But the game has changed. Now mirrorless is the way to go if you want something small, and DSLRs are getting back to bulk. Just consider the freshly announced Canon 7D Mark II, a top-tier APS-C DSLR that's even bigger than the new Nikon D750 full-frame. But Pentax doesn't have a full-frame camera (...yet) and its mirrorless strategy hasn't exactly taken off.
So the company is sticking to its roots with the new K-S1 (MSRP $799.95 w/ 18–55mm kit lens), a quirky, colorful DSLR that just barely misses out on taking the title for the smallest on the market.
With its portable profile, light weight, and flashy style, it's clear that Pentax is aiming at the youth market. But does it have a hope in heck of competing with established cameras from Canon, Nikon, and the wide world of compact system cameras? We went hands-on at Photokina 2014 to find out.
Light bright, light bright. Turn on the magic of colored lights...
Despite its eye-catching looks, the K-S1 is basically just another entry-level Pentax DSLR. There's no revolutionary new design element here, unless you count the colored lights peppered across the camera. (More on those later.) Rather, Pentax incorporated a handful of subtle changes that could make a real ergonomic difference—good or bad.
Let's start with the grip. In the past, Pentax has produced some of the best grips around; we've frequently referred to the K-5 family's grip as our "gold standard" for DSLR comfort. The K-S1's grip does not live up to that standard. It's slim, straight, and hard—definitely not molded to your hand. It's not painful to hold, but it's not a selling point, either.
Then there's the new control scheme. Rather than mount the mode dial up top, Pentax has placed it around the rear directional pad. As you rotate the ring, the mode you've selected lights up bright green, thanks to one of the many LEDs sprinkled around the body. Another LED—blue this time—is behind the central OK button; you definitely won't miss it.
Jim Malcolm, head honcho at Pentax parent company Ricoh Americas, told us the goal of the reconfigured control cluster is to keep all the vital controls in one place. It's an approach that makes sense, though the execution is definitely a bit busy. The thick mode ring sits flush with the d-pad and tends to get in the way when you're trying to navigate menus.
Unlike the K-50 and other recent entry-level Pentax DSLRs, the K-S1 doesn't have a front control dial. Doing everything through the single rear control wheel isn't an insurmountable pain, but it's definitely less than ideal.
Up top, the power switch has a new dedicated video mode setting. In a nifty visual trick, the LED ring around the shutter button turns green when the K-S1 is set up to shoot stills, and red when primed for video.
Finally, there's the strip of five green LEDs that run down the leading edge of the grip. When the camera is on, they pulse gently; when you shoot with the self-timer, they flash more aggressively and then count down the final five seconds. When the last light goes out, the shutter fires.
To hardcore camera nerds, it probably sounds pretty dumb, and we certainly thought it looked silly in Pentax's promo photos. But in person, it's easy to understand the appeal. If nothing else, it's a talking point: something any camera needs to stand out in a very competitive market.
(And don't worry, the lights can be disabled if bling ain't your thing.)
Party in the front, business in the back
Underneath its stylish clothes, the K-S1 is powered by a Sony-sourced 20-megapixel CMOS sensor and a new Prime M II processor. It should be a potent combo: The same sensor performed reasonably well in the Sony A3000, and in the K-S1 it ought to be even sharper thanks to the removed anti-aliasing filter. Like the flagship K-3, the K-S1 also employs Pentax's intriguing sensor-shift moire correction to prevent distracting pattern interference.
While we weren't able to draw any definitive image quality conclusions on the show floor, we're looking forward to putting the K-S1 through a full lab test soon to suss out what Pentax has been able to squeeze out of its tweaks.
One conclusion we can draw is that the autofocus system is fairly responsive in its full 11-point mode and surprisingly quick when using selective single-point focus. Even in the dim fluorescent light of Ricoh's Photokina booth, the K-S1 was quick to lock on and also reliably accurate.
The viewfinder is smaller and dimmer than we'd like, but it offers 100% frame coverage and .95x magnification, handily outdoing the K-50. It's getting harder and harder for optical finders to compete with larger, brighter, more adaptable EVFs, but Pentax has done well here compared to the DSLR competition.
To match the refreshed external appearance, the age-old Pentax menus have also gotten spruced up with the K-S1. They're rounder, friendlier, higher-res, and more animated than before. It's not a huge change, but after a decade with the same interface it's definitely a pleasant evolution.
One thing that hasn't gotten a refresh is the 18-55mm kit lens, which is still the same mediocre, bulky piece of glass that the company has been using (with minor revisions) since September 2004. It looks a bit incongruous on the sleek, modern K-S1, but users who are truly interested in a compact kit can change it out for a DA 40mm pancake or one of Pentax's other tiny DA Limited primes.
Video shooting doesn't seem to have been upgraded in any meaningful way, but the K-S1 can record 1080/30p clips using h.264 compression, and unlike the K-50, it offers a microHDMI port for simple, direct output. Like other recent Pentax cameras, it can also use EyeFi memory cards to wirelessly transfer photos and videos to your phone or PC.
The K-S1 uses the same D-LI109 battery pack as the K-50 and K-500, and CIPA data suggests you should get the same life out of it: about 410 shots per charge. That's not great for a DSLR, but it's the price you pay for a smaller, lighter body. (And at 558 grams, the K-S1 is 16.5% lighter than the K-50.)
Same camera, different look
Pentax is no stranger to oddball camera concepts. The liliputian Q series, design project K-01, and even the old-school Auto 110 film cameras all speak to a history of innovation without regard for accepted ideals of beauty or functionality.
Based on early promo images of the K-S1, we were tempted to toss it into the same category. But after handling the camera, we're surprised by how traditional it feels. This is just another entry-to-mid-level Pentax DSLR (a good thing, generally) with a fresh coat of paint—including ten body color options. The cosmetic and ergonomic adjustments provide small gains and losses in terms of usability, but the core shooting experience remains the same.
At an MSRP of $749 body-only or $799 with the 18–55mm kit, the K-S1 is priced at a significant premium over the generally comparable K-50 ($599.95 w/ lens). We don't see anything about the K-S1 that really justifies the extra cash, but it's tough to put a price tag on style.
Ultimately, the comparison might not matter. The K-S1 isn't meant for hardcore Pentax users; it's intended as a gateway drug to get new users into the system. And with the right image-focused marketing, it might even work.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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