Pentax Optio W90 Brief Review

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REVIEW SUMMARY

Specifications

  • 12 megapixels
  • 5x optical zoom
  • Digital image stabilization
  • 2.7-inch LCD display
  • 720p HD video
  • Waterproof (20 ft), shockproof (5 ft), freezeproof (14 F), and dustproof
  • Captures to SD/SDHC memory cards
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Release Date: 2010-04-15
  • Final Grade: 89 B+

B+

Pentax Optio W90 Hands-On Review
The W80 earned the dubious honor of one of the five worst cameras of 2009. Thankfully, Pentax made a few key improvements to the W90.
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

A couple of months ago I wrote about the Olympus TOUGH 8010, a pretty typical member of the rugged, all-weather compact camera class. I gave it props for its extremely tough build and robust water sealing, but ragged on it for its subpar image quality and clunky interface. In my experience, these problems are endemic to all-weather cameras -- the engineers focus on build quality, which inevitably results in compromised image quality. As someone who generally focuses on image quality above all else, this is a real problem for me.

Now I've been assigned to put the Pentax Optio W90 to the test. It's the sequel to the Pentax Optio W80, had the dubious honor of being included on our Worst Cameras of 2009 list. Understandably, I went into this review with a certain amount of trepidation.

[Full disclosure: Ben is a long-time Pentax user, and his primary camera is a K-7. --Ed.]

Build and Design

Where the Olympus went all out with a chromed metal casing and an outsized heft in the hand, the W90 is decked out as a rugged, rubberized hiker's or mountain climber's companion. Available in matte black, pistachio green, and bright orange, it matches the extreme, outdoor-sports image to a tee. It weighs just 164 grams, undercutting the TOUGH 8010 (which checks in at 245g) by 33%. The body is made of a combination of a tough, grippy polycarbonate that makes it extremely easy to hold on to. The chassis features some small rivets and subtly brushed faux-aluminum on the front side, but the camera doesn't overstate its macho image. Where the Olympus has a sliding metal lens cover, the Pentax has an always-open glass shield (more on that later).

The W90 feels small but solid in the hand -- a rounded rectangle about the size of a bar of soap. A small built-in flash sits above and to the right of the lens. Atop the camera are power and shutter release buttons, as well as the microphone and speaker. The rear of the camera boasts a 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel widescreen LCD display, along with an array of buttons for zooming, image playback, flash and self-timer control, mode selection, deleting images, accessing the menu, and so on. A chromed ring for attaching a strap adorns one side, while the other has a latching waterproofed door that opens to reveal HDMI and PC/AV connections. The bottom of the camera has another sealed door for the svelte battery and SDHC slot.

While the W90 is ruggedized to a lesser degree than the Tough 8010, the ratings are still substantial. The W90 can be safely dropped from up to 4 feet, taken up to 20 feet underwater, and used in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

Performance and User Experience

The W90's operating system will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used a Pentax camera in the past few years. The camera starts up quickly, with a splash screen that sticks around for a half-second or so. You can record a shot within a second and a half of pressing the power button, which is plenty speedy, in my opinion.

The LCD offers five display modes when shooting: Normal, Histogram + Info, No Info, LCD Off, and Simple Display + Subscreen. This seems a little excessive to me, and indeed some of them seem to serve no real purpose; for the duration of my experience with the W90, I kept it on Histogram + Info, as it offers by far the most information. In this mode you get a real-time indication of the shooting mode, battery charge, face detection status, shots remaining, recorded image size, quality level, white balance, metering mode, ISO setting, and so on. When you half-press the shutter to focus you get other indicators, including the focus point, flash info, and the shutter speed and aperture the camera plans to use, among others.

Press the Menu button on the rear and you get to the main menu, which offers Recording or Setup options--four pages of each, all in a pair of long, scroll-through lists. Pressing "Mode" gets you 24 different mode options, ranging from the familiar (Auto, Program, Night, Flower, Landscape, etc) to the odd (Report, Frame Composite, Text, etc).

Shooting photos is dead simple in all modes. There's no option to set the shutter speed or aperture, though in Program mode you are able to set exposure compensation and ISO. As with almost every digital camera ever, you half-press to focus and full-press to shoot. In good light, the camera focuses nearly instantaneously, and it's only a little slower in most low-light situations. The shot-to-shot time isn't lightning fast, but it's certainly no worse than other cameras in its class. When using the expanded dynamic range settings (highlight and shadow correction), the screen blacks out for a longer period between shots as the camera processes the image in an attempt to preserve details and even the exposure.

Shooting video is similarly easy, though I wish Pentax had included a direct video recording button on the camera body, as is now becoming an industry standard. Instead, users have to go to the Mode menu and manually select either Movie or Underwater Movie mode. Once you've selected a movie mode, you press the shutter to begin recording and press it again to stop.

I took the W90 on a seven-mile hike in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, repeatedly dunking it in alpine streams and occasionally dropping it in the process. All in all, it performed admirably, never skipping a beat when I was giving it my worst.

Image Quality

Now we come to the real question. There's little doubt that a weatherproof camera will stand up to the elements; after all, that's what it's expected to do. But can it take good pictures? Well, yes and no. Can it? Yes. Does it always? Certainly not. In my days shooting with the W90 I sadly became aware of a wide variety of problems with the way it processes images, but I also got a number of wonderful shots out of it.

The W90 makes use of the same 12-megapixel CCD sensor as its predecessor, which took quite a drubbing in last year's review. The lens is also identical to that camera's -- a 5x optical zoom with a film-equivalent focal range of 28mm to 140mm, and a max aperture of f/3.5 to f/4.5. So what's wrong with this combo?

To begin with, the camera has a real issue with white balance, tipping toward the overly warm, yellow-green end of the spectrum in most any shot involving sunlight and greenery. With digital cameras, you generally expect white balance issues indoors, but outdoors you can count on them representing colors properly. Not so here.

To make things worse, the camera (like so many others in its class) employs extreme noise reduction techniques to combat the grain that comes from jamming so many pixels into so small a sensor. At the lowest ISO sensitivities (ISO 80 and 100) the image quality is acceptable, but beyond that things start to get pretty hairy. The end result is that many images have a smeary, watercolor look when viewed at full size.

While the lens is capable of sharp results, and while it focuses rather quickly, it also occasionally misfocuses. I had several shots in which the camera fired with nothing at all in focus. While these instances were rare, they left me less inclined to trust the W90 with any precious moments. Another issue with the lens is its propensity to flare in direct and even glancing sunlight (with the sun outside the frame). All lenses encounter this issue to some degree, but due to its design (with a flat pane of glass protecting the recessed lens) the W90's lens is worse than most, making it difficult to shoot anywhere near the sun without long white streaks marring the image. Given that the W90 also a waterproof camera and water on the glass exacerbates this problem, users will have to remember to manually dry the camera after taking it out of the water to avoid further complications.

But things aren't all bad, and that's what makes the W90 so frustrating. In many cases, I got lovely images out of the camera -- particularly at ISO 80 and the full wide angle zoom setting (using the telephoto end seems to negatively impact sharpness and contrast to a noticeable degree). These winners certainly aren't dSLR quality, but they're as good as any I've gotten out of any similarly priced and spec'd point and shoot. Moreover, the camera has a few cool tricks under its belt, including a nifty "1cm" macro mode where your ultra-close subjects are illuminated by three white LEDs positioned around the lens. It's a shame it's just not that good at meat-and-potatoes shooting.

Video quality is unimpressive. The 720p recordings play back smoothly, and the sound from the mono mic is clear enough. However, there is a ton of image noise even when recording at the lowest ISO sensitivities. The dynamic range is anemic, leading to blown out highlights and void-like shadows. When recording in a wet environment, blown out highlights sometimes turn out as black splotches with pink and purple outlines, creating distracting streaks through the image.

Conclusion

In the end, the Optio W90 is a mixed bag. It offers wonderful industrial design, a compact package, an intuitive operating system, and excellent ease-of-use. Moreover, it's capable of producing great shots, but frustratingly it only dishes them out every once in a while. The HD video recording on the W90 is a waste, as well. Even so, I have to echo my closing sentiments from my Olympus TOUGH 8010 review and say that if you have to have an all-weather camera, this is one to consider. [Ed. Note: The Panasonic TS2 is worth a look as well.] All of the cameras in this class suffer from the same complaints, but all of them offer capabilities that no other cameras on the market can match.

I have to admit I don't understand why no manufacturer yet has managed to bring together stellar image quality and stellar build quality. If someday, someone managed to accomplish this feat, even if it upped the MSRP significantly, I can't help but think the type of people who buy these cameras would jump for joy. The W90 is a significant improvement over the mess that was the W80, but it's still a long way from actualizing this dream camera.

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