Hands-On Review: Pentax MX-1

The Pentax MX-1 is classically styled, but its performance is anything but. With a fast lens and advanced features, the MX-1 has a lot to offer.
By Hillary Grigonis, Last updated on: 6/19/2014

Pentax's new MX-1 brings a retro styling to the small yet sophisticated advanced compact category. Introduced in February 2013, the MX-1 has the undeniable look and feel of a classic camera with a full neck strap, brass trim, textured grip and lens cap, plus it's not being shy about sporting a bigger body.

But a quick look through the tech specs indicates the performance may stretch a long way beyond the classic. The bright LCD with angling ability blends nicely into the body, which also houses a 1/1.7” backlit CMOS sensor. Add a fast f1.8-2.5 lens and RAW format and the MX-1 looks promising on paper. But can the classically styled measure up to today's performance standards?

Pentax MX-1: Body and Design

The MX-1 impresses immediately with the classic look and feel—but the first thing point and shoot users will notice is the size. From the protruding lens to the back of the body, the MX-1 is about two inches wide and also comes in longer then most at 4.5 inches. But handling the MX-1 begs the question, is smaller necessarily better? Maybe if your intent is to keep your camera in a pocket, sure. But outside of portability, many users will find the MX-1 easier to hold then slimmer models—the width makes gripping the camera much more comfortable.

Adding to the comfort-level, Pentax included a neck strap, not the typical wrist strap, making it much easier to use and compensating some for the larger size. DSLR users looking for an advanced compact will also appreciate the lens cap, the size and the controls that make the MX-1 feel like more than just a point and shoot.

               
     
The top of the Pentax MX-1 has a exposure dial along with the mode dial.
       

 

At the top of the camera, along with the typical mode toggle, shutter release and zoom functions, Pentax included a wheel to adjust the exposure, a nice feature for users that change the EV often. Next to the shutter button is a record button, making it possible to take movies in any mode. The flash is also at the top, though it's hidden until using the side switch to pop it up.

The bright LCD screen pulls out on a sort of multi-hinge system to take pictures from different angles. The quality of the screen is really quite stunning (in fact it is brighter than some computer monitors), plus it's still clear in bright sunlight.

Also at the back of the camera is a control wheel for adjusting shutter speed and aperture in the manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and programed auto modes. The autoexposure/focus lock button is used in manual mode for switching the function of the control wheel. The menu buttons at the back include shortcuts for adjusting flash, shooting mode (burst and timer), macro and ISO.

               
     
The Pentax MX-1 has an adjustable LCD to make it easier to take pictures from difficult angles.
       

 

The commonly used settings can all be changed quickly using the shortcut options and dials. Hitting the info button allows for quick access other for options like scene selection, white balance and AE metering—meaning fewer reasons to access the full menu. But when the menu is needed, it is navigated through fairly easily using a common yet simple set up.

The body and design of the MX-1 doesn't leave too much room for complaint. The materials are sturdy, so the camera doesn't have that cheap feel, the retro look is fun and the size trade off is for comfort. When first adjusting to the camera, it's easy to confuse the back control wheel and EV dial, but is something that just requires a little more familiarity with the camera.

Pentax MX-1: User Experience and Performance

The MX-1 is fun to use for both the novice shooter and the pro. Auto and green mode allow anyone to snap shots, plus the scene modes are varied with options like flower, handheld night, pet and panorama. The photographer with a little more experience isn't left out; the MX-1 includes manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and programmed auto, plus High Dynamic Range and a custom slot for saving frequently used settings.

The LCD screen indicates all the essentials while shooting, like the shutter speed and aperture, shots remaining, focus settings and exposure. With the shortcut options, the MX-1 makes it easy to adjust settings on the go. The variety of options and settings allow for a wide range of options and creativity. Just the flash settings, for example, include auto, off, on, red eye, slow sync and trailing curtain.

             
    The Pentax MX-1 does well at freezing action.          

 

The autofocus, image recall and start up on the MX-1 are quite sufficient speed wise. The high speed burst of a little over 4 fps isn't the best in the advanced compact category, but the MX-1 still freezes motion quite well. Recording times are average at best and vary depending on settings like burst mode, RAW files and High Dynamic Range settings. The MX-1, however, does allow the user to take more photos before the recording is fully finished, though accessing the menu and other options are delayed further.

One of the little mentioned but valuable perks of the MX-1 is the inclusion of a 1 cm macro mode—anyone who has been frustrated with a camera's inability to properly focus during a macro shot will love this setting. To take a super close macro, just hit the macro shortcut and select 1 cm macro, then snap away as close as 1 cm to the subject.

             
    The 1 cm Macro Mode on the Pentax MX-1 makes it easy to take extreme close ups.          

 

The battery life on the MX-1 also seems to be a plus. The review model snapped over 250 shots on various settings including more draining options like RAW and HDR before the screen indicator showed 2/3 remaining. The battery drains a bit faster once the indicator is less than full, but indicates the MX-1 will handle a few hours of shooting easily.

Pentax completes the MX-1's vintage look with a few in-camera editing options that include digital filters for options like sepia, retro photo and selective color. The options also include High Dynamic Range, RAW to JPEG conversion and collages, as well as movie options like pulling a still from the footage.

Pentax MX-1: Image Quality

             
    Images from the Pentax MX-1 have clear lines and vibrant colors.          

 

Images from the MX-1 have a nice artistic feel to them. Colors are vibrant and generally true to life, though there is some variation in color as the ISO level increases. Lines are crisp, though settings like the flower scene mode purposely soften the edges. The camera also picks up details exceptionally well, even capturing the tight weave of a fabric.

The MX-1 is up to par with the advanced compact category in low light performance. Noise is nearly imperceptible all the way up to ISO 800, where the grain is slight but not overwhelming. ISO 3200 still gets decent images, though ISO 6400 and 12800 are best avoided, but there if necessary.

Where the MX-1 images truly shine is from the fast f1.8-2.5 lens that produces a fabulous depth of field and bokeh. Images are sharp where needed but gently soften in the background, creating that artistic feel to the images. The lens doesn't have as wide of a range as most, but that allows for some noticeable depth of field in every photograph.

             
     
 
         
             
     
 
         

The MX-1 also produces sharp video, with clear images and sound. The camera doesn't allow for shooting stills while taking video, but includes in-camera editing to pull shots from the footage. Zoom also isn't available while filming. Recording at only about 30 fps means it doesn't pan well, but for a dedicated camera, there's little to complain about for video quality.

Pentax MX-1: Conclusion

The fast lens and 1 cm macro options make the Pentax MX-1 the go to model for the macro photographer, where the images really shine. The depth of field and vibrant colors also make it a good choice for artistic shots. But the MX-1 is also a good all around camera for general use, with a user friendly style and solid image quality. Recording times and burst speeds are not the best out there for the user looking to take mostly action shots, but the MX-1 still performs well in that area.

             
    The Pentax MX-1 is a good option for consumers looking for an advanced compact.          

 

Priced at just under $500 MSRP, the MX-1 is pretty fairly priced. The Canon G15 is similarly priced with comparable features, though it has a faster burst mode and a optical viewfinder but is lacking the tilt screen. The Fujifilm X100S has similar styling with a larger sensor and faster processor, but at twice the price of the MX-1, it isn't really competition. The Nikon Coolpix P330 is selling for around $100 less than the MSRP, but doesn't have the macro focusing feature or exposure dials, though has a 10 fps burst and GPS. The popular Sony RX100 is faster with a larger sensor, but is priced about $150 more than the MX-1.

Overall, the MX-1 has a nice classic design and lends an artistic quality to its image. A great buy for the macro photographer, it is also a good option to consider for general photography as well.

 

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