Pentax seems to be a company that knows when it’s on to a good thing. The original Optio S, launched in early 2003, was an ultra-compact 3.1 megapixel camera featuring an innovative zoom lens that has now appeared on cameras and mobile phones from at least three other companies, the Pentax Sliding Lens System. The unique configuration of the elements in this lens meant that a full-sized front mounted 3x optical zoom lens could fold away into a body just 20mm thick. Since then Pentax has used this same lens on no less than eight different models, most of them variations on the design of the original Optio S.
The latest model, launched a few weeks ago, is this Optio S5n - basically a revamped and improved version of the successful S5i launched last August, although the S5i remains available. Pentax now has seven 5MP compact zoom cameras in its range, and has just announced an eighth, so it obviously feels that this is an important market sector. With a price of around £190 the S5n is not the cheapest camera in that sector, but it does offer a wide range of options and extra features that its competitors would be hard-pushed to match.
The main features that differentiate the S5n from its nearest neighbours are a 2in 110,000 pixel LCD monitor, an AF low-light illuminator, and the lack of an optical viewfinder. Apart from these it is physically almost identical to the S5i, S4i, S4 and S. It has a strong aluminium alloy body with a distinctive milled pattern of concentric circles on the front panel, giving it an easy to grip feel. This is similar to the finish of the four cameras listed above, but the pattern is finer, which unfortunately means it is also more prone to marks and scratches.
The back panel is of course dominated by the big 2in LCD screen, but the control layout still manages to be uncluttered thanks to a bit of rationalisation. Pentax has a control on many of its cameras called the Green Button. Normally this puts the camera into ‘idiot mode’, shutting down some advanced features and leaving just the basics required for fully automatic picture taking.
On most models this button can be customised to some extent, but on the S5n it can be used also as a Function button, which rather like the similarly-named button on a pocket calculator adds a second layer of functions to other controls, in this case the menu navigation control. It can be programmed as a quick and extremely useful multi-function control for adjusting a variety of the most commonly used menu options, including image size, ISO setting, white balance and exposure compensation among others. As a result the S5n has two fewer buttons than the S5i but is significantly quicker and easier to use.
This ease of use extends to battery charging. Like its stable mates the S5n comes with a cradle, which can also accommodate a spare battery, however this is just a battery charger and doesn’t have the handy USB download connection found on many other docking cradles.