- Review Price: £305.00
For all the advances we’ve made in computer technology, it’s still quite telling that most camcorders use tapes, a format that consumer electronics is rapidly leaving behind, with DVDs rapidly taking the place of VCRs. While tape brings back visions of strands of plastic coming out from broken cassettes, it’s still used for specific reasons. DV video at a PAL resolution of 720 x 756 and 25 frames per second takes up a huge amount of space and tape, as old fashioned as it might seem, provides a lot of storage at low cost. A Mini-DV tape stores 60 minutes of footage and only costs about three pounds. There are signs however, that camcorders are moving to more advanced formats. Sony has a mini-DVD based recorder and Panasonic and Samsung have devices that record to solid state media instead.
If like us, you’re into all things small, cute and gadgety, you’ll love the Optio MX4. It’s both a video camcorder, and a digital still camera with dimensions of only 73 x 59 x 103.5mm (W x H x D). It also offers an amazing 10x optical zoom.
The Pentax Optio MX4 uses SD cards as its storage medium. Video can be taken at a resolution up to 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second (fps), and it can also take still images at a decent resolution of four Megapixels, up from the 3.2 Megapixels offered by the first Optio MX. This gives an image resolution of 2,304 x 1.728, which is a significant hike over the one Megapixel still images you’ll get from most DV camcorders. Video can also be shot at 15fps and at resolutions of 320 x 240 or 160 x 120. Other still image resolutions available are 1,600 x 1,200, 1,024 x 768 and 640 x 480. Combined with the impressive 10x zoom, the Option MX4 could be the answer to those looking for the ultimate all-in-one device.
However, after marvelling at its looks and size, one of the first questions people ask is how much video you can record onto it. It comes bundled with a 32MB SD card, and at the maximum resolution of 640 x 480 this could only fit a single minute of video. This means that to fit 32 minutes you’d need a 1GB card, and that’s without leaving space for the four Megapixel still images, which take up around two Megapixels each. At time of writing, a 1GB SD card will set you back at least £60. Fortunately, 2GB cards are imminent with one online UK retailer selling them for £177, and prices are only going to come down with time.
As soon as you take it out the box you can tell that it’s an unusual device. The elongated body is held by a handle that drops down at the side. This can be pulled away from the body of the camera so you can get a firmer grip. In this position it looks very much like your pointing a Buck Rogers ray gun at your subjects, which may or may not appeal.
In fact, the whole thing is very neatly designed. The handle on the right houses the 1800mAh Lithium-ion battery. Externally, the separate video and still picture buttons and the zoom dial all fall readily under your right thumb. I’m a left hander but as the Pentax only weighs 375g it never felt uncomfortable to use. Inevitably, it is difficult to hold steady when its long zoom is employed but there is a tripod screw mount underneath and we made use of this when testing. There’s also a ten second timer mode, providing another method of avoiding camera shake. However, the device doesn’t have the most solid feel to it, so we really wouldn’t recommend dropping it. Fortunately, a wrist strap is included in the box.
A 1.8in LCD screen acts as a viewfinder and can either be placed above the camera or swivelled round and clipped to the back. This gives easier access to the controls at the top, including a dial that switches between the fully automatic program mode or a ‘Pict’ (Picture) mode, which offers a number of presets for taking pictures under different conditions.
There are also aperture priority and shutter priority modes and for the control freak a fully manual mode. Pressing halfway down on the still image button activates the focus lock and brings up on screen settings information. From here you can adjust the aperture priority or shutter priority settings depending on which mode you have the dial set to. The aperture size can be adjusted between f2.9 and f8.0, while the shutter can be set between 1/2,000 of a second and four seconds. As you press down these settings are displayed in red if the camera thinks that they are not suitable for the light conditions. Pressing the ‘Ok’ button also brings up various useful information such as the white balance and a histogram.
There are also options for adjusting exposure compensation and for choosing between ISO settings of 100, 200 or 400. Additionally, there’s a continuous shooting option. In standard speed mode (approximately 0.5 fps) this is activated by holding down the shutter button and takes images until the memory card is full. In high-speed mode you can capture a burst of three images in about a second. This option however, turns off the flash. Down the side are buttons to engage a Macro mode and a Super Macro mode, which can take snaps of objects pressed right up against the lens.
In daily use, I found myself grabbing the Pentax more readily than my Sony PC105 DV camcorder, which next to the Optio MX4 seemed relatively bulky and heavy. Movie files are recorded as .mov files, which most video editing packages, such as Ulead Video Studio 8, will happily edit. Quality wise results were acceptable, without being spectacular. The Pentax generally appreciated good light conditions but quality tended to suffer in low light.
On the video side, there was an unmistakable step down in quality compared to a DV camcorder, with picture being far grainier and noisier. Another issue was focusing, which took a significant amount of time especially after camera panning.
At maximum quality overall still image quality was acceptable, but tended to suffer from noise, even at ISO 100. At ISO 400 noise was excessive and the setting should best be avoided. However, the 10x zoom was highly impressive for a device this size.
If you’re really bothered by image quality I wouldn’t rely on the Optio MX4 to replace your digital camera and camcorder. However, as long as you are aware of its limitations, then the Optio MX4 is a fantastic device to have around. Having the abilty to shoot video or take pictures on a device with a 10x zoom that you can easily carry around, quickly becomes addictive.
We like the Pentax Optio MX4 a lot. It’s superbly compact and easy to use, and its abilty to take both MPEG4 video and high resolution stills is a killer combo. However, ultimately reservations about the quality of its output prevent it from garnering an award but if ease of use and portability are more of a concern than out-and-out quality, then the multi-talented Pentax should definitely be considered, especially as it can be picked up online for as little as £300.
Score in detail
Image Quality 6