Pentax Optio S55 Review
The Pentax Optio S55 goes beyond most ultra-compact cameras in its ability to be taken everywhere. The S55's 1.1" thick metallic body easily fits in a shirt pocket and is sturdy enough to endure being carried constantly. However, the most impressive is its good battery life using 2 AA batteries (230 shots based on CIPA standard). Indeed, AA batteries are the most practical for taking digital cameras anywhere because they are widely available, inexpensive, replaceable by disposable and rechargeable via solar power (solar battery charger required).
Given its 5 megapixel sensor, its 3X optical zoom lens and its rich feature set, the S55 is well suited for general purpose photography and snapshots. Notable features of the Pentax S55 are:
- ISO sensitivity selection: Auto, 50,100,200 and 400.
- White balance: Auto, sunlight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent and custom.
- Focus modes: Normal, infinity, macro, super-macro and manual.
- Exposure compensation: -2..+2 stops, 1/3 stop increments.
- Drive modes: Self-timer (2 or 10 seconds), continuous 1 FPS unlimited, remote control.
- Movie mode: 320x240, 30 or 15 FPS, with sound.
- Voice recording: Photo-annotations or separate.
- Metering control: Evaluative, center-weighed or spot.
- Image parameter adjustment: Sharpness, saturation and contrast.
- Panoramic assist mode.
Suitability - What is it good for?
Obviously missing from the S55 are controls over aperture and shutter-speeds, nor are these features present in the vast-majority of ultra-compact cameras (For full-manual control in an ultra-compact body see the Fuji F810, for slow shutter-speed control only see the Fuji F10, Canon SD500, Canon SD400 and Canon SD300 - note that none of these use AA batteries).
Usability - How easy is it to use?
Taking pictures is very simple with the Pentax S55. The large 2.5" LCD is very nice for framing and provides a clear view of the subject at normal light levels. Lacking an optical viewfinder is one of this camera's weaknesses since very bright light can make the LCD difficult to see. The shutter release button is large and easy to press with a distinct halfway point making it easy to focus before pressing it fully. Photographic modes (including movie and voice-record mode) are easy to select using the top-mounted mode dial which surrounds the power button to protect it from being accidentally pressed.
Despite its diminutive size dominated on the rear by the 2.5" LCD, the Pentax S55 has a good number of external controls. Due to the LCD's size, most buttons are quite small and cover almost the entire back of the camera. During use, only the size and placement of the display mode button proved problematic. Luckily for Pentax, it is probably the least used button on the camera's back.
By default, the direction pad controls some commonly used functions (drive-mode, focus-mode, flash-mode and sub-mode selection). After pressing the Fn button, the direction pad give access to 3 or 4 user-selected functions. This is a wonderful feature because users tend to access a small set of features frequently. Personally, the exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity and white-balance were my favorites. Other cameras from Fuji and Canon have quick-access menus too but they are not usually customizable and don't offer access to the most important functions (for example, image resolution and quality are frequently present but personally never used - except for testing). As for the mode dial, it gives direct access to all the important modes and gives indirect access to other modes like filter effects and specialty scene modes.
The tiny display button gives access to several display modes including one with a live-histogram. This is a rare feature on small cameras but is very valuable to judge exposure problems. Strangely, the camera allows the LCD to be turned off entirely even though there is no other viewfinder! The delete button serves to erase pictures in playback mode but also to prevent pictures taken from being stored. Even if the instant preview is on, the camera doesn't slow down and pressing the shutter button partly immediately exits the instant preview. This is good for getting the right shot of a moving subject. Even menus can be zoomed-in using the zoom controller for people who have vision problems.
In practice, using the Pentax Optio S55 is comfortable for such a small camera. A small bump with the Pentax logo on the front allows it to be held securely (this is an improvement over the Pentax Optio S40 and S50 which lack this element). On the rear, there is only one place to put your thumb and it is a tight spot. During the review, I never accidentally bumped any buttons but I believe it could happen to the direction pad for people with large hands.
The S55 has separate doors for its SD card slot and its battery compartment which makes it impossible to drop one while changing the other. The SD slot door seems rather sturdy, while the battery door seems of average built. The plastic tripod socket is uncomfortably located at one edge of the camera. However, the camera's light weight did not cause any problems while mounted on a tripod. A cheap quality wrist strap is provided with the camera but serves its purpose well. Pentax offers a sturdy plastic-covered metal neck chain if desired. The S55 has good-looking styling but its chrome surfaces show fingerprints easily.
Performance - How well do it take pictures?
Straight-out the Pentax Optio S55 produces good looking pictures adequate for printing at sizes up to 9"x12". The pictures have nice natural colors and better than average contrast. This allows it to keep more details in bright areas of pictures than other cameras in its class. Noise levels are kept quite low up to ISO 200 but become visible at ISO 400. At ISO 400, noise is less visible than average but so are fine details which are slightly softened. Below ISO 400, images are quite sharp edge-to-edge except at maximum wide-angle where some corner softness is visible. The corner softness at wide-angle is much less pronounced than with the vast majority of ultra-compact digital cameras. Noise levels of each ISO setting can be seen on 100% crops here. See scaled images approximating 4x6 prints from the S55.
Battery life using 2 NiMh rechargeable AA batteries is better than average. Very few cameras do much better using lithium-ion batteries but considering the low cost of AA batteries (and the constant arrival of better models), there is no need to worry about the S55's battery life. The S55 can also use CR-V3 lithium batteries for even better battery life but we have not tested this here.
The speed of this camera appears slightly less than average and definitely far behind that of the Fuji Finepix F10
Fuji Finepix F10. Focus speed is decent in bright light but tends to become quite slow under low-lighting or when confronted with low-contrast subjects. The zoom motor operates faster than average but behind that of the Fuji F10. In continuous drive mode, using a high-speed card, we found less than 1 FPS but without burst limit.
Pentax S55 Facts
Compact digital camera
|5 Megapixels Fixed Lens||ISO 50-400|
|3.1X Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/2000-4s|
|1 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Custom white-balance|
|320x240 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Spot-Metering|
|2.5" LCD 115K Pixels||Standard AA Battery|
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