Pentax's latest mirrorless camera is neither DSLR nor CSC. Is Marc Newson's distinctive design a big enough sell? The What Digital Camera Pentax K-01 review...
Pentax K-01 review – Features
The K-01 rests on Pentax’s strengths: there’s no new lens mount to be found here, instead the decades-strong K-mount means compatibility with all existing Pentax lenses. But the use of this mount does also bring design constraints: the camera’s dimensions are rather DSLR-like due to the required distance from lens to sensor being the very same as the existing Pentax DSLR range.
Which begs the question, what exactly is this latest model to be classed as? It’s not a DSLR as there’s no mirror, and although ‘mirrorless’ the large size and lack of any viewfinder option (there’s no ability to add one either) means it can’t compete with the benefits of many competitors’ Compact System Cameras.
The removal of the mirror also means autofocus is performed on the sensor itself, known as contrast-detection autofocus, which is often regarded as slower and less efficient than phase-detection autofocus (the latter as used by DSLR cameras).
At the heart of the camera is a 16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor, the same Sony-built (but Pentax optimised) one as found in the Pentax K-5, Sony NEX-5N and Nikon D7000. Anyone familiar with those three cameras will already know how well it performs, so the K-01 ought to outclass the majority of Compact System Cameras when it comes to optimum image quality.
Sensor-based image stabilisation, known as Shake Reduction, enables the camera to counter handshake and tiny movements whatever lens is attached to the camera – a particular benefit to users of older lenses.
Elsewhere the K-01 features a 3in, 921K-dot LCD screen on the rear for reviewing and composing images; a array of full manual controls, including an HDR mode that can now be found on the mode dial itself for the first time.
As well as body-only and 18-55mm kit options, the K-01 is also available with the brand new DA 40mm f/2.8 XS pancake lens. But this is no ordinary pancake. Indeed it’s the world’s thinnest lens and weighs in at a minute 52g.
Pentax K-01 review – Design
The K-01 is designed by acclaimed designer Marc Newson. To some this is a big deal, to others it’ll leave blank faces. WDC’s take isn’t to assess who it’s designed by, but how it’s designed. From our point of view we’re somewhat baffled. The K-01 is almost as big as a DSLR, boxy, lacks a defined grip, and there’s no provision for a viewfinder. In short: The K-01 removes the defining part of a DSLR’s design, mimics a Compact System Camera design, albeit without the ‘Compact’ part, but doesn’t add anything new. Its one key sell is the unusual design – and that’s already divided the public’s opinion.
In the UK the model is available in three colours. They range from two straightforward black and silver combinations down to a more ‘bright’ yellow and black combination. Of course the latter will appeal to some and echoes Pentax Japan’s multi-coloured DSLR designs of recent years.
In terms of layout the top of the camera has plenty of space to arrange the mode dial, shutter, rear thumbwheel and brightly coloured Green (Auto Exposure) and Red (movie / function) buttons. Despite looking as though they’re set wide apart from one another, they do fall to the hand instinctively.
There’s no front thumbwheel, however, which means toggling between options in Manual and some other mode.
The new 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens is teeny tiny, so much so it caps off the camera’s design in a very box-like format. Other K-mount lenses give the camera a more traditional look and feel, though add to the bulk and are far larger than most Compact System Camera lens equivalents.
But it’s the K-01’s subtle grip that’s among its biggest design faults. Attach a large lens to the front of the camera and it’s not comfortable in the hand for long periods as there’s nothing to get your fingers tucked around. Seems as though the design here has gone against the very ethos of including the K-mount in the first instance.
Pentax K-01 review – Performance
Without the mirror in the K-01’s design there’s no phase-detect autofocus available. Instead the sensor-based contrast-detect autofocus is the sole method that the K-01 can automatically acquire focus. In recent years many manufacturers have pushed the speed and accuracy of this focus method forward to impressive levels. Take the Panasonic GX1 or Olympus OM-D E-M5 as defining examples.
Sadly this isn’t the case with the Pentax: it’s capable enough for the most part, though relies on wider-angle focal lengths and decent light for its fastest-possible focus. Extend the focal range and dim the available light and it’s not unusual for the camera to search through the entire focus range before acquiring focus.
The speed of focus is also behind that of other comparable competitors’ cameras. It is better than most DSLR cameras’ live view systems (Sony’s Quick AF Live View system excluded), but still isn’t up to scratch considering what else is available on the market. Pentax needed a lightning fast system to really make its mark.
But worse still is the sheer amount of noise the AF system makes. Both the 40mm f/2.8 and 18-55mm lenses used in this test (and both available as kit options) output significant, grinding noise as the camera autofocuses. No chance of subtlety here.
When focus is acquired it’s shown clearly by a green rectangle on the K-01’s screen and an accompanying (optional) bleep provides additional feedback. Autofocus is divided into Face Detection, Tracking, Single Point Select, and Centre Spot modes. The Tracking option performs poorly as the slow autofocus speed will lose a subject if it drifts from the focal plane, and isn’t able to keep up with fast moving subjects – a common issue with contrast-detection systems. The Face Detection mode doubles up as a ‘Multi’ mode, but finding specific, pinpoint areas is difficult to achieve.
It’s a shame as Pentax DSLR cameras have decent contrast-detect live view systems within their class for when composing with the rear LCD screen. But for the K-01 to really fly it needs a system that significantly outperforms the existing standard, including the latest Compact System Cameras. But that just isn’t the case.
Alternatively flick the AF/MF switch to the side of the camera to jump into Manual focus mode. Within the menu options is a Focus Peaking option that is particularly useful in conjunction with manual focus. The mode shows ‘peaks’ – halo-like embossed edge highlights around the focused area – to assist with finding focus.
Continuous shooting offers a five frames per second option. We tested using a Class 10 Panasonic Gold SDHC card and found that four frames could be captured prior to a very small delay before the fifth frame was captured. It’s also worth noting that the Continuous Hi mode is only available for JPEG shooting – it’s greyed out if Raw is activated, instead offering the slower Continuous Lo only.
The camera includes a hotshoe for attaching an external flash or other accessories, though a pop-up flash is also built into the body. It’s useful for short-length lenses only though – even the 18-55mm lens at the wide-angle setting will suffer from drop shadow to the bottom of the frame on account of the lens being in the way of the flash’s path.
Pentax’s staple Green Button takes pride of place on top of the K-01’s body, in a new – brighter and glossier – shade of green. This can be set up to auto set the exposure to its measured TTL point, plus the Tv/Av Shift allows a defined aperture or shutter value to be fixed.
The red button closer to the body’s edge defaults as a one-touch movie button, but can also be treated like a function button to control File Format, Preview, Focus Peaking, Custom Image and Digital Filters.
However, another Pentax staple, the TAv exposure mode (which is akin to an ‘ISO Priority’ control mode), has been removed altogether. In its place is a quick-access HDR (High Dynamic Range) option.
While the 3in, 921k-dot LCD is of an ample resolution, it can be hard to see in bright sunlight. The lack of a viewfinder or any tilt-angle mechanism can make some shots hard to achieve.
Battery life is said to be 500 shots per charge. While this is better than a lot of the Compact System Cameras out there, we found total shots were short of this mark due to the amount of screen-based preview and composition use. To put it in context the K-01 uses the same battery as found in the K-5 DSLR – but will only deliver power for half as many (or less) shots.
Pentax K-01 review – Image Quality
This is the area where the K-01 is certainly a winner. Ignoring the performance-based issues and there’s no doubt that the K-01 produces detailed, well-exposed images.
Pentax K-01 review: Tone & Exposure:
We’ve often thought Pentax DSLR cameras underexpose a little, but the K-01 is, at least in general, rather different when it comes to exposure. Shots are well balanced across the board in a variety of lighting conditions. Occasional exposure compensation to offset backlighting was required from time to time – but nothing out of the ordinary, and the Exp Comp button on the top of the camera makes it quick and easy to make adjustments.
Tonally shots are rather ‘mute’ by default, but a Custom Image option within the menu offers bags of user control. As well as Cross Processing, Black & White and other effects, there are also Natural, Vibrant, Bright and many options to choose from. But best of all they’re customisable through nine levels of Saturation, Hue, High/Low Key Adjustment, Contrast and Sharpness (some modes offer different options, such as Black & White’s Toning and Filter Effect options).
Pentax K-01 review: White Balance & Colour:
Colours are natural yet punchy, and even more vibrant in (standard) JPEG files then their Raw equivalents. Auto White Balance is accurate throughout a variety of scenes, though Raw files are often a little more magenta.
The inclusion of an HDR mode on the main mode dial is there to make multiple exposures and blend them into a single file for shadow and highlight exposure. The Auto HDR mode works handheld if the shutter is high enough, while modes 1-3 offer different looks ranging from subtle to more extreme – but the latter three will require a tripod to avoid ghosting!
Pentax K-01 review: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise:
The sensor is pinched directly from the K-5 model, which already sets the K-01 in good stead. It does a fantastic job of dealing with image noise, even at the mid-high ISO settings, which means even low-light shooting (ignoring the autofocus system) will produce great results.
The level of detail up to ISO 3200 is impressive, though this dips at ISO 6400, then dives into far noisier, less usable territory at ISO 12,800 and above. But compared to the competition, as the example above shows, shots really aren’t *that* bad at these heights of sensitivity. It’s impressive stuff. Although the K-01 isn’t a DSLR, there’s no doubt it produces DSLR-quality images.
Pentax K-01 review: Sharpness & Detail:
On account of ISO settings the overall detail does diminish as sensitivity increases – but performance is still very impressive. From ISO 100-800 it’s possible to see minute, hairline details in shots.
Pinpoint focusing can be tricky due to the focusing system, but when shots are spot on they are very pleasing indeed. All Pentax K-mount lenses can be used with the K-01 system that, in turn, opens up a huge archive of potential glass.
Pentax K-01 review: Raw vs JPEG:
The untouched Raw files have some key differences to their JPEG counterparts. Firstly they’re less sharp, as is to be expected, but do retain that extra lick of detail. This does mean that there’s plenty more potential that can be squeezed out of them.
Colours, too, are also manipulated in the JPEG files. For example: A magenta cast in a sky will be a more vibrant blue in the JPEG version.
An in-camera Distortion Control setting is also something that may ‘stretch’ the JPEG appearance compared to the original Raw file. On many occasions this does well to counteract lens distortion, though the difference may be too significant for some, particularly wide-angle closeup shots where it can adversely ‘bloat’ the shot.
Value & Verdict
Pentax K-01 review – Value
Available for £679 with a lens, the K-01 carries a similar asking price as the Olympus E-P3. The Olympus is as expensive as non-viewfinder Compact System Cameras come, so Pentax’s mirrorless model is also a pricey purchase.
However, those with existing Pentax lenses needn’t invest in a new lens system. All Pentax K lenses will work in conjunction with this camera, without the need for an adaptor. That’s a potential cost saver right there. However, from our experience, we say they won’t work as quietly, nor as proficiently as well as they will on a Pentax DSLR system.
Expensive it is, but it’s the overall disappointing design and performance that don’t give the K-01 that much to shout about. We’d much rather plump up an extra £150 to bag a better performing and better looking Pentax K-5.
Pentax K-01 review – Verdict
The Pentax K-01 isn’t like anything else on the market. Its unusual exterior may appeal to design aficionados associated with the world of Marc Newson and other designers, but for most average camera users it’s too bulky and, on account of its small grip alone, won’t appeal to hardened photographers.
The use of the K-mount may appeal, particularly to existing Pentax users, yet it’s hard to see what the K-01 offers that the far superior K-5 doesn’t.
Image quality and the quirky Focus Peaking feature are the model’s high point, though the lacklustre performance, again, is problematic.
Overall the K-01 feels like a bloated Compact System Camera without the associated size benefits of its competitors, or otherwise a lobotomised DSLR. It straddles the two categories but, and ultimately, fails to deliver anything new or innovative enough to inspire.