Pentax Optio A30|
Elegant 10 megapixel ultra-compact impresses with useful technology improvements
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The Optio A30 is the latest model in Pentax's A-Series of high resolution ultra-compact digital cameras. You now get 10.0 effective megapixel in a camera that also boasts a number of technological improvements. Pentax highlights the wide dynamic range of the 1/1.8-inch CCD, making for excellent tones, the very good smc Pentax 3X zoom lens, intelligent zoom, and an image processing engine optimixed for rich color reproduction.
The original Pentax shake reduction technology has been improved, and makes an appearance in the A30 with digital still and movie shake reduction for improved performance in low light conditions and in telephoto mode, and this is not just digital anti-shake but the real thing. The camera now also include face recognition that can automatically detect faces and adjust exposure and focus properly. The A30 is also DivX certified, which allows excellent quality DivX video recording that can be played back on any DivX-capable consumer electronics device.
Pleasing modern design
While the Optio A30 isn't one of those edgy, waver-thin cameras that become an instant conversation piece whenever you pull it out of your purse or pocket, it's definitely small and handy. The A30 has a footprint of 3.5 x 2.3 inches, is less than an inch thick, and weighs around five ounces. That's small and the camera fits into just about any pocket. It's also a rather elegant piece of equipment that's eschewed the square, boxy, milled-from-a-block-of-metal look so prevalent over the past few years in favor of a softer, more rounded design.
The A30 is all matte black and chrome, with an aluminum-alloy body that's lightweight, yet sturdy. All edges are smoothed or curved or both, rectangles have rounded corners, and even the chrome strip that separates the front from the back half of the camera is S-shaped. This is a good-looking camera that also feels right in your hand. The sole drawback of all those rounded corners and edges is that the camera easily tips over when you sit it down. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but it can be annoying.
No one should have much of a problem using this camera right out of the box as all of its controls are standard and straight-forward. Pentax chose to use the currently favored layout of controls, one that has become as standard as the various pedals and major controls in a car.
On top is the on/off button sitting in the center of a green-illuminated plastic ring. To the right of it is a large shutter that offers excellent feedback. To the left is a shake reduction preview button.
In the back you find a very nice 2.5-inch LCD with high 232k pixel resolution. It is a wide viewing angle display which means you can see the picture from almost any angle both horizontally and vertically. To the right of the display is a handy rocker for the camera's 3X optical zoom. Below it sits a button that toggles between recording and playback. Below that is the standard 5-way navigational disc. As always, each directional button also doubles up to let you access frequently used functions: flash, focus mode, scenes, and drive mode. Those menu bars use icons, but each icon is also explained in writing. A clear and very good solution. The center "Ok" button also cycles through various LCD display modes: off, basic info, more info plus histogram, and grid lines. In histogram mode, the flashing over and under-exposing warnings we like in the Optio M30 are missing. Below the nav disc is a menu button and a "green" button which is, in fact, green. It is used as a function button to which you can assign settings. More on that later.
The left side of the A30 houses the microphone, the right side has DC input for an optional power adapter and what appears to be a proprietary USB/AV jack.
The bottom has a compartment for the battery and the SD storage card. A little latch keeps the battery from falling out when you open the door to remove or exchange the card. There is also a tripod mount right in the center where it belongs (see picture below). The A30's battery, incidentally, goes in both the right and the wrong way, potentially making for an unavailable camera when you need it for a shot.
Menus and modes
The Optio A30 is primarily, but not exclusively, a point & shooter. You can either leave the camera in fully automatic mode, or select from one of the 14 scene modes. They are accessible by pushing the Modes button, then selecting a scene icon on the screen. The icons only have a label such as "Food," but if you move the selection box onto one and wait three seconds or so, a brief narrative shows up that explains the mode in more detail. That can be a bit annoying as the narrative window obliterates the scene icons beneath it.
Some modes have sub-selections. Select "Pet," for example, and you can further enhance the likelihood of a great picture by selecting the fur color of your cat or dog: black, white, or inbetween. And yes, dogs and cats are totally separated.
In "Frame Composite" you can pick from one of three cute frames (you can download more; see here), and in "Text" mode you can select reverse mode for both black-and-white and color text and adjust contrast.
In "Portrait/Kids" mode, face recognition kicks in. The "kids" part means that the camera's auto focus keeps tracking even after you've pushed the shutter halfway down. It also goes for what the manual describes as a "healthy" look.
The "Menu" buttton acts as an "Esc" to back out of selections. All in all very simple.
The A30, however, also has manual modes, though that is not immediately obvious. If you select the "P"rogram icon, you also have access to shutter priority (oddly named "Tv") and full manual mode. In shutter priority you can select shutter speeds raning from 1/2000th of a second to a full four seconds. Aperture can be either 2.8 or 8. In manual mode you control both. And there even is manual focus.
The "Shake Reduction" function
Pentax is proud enough of its Shake Reduction function that the A30 has a little silver-on-red "SR" badge affixed to its front. What we have here is not just the standard digital anti-shake that simply boosts sensitivity and increases shutter speed. The A30 does have a Digital SR mode that lets you set sensitivity as high as ISO3200. However, that is in addition to the camera's CCD-shifting shake reduction that monitors for shaking hands and compensates so as to prevent blurry images. The system can be used both for still photography and when taking movies.
One problem is that it's all presented in a somewhat confusing manner. The "Digital SR" mode is in the scenes icon menu. In the recording options menu you can set shake reduction either on or off. And there is a Shake Reduction Preview button on top of the camera. When pressed, it shows the compensated image. It's a bit difficult to figure out what exactly that means, but you can hear a motor whirring when you move the camera while the button is depressed. And then you can also assign shake reduction to the Green Mode button. What it all means is that you need to think this through and do some experimenting.
Fortunately, unlike many cameras today, the Optio A30 comes with a very good 200-page manual. And the 200 pages do not mean it's 33 pages for each of six languages, it's all English. This means you don't have to load a CD or DVD somewhere to read a PDF version of the manual. However, even with the manual, some of the functions remain a bit of a mystery.
The Optio A30 has a "Green Mode" button that seeks to simplify things (and no, it has nothing to do with the environment). It can be used in one of three ways.
In default "Green Mode" the camera simply returns to basic Auto mode whenever the button is pushed, no matter what settings it is in. This comes in handy when you want to quickly toggle between one of the special scene modes and full automatic.
You can also set the Green Mode button to shake reduction and then use it to quickly toggle shake reduction on and off in any scene mode.
Finally, you can use the Green Mode key to "customize" the camera by assigning four of the functions you often use to the four directional keys. Select your favorite four from 17 functions, and they now bring up those functions' submenus when you push one of the four nav keys. For example, you may want quick access to white balance, AE metering, focusing area, ad sharpness. You assign those four to the four directional keys and the Green Mode key brings them right up. Yes, you need to think through that also. The "Green Mode" button concept is very helpful, but setting it up isn't all that intuitive and many users may never use it.
In addition to its 3X optical zoom and the common digital magnification, the A30 also has what Pentax calls "intelligent" zoom. This is something inbetween otical and digital, and magnification depends on the chosen pixel resolution. Inteligent zoom makes use of unusued pixels, so it is not available in full 10-megapiel mode. At 5-megapixel, you get 4.2X magnification, and at one megapixel a full 10.4X. Total overall magnification in all resolution settings is always the 3X optical times the 5.4X digital, for a total of 16.2X.
Confusing? A bit. When you use the camera and zoom, a bar at the bottom shows the border between optical and digital zoom, and a red line shows the extent of the intelligent zoom range. Just keep in mind: Optical zoom is "real" zoom. Digital zoom is simply grabbing a part of the picture and then blowing it up, at a loss of detail. Intelligent zoom uses unusued pixels to provide substantially better quality than digital zoom, though not quite as good as optical zoom.
For illustration, see the comparison below. The top image is full 16X magnification digital zoom. The one below is 5.3X intelligent zoom enlarged. The difference in image quality is obvious.
Sound and audio
The A30 has a voice recording mode that lets you record until the card is full, up to a maximum of 24 hours. You can also assign voice memos to indivdual pictures, up to 30 seconds in length. Sound starts recording immediately once you selected the sound memo function. A little note shows whether a picture has a sound memo, but how to play it back isn't terribly obvious (a small onscreen representation of the nav disc shows your options) and sound playback isn't very loud. Interestingly, the less expensive M30 allows unlimited voice annotations, though that is not generally needed.
Playback mode menu
Not immediately obvious is a menu that lets you access 15 functions in playback mode. To enter it you hit the down directional button. You now have access to a variety of filters, slide shows, image rotation, the above mentioned voice annotation, red eye removal, resizing, movie edit, setting an image as the startup picture, and more. There's even a "slim" filter where you can adjust the horizontal size of your subject. Playback zoom is up to 8X.
On the software side the Optio A30 comes with ACDSee for Windows and the Mac OS. For the PC, that is version 6.0; on the Mac version 1.6.9 There is also an installer for the DivX 5.2.1 Codec and you can install DirectX if you don't already have it.
The Optio A30 is a great camera to take a long. It fits just about anywhere, it's simple to use, and it starts up very quickly. Practice a bit with all the different modes, and you're almost certain to get great pictures in almost any setting. Do not expect miracles, of course. Such things as face recognition, following kids that buzz around, and shake reduction all work within reason. In portrait and kids mode, for example, a green rectangle follows the face of a moving child, but if the movement is too swift, the picture will be blurry. Still, it's amazing what it can do.
The intelligent zoom exceeded expectations, especially compared to digital magnification, but it's still not so clear whether you should shoot in 5-megapixel mode and use intelligent zoom to get close, or simply go into 10-megapixel mode and then use image processing software to zoom in and crop. It's good to know, though, that you can zoom in close when you're in space-saving 3- or 5-megapixel mode and still get excellent quality.
Picture quality is very good under most conditions, and at 10-megapixel you can always crop away whatever you don't need. The camera takes marvelously sharp close-ups and the macro and super-macro modes are sheer pleasure. In low-light conditions, the autofocus illuminating light makes for improved exposure. And having a spare 22MB of onboard memory comes in handy when you run out of space on your SD memory card.
DivX certainly makes for good quality movies, but only a fairly choppy digital zoom is available while shooting and not even that in shake reduction mode, there aren't any cool tricks, and recording and playback aren't terribly obvious.
Battery life, rated at just 150 pictures, can be a limitation when out and about with the A30. SSo make sure you start every trip with a fully charged battery.
Only a short while ago, the mere thought of an affordable 10 megapixel camera was inconceivable, and certainly not one as compact, sleek, and easy-to-use as the Pentax Optio A30. Sure, there are a few quirks in the menus, but regular users of this camera will quickly get the hang of it, and then enjoy the resolution, the high-res LCD, autofocus illumination, the many modes, the intelligent zoom, the superb LCD, and the very effective shake reduction modes.
Not so much:
- Elegant, handy 10-megapixel camera
- High quality "Intelligent" zoom
- Logically laid out and very simple to use
- Bright, high-res, wide viewing angle 2.5-inch LCD
- Manual modes available
- Effective shake reduction modes
- Helpful "Green Mode" button
- Some menus and functions are buried or not marked
- No optical zoom in movie mode
- Mediocre battery life
- Confusing use of shake reduction modes
- Confusing implementation of "Green Mode" button