the same size and almost exactly the same weight, and they both have a 2.7-inch LCD on the back. The layout of the buttons on the back of the cameras is the same as well.
That means all the changes are internal. The K-m's PRIME (Pentax Real Image Engine) has been replaced by the PRIME II engine, and where the older camera has a 10.2MP CCD sensor, the new K-x has a 12.4MP sensor.
It isn't just the pixel density that has gone up - the K-x's sensor is a CMOS chip, and that means the headline act isn't bigger pictures, but HD video.
Like most of the HD-capable DSLRs we've seen, such as the Nikon D300S, the Pentax produces excellent quality video. It records in Motion-JPEG AVI format, like Nikon's HD-capable cameras, and you can choose from 1,280 x 720 (720p) at 24 frames per second or 640 x 480 (480p).
Pentax K-x: Body and handling
If you've handled the Pentax K-m the K-x will feel familiar as soon as you pick it up. It's solidly-built and arguably more comfortable than the Canon 500D.
The grip is larger, which makes it easier for those with big hands to keep hold of. It's certainly more comfortable than cameras such as the Olympus E-450. Only the front grip is rubber-coated, but we didn't feel in danger of dropping the K-x during testing.
The controls all fall neatly to hand and the control wheel and power switch both turn with a satisfying click. The shutter has been rated by Pentax to 100,000 actuations, and overall the camera feels like it should take its fair share of knocks. The flash is electronically activated via a button on the left hand shoulder.
The menu system looks very basic compared to either Canon or Nikon's. The font is blocky and in terms of navigation the K-x falls behind. The quibbles are largely aesthetic, though, and after a while we were happy that we could get to the K-x's main features.
The four-way directional pad at the lower right of the body doubles as a set of shortcut keys. Pushing Up gets you to the timer and continuous shooting modes, while Right allows you to set the ISO and so on. It's a handy way of compensating for the relatively - if unsurprisingly - low number of controls on the body itself.
Pentax K-x: Video quality
Like Nikon's Motion-JPEG cameras, video quality from the Pentax K-x DSLR is excellent.
In our tests the K-x produced terrific colour accuracy and fine detail, and the chief selling point of HD video on a DSLR - increased control of depth of field thanks to the large sensor - is in evidence here.
And, unlike Nikon's HD-capable DSLRs, which can shoot HD video for a maximum of five minutes, the K-x doesn't have such a tight restriction.
Pop in a 4GB card and you can shoot roughly 11 minutes of 720p footage. An 8GB card can accommodate just less than 24 minutes, which compares excellently to the Nikon D5000's five-minute maximum.
The Pentax K-x also allows a measure of manual control in video mode. The Canon 500D famously prevents you from setting the aperture yourself in video mode, which reduces your control over the depth of field or brightness in the final video.
The K-x gives you control over the aperture by default - just like in still mode, the aperture blinks on the display if you're going to end up with an under-exposed video.
You can't set the ISO yourself, but having control over the aperture will come into its own if you buy a fast f/2.8 lens. The Nikon D5000 also allows you to set your own aperture in movie mode.
It's not perfect
The K-x is imperfect, though. The so-called 'jello' effect, in which objects which move laterally across the frame appear skewed to one side, was a frequent bugbear during our testing. Fast pans, or vertical objects moving from side to side often wobbled badly.
The Pentax seemed more sensitive to this than other HD-DSLRs we've tested, with even small amounts of camera shake producing pronounced wobble.
It's easy to avoid, as long as you stick to static shots rather than trying to shoot from a moving car, for instance, but it's a restriction we'd rather not have, particularly when our test footage was otherwise so good.
Another unwelcome restriction is the inability to use autofocus while recording video footage. Although this is a hampered feature in other cameras - the 500D uses only contrast detection in video mode - it's something beginners will expect.
Another way to help avoid the jello effect is to enable the excellent SR (shake reduction) feature.
Pentax's SR works in the same way as Sony's SteadyShot system, by adjusting the sensor inside the camera rather than steadying elements inside the lens.
The chief advantage is you get optical image stabilisation on virtually every lens you can buy. (Pentax points out that screw-mounted lenses - which you need to use with an adaptor anyway - and 645- and 67-system lenses might not work.) So even more expensive fast telephoto lenses will have a few stops of stabilisation.
The system is very effective. At the far end of the bundled 18-55mm kit lens, using SR mode effectively cancelled out camera shake, which is excellent news for those caught in fading light without a tripod, or shooting video.
It also largely cancelled out all but the most severe cases of frame wobble, although it was still something we saw from time to time.
The lens is also one of the best we've seen bundled with a camera. The 18-55, f/3.5-5.6 specifications are nothing special, but it was sharp in our tests. It also feels beautifully smooth and well machined, both on the zoom and focus rings.
This makes it easy to make minor adjustments. And, despite the all-plastic construction it feels better-built than the 18-55mm IS lens that comes with Canon's consumer cameras, and at least as good as the 18-55mm Nikkor lens you get with the Nikon D5000.
Pentax K-x: Image quality
Image quality from the Pentax K-x was generally superb. The sharp lens helps immensely, but we also saw accurate, vibrant colours and generally low noise.
The K-x's ISO range can be pushed to the equivalent of 6400. Noise is definitely a factor at this setting, but we found if we kept the shutter speed as fast as possible we were able to get reasonable shots nonetheless.
Shots taken at ISO 3200 were excellent. There was some evidence of the K-x's noise reduction algorithm's stepping in and producing a little over-sharpening, but bumping up the ISO is by no means a last resort.
The K-x also has a slight numerical advantage over other mid-range cameras. Most mid-range DSLRs - the Canon 500D, Nikon D5000 and Sony A200 and A330 for instance - have a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th.
The maximum shutter speed of the K-x is two-thirds of a stop faster at 1/6000th. This extra speed isn't much use on its own, but if you plan on buying particularly bright lenses it could come into its own for shallow depth-of-field jobs.
The only slight disadvantage the K-x has in feature terms is the lack of white balance bracketing, which is a fairly standard inclusion of a camera of this price.
Pentax K-x: Battery life and performance
The Pentax K-x follows the cheaper K-m in its use of AA batteries. This makes it unique compared to competitors - Sony, Canon, Nikon and Olympus all use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in their DSLRs.
The use of AAs is a disadvantage out of the box. You get four non-rechargeable lithium batteries with the camera: according to Pentax that's enough for 640 shots, or 420 shots if you use the flash half the time.
That's reasonable - we took well over 270 shots plus videos in a single day and didn't run out of power. However, if you want to recharge the batteries you'll need to buy four Ni-MH AAs plus a charger - count on spending £20 on a complete set.
The use of AAs does have its advantages though. Firstly, Pentax claims that four rechargeable Ni-MH batteries will be enough for 1,100 shots with 50 per cent flash use, which far outstrips the Canon 500D's lithium-ion battery (400 shots) or the Nikon D5000's (510).
Secondly, if your proprietary lithium-ion battery dies in the middle of nowhere you're stuck until you can find somewhere to plug it in; AA batteries can be bought virtually everywhere on Earth.
The K-x's performance is typically DSLR-like. We measured its start-up time at 0.20 seconds, which unless you have the twitch muscles of a cheetah is much quicker than you could bring the camera to bear on a subject.
There's no shutter lag to speak of and unless you're in continuous shooting mode the time between shots is negligible too - in our tests we measured times as fast as 0.3 seconds between shots.
There are two continuous modes - Hi and Lo. Pentax claims the high mode should produce speeds of up to 4.7 frames per second if you keep your finger on the shutter button. We took 11 shots in 2.16 seconds, which is actually slightly faster - 5fps.
That's impressive for a mid-range camera. It's not so proficient at prolonged bursts - after around 17 shots speed slowed, and over the course of 11 seconds the K-x averaged 2.21fps. At its peak, though, the K-x is faster in continuous mode than either the Canon 500D or the Nikon D5000, although it only squeaks past the latter.
Pentax K-x: Verdict
The K-x's image quality really stands out, and the kit lens is superb. We also like the build quality, which feels tough, and the ergonomics. And, while its video capabilities are a little hit and miss, the ability to fire off a 720p video with such gorgeous colours and depth of field makes the K-x versatile.
The screen is bright and sharp, and easily visible in Live View mode. We also like the layout of the controls on the camera - after a few days we were zipping through the menus and changing settings at lightning speed.
It's a flexible camera - there's enough help in the menu system to make it a good choice for beginners (although not as much as the Nikon D3000) and enough high-end features and speed to allow plenty of headroom, making this an excellent choice for a first DSLR.
The biggest problem the K-x currently has is its price - it's brand new and that means you'll pay around £600 for the version we've reviewed.
That puts it at a slight disadvantage against the excellent Nikon D5000 and Canon 500D both of which offer great value for money. You should keep an eye on the K-x's price, though, as it's likely to drop significantly in the run-up to Christmas.
Other than that there's little to dislike. It's less comfortable than the Nikon D5000, and to us it appears to produce worse camera shake in video mode, which isn't ideal if you're looking for a one-size-fits-all camera.
Whether or not you like the use of AA batteries will be a personal choice - the upside is around twice the battery life of most mid-range DSLRs. The downside is that you'll either need to regularly replace batteries, or spend £20 on top of the already steep price to get a charger and a set of rechargeables.
The K-x takes absolutely superb pictures, and that's the main thing.
It handles noise well and the extended ISO range isn't just bragging on the specification sheet - there are times when it's genuinely useful.
The K-x also handles superbly and the bundled lens is outstanding. HD video is nice to have and undeniably high quality. There are compromises to accept, but that's true of all HD-capable DSLRs at the moment.
The K-x is worse than some - the lack of on-the-job focusing isn't ideal and sensor wobble can be severe. But if HD video is an occasional hobby and you're looking for a good, well-made DSLR to grow into, the K-x is a strong possibility.