The Pentax MX-1 is a 12MP high-end compact camera with a fast 28-112mm equivalent zoom lens - the first camera of its type that Pentax has created. With a rich history in camera design, it seems fair that Pentax would seek to recapture the two-tone camera designs of the last century with its MX-1 enthusiast compact (the MX-1 is also available in an all-black model as well). A metal top and bottom and a leather-like band around the middle provide a gripable surface as well as a classic look. Thanks to the painted brass top and bottom plates, we're told users will enjoy that old tendency toward 'brassing' exhibited in well-used vintage cameras as the MX-1 accumulates wear. We haven't yet bashed the Pentax MX-1 around enough to test this feature, but there's still time.

Following the near extinction of the standard pocket digital camera in the wake of the smartphone juggernaut, camera manufacturers are aiming more squarely at the enthusiast market, and the MX-1 is a clear sign that Pentax considers it an important segment to serve. Dominated largely by cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 and Canon Powershot S110, and more recently by the Sony Cyber-Shot RX-100, the enthusiast pocket camera market consists of cameras with larger sensors, premium lenses, raw capture and a bias toward manual controls and modes, in addition to the usual auto and semi-auto modes.

The MX-1 shares a lens (and probably sensor) with the Olympus XZ-2: a 28-112mm equivalent zoom with a relatively bright F1.8-2.5 aperture across the zoom range. Physically though, they're very different cameras. The MX-1 is both wider and thicker, lacks a hot shoe, and surprisingly has only one control dial, skipping the trend toward a customizable control ring around the lens. In the MX1's favor are a slightly larger LCD (thanks to its 4:3 aspect ratio), that flips up and down in the same way as the XZ-2, and an EV adjustment dial that hangs over the right rear edge ever so slightly, for quick changes to the auto and semi-auto capture modes; it's also stiff enough that it doesn't turn by accident.

We were a little disappointed to see no hint of Ricoh's influence on the interface (Ricoh purchased Pentax 18 months ago, so we'd expect to see some of the fruits of that deal appearing soon). In particular, some of the GRD and GXR's control features, with customizable access to key menus and simple, smart controls would have been welcome. But several other omissions show that Pentax isn't aiming the MX-1 at quite the same market as some other premium compacts.

Built as much as a premium camera for the casual snapshooter as it is for the photographer craving more control, the Pentax MX-1 makes accessing its high quality optic and potentially good sensor less intimidating. It looks cool, and if it measures up to expectations, particularly from its lens and sensor, it will make a good street camera for semi-auto shooters, and a reasonable substitute for carrying an SLR everywhere.

Pentax MX-1 key features

  • 12MP backlit CMOS sensor
  • 4x 28-112mm equivalent F1.8-2.5 lens
  • ISO 100-12800
  • 3.0 inch, 920K dot LCD screen
  • JPEG, Raw (DNG), Raw+JPEG capture
  • 1080p 30fps video recording with stereo microphones
  • Rear control dial and EV dial
  • Pentax SLR-like interface
  • HDR mode

CMOS sensor

The Pentax MX-1's 1/1.7" backlit CMOS sensor has a total resolution of 12.76MP, outputting a 12-megapixel image measuring 4,000 x 3,000 pixels. Many of the Pentax's rivals, including the Olympus XZ-2, Nikon P7700 and Samsung EX2F also use 1/1.7" 12MP BSI CMOS sensors. It seems likely that most of them share a single sensor, possibly the one Sony published details of in October.

Sensor sizes compared

The diagram below compares the size of the MX-1's 1/1.7" sensor to those in its nearest competitors - in general larger sensors potentially offer better image quality. The MX-1's sensor is equal to most of its direct competitors, like the S110, XZ-2, and LX7.

The MX-1's sensor is smaller than recent premium pocket leaders, but on par with most premium pocket category competitors.

Enthusiast compacts: lenses, sensors and background blur

The table below compares the MX-1's lens specifications and sensor size against its main competitors and the X20. Along with the familiar 35mm-equivalent focal length, we've also included a 35mm-equivalent aperture range, which gives some idea of the control over depth of field offered by each camera's lens.

  Sensor area, mm2
Focal length range Focal length range (equiv.) Aperture range Aperture range (equiv)* Dimensions (mm)
Pentax MX-1 41
6.0-24mm 28-112mm
F1.8-2.5 F8.4-11.6 122x64x51
Fujifilm XF1 58
6.4-25.6mm 25-100mm F1.8-4.9 F7.0-19.1 108x62x33
10-37mm 28-100mm F1.8-4.9 F4.9-13.4 101x58x36
Canon S110 41
5.2-26mm 24-120mm F2.0-5.9 F9.3-27.4 99x60x27
Fujifilm X20 58
7.1-28mm 28-112mm F2.0-2.8 F7.9-11 117x70x57
Panasonic DMC-LX7 34**
4.7-17.7mm 24-90mm F1.4-2.3 F7.1-11.7 111x76x46
Samsung EX2F 41
5.2-17.2mm 24-80mm F1.4-2.7 F6.5-12.5 112x62x45

* Equivalent aperture, in 135 film terms - this gives an idea of the depth of field control offered by the lenses when the sensor size is taken into account.
** Panasonic DMC-LX7 sensor area figures based on 4:3 aspect ratio mode

Photographers tend to be interested in how well a lens can blur backgrounds when shooting portraits at full telephoto, and in this respect the MX-1 is among the best in its class - matching exactly the ability offered by the Olympus XZ-2. This isn't the sort of shallow depth-of-field that a DSLR will offer with a specialized lens, but at the long end of the lens it'll give about the same flexibility as most DSLR kit lenses will offer.

The equivalent apertures also give a rough idea of how the cameras might compare in low light; to a degree they indicate how far a larger sensor should be offset by a faster lens. Obviously this isn't the whole story; the characteristics of the individual sensors matters too, as does the quality of in-camera processing for JPEG shooters. But the story is essentially the same - the MX-1 should do a bit better than most small-sensor cameras, but not as well as the RX100 over most of its lens range.

Size compared

The MX-1's larger lens and articulating screen means it's a little thicker than most cameras in this category, as well as a little wider. It's also thicker than the XZ-2. The Pentax MX-1 is still small enough to slip into a shorts or jacket pocket, and there's enough space on the back for a few extra buttons and controls. We have a feeling many users are likely to want to take advantage of the camera strap to show off this good-looking camera (though unfortunately we found it doesn't hang as well as we'd like with the strap lugs mounted in the front).

The Pentax MX-1 is shorter than the XZ-2, and wider, which draws attention to the lens, making it appear somewhat larger than it is. Note the infrared port on the front, right next to the AF-assist lamp.
While the XZ-2 tapers in specific places to make it feel slimmer - and ultimately it is slimmer - the Pentax MX-1 embraces the idea of bulk, probably for the sake of a more retro look and feel.
Though both cameras have a control dial on the back, the XZ-2 has another dial on the front, customizable to adjust focus and either aperture or shutter speeds, while the MX-1's main 'extra' control is the EV dial. Like its SLRs, Pentax has included the green 're-center' button for quickly jumping back to the default setting regardless of the exposure mode.