First Look : Pentax MX 1

MX 1 ChromeI remember the Pentax MX from about 30 years ago. It was a good quality SLR. Pentax has gone through a lot since then, most recently being acquired by (and in some opinions, saved by) Ricoh. My friend Steve Davies has been with Pentax Canada for a long time and when I saw him at a trade event this week, he asked me what I thought of the MX 1. I, as one might expect, gave him the dumb look, since I did not know what he was talking about. Never to let a challenge go unpunished, I determined that the MX 1 was stocked at the camera store where I work on a very part time basis, and with the assistance of the most awesome Louise Booth, obtained one to do a first look with. The first thing you notice about the MX 1 is the weight. If you've handled other larger sensor point and shoot style cameras, the first difference you feel is construction. With top and bottom plates of brass, finished in either gloss black or retro silver, the MX 1 feels built tough. The lens is a 4x zoom measuring from 6mm to 24mm with an aperture of f/1.8 to f/2.5 That translates in 35mm language to a range of 28mm to 112mm so wide angle to short telephoto, with an aperture range of f/8.4 to f/11.6. This is decent range for a pocket camera, but isn't really going to rock low light. ISO runs from 100 to 12800 but I found it gets noisy around ISO 1600. Still, certainly more than some other cameras of this type. It incorporates a CMOS sensor noted as 1/1.7". I confess that this tendency of most manufacturers to play silly buggers when quoting sensor size makes my teeth hurt so some basic math says the sensor is about 0.68 inches on the diagonal. Certainly larger than the generic point and puke, but less than the much loved (by me) Sony RX-100, but similar to Canon's S110, Olympus' XZ-2 and the Lumix LX7. The sensor delivers files of maximum 12MP.

Like other cameras of this type, the camera captures not just in JPEG but in RAW format as well and a big clap on the back to Pentax for selecting the open standard DNG format for it's RAW files, so you don't need some wonk-ola software to get at your RAW files such as one encounters with oh say Fujifilm. Don't kid yourself though, the in camera JPEGs are generally the way to go until Adobe, DxO and the rest of the lens profile magicians get profile corrections available because when I shot RAW+JPEG fine on the MX 1, the RAWs were, to put it softly, showing a bit of the old barrel distortion. The in camera JPEG builder applies the needed lens correction so the JPEGs look pretty decent, albeit without the colour depth because of the JPEG "parsley to throw away" storage model.

By the way, if that phraseology doesn't mean anything to you, go find the episodes of The Flintstones where Fred and Barney buy a Brontoburger stand.

Charging the battery takes just over two hours and you can charge the battery out of the camera because it comes with an external charger, like any intelligent camera should. Manufacturers who are too frakking cheap to put an external charger in the package and then require that you charge the battery in camera, need to have Mr. Bat meet Mr. Kneecap. Pentax says you should get about 290 shots on a charge, putting the MX 1 in the same park as its competitors.

The menu system reminds me of most Japanese camera menu systems, meaning it looks like it was built after the architect just came off a three week long sake and Suntory bender. Adding insult to injury is a font style that brings back memories of the long dead and unlamented MGA from the original IBM PC. I would have hoped that Ricoh would have had some influence into the menu system. It's confusing because different presses do different things for different areas. This can be addressed in firmware so I hope that Pentax listens to buyers and hires a good UI company to redo the menu system. Button layout is pretty straightforward. Shutter is on top with a zoom rocker around it, video start / stop is a separate button, There is a shooting mode dial and a separate exposure compensation button giving ±2 stops in ⅓ stop increments. The power button is easy to find without hunting for it and it glows a bright green when the camera is on.

Modes include GREEN, Auto Pict, SCN, HDR, USER, M, Av, Tv, P and Movie. I expect many buyers will use GREEN or Auto Pict and for the most part they are pretty darn functional. You have to manually popup the flash to do any flash function selections and it emerges on a little cantilever arrangement like many other cameras of this type. The switch is on the upper left side of the camera. It's bright enough for basic work but it is very small and so harsh shadows and blow outs should be expected. There is no hot shoe, so this is what you get. It offers a couple of red-eye modes, as well as slow sync and "second-curtain" sync.

The back has a rotary wheel that does different things depending on the mode you are in. There's an AE lock button and the usual four way rocker. The rocker labelling needs work. The flower that everyone naturally believes is macro mode actually takes you into the different selectors for focus mode. Not all that intuitive. There's also a Play button, a Menu button to open that door to hell mentioned earlier and an Info button whose function varies depending on mode from doing nothing at all to popping up a Hollywood Squares style grid to select different configuration options. The Play button also empowers the rocker to move back and forth but if you rocker down, you get access to all the "fun" stuff, like in camera filters, HDR simulation, toning, Instacrap style things and a bunch of other junk I would never use, but that's probably needed for someone, though I cannot imagine who that might be.

The LCD display is large and bright. The image quality displayed is very good and I rate the LCD as one of the best elements of the little camera. It tilts up or down via a cantilever arm system that while solid is not all that smooth. The other side of that is that it doesn't flop all over the place.

The tripod socket is metal and screwed into the brass base plate so while a little thing, it indicates that some engineer has been thinking about the more demanding user.

Image quality is easily as good as any of the cameras in the price range, which is about $450. The lens is sharp and contrast is good, but beware the tendency to barrel distort. A close in shot in wide angle mode definitely made the upper right of Sondra's face start to wander into the corner. I won't publish that one, to avoid getting yelled at but trust me on this, you don't want to be taking head shots with this thing in anything but full telephoto.

The 4X zoom is adequate. There is also intelligent zoom available when shooting in lesser JPEG quality that basically reduces the MP count so as to use more of the sensor for zoom. A peer at the store says that doing this doesn't diminish quality. We're going to agree to disagree, I think there is a visible quality drop. The camera also has digital zoom, which as all readers should know is basically a simple way to make a decent shot look just like cat vomit.

I shot a small range of images with the camera because I only had it for a short time. I think that the JPEGs are quite good and expect the RAWs to be more usable when there are lens profiles available for Lightroom etc.

The Pentax MX 1 is a fine camera. I did not find anything that really set it dramatically apart from its competition in the price point except that it has much sturdier construction. Certainly it's very usable and the lens is very sharp. The menu systems need work, but in fairness, most menu systems look like they were designed by rats on typewriters. I think it's a strong contender in a field of good options. Certainly the price point gets it into the hands of people who might otherwise look at the excellent Sony RX-100 or the laughably sad Nikon Coolpix A.