While the Q is not exactly as thin as your typical point-and-shoot camera, its height, width and image sensor are all similar to your standard compact. True, that puts it at a bit of a disadvantage against other interchangeable lens cameras, but next to cheaper pocket cameras, the Q offers the promise of custom quality lenses and competitive portability. The result is a compact system camera that, while not as strong a performer as other cameras in its price range, will appeal to those looking for interchangeable lenses in as portable a package as possible. And admit it—it's pretty cute too.
The back pocket is no place for a Q, but this camera is still tiny compared with other interchangeable lens cameras.
Despite its small size, the Q offers just enough of a rubberized protrusion to give users a nice, firm hold on the camera. As a trade off, the slimming down of the body has resulted in smaller-than-usual buttons. The Q borrows a page from other retro-styled cameras, offering three physical dials for shooting control. The mode dial is expertly placed, firmly locking into place to prevent accidents. The control dial is similar, though we were underwhelmed by the implementation and design of the "quick" dial on the front of the camera. The menu is well-designed, with clearly legible options and only a few small quirks. The live view information display could be far less ambiguous though, with its vague, nonsensical on-screen symbols. A number of quicker menus exist as well, which hasten operations such as changes to resolution or access to digital filters.
The Q is very compact, durable, and light, but it isn't exactly pocketable. It's still the smallest interchangeable lens camera (with the smallest lenses) on the market at this time though, thanks to its 1/2.3'' CMOS sensor. For comparison purposes, the Pentax Q offers the same sensor size as your typical $100 compact camera. That doesn't mean it performs poorly (just the contrary), but it does leave it at a bit of a technical disadvantage compared to other interchangeable lens cameras, which typically have substantially larger sensors. Lastly, the Pentax Q's lens mount is solidly built, but since it's brand new (and since Pentax has just been acquired by Ricoh), the lens family isn't fully developed at the moment. As of this review, there are only four available: a 8mm f/1.9 kit lens, a fisheye wide angle, a standard 3x optical zoom, and two fixed focal length toy camera lenses (one for wide angle and one for telephoto).
Enthusiasts will love the level of control on the Q.
The Pentax Q offers the type of control photography enthusiasts will love, with a level of customization typical of the company's DSLRs. Adjustable ISOs range from 125-6400 in 1/3 stops. Several custom image profiles can be applied to images in order to alter things like color, tone, and sharpness. These custom profiles take the place of traditional color modes, covering basics like portrait, landscape, vibrant, and more. Furthermore, outside of basic in-camera editing options, a number of digital filters with varying intensities can also be applied in-camera during playback—included are fun options like toy camera, extract color, and fish-eye, to name a few. The Q also has a "green" button, which users can tailor in the menu.
The Pentax Q offers some nice hardware as well, such as decent 1080/30p video that achieves decent sharpness and solid motion rendering, though handling for this mode isn't exactly comfortable. The included f/1.9 8mm pancake lens is a metal construction with a focus ring, but there are no hard stops or distance markings. It has a limited aperture range of f/1.9-8.0, but the lens is very serviceable in most situations and it's about as compact as they come. In its native 4:3 ratio, the Q sensor is capable of shooting images of 12, nine, five, and three megapixels, and a slew of other cropped options as well. Lastly, the Q features a 3-inch LCD with 460k dot resolution. This display doesn't have touch control, but it's quite clear and it boasts a 170-degree viewing angle, both vertically and horizontally. Unfortunately, bright sunlight tends to wash it out, so indoor and outdoor handling is not equal.
The Q's little sensor didn't flunk our tests, but it didn't exactly ace them either.
The small image sensor of the Q has not doomed its performance in most of our tests. The Q's noise reduction software refrains from stripping away too much detail and the camera maintains very solid shot-to-shot speed. Images were a little flat above ISO 800 though, and we've seen better sharpness and color accuracy from the competition. We are unimpressed by the 8mm f/1.9 kit lens; it offers decent sharpness around f/3.5, but at the max aperture of f/1.9, images become soft and heavily distorted.
The Q performed well in our long exposure tests, though its kit lens' limited aperture range caused it to overexpose images. In terms speed, where most mirrorless cameras we have tested offer at least 10-20 frames of burst shooting before wearing through their internal buffers, the Q just managed six shots. Happily though, continuous low speed burst shooting is available for both RAW and RAW+JPEG shooting.
This petite Pentax packs a puny (pricey) punch.
The design philosophy of a typical compact system aims to pack as large an image sensor as possible while shaving down other components, achieving a more portable body than a full-size DSLR. The Pentax Q turns this notion on its head, aiming instead to mirror a point-and-shoot (with a point-and-shoot sized image sensor), but with interchangeable lenses. As a result, the Q is as compact an interchangeable lens camera as you'll find on the market. Still, even with its tiny 8mm pancake kit lens, the Q is not quite small enough to fit into your pocket, so it will still be too big for some buyers. The Q will inevitably continue to slim down in the future, but the real question is whether its 1/2.3'' sensor can hold a candle to the competition: Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX, Samsung NX, and Nikon 1-system all have larger sensors and more developed lens families.
The Pentax Q satisfies in terms of handling, design, user interface, and shooting options, but in terms of actual performance, testing indicates that you can do better with other, cheaper cameras. At $500, the Q would be a serious competitor for your dollar, but alas, its price tag reads $800. We expect Pentax to continue to refine the design and the lens system, and we expect for prices to fall to a more palatable level, but the diminutive Q line will likely flourish in the meantime anyways, because to many buyers, compact is king.
Cute or not, the Q didn't pass our tests with flying colors. Images weren't always sharp and distortion was problematic at times. Chromatic aberration troubled maximum apertures and color accuracy as a whole fell behind the competition. Surprisingly though, despite the smallness of its sensor, noise was less of a problem for the Q.
The 8mm kit lens isn't doing the Q any favors on these tests.
We found the 8mm kit lens on the Pentax Q to be decent, with very solid vertical and horizontal sharpness in the center of the frame. The lens has a limited aperture range of f/1.9-8.0, due to the camera's small sensor size, and sharpness falls off dramatically at both f/8.0 and f/1.9 near the edges of the frame. The Q also adds quite a bit of sharpening at the default level, though it varies depending on the exposure setting. At f/1.9, sharpness is upped dramatically in-camera, but a quick shift down to f/3.5 limits this (as the lens naturally returns sharper images). At f/8, sharpness begins to fall off again, and the Q does nothing to enhance it at the default setting.
The kit lens suffered quite a bit in our distortion tests too, with a 3.44% barrel distortion across the aperture range on average. This was with the camera's in-camera distortion correction disabled, which is standard procedure for our tests. It should be noted that distortion does not factor into our scoring for an interchangeable lens camera, and we found that the in-camera distortion correction reined in this error significantly, though it was still somewhat noticeable.
As for chromatic aberration, there was a great deal of it at the f/1.9 aperture, but it falls off dramatically through the aperture range. By f/8.0, chromatic aberration is almost nonexistent in our test images, with only a very slight purple glow vertically.
Even though its sensor is small, noise was not a particular problem for the Q.
The Pentax Q offered great noise results given its small image sensor, though it relied pretty heavily on the camera's noise reduction. Users may not turn noise reduction completely off, but there is a choice between automatic, high, or low. The highest noise reduction setting keeps noise at or under 1% all the way through ISO 6400, where it only hits 1.04% by our testing. That's fairly aggressive by interchangeable lens camera standards, but the Q does retain a good deal of fine detail even at this setting, completely wiping away most signs of image noise. The automatic setting sits between low and high, and doesn't ramp up noticeably throughout the ISO range. It would likely be more useful if it were named "medium" instead of "automatic," but all the modes do their job without allowing noise to overpower the image.
The Q's sensor is 1/2.33'' across, which is quite small. Despite that handicap, the Q kept noise beneath 2.25% at ISO 6400 with noise reduction at the lowest setting. At that same setting, noise sits at 0.7% at ISO 125, and only rises to 1.58% at ISO 3200.
The Q's color accuracy and dynamic range performances
The Pentax Q's natural color mode was its most consistently accurate, with a color error of just 3.30, and a saturation level of 85.71% of the ideal. The portrait mode offered more accurate saturation levels (and occasionally lower color error), but was less consistent overall. Natural handled yellow, greens, and magenta very well, while portrait handled skin tones, blues, and browns exceptionally well.
The camera achieved decent dynamic range numbers in our testing, but the inability to turn off noise reduction resulted in inflated scores. We found that by suppressing noise automatically, the Q pulled in 6 stops of dynamic range at its minimum ISO of 125, but that dropped to less than three stops by the time the camera reached ISO 6400. By applying noise reduction fairly liberally the camera keeps grain to a minimum, but this methodology wipes away fine detail, meaning it will be harder to pull detail out of darker regions in photo editing programs after the fact.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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