Miscellaneous Ramblings

Pentax Optio E90 Well Built, Takes Great Photos, and a Real Bargain

Charles Moore - 2011.07.28 - Tip Jar

Rating: 5 out of 5 rating

Pentax Optio E90 in redMy wife and I were married on her birthday in 1974, and this week we're celebrating our 37th anniversary. I thought it was time for her to join the digital photography revolution, so I bought her a Pentax Optio E90 digital snapshot camera hoping that it would prove a relatively simple and user-intuitive device for someone who is not really a photography buff, but mostly likes to share pictures of family, flowers, and the cat.

I was attracted by a deeply discounted price, but also by the Pentax brand, one of the classic quality names in photography history. Of course the company has changed hands more than once since the glory days of 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) photography in the '60s and '70s, but the attractive design and evident quality in even an entry-level camera indicates that the current owners are committed to not cheapening the Pentax name, even though the camera itself sells for a modest price.

In terms of fit and finish, there was no indication that this unit is a price leader, although a bit of corner cutting was done in terms of built-in memory - a measly 6 MB, which supports only a "why did they bother?" two shots at standard 10 MP (megapixel) resolution. Consequently, if you're on a tight budget, make sure to factor in the cost of a non-optional SD card. I got a Kingston 4 GB unit, which should be more than enough to accommodate my wife's in-camera storage needs.

top of Pentax Optio E90One of the features that attracted me to this Pentax Optio E90 is that it uses standard AA batteries. I am a big fan of battery standardization - a bone I have to pick with current Apple products - and while using AA's makes it necessary to have a somewhat thicker camera body than is possible with, say, the proprietary (and outrageously expensive) flat form factor battery in my own Sony Cyber-Shot DSC W330, I actually prefer the feel and more solid grip one can get on the Pentax (assisted by the camera's rubbery-texture "traction" coating) to the sometimes tediously wafer thin and slippery Sony. I really don't understand the obsession with anorexically thin devices these days It's okay up to the point where it begins to compromise functionality, but there I draw the philosophical line.

Pentax says the E90's high-efficiency engineering makes it possible to shoot approximately 220 images on a pair of fresh alkaline batteries - or 600 images with Lithium disposables.

The AA batteries also make the Pentax a bit heavier than the Sony, but in devices this light it's really splitting hairs to complain, and the little Pentax E90, at 122g without batteries and around 170g with, still fits comfortably in a shirt pocket.

The camera is available in two colors - classic black and burgundy (a.k.a wine red). My wife's new camera is the latter, and while she probably would have preferred blue, that wasn't an option, and the burgundy is quite attractive, although I would have probably gone for the black in a camera for myself.

Pentax Optio E90 in wine redSo in first-impressions summary, the Pentax Optio E90 is well constructed, nicely finished, comfortable to hold , and I would say that in terms of feel its control buttons actually have a slight edge over the Sony in smoothness. This does not feel like a price-leader product.

Of course, feel and features are of secondary importance to image quality, but happily the camera is a good performer in that department as well. It resolves 10.1 megapixels, which is modest by current standards* but more than adequate for snapshot photography, and the image quality is excellent in that context, with good exposure control, thanks to Auto Picture mode, which automatically and instantly selects one of eight shooting modes (Landscape, Portrait, Night Scene, Night Scene Portrait, Flower, Sport, Standard, and Candlelight) for a given subject or scene. The camera's color rendering is also pleasing, and, on either count, image correction on the computer is almost never needed.

The Optio E90 has a surprisingly good optical 3x zoom lens covering focal lengths from the approximate equivalents of 31.5mm to 94.5mm with a 35mm format film camera. Coupled with Pentax's Intelligent Zoom function, which allows even tighter zooming in on the subject without compromising image quality, the user can extend the zoom range to approximately 17x.

The Optio E90 also features features Pentax's Face Detection AF & AE function, which automatically detects the subject's face and then optimises the focus and exposure settings. It is also equipped with a Smile Capture function, which detects a smile on the subject's face and releases the shutter at the right moment - all automatically.

Another advanced feature is double anti-shake protection to prevent camera shake and subject shake in unfavorable conditions. When the Optio E90 detects low-lighting conditions in still-image shooting, it automatically raises the sensitivity to as high as ISO 1600, making it possible to use a higher shutter speed. This effectively minimises the adverse effects of camera shake and subject movement under poor lighting conditions.

Movie SR mode during movie recording (16-frame image bursts at a rate of eight frames per second and 640 x 480 pixels resolution) with the Optio E90 also prevents blurry images by digitally minimizing camera shake through the use of proprietary software.

The Optio E90's 2.7" LCD will resolve approximately 230,000 dots.

Other cool stuff:

  • World-time function to keep track of local time for 75 cities in 28 time zones around the world
  • Image recovery function to retrieve accidentally erased images
  • High-speed continuous shooting mode to record 16 images (fixed at 640 x 480 pixels) in two seconds
  • MediaImpression 2.0 for Pentax image viewing, editing, and filing software included (compatible with Mac OS X 10.6 and 10.7 and Windows 7).

The Optio E90 comes equipped with six digital filters to add various visual effects to recorded images without downloading to a computer. In addition to conventional Monochrome and Sepia filters, the Optio E90 offers a Starburst filter that creates cross-, heart-, or star-shaped highlights from nighttime illuminations or reflections on the water. The user can apply multiple filters to a single image.

Digital Panorama mode automatically creates a single panoramic picture from as many as three images. All the user has to do is follow instructions displayed on the screen and move the camera sideways (or up and down). This mode can be handy when shooting expansive subjects, such as spectacular landscapes or high-rise buildings, which can't be captured in a single standard-format image.

Now the bad news. The discounted price (50%) I paid for the E90 was presumably attributable to the fact that this model has been discontinued and replaced with new entry level Pentax Optio models - the $119.95 Optio RS1500 and the $149.95 Optio S1. These newer models have 14 MP resolution and include pretty much the same feature set as the Optio E90 - and more, such as an expanded zoom range (4x and 5x respectively) - but alas they've succumbed to pandemic anorexia and use proprietary wafer-shaped Lithium Ion batteries rather than AA cells. Boo, hiss.

I normally wouldn't post a review of a discontinued model, but I really like this little camera, and it's an especially spectacular value at the price I paid. My wife is delighted with it, and, after all, this is Low End Mac. Consequently, I'm giving the Pentax E90 a full five out of five rating, and if you're looking for a basic compact digital camera that offers a lot better than basic performance, there are still some of these around, and I expect the great deal I got isn't unique. Highly recommended.

* Publisher's note: For more on that subject, see Megapixels and Sufficient Resolution, which makes the point that 3 MP is sufficient for an 8x10 enlargement, while 1 MP is more than enough for standard 4x6 snapshots. For pro quality work, double those figures. No matter how my camera is rated, I almost always shoot at 3 MP, as we hardly ever go bigger than a 4x6.In fact, in the rush to compete on specs rather than image quality, too many megapixels can result in worse quality - see High Megapixel Compact Digicams May Be Worse than We Thought. dk

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Prices checked today and subject to change. As this model is discontinued, supplies are limited.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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