Enthusiast and high-end point-and-shoot cameras have been around for quite some time now- in fact, their origins date back to the early years of digital cameras. Even though most compact cameras on the market today don’t offer much sophistication, the concept of a compact camera offering manual control and expanded feature sets isn’t at all new. In recent times, however, the popularity of enthusiast compacts has grown tremendously. Cameras like the Fuji X10/X100, Sony RX100, and the Panasonix LX series or the Canon G series have shown that there is a fairly large demand for such cameras. Not everyone wants to be burdened with switching lenses all the time, and even professionals don’t always want to lug around their heavy DSLRs, as there are times when size can become a bit too restrictive. While advanced compact cameras currently can’t match the image quality or performance of DSLRs, they can still be used to capture stunning photographs, and they won’t limit your creativity, as we will show in this review.
Specs and Highlights
The specifications alone, especially for a camera like the MX-1, are a bit dry and really don’t say much about the camera as a whole. We will therefore also provide an overview of the highlights of the MX-1 on this page.
Large backlit 12-megapixel CMOS sensor
The MX-1 features a 1/1.7 inch (measured diagonally) 12-megapixel sensor, which is about 50% larger than the 1/2.3 inch sensors found in most traditional point-and-shoot cameras. Thanks it its larger sensor, the MX-1 can deliver images with less noise and more detail. We will elaborate on the noise performance and other characteristics of this sensor in the image quality section of this review. The MX-1′s sensor supports an ISO range of 100 to 12,800.
Fast F1.8-2.5 lens with 4x Zoom
The MX-1 sports a bright 4x zoom lens with an equivalent focal length of 28-112mm in the traditional 35mm format, or 18-75mm in the APS-C format. The actual focal length is 6-24mm. This gives you a very flexible zoom range which is suitable for most everyday shooting scenarios. When this isn’t enough, the MX-1 also offers digital zoom as well as a dedicated macro mode which can be used to photograph subjects as close as 1 cm from the lens! The maximum aperture of F1.8 at the wide end and F2.5 and the tele end will deliver great close-up bokeh and will help prevent blurry night photos.
Sensor-Shift Shake Reduction
In order to deliver sharper hand-held photos and slow shutter speeds, the Pentax MX-1 offers an in-body mechanical shake reduction system which compensates for about 2-3 stops of camera shake. This means that even at slow shutter speeds, you’ll be able to capture sharp images without having to use a tripod. The MX-1 also offers an electronic stabilization system, though the mechanical system is much more effective.
High-Resolution Tilting LCD
On the back of the MX-1 you’ll find a 3-inch LCD monitor featuring VGA resolution (921k dots), which currently leads its class. The screen’s brightness and hue can be adjusted via the menu. Thanks to a built-in tilting mechanism, the screen can be tilted up to 90 degrees upward or 45 degrees downward.
Exposure Compensation Dial
Like many classic cameras, the MX-1 features a dedicated exposure compensation dial, which we’re sure many enthusiasts will love. This dials allows you to brighten or darken the image by up to two stops.
Genuine Brass Construction
The top and bottom plates of the MX-1 are made of genuine brass, which resembles the construction of many classic Pentax film SLRs. The classic look is certainly one of the MX-1′s most distinctive features. When worn, the silver or black finish will give way to the bronze-colored brass underneath!
External Features and Buttons
On the top of the camera, you’ll find the mode dial, shutter release button, zoom switch, red button, and exposure compensation dial. The different shooting modes will be discussed later in the review.
The power button illuminates (in green) whenever the camera is powered on.
The red button can be used to start video recording regardless of the current mode.
On the left side of the camera is the flash release switch, which pops up the flash. The way the flash behaves can be controlled via the flash menu.
On the back of the camera you’ll find the control wheel, which is used to control the shutter speed (or aperture, after pressing the AV/AE-L button) while shooting. There’s also the green button, which doubles as the delete button in playback mode, as well as the menu, info, and playback mode buttons.
The 4-way pad doubles as a means to access the flash, drive mode, focus mode, and ISO menus when shooting.
Located on the rear grip itself is a rear infrared port.
The retro design of the MX-1 is very nice overall. However, we find that the tilting LCD on the back takes away from the elegance of the design, as the mechanism concealed underneath the monitor introduces a fairly bulky protrusion which isn’t at all visually appealing. Refer to the product photos to see this protrusion. Overall, the monitor extends about 2-3 millimeters beyond the camera casing, and it is very thick when viewed from the left. Because of this, we wouldn’t buy the MX-1 for its design alone. Fuji’s X-series cameras, or even the Sony RX100, look more appealing in our opinion.
Apart from the fact that it’s obviously not a SLR, we find one key thing to be missing from the MX-1: the iconic Pentax logo, of course!
Overall we’re very happy to see that Pentax has finally created a camera with a classic design, but we would have been much more impressed if such a design were instead applied to a DSLR. One great thing about this design, however, is that the camera has an excellent build quality, and it feels very sturdy and well-built. There are no wobbly or loose parts; all buttons and switches give good feedback and have no play.
As we mentioned in the specifications, the MX-1′s LCD can tilt up to 90 degrees up, or 45 degrees down, as pictured below. While in the field we didn’t make much use of this, though it did come in handy from time to time. In general, we would say that such a screen is more suitable for use on DSLRs, which aren’t as compact and can’t always easily be held with a single hand.
There are no optional electronic viewfinders for the MX-1, and because it lacks a hotshoe, even a third-party optical finder would be very difficult to mount. While many have been complaining about this, we had no trouble seeing or using the rear LCD, and we wouldn’t say that the MX-1 should be avoided because it lacks a viewfinder accessory.
The zoom setting is controlled using the ring around the shutter release button. The zoom lens motor zooms in and out at a constant speed. There is no fast setting, and there is no way to finely control the zoom. While the MX-1 could use improvement in this area, we didn’t find it to be a big inconvenience overall.
The Pentax MX-1 is very easy to hold. The button layout and interface is intuitive, as with other high-end Pentax cameras. Its weight of 391 grams makes it neither too light nor too heavy, and it can easily be held with one hand. The fact that all shooting controls are located on the right side of the camera helps facilitate one-handed operation, though you can always use two hands for added stability. We preferred using a wrist strap rather than a neck strap with this camera. The MX-1 is small enough to be taken anywhere, and it will easily fit into a coat pocket, so it can be a great alternative to a DSLR.
The main complaint we have in terms of handling is that the grip could be a bit bigger, especially for users with large hands. The buttons on the back are fairly small, and special care should be taken when using the 4-way pad. Finally, for users with smaller hands, it’s a bit difficult to change modes during single-handed operation.
The switch that opens battery/SD card door underneath the camera doesn’t have a spring, which was somewhat annoying at first. However, with time we got used to the fact that after pushing the door shut, we needed to move the switch into the locked positional manually.
The MX-1 offers acceptable general performance and speed. The good news is that it has virtually no shutter lag (less than 20 milliseconds according to Pentax) and the startup time is just over a second. Apart form this, however, we aren’t particularly impressed with the MX-1 simply because it has the same quirks that are found in earlier Pentax cameras: in other words, general performance hasn’t been streamlined or improved. On this page, we list those quirks.
For example, when deleting a file, a “deleting” message is shown, which locks up the camera for about a second for each file you delete. While this isn’t a major inconvenience, it would be much better if the camera could simply display the next photo, and process the deletion in the background.
Similarly, whenever the MX-1 writes a file to its memory card, if you attempt to enter the menu or access playback mode, the camera locks up and does not allow you to do anything else until it’s done. A “data being recorded” message is shown during this time. While this isn’t particularly bad in JPEG mode, you will notice it a lot when shooting in RAW. Waiting times are summarized in the table below; the times below is the delay between the moment the photo is taken at the moment the camera enters playback mode after the playback button is pressed:
Delay before menu/playback can be accessed
|Single RAW+||2 seconds|
|Single RAW||1 second|
|Single JPEG||0.75 seconds|
|Burst of 5 RAW+||9 seconds|
|Burst of 6 RAW||9 seconds|
|Burst of 10 JPEG||4 seconds|
|Burst of 36 JPEG||14 seconds|
In continuous mode, it appeared to us that the MX-1 didn’t even try to flush out files from the buffer to the memory card while capturing images. The camera either has a very slow CPU, or the firmware has some poor programming. This also suggests that the buffer size is about 150 megabytes. Note that in RAW+ mode, the continuous frame rate is a mere 1FPS, rather than the specified 1.57FPS.
There is also a slight delay right after taking a photo and right after focusing during which all buttons on the camera are dead. This combined with the delay described above results in a very annoying effect; you push buttons and nothing happens, then you push the button again, only to see a “data being recorded message”. Similarly, if you focus and then let go to the shutter release button, live view freezes for a fraction of a second, though this is a very minor issue in comparison.
We performed our test with a professional 95Mb/s SD card from SanDisk, and thus we are confident in our conclusion that the camera’s hardware and firmware is the limiting factor when it comes to speed. While no one of these quirks is a major issue, together they make the camera seem rather sluggish, especially if you chose to shoot in RAW.
The MX-1 makes up for this somewhat by offering quick access to key shooting settings through the info screen and easy multi-file deletion/browsing in playback mode. In playback mode, JPEGs load quickly, and there is only very slight delay for RAW files. The MX-1 produces JPEGs around 5 megabytes and RAW files around 22 megabytes.
The MX-1′s battery life is rather short. Very active shooters may wish to keep a spare battery charged at all times, as a single charge will suffice for just over 200 exposures during normal use. The MX-1 includes power-saving features including screen dimming and auto power off; we recommend making good use of these features.
The camera has some 78 megabytes of built-in memory which doesn’t serve much of a practical purpose. It otherwise accepts SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards in the card slot, which is located beside the battery.
The MX-1 is fast enough in JPEG mode for its sometimes-slow performance to be a non-issue. However, its sluggishness in RAW mode greatly discouraged us from recommending it for enthusiasts. At least there’s no shutter lag, though!
The Pentax MX-1 offers a dedicated movie mode and a decent amount of customization. However, manual exposure is not supported: it is impossible to adjust the ISO, shutter speed, or aperture before or during recording. It saves .MOV files using the H.264 codec, which is used in the majority of current digital cameras. During video recording, the MX-1 can compensate for camera shake using its Shake Reduction system, if enabled via the main menu. Pentax does not specify whether or not the sensor-shift shake reduction mechanism is used; based on our experience with the camera, the stabilization appears to be entirely electronic.
In addition, the red button allows you to start recording videos regardless of the mode you’re in. The previously-used video settings are applied. When pressed, the following happens:
- The camera enters video mode, exiting the current shooting mode (screen flickers, brief lag)
- The camera starts recording your video
- The camera stops recording your video (after pressing the red button a second time)
- The camera returns to video mode
- The camera returns to your original shooting mode (screen flickers, brief lag)
There is also a high-speed movie mode which records for up to 15 seconds at 120 FPS, and produces a 30 FPS slow motion video in VGA (640×480) resolution. The resulting video has a duration that’s 4 times greater than the original duration, and thus these clips can be up to one minute long. Similar to the slow motion mode is the built-in time-lapse mode, which will produce fast-paced time-lapse videos in VGA resolution (up to 25 minutes in length). Below are two sample slow-motion video shot using the high-speed mode. Notice how the sounds is also played back in slow motion!
The MX-1 supports continuous autofocus during video recording. Using the info screen, you can tell the camera to only use the center AF area, or to use all 25 areas. Generally speaking, the video AF is very slow, and not responsive or fast enough for any sort of action. In addition, it isn’t possible to take advantage of the MX-1′s macro capabilities in video mode, which is a shame.
The MX-1 has a built-in stereo microphone. The sound quality is very good overall, and the camera even provides a wind suppression system for outdoor shooting. However, as the MX-1 offers no external microphone input, you can’t do anything fancy with the sound.
Movie Mode Verdict
The MX-1 is great for casual video shooting, and thanks to its high speed and time lapse modes, it lets you get creative without having to do any heavy post-processing. Because you can’t control the exposure, however, the MX-1 can’t be relied on for more serious video assignments (exposure compensation will often not suffice, as the camera can still adjust the exposure on its own).
As for video image quality, we found noise to be negligible in well-lit scenarios. Compression artifacts creep in from time to time, but overall, we have no complaints about the MX-1′s video when used in good light. When we tested it outdoors at night, however, the camera elected to use very high ISOs, which introduced noise and significant loss of detail. The MX-1 does not support uncompressed video output.
To conclude, we wish that Pentax had included manual video controls in the MX-1. There are other enthusiast compacts out there with more flexible video options (and even 60FPS recording in full HD), and while the MX-1 without a doubt meets modern video standards, it doesn’t have anything that truly makes it stand out, at least for enthusiasts. Apart from the slow motion mode, we greatly enjoyed the ability to capture stills during video recording: a great feature, even though it’s not an industry first.
Overall we are pleased with the Pentax MX-1. It’s a good alternative to the Pentax Q for enthusiasts who are looking for a compact backup camera from Pentax and don’t want to have to worry about switching lenses. Plus, it’s loaded with many DSLR-like features, which makes it an excellent value. It’s also a great choice for photographers who want an affordable all-in-one compact with premium image quality. The MX-1 isn’t perfect, however, and it does have its shortcomings. It’s a solid offering, especially considering that it’s the first of its kind form Pentax, but it’s somewhat disappointing in the sense that it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. For us as Pentax aficionados, had this camera had a more elegant LCD design, we would have been inclined to get it just for its looks. Without that advantage, however, we can’t help but conclude that the MX-1 is just yet another enthusiast compact which is on par with competitor offerings, and it only makes up for this with its slightly lower price tag of $ 499.
The MX-1 looks deceptively similar to the Olympus XZ-2, and third-party sensor tests have confirmed that they two cameras use the same sensors and lenses. It’s not up to use to judge the implications of this, though it’s probably going to disappoint Pentax fans a bit that the MX-1 isn’t 100% original.
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