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Pentax Optio S12
12.0MP | 38-114mm (3X) ZOOM | $170

The Pentax S12 is the latest in a line of cameras that stretches back to the Optio S, launched in January 2003. Five years later, the S12 offers a 12 megapixel sensor, quite an advance on the 3.2 megapixel unit in its distant ancestor. However, the Optio S's 35-105mm lens has been replaced by a less useful 37-111mm effort that is likely to be restrictive, particularly indoors and in confined spaces. It remains a small and solid-feeling effort, but one without obvious finesse or distinctiveness of design. The Pentax S12 has the highest megapixel sensor in this test but thankfully, also has a larger sensor than the other cameras covered here. This means each of its light-sensitive photodiodes is likely to be larger and theoretically, able to collect more light.

  • 12.0 effective Megapixels
  • 37-111mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 6x Digital Zoom
  • 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • ISO sensitivity up to 3200
  • VGA movies at up to 30fps
  • Face Detection and Dynamic Range Adjustment
  • 5-Point Autofocus and Manual Focus
  • 16 scene modes including Auto Picture Mode
  • Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Modes
  • In-Camera Editing
  • 21MB internal memory
  • Available in Silver or Black
  • Optional Accessories available

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Overview

The Pentax S12 is one of the smallest cameras in this test - it's not the thinnest by any means, but it's shorter and less wide than any of the others, so its overall bulk is minimal. First impressions almost suggest that it's escaped from our budget group test but closer inspection reveals all-metal construction and a pretty comprehensive feature set (including a dynamic range compensation feature), pulling it above the level of its less expensive brethren.

The Pentax's screen is, along with the inexpensive Nikon S210 and the Panasonic FX37, the joint smallest in this group. It is still a 230,000 dot unit, though, providing very usable resolution for framing, image review and detailed menus. The S12's menu system is not quite as polished as its rivals - although the menu itself is clear and its options are sensibly grouped, there is no sub-menu to provide fast access to key shooting settings.

Unfortunately, matters are made worse by the prioritization that Pentax has chosen for the menus: exposure compensation (that you might wish to change on a shot-by-shot basis) appears on the second page of the menu, while Image Size (that it's possible you won't change during the life of the camera) sits at the top of the first page. Even the delightful icons of the mode menu don't make up for this shortcoming.

Key Features

It's not the slimmest camera here but is amongst the smallest, as its height and width are smaller than the other cameras here.
The button layout is predictable (and sensible), with the exception of the addition of a green button, which jumps the camera to its highly automated 'Green' mode.
The lens, while offering a reasonable sounding 3X zoom, is hampered by starting at a slightly zoomed-in 38mm equivalent. Not much good for sweeping landscapes, large group shots or cramped interiors then.
The menu is clear and the separation between record parameters and setup options is made sensibly. However, the lack of sub-menu means you have to use the main menu more often on this camera than its rivals - which makes putting a key setting such as Exposure Compensation on the second page of the menu harder to forgive.
The modes are represented by some of the more fun and archetypal Japanese icons that we've seen. They help give the camera real character, as do the selection of shutter and self-timer sound effects.
Each of the modes reveals a short piece of explanatory text if you move the cursor to it but hesitate before selecting the option. The text is sometimes a little whimsical but never to the point of being unclear.

Image quality and performance

The Optio S12 is pretty speedy in use, with no discernible shutter lag, good focus speed even at the long end of the zoom and an overall responsiveness that give no cause for complaint.

Although it suffers slightly from soft edges at longer zoom settings, overall image quality from the unassuming little Pentax at lower ISOs in good light is actually pretty good, and with 12 megapixels to play with you're unlikely to ever enlarge the images enough to see the slightly over processed (over sharpened) appearance they have at a pixel level. We saw a slight magenta color cast to our outdoor shots, suggesting the white balance was out by a notch or two, but it wasn't a systematic problem and overall color reproduction is very natural (not too saturated). The rather harsh tone curve does mean that the S12 clips highlights a little more than some of its competitors, but the excellent metering stops this happening in most shots.

High ISO performance isn't great; the noise reduction blurs away all fine detail and you may as well be shooting with a 3 megapixel camera. That said, the lack of chroma noise does mean that you can produce a perfectly acceptable small (6x4 inch) print without it looking terrible, and as long as the subject isn't too rich in fine detail. Flash exposure is very reliable, but we did notice the focus got very slow in very low light.

Plenty of detail in the center of the frame at low ISO settings, and only a slight softness at the edges at longer focal lengths, plus natural color that was only slightly marred by the not totally perfect auto white balance system and occasional highlight clipping. There's a bit of noise in the shadows even at low ISO settings and some noise reduction artefacts, but you won't see them in prints.

Summary

With bags of resolution giving great detail (which does drop off slightly at the edges) and fast, simple operation the Optio S12 is a solid, reliable performer, and as one of the cheapest cameras here, it's something of a bargain too. But it's not all good news; the zoom range has no real wideangle, the white balance and clipping issues can't be totally written off even if they don't affect all shots, and the smeary, blurry high ISO output is far from impressive. The user interface isn't a patch on the best cameras here and after using the Optio S12 it's hard to get particularly excited about any aspect of its operation, design or performance, despite the lack of significant problems.

  • We like: Good resolution, natural color rendition, fairly speedy, excellent metering and reliable flash
  • We don't like: Boring zoom range (no real wideangle), slow low light AF, very soft high ISO output, some auto white balance and clipping issues outdoors in good light
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