Not the usual mobile device review.

There's no two ways about it. I'm loving the new camera.

When I'd been with Microsoft a few weeks we were issued with the first iPAQ PDAs. I've been interested in the different things you can do with mobile devices ever since, in questions like "What kind of applications are viable on a smartphone with its small screen ?" Satellite navigation works, word processing doesn't. Or what needs broadband speed and what works on GPRS ? Or "What would a bigger screen bring me ?" or "What would greater CPU power mean in practice ?" and so on. I mention this because it colours my thinking about the new Pentax.

My Dad started my relationship with Pentax: he chose their entry level model because an expert friend told him it had better lenses than the others. 20 Years later, when they brought out their first 6 megapixel Digital SLR in 2003, I tried one at the first chance I had and bought it. It worked with the equipment I already had, the ergonomics were great and I liked the image quality. It was handicapped by electronics which were fixed in late 2002: a 5 frame buffer writes to Compact Flash at 2MBytes/Sec (with images of 12MB apiece it could be take 30 seconds before you could look at an image on on the 118,000 Pixel 1.8 inch display). Shifting lot of data over its USB1.1 interface wasn't a practical proposition. Over the last 3 years Pentax introduced derivatives of that camera; they first showed it's 10 megapixel successor at the PMA 2006 show in Florida in February and I could see that couple of key features, dropped on the derivatives were back. For several months I knew it just as "the PMA camera" , then it's name was announced as the K10D , and what I read in forums, on the blog of Pentax US's VP of Marketing and anywhere else I could find (including an extreme test of its weather proofing). And it told me I'd want one when it hit the market - as it turned out, 9 months after being shown at PMA.

People over-estimate the role of the camera. I like to say "Photographers, not cameras , make Pictures", and there is a saying. "A camera is just a box with a lens on one side and a recording medium on the other. Everything else is just convenience". Improvements in lenses or in film or electronics do improve image quality: I've written before about why changes within the same general class of camera don't give a giant leap forward.  Changes are on the "convenience" side don't just make it easier to get pictures; you'll shoot more pictures with a camera you like, and these features allow pictures which we might not even have tried for: that's often were the big changes come.

If there is a "big leap" on the K10D and it's little brother the K100D it'sShake reduction .  Canon and Nikon, the big players in the camera market have expensive image stabilization lenses. Pentax (and Sony, neé Minolta) have put the solution in the camera body so every lens is stabilized - in Pentax's case even lenses from the 1950's. 35mm film gave us a convenient rule of thumb Don't hand hold with a shutter speed slower than 1/focal-length. A 100mm focal length on the K10D has the angle of view of a 150mm lens on a 35mm camera - and the same susceptibility to shake; so the shot below should be as blurry as the memory of a good New Year's party. Look at the inset detail: blurry it ain't.

The Barn Owl Centre of Gloucestershire quite often bring birds to show shoppers in Oxford... (this one's a Buzzard)

Auto ISO setting helped this picture too: it's been around for a couple of years, but wasn't on the old camera. It was a bit dark in the shopping centre where the birds were being shown, so the camera turned up the sensitivity. Pentax have been pretty smart here: a roll of film has a fixed sensitivity, and we tend to treat digital sensitivity as fixed even though it can change from shot to shot: Pentax have added two new exposure modes where sensitivity is treated like shutter speed or aperture - just another variable that the camera or photographer can vary.  

The new camera maintains Pentax's reputation for building cameras with a bright, clear viewfinders. The old camera presented information in the viewfinder very well, but I find the new one just a fraction better. Great presentation of information is one of the cameras signature traits- it helps you to decide when to take control and when to give the camera its head, and a major factor here is the new LCD screen. With new 2.5" diagonal screens giving twice the area and twice the Pixels of the old 1.8" ones, the Pentax engineers must have thought, as I would have done "what new things does that enable... ?". First off there's a status screen when you switch on or change exposure mode: do this in the dark on the on the old camera needed you to turn on the LCD backlight (also easier on the K10D) and then work out which mode you were based on which values were fixed and which variable. Pentax have also taken advantage of the better display to reinvent how you set white balance. I don't know if competing cameras can match this, but it shows preview picture with the proposed new WB: it's a stroke of genius, but it something they couldn't have done with the old display. When it shows you thumbnails of multiple pictures you can now select more than one for deletion. I expect to vary the size of thumbnails in Windows Vista's explorer and the camera lets me do the same.

Reviewing images you notice the increased responsiveness. 3 years of development in electronics makes SD card reads and writes about 4 times faster that I've been used to. This means I don't have to stop shooting to let the buffer empty and I don't have to wait 30 seconds before Chimping (quick time Video). I can use Mini/Micro SD with an adapter and pop them into a 3G phone to send, or plug the SD straight into my laptop - CF needed an adapter. Up-to-date electronics means fast USB transfers too. (Pentax should have the software out soon to support "tethered" shooting, missing out the memory card altogether).With more processing power they've given the camera the ability save multiple versions of a JPEG image with different contrast and saturation, sharpening or White Balance settings, it can convert RAW data saved direct from the sensor into a JPG, and apply filters to images - though oddly there is no resize or crop.. I'm not sure yet if this is just a gimmick, but it wouldn't have worked without the bigger screen.

Normally I'd have to wait till I got home and do this in Digital Image Suite , but I did this there and then.

So is there anything I miss about the old camera ? It was lighter and fitted in my hand just slightly better. It used AA batteries which got me out of a problem a couple of times (the new one uses a 1000-shot proprietary battery - I'm going to have to carry a spare.). Would I tell anyone else to buy one ? Not exactly. I'd certainly say try one out, but the advice I give over and over again is this Try as many cameras as you can, they are just tools and you need to get the one that works for you. Canon sell more cameras than anyone else, but theirs just work for me.

Technorati tags: Pentax, K10D