Pentax Q10 Digital Camera Review
The world's smallest mirrorless system offers up an unambitious update.
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The original Pentax Q was certainly one of the oddest cameras of recent years. In the digital era, Pentax has always been a company known for quirk—from its annoyingly named *ist series DSLRs to its wacky rainbow-colored cameras—but the concept of putting a point-and-shoot sensor in a tiny mirrorless body still arrived as an eyebrow-raising surprise.
While the Q didn't impress with its image quality, its excellent build, convenient form-factor, and funky selection of creative filters and toy lenses made it a fun diversion for some, and a useful street-shooting tool for others. Image quality shortcomings might be overlooked if the price was right, but unfortunately the original Q retailed at $799.95 (with the 8.5mm kit prime). With excellent APS-C mirrorless alternatives at or below that price, the Q never stood a chance in the enthusiast market, and really only appealed to die-hard Pentaxians and kawaii-craving consumers in the company's homeland.
The new Pentax Q10 arrives at a substantially lower MSRP—$599.95 with the 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom kit lens—and subtly refines the original Q formula. There are a few minor hardware changes, some styling differences, and a couple of software tweaks that should improve the user experience a little. But it's fair to say that the new Q is a very, very incremental upgrade.
What's Changed From the Q?
On the outside, the camera is a touch bigger (1-3mm in each dimension), a tad heavier (20g), and looks a bit like a prop from the Battlestar Galactica reboot thanks to its 45-degree-angled corners. The Pentax designers also added an AF assist lamp and re-sculpted the front grip for better control. Finally, the company gave buyers the silver, red, and—ah, why not?—100 other custom color schemes to choose from.
Pentax claims the sensor has been upgraded to a newly designed backside-illuminated CMOS chip, but it still pumps out the same 12.4 effective megapixels and features the same maximum sensitivity of ISO 6400. Interestingly, the camera’s base ISO has dropped from 125 to 100. The company also brags about improvements to the Q10's autofocus speed thanks to a tweaked contrast-detect algorithm. While we noticed a small improvement in field use, the AF still hunts in dim light, and even in broad daylight it's nowhere near as quick as Micro Four Thirds or NEX models.
Design & Handling
Physically, the Q10 doesn’t stray far from the Q template—and that’s unfortunate.
First, the praise: The Q10 is incredibly sturdy, built from magnesium alloy and high-quality plastic. The buttons and dials are all wonderfully tactile, the pop-up flash is just plain fun to play with, and the quasi-retro look is pretty charming. We were also quite taken with the build of the 02 Standard Zoom lens, which has a silky-smooth zoom ring with absolutely zero play.
But the design, however elegant and well-engineered, suffers horribly from its cramped layout. A camera this small is never going to be as comfortable to use as a DSLR—the goal of cutting size and weight simply precludes comfortable one-handed use—but it's not as pocketable as a true compact camera, either. Compared to other mirrorless cameras like the recent Sony NEX-6 and Olympus E-PL5, the Q10 is an ergonomic nightmare.
The front grip, though improved from its predecessor, is still far too small to give you solid purchase, and the rear buttons are tiny and placed as far to the right as possible. The end result is that you have to resort to weird finger gymnastics to even support the camera in one hand, and you can forget about manipulating the physical controls with the Q10 raised to shoot.
To be honest, we’re not sure why Pentax hasn’t sprung for a deeper grip since there aren’t any Q-mount lenses that come close to undercutting the current grip in depth. The 05 Toy Telephoto is nearest at 0.8 inches, but even a grip that shallow would be a massive improvement.
There are other problems, too. The LCD screen is plenty big at 3 inches, but it’s also low-res (460,000 dots) and annoyingly recessed below the protective glass. This gap between the glass and panel creates awful reflection and glare problems when shooting in bright sunlight, and since there’s no viewfinder... well, it’s not a great situation. You can crank the screen brightness all the way up, but that’s not a very attractive option given the battery’s already low 270-shot capacity.
Even if you're not expecting miracles, you’ll probably still be disappointed.
The Q10 body, for all its clever industrial design, still contains a rather ordinary 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, just like a lot of $200 compact cameras. It makes sense, then, that this camera produces results comparable to a decent contemporary point-and-shoot model.
Sharpness with the supplied 5-15mm kit lens was good, if heavily assisted by software enhancement when shooting JPEGs. Color accuracy was fair when shooting in the most accurate picture mode, though that’s clearly not how the Q10 is meant to be used—this camera is all about the filters and effects. Distortions from the kit lens are immense, coming close to 5% at full wide angle, but on the plus side they can be corrected in-camera.
The tiny sensor tested well for dynamic range in the lab, but we ran into issues trying to get the same performance in the field. The Q10 displayed an annoying tendency toward overexposure in bright sunlight, and since the majority of the camera’s dynamic range is in the shadows, highlights were frequently clipped and completely unrecoverable. The exposure compensation control is just a couple clicks away, but having to use it so often was a real drag.
Image noise shows up even at base sensitivity, but it’s not too distracting up to about ISO 800. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Q10's JPEG noise reduction kicks into high gear at just that point. The top sensitivity settings are essentially unusable for all but the lowest-res web display—excessive noise reduction leaves them without any detail whatsoever.
You can check out some full-size sample shots from our Q10 and kit lens in the sample images gallery attached to this review.
The Q10 suffers from a split personality: It’s dressed up like a serious camera, but shoots like a toy.
If you don’t care much for the traditional conception of “good image quality” and just like shooting with filters and effects, the Q10 could be your new drug. The camera is equipped with 11 Digital Filters, plus nine Smart Effects, the latter being accessed through the front-mounted Quick Dial. The dial is one of the Q10’s coolest features, letting you assign four different Smart Effects, Custom Image settings, Digital Filters, and aspect ratios.
We really can’t overstate how handy the Quick Dial is, and how much it makes us wish the Q10’s image quality were a little better. Being able to quickly switch to the Bold Monochrome or Cross Processing setting without reframing a shot is a revelation; it’s just a shame it’s mostly going to waste on this sensor.
In addition to the Smart Effects and Digital Filters, the Q10 boasts an in-camera HDR mode, dynamic range expansion, and a few other software tweaks to let you customize your output. Like all other recent Pentax interchangeable-lens cameras, it also features in-body Shake Reduction (aka image stabilization), which is a great help when shooting in dim light or on unstable footing.
The camera’s 1/2000sec flash sync speed and hot shoe make it an interesting option for strobists, and the 1/8000sec electronic shutter and built-in neutral density filter mean you can shoot with extremely fast lenses in bright light—though getting shallow depth of field out of the small sensor is a serious challenge. Pentax has attempted to combat this shortcoming with software-based Blur Control, but in our experience it’s not really worth the trouble.
The Q10 provides point-and-shoot image quality at a DSLR price.
If there’s one thing the Pentax Q10 is, it’s small. Small can be good, but on its own a compact form-factor doesn’t exactly guarantee a great camera.
Take a look at Sony: Since its DSLR ambitions essentially crumbled to dust, the company has built its own Lilliputian empire with the NEX system. Though scarcely larger than the Q10, the NEX cameras are absolute image quality beasts. Sure, their menu systems feel like they were designed for toddlers, and sure, they can’t exactly claim the world’s best ergonomics, but they're substantially better than what the Q10 can manage. And what a performance bargain!
The Q10, on the other hand... well, you get point-and-shoot image quality at a DSLR price. The menus and user interface might recall Pentax DSLRs, but the shots certainly don’t. And the handling? Well, the less said about the handling, the better. If Sony's NEX cameras are the Mazda Miatas of the camera world—small, light, nimble, and fantastic performers for the price—then the Q10 is a late-model Honda Civic with stick-on racing stripes and an obnoxious chrome exhaust pipe.
Pricing remains an issue, despite the drop in MSRP from $800 to $600. Anything north of $500 is still astronomically expensive for point-and-shoot image quality, and the Q10 doesn't even come close to matching what a compact camera champ like the Sony RX100 can do—though it does have an edge in flexibility.
It might also have an advantage in fun, though that particular calculation has a lot to do with your patience for the Q10's handling foibles. We absolutely loved a few things about the Q10's design—particularly its Quick Dial, the goofy scissor-arm flash, and the sturdy build—but actually shooting with the thing was a headache more often than not.
Ultimately, shoppers interested in the Q10 should understand that they're essentially buying into a very well-built, very expensive toy camera system. Maybe the large selection of toy lenses was already tip-off enough, but if not, understand this: the Q system exists for the sake of quirk, and quirk alone.
By the Numbers
The Pentax Q10 (MSRP $599.95 w/ 5-15mm kit lens) follows on the heels of the original Pentax Q, a camera that didn't exactly set the world on fire with its image quality. Still, the new model comes equipped with a brand-new BSI CMOS sensor capable of 12.4-megapixel output, and a new 5-15mm kit zoom that replaces the 8.5mm prime from the old Q package. Our tests showed that the Q10 generally offers small improvements over its predecessor, from color accuracy to noise and sharpness. That said, the results still aren't good in a general sense, and they're particularly poor compared to other comparably priced mirrorless cameras.
The Q10's kit zoom and sensor combination is capable of some very sharp output, but it's often assisted heavily by software sharpening. Particularly when shooting wide open at f/2.8 and full wide-angle, the camera's JPEG engine likes to apply outrageous amounts of edge enhancement to its images. Here we saw resolution figures upwards of 3900 lw/ph at MTF50, which is clearly phony baloney. We're talking about oversharpening of up to 35%.
At focal lengths and apertures where the camera determines it needs less artificial support, these numbers drop down to more reasonable altitudes, hovering anywhere from 900 to 1600 lw/ph at MTF50, depending on the area of the frame. As you'd expect, the lens is sharpest at the center, though the edges and extreme corners drop off less than one might expect.
Distortion is a serious problem for Q lenses in general, and the kit zoom is no exception—it hits 4.82% barrel distortion at 5mm, which would be gargantuan on any other mount. Designing wide-angle lenses for small-sensor cameras is known to be extremely difficult, though, so we're inclined to give Pentax a pass here. The Q10 also has built-in distortion correction that can bring the geometry back into line, but doing so always results in a loss of resolution. Bear in mind that any corrected images are likely to lose a lot of detail toward the edge of the frame.
Noise & Noise Reduction
The Q10 provides three noise reduction settings: Low, High, and Auto. If you want to turn NR completely off, you can try shooting in RAW, but we're not entirely convinced that the camera's RAW files aren't being manipulated as well.
With NR on its lowest setting, noise levels kick off at 0.93% at the base ISO 100. That's quite high, but the real-world results look acceptable. Switching NR over to its high setting drops noise to 0.70% at ISO 100, but in our opinion the tradeoff in detail loss isn't worth it.
Noise levels rise very slowly as you move toward ISO 1600, hitting 1.64% there at NR Low and 0.94% at NR High. They then jump dramatically at ISO 3200 and 6400, maxing out at 2.66% at NR Low and 1.12% at NR High. We're pretty sure those last two stops of sensitivity are outside the sensor's native range, which would help explain the drastic signal degradation. Noise reduction looks like it really starts to ramp up around ISO 800; shots taken at ISO 100-400 are all pretty detail-rich, but at the 800 mark, fine patterns begin to disappear.
The NR Auto setting splits the two manual settings evenly, hitting 1.33% at ISO 1600, 1.77% at ISO 3200, and 2.04% at ISO 6400. For most users, we'd suggest using this noise reduction setting for JPEG shooting, as it seems to strike a good balance between mitigating the sensor's inherent noisiness and not obliterating every last bit of detail.
Color & White Balance
The Q10 is a good deal more accurate than its predecessor in terms of color reproduction. Using the camera's most accurate color mode, Neutral, we recorded a color error (∆C 00 chroma corrected) of just 2.84, compared to 3.14 for the original Q. Saturation was also smack on-target, achieving 96.8% of the ideal; the Q only managed 85.7% using the same settings. Yellows and greens were the most error-prone colors for the old sensor, and that hasn't changed with the new model—the errors are just a lot smaller now.
White balance is a problem under artificial light, but it's not really any worse than what you'd get from most competing models. Shots taken using automatic white balance in incandescent light were too warm by around 2076 K on average, while photos snapped under compact white fluorescent lights gave whites a greenish cast with a color error of around 665 K. As usual, daylight produced the best results. Under those conditions, the color temperature error averaged just 81 K.
In fact, the Q10's AWB performance in daylight was even better than its result when using a custom white balance setting (where it was off by 107 K). The camera performed much better under artificial light when using a manual white balance reading, recording errors of just 129 K and 170 K under incandescent and CWF lighting respectively.
Dynamic range from the Q10's backside-illuminated CMOS sensor is actually fairly respectable, at least in the lab, though it gets a healthy boost from the camera's aggressive post–ISO 800 noise reduction. Since our dynamic range test is based on high-quality DR stops (defined by a signal-to-noise ratio of 10:1), its results are rather easily influenced by noise reduction. On cameras where it's not possible to turn noise reduction off, this can inflate a camera's score artificially.
As you can see, the Q10 starts off at a solid 7.53 stops of dynamic range, drops to 6.49 stops at ISO 200, 5.94 at ISO 400, and 4.45 at ISO 800. That's all perfectly reasonable, given the camera's pedigree. What happens at ISO 1600 isn't reasonable at all, though. Here DR jumps back up to 4.96 high-quality stops, before dropping down again at the extreme sensitivity settings of ISO 3200 and 6400.
In the real world, we found that the camera did indeed have pretty good range in the shadows, meaning it was capable of recovering plenty of detail from darker areas of the frame. Unfortunately, it couldn't hang on to similar detail in overexposed areas. Coupled with the Q10's habit of overexposure in bright environments, this meant that a large number of our sample shots had irretrievably blown-out patches.
Long story short, if you want to ensure you don't lose your highlights, intentionally expose to the left and shoot RAW. Then cross your fingers, because you'll probably still need some luck.
When shot in good light, video from the Q10 was surprisingly acceptable. The H.264-compressed output was relatively fluid for 30p recording, trailing was minimal, and there was very little artifacting. We were able to read some of the tiny text on the Magic card in our still life setup, which is a lot more than we can say for some cameras with similar sensors. In low light, artifacting gets a lot heavier, details are blurred, and colors get muddy—not at all surprising, since that's how point-and-shoots usually behave.
Automatic exposure was reliably on-target. While you can set some exposure parameters yourself, should you so choose, you have to do so before you start rolling. Once the camera is recording, you can't change aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or anything else. Shake reduction can be turned on for video recording, which helps prevent jitter as you pan the Q10 around a scene.
Low-light video sensitivity isn't a strong suit for the Q10. With the 5-15mm kit zoom at its widest aperture (f/2.8), the camera required 16 lux of ambient illumination to record an image that achieved 50 IRE on a waveform monitor (a standard test for broadcast readiness). We've seen many DSLRs manage this same feat with less than 3 lux of light, and some compact cameras with 1/1.7-inch sensors have done it with 5 lux.