Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent image quality in JPEG and Raw
  • Solid build
  • Appealing design
  • Good color, practical color modes
  • Overall good performance in low light
  • Good optical quality - center to corner sharpness, with little sign of chromatic aberration
  • Fast autofocus
  • 10fps full-res burst mode
  • Captures a Raw image even in special color/effect modes
  • Switches to Macro mode automatically
  • 1cm Macro mode allows extreme closeups
  • In-camera Raw conversion for individual or batch reprocessing
  • Raw files contain a lot of extra detail in both highlights and shadows
  • Tilting LCD with 920k dots
  • Good 1080p Movie mode with stereo audio recording
  • Dedicated Movie record button
  • EV compensation dial is stiff and well-placed
  • Infrared sensors front and back
  • Built-in sensor-shift and pixel-track shake reduction

Conclusion - Cons

  • Too large for most pockets
  • No hot shoe or accessory port
  • Tungsten lighting sometimes left quite yellow by AWB system
  • Motor sounds audible when zooming (with optical zoom enabled)
  • Lacks second dial to give easy control of both aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode
  • Camera doesn't hang level from strap thanks to front-mounted strap lugs
  • Slow to power down
  • Slow to return control to user after shots

Overall conclusion

Taken on its own, the Pentax MX-1 is easy to like. Its large, good quality, fast lens and rugged, retro styling make it a handsome companion for those who miss old camera designs. Those who are drawn to its looks will be rewarded with impressive image quality and excellent optical performance. The MX-1 also has nice heft for those who appreciate what a little well-balanced weight can add to camera stability. That the extra weight comes from brass plates may matter to some, but be careful about treating the MX-1 roughly to give it that 'brassing' appearance prematurely; let those battle scars come naturally.

The lack of more customization options, particularly around exposure control or noise reduction, is unfortunate, because many of the MX-1's competitors have a lot to offer in this respect. Whether you'll miss in-depth customization in the MX-1 will depend on your priorities. As much as we value custom controls, speed and responsiveness are arguably more important for street and family photography, and in our shooting, when we need to shoot more critically we usually have an SLR in tow anyway.

Another omission from the MX-1 (albeit one that most users are unlikely to notice) is any sign that Ricoh has anything to do with Pentax camera design. We think Ricoh's brilliant customizable GRD/GXR interface would have added that extra something to make the MX-1 more compelling; but that too would have required an additional control or two.

When it comes down to it, though, what you need for good pictures is a sharp, fast lens, a good quality sensor, and a shutter button. The Pentax MX-1 wraps those basics into a neat little body with good heft and a sense of presence.

Image Quality

The Pentax MX-1's kinship with the Olympus XZ-2 is clear when you look closely at the sample images, particularly the Studio Comparison Scene. Though the JPEG processing is not identical, it's very close, with similar noise patterns and image rendition is about as distinct, even as ISO rises. The MX-1s images are slightly more contrasty, but only a touch.

Optical quality really impressed us, with nearly no loss of quality in the corners when compared to the center of images. Chromatic aberration is all but undetectable (in JPEGs at least). Movie quality is also good, with stereo audio and the option of digital or optical zoom.

The only real trouble we had with the MX-1 was in tungsten lighting, where the Auto white balance system left our images rather yellow; this was especially bad in a dimly-lit school theater. It's well known that Pentax tends to bias toward leaving a yellow tint in incandescent lighting, only recently changing their SLRs to bias toward a more balanced color, while letting the user choose an option to render Tungsten lighting more yellow.

Handling

At first blush, despite its retro appeal, the Pentax MX-1 seemed a little too thick and heavy to compete well with other cameras in the enthusiast pocket space. Instead of going for tall, slim, and pocketable, Pentax went for thick and retro. After a bit of time with the camera, each user gained new respect for it. It wasn't just its reliable image quality, but the camera's performance in the field. Seasoned reviewers noticed its slower shot-to-shot time, sometimes locking the user out of taking another shot until the image saved - even with a fast card - but amateur users just liked the way it felt like a quality camera. It isn't so small that it was hard to hold, and it was reasonably simple to use.

Focus is fast, face detection is usually helpful, and the tilting LCD is handy for low angle and overhead shooting. Though the LCD housing can be seen from one point of view as too thick, grafted on as an afterthought, it's also quite solid, with a build that seems appropriate on a heavier camera. There's no question it seems out-of-place compared to the elegant look from the front, but it's certainly functional, and its 920k LCD panel is bright and crisp, offering good viewability in sunlight.

The Final Word

While our experience with the Pentax MX-1 was really quite positive, it does have some weak points and we can't help mention that lingering doubt about its lack of an extra dial for full manual control. In the end, it didn't tarnish our experience with the camera, as we've noted, but those who will want that extra dial should take note and consider another camera. If you're generally happy using the semi-auto modes with your premium pocket camera, however, the Pentax MX-1 has a well-placed EV compensation dial at the ready for minor tweaks this way and that.

It's the optical and sensor quality that impresses us most about the Pentax MX-1, making it easy to recommend to anyone looking for a good performer in a solid body. If you don't mind carrying a small camera bag or hanging the MX-1 from a neck strap, you'll be quite happy despite its difficult-to-pocket dimensions. The Pentax MX-1's high image quality and overall performance make it a very good choice for anyone looking for a straightforward image maker with a retro sensibility.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Pentax MX-1
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Those looking for a high quality camera with a great sensor and sharp lens, who also like a little style and heft for extra stability.
Not so good for
Enthusiasts looking for more rapid control over exposure and other settings. Anyone looking for a camera that slips easily into a pocket.
Overall score
74%
Pentax's first entry into the premium pocket camera category is big on image quality but also a bit big for the pocket, which narrows its niche a little more than its competitors. Still, it's a very capable camera with a good set of features, a handsome finish, and an impressive sensor and lens combination.

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Real-world Samples

There are 30 images in the Pentax MX-1 review samples gallery and 26 in the preview gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.

Pentax MX-1 Review Gallery

27 images • Posted on Jul 1, 2013 • View album
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Pentax MX-1 Preview Samples

26 images • Posted on May 3, 2013 • View album
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