Pentax Optio A40 Review

In Becci Russell's second review for Best4Reviews, she looks over Pentax's flagship digital compact, the Optio A40.

The Pentax Optio A40 offers a massive 12-megapixel resolution within in a sturdy compact body. It’s Pentax’s top-end compact model, replete with plenty of kit – even if the styling is not particularly flashy. Let’s take a closer look.

Style and Handing:
In terms of looks, the Pentax isn’t the most elegant or stylish compact digital you will find, but then again, looks aren’t everything! The Pentax offers practicality and sturdiness, with its small yet stocky body, well-placed buttons, and a thumb placement area (with raised bobbles for extra grip) to help handling. To add to the good grip, it is finished in a matt effect making it less likely to slip through your fingers.

The Pentax may not be the slimmest compact you have seen either, however it fits into your hands comfortably; the ergonomics work well enough and Pentax has obviously thought it through thoroughly. Nothing gets in the way, and chubby fingers are not discriminated against as the buttons are spaced well. The On button is very flashy – literally – as it lights up with a green glow when on, although some may feel this is a waste of battery power, I don’t mind as I think it’s rather snazzy!

The Optio A40 provides a 2.5-inch LCD screen, typical at this level and it’s a rather good screen too particularly considering that Pentax have accommodated well-sized buttons on the back for other controls including flash, macro and drive modes. You get a large playback button and the lens zoom control, access to menus and a green function (or "Fn" button) button more of which later.

So, in terms of style, maybe, the A40 could be a bit easier on the eye, but the handling’s good and another key is the picture taking prowess and practicality, as we’ll see shortly.

Charging the camera is easy via a small dock for the Lithium-ion battery pack. The down side to this is you need a power socket in order to charge the battery, which can be a pain, especially if you’re out. But, it’s easier than using ordinary AA batteries, isn’t it? All that money wasted on expensive throwaway batteries and careful disposal, plus alkaline AAs simply don’t last very long. However, AA’s are available practically anywhere in the world, you can always use rechargeable AAs or the newer Lithium cells, which while pricey are very good indeed, so...

But the A40’s battery life is around 4-hours of continuous shooting, which isn’t too bad at all, so around 300-shots in all. The camera has energy saving settings (as do most) with auto power off, for example and you can lower (and increase) the brightness of the LCD screen, although lowering it compromises visibility in brighter conditions; the lack of an optical viewfinder compounds such things. Again, this is typical of most digital cameras on the market today though.

Uploading your images onto a computer is relatively easy; you can either use the software provided, or use a card reader for the A40’s SD/SDHC external storage – you get 22Mb of internal storage too. The process isn’t difficult; the step-by-step instructions on the supplied software are very easy to follow.

In terms of the clever kit on board, standouts must be the CCD-shift anti shake (or Shake Reduction (SR) as Pentax call it) that helps keep things steady at slower shutter speeds and in low light. Significantly, the A40 uses a large (for a digital compact) 1/1.7-inch sensor, but with 12 million pixels crammed onto it, I’m not sure Pentax might have lost an advantage in terms of allowing larger (but fewer) pixels to sit on board.

With 12-megapixels, high pixel density and small photosite size can add to noise issues and this sensor sits behind a nice, 37-11mm, F/2.8 to F/5.4 3x optical zoom lens that provides enough of a range for most subjects, albeit a wider “wide end” would be preferable.

Taking Pictures:
The Optio A40 is a rather controlling little camera when used in the auto mode; it doesn’t allow much leeway for artistry or ingenuity; it controls everything for you, the owner of the camera. Like a photographic school marm, its auto setting is a strict beast… the focus must be perfect, the ISO must be perfect, the white balance must be perfect, and the flash must be perfect.

If it’s not, the camera reaches for a ruler to wrap you over the knuckles and punishes you by taking around six seconds to take a photo, from pressing the shutter to the image review appearing on to getting ready to take another picture. You can adjust the review timings of course but add in flash and the wait for it to recharge makes things worse.

A long wait perhaps, but thankfully the A40 has manual control options too, so that if you want to take control and deliberately shoot everything overexposed or, maybe, want to add a little camera shake or simply experiment more, you can. Having said that, when the Pentax gets its auto act together image quality is rather good.

But when you control the Pentax, the results get even better: Picture quality is lovely, with natural colour and great detail. But the Optio A40 also offers 15 different scene modes, including recording DivX certified 640x480 MPEG 4 movies to perhaps the more standard still image fare such night scene, landscape and the rather odd food mode; a mode popularised by the Japanese that love to take snaps of their food.

The best scene mode is the natural skin tone setting, which works alongside two other settings of portrait and half-length portrait modes, the latter designed for pictures with head and shoulders. The natural skin tone setting works well and does help produce natural-looking skin. The Macro mode is very good too and accessed via its “quick” four-way button on the back, which is easy to use. It gives great close up results with bags of detail.

Speaking of the quick, four-way jog buttons, and in terms of practicality and ease of use, they’re great for fast activation of the flash and the aforementioned macro mode. These buttons also allow menu and playback picture scrolling, while a large play button switches between play back and capture mode with successive presses.

That little green “Fn” (mentioned earlier) button can be programmed to use more obscure settings if used regularly, for example, if you like to fiddle with, say, saturation and the like. All these features are usually buried within the menus, now you can program the setting onto the “Fn” button for fast access.

Again, it just makes the camera easier to use and, of course, quicker too, so photo taking opportunities aren’t going to whiz by just because you’re looking for the right settings in a menu, now it’s a click or two away in the green “Fn” button.

In low light, the A40 performs well with ISO settings that range from ISO 50 to 1600 and an optimised high ISO setting of ISO 3200. However, at higher ISOs the pictures become rather noisy; the different white balance (WB) settings provide auto settings for different lighting types such as full auto, sunlight, shade, tungsten and fluorescent light, plus a manual setting lets you tailor WB yourself, so settings enough for pretty much any lighting situation you would find yourself in.

In terms of the AF set up, the A40 provides a varied array of auto focus settings including Face Priority, which basically means the camera recognises faces within the shot and will focus upon only them biasing metering to them too, so it’s pretty cool and works well enough. This is joined by single, multi-AF modes, and a tracking focus mode that’s also brilliant.

Half pressing the shutter button, the tracking focus follows your subject – you can watch the focus confirmation indicator move on the screen along with the subject – pressing the shutter button fully captures the subject at he point you want in the frame.

The auto focus settings include a pan focus mode that allows you to focus upon widely separated objects and there’s an infinity focus mode for, say, landscape photographs. You even get manual focus too, so comprehensive focus control indeed.

The flash modes are good and allow auto flash, flash on/off, redeye reduction, and a soft flash mode, the latter great for more creative flash control. Overall, then, and when used correctly and you’ve got used to the controls it offers, the Optio A40 has the ability to take flawless photos with great flexibility.

The camera also has an added benefit via that control of making you, the user, feel in control and confident of getting that “perfect” picture. Although the auto modes on the Pentax are fairly run of the mill, the manual settings on offer are great and once you’ve got used to the lag using the auto modes – you must persevere with it – the point and shoot modes become less of a hassle.

The Added Extras:
The Pentax Optio A40 has some neat in-camera photo editing functions including cropping and resizing the image, making voice memos and attaching it to a particular photo; you can even “lock” pictures to prevent accidental deletion or to prevent deletion when reviewing and removing images to free up room on the storage.

The photo editing also allows you to add fun frames around your photographs and yes, while it sounds a bit twee, more creatively, you can load your own digital photo frames onto the camera, allowing the creation of even more innovation in your photographs. You can also edit movies in-camera and this allows you to cut and paste certain clips in a different order for some frankly hilarious video scenes, particularly fun if you lack such editing facilities on a PC.

Verdict: 
The Pentax Optio A40 is a very good compact indeed. It’s just that when it’s in its fully automatic mode, it’s fussy and takes a lot of getting used to being very slow in certain situations, particularly in low light (that is that six second delay again). This takes a little of the shine off the very good manual options on offer but the cool photo editing functions are a real bonus. Overall, the Pentax offers lovely image quality, and coupled with the fact it can make you feel more involved with your photography, it is no bad thing, just like the camera.