Pentax X90 superzoom bridge camera
Review If you're shopping around for a compact bridge camera, then the Pentax X90 shouldn’t be overlooked. The company entered the superzoom bridge camera market comparatively late with the X70, and the X90 revamp retains the design and a similar range of features. These include the 12.1Mp CCD sensor with sensor-shift image stabilisation, and a 2.7in LCD screen with a 230,000 dots resolution.
Magnifying glass: Pentax’s X90
However, the X90 offers 720p HD video at 30fps, a 200,000 dots electronic viewfinder, a more powerful battery – increased to 1250mAh from the X70's 880mAh – and an improved optical zoom lens with an even broader focal range, 26x against the 24x of the X70. With the Pentax store offering it at £260 and a street price as low as £200, the X90 certainly has a lot going for it, not least its massive zoom range and compact dimensions.
At 428g with battery, the X90 is light and small, measuring 84.5 x 111 x 110mm with a blue-grey plastic body and a shiny chrome-finish top plate on the right hand side. It’s one of the most compact superzoom cameras on the market, yet it feels comfortable and safe to hold, with ergonomically designed rubberised handgrip and thumb rest that have the most perfect natural fit.
The top plate includes the pop-up flash, power button, a nicely responsive zoom lever, a raised bottle-top mode dial and a DSLR-like dedicated exposure compensation button. A protruding viewfinder that sits just above the LCD screen dominates the back of the camera and projects an awkward shadow over the monitor in certain light conditions. The rest of the commands are well laid out with a navpad that also doubles as direct access to self-timer/drive, macro, flash and scene mode selection.
Just below the navpad there is Pentax’s usual Green button – it also serves as delete command when in Playback mode – that initiates an easy menu with only basic settings to choose from whatever capture mode you are in. Alternatively you can customise it as an Function button.
Familiar layout, but alas no dedicated movie recording button
As the X90 lacks direct access to ISO settings the green/fn button can prove quite useful. Other direct commands are Menu, Display, EVF/LCD, Playback and – to remind us that this camera is definitely not a DSLR – a superfluous Face Detection button. Surely, the absent movie record button would have been a better choice.
The X90 sports the whole array of user-friendly features typically found in Pentax’s compact range. There is Smile Capture, Blink Detection – the Face Detection can identify up to 32 different faces in a fraction of a second – and a new Baby Mode. The D-Range setting helps minimise over/under exposure and you’ve a number of Digital Filters for artistic applications (B&W, Sepia, Colours, Extract Colour, Colour Enhancement, Toy Camera, Retro, Soft, Fisheye, Brightness).
In-camera digital cropping techniques take the 26x optical zoom images up to 162.5x
Among the point-and-shoot options is a digital ISO-boosting mode that increases stabilisation by reducing resolution, which drops to 5Mp. Besides the Programmed AE Mode that selects the optimal aperture and shutter speed there’s Auto Picture, which automatically sets the correct shooting mode for each given scene including macro. Other options include Scene, Sport and Anti-Shake with more creative manual or semi-manual modes available from control wheel above the thumb rest.
With good aperture selection and shutter speeds ranging from 4s to 1/4000s the X90 does have the potential to satisfy the enthusiastic photographer that wants to upgrade from the point-and-shoot without investing into a DSLR system. To increase flexibility, Pentax also added a pro-like macro mode that allows shooting close-up subjects just 1 cm away, which I found to be quite impressive in use. This function works only at the wide end of the zoom lens but it does produce a beautiful richness of detail.
The X90 has a very useful resolution selector that lets you reduce capture resolution, by increments, all the way down to VGA and a choice of four different image recording formats: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1. Alas, there’s no RAW capture support. The LCD screen is quite sharp and bright with a decent angle of view and so is the viewfinder, although not really accurate enough for manual focusing.
This camera’s best characteristic is certainly the new optical zoom lens that offers an effective focal range of 26-676mm at f/2.8-5.0. The build quality of the lens is excellent continuing Pentax’s established tradition of manufacturing good affordable optics. It has a large dynamic range, edge-to-edge sharpness, almost no chromatic aberration and barrel distortion well within the expected levels. It is also surprisingly fast, traveling through its whole focal range in just under three seconds.
Besides various preset modes, there are manual exposure options too
To make this camera even more appealing to photo enthusiasts, Pentax has added what it calls an Intelligent Zoom function. If you keep your finger on the zoom lever, after arriving to the maximum focal length, the lens will keep magnifying the image, with increasing drops in resolution, up until a whopping 162.5x at VGA resolution (focal length 4225mm). The image of course is hopelessly degraded, as it is basically just a digital crop of the optical one, but if you are into ‘binocular’ photography this feature certainly adds a wow factor.
720p HD video capture
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Such a huge lens in an otherwise lightweight body does obviously create stability challenges. Pentax has commendably resolved these by implementing a sophisticated and effective system of image stabilisation that works by detecting and compensating camera shake through a gyro sensor that moves horizontally and vertically at high speed over the CCD sensor.
Compact, with great ergonomics
Pentax claims its proprietary CCD-shift-type Shake Reduction system will give photographers a three stops advantage. I haven’t measured it but the telephoto results at maximum telephoto range are very good indeed for this category of lens.
Pentax also added two digital shake reduction options: Pixel Track SR (Shake Reduction) compensates for camera shake by processing affected images during recording. The High-Sensitivity anti-shake mode works by raising ISO sensitivity to the highest settings in poor lighting to enable the use of faster shutter speeds. Stabilisation systems aside, the only real disappointment is that the optical zoom cannot be accessed during movie recording.
The camera performance is generally better than average. The X90 is quick to power up in just over a second, shot-to shot times are around 2 seconds and it has burst speeds of up to 11fps at the reduced resolution of 5Mp.
The Autofocus system is very fast and accurate in normal lighting and outdoors conditions but it does slow down at long focal lengths and it sometimes gets stuck in very low light levels. Manual focus is not really implemented and it looks as though Pentax has added a so-called manual focus option only for spec’s sake.
Manual focus is controlled from the navpad in incremental steps, rather than through the conventional ring on the lens barrel, which is spookily there just for aesthetic reasons. This jerky and slow control makes it all but impossible to manually lock focus on anything other than still objects.
Appraising the images taken with Pentax X90, I had mixed feelings. The camera performed incredibly well in certain scenes, while rather disappointing me in others. Colour reproduction in particular can be quite inconsistent, with colours resulting often a bit too cold.
A good all-rounder for those wanting more than point and shoot
Exposure though is almost always spot on. The only complaint is a little overexposure of the highlights in low light situations. The main issue with image quality is noise. Despite a broad ISO sensitivity range, from ISO 80 to ISO 6400, Pentax relies too heavily on noise reduction processing to keep levels of noise down, with the result that even at ISO 400 images show some blurring of fine details and general softening.
From ISO 800 noise starts to creep in badly and at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 the speckles of colour appearing on the pictures are overwhelming. As a consequence, the X90 would not really be well-suited for serious night time photography.
Compared to the previous superzoom model, the X90 has significantly upgraded the video mode, which is now able to record video footage at 1280 x 720 pixels and 30fps. Unfortunately Pentax has not improved the mic that stays mono and over-sensitive, picking up all sorts of background noise. The movie mode comes with its own Movie Shake Reduction system that I’m afraid is not as effective as the sensor-shift one used with still capture. The camera has an HDMI interface and Pentax has gracefully included a HDMI cable in the camera box.
The other major improvement from the X70 is battery life. The X90 gives you a very respectable 255 pictures per charge. The camera supports SD and SDHC memory cards and it is compatible with Eye-Fi wireless LAN SD memory cards.
Overall, the X90 is a very good all-in-one camera that thanks to its brilliant superzoom lens that covers a wide range of photographic situations. Although at times it handles and behaves like a DSLR, the image quality and noise performance are more in line with other CCD based compacts. While it might not live up to DSLR standards it surely is a good choice for any compact camera user looking to upgrade and at the current asking price it is very good value for money. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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