Disclaimer: I should begin this review by admitting up front that I am primarily a Pentax user—sometimes referred to as a "Pentaxian"--in my personal life. I've used a number of the company's film SLRs as well as their digital counterparts. Currently I shoot with a K20D, the former top-of-the-line Pentax dSLR before the new K-7.
Pentax is a small company in the current digital camera market, dwarfed by Canon and Nikon, and struggling to maintain a competitive stance with Olympus and Sony. While they were once the undisputed king of manual focus film SLRs, they lagged behind in the jumps to autofocus and digital and are paying the price, left to play catch-up. Enter the 12-megapixel, 24x-zoom X70, the first Pentax model to join the "bridge camera" or "superzoom" craze. Like its contemporaries from the aforementioned competition, the X70 offers a huge zoom range, SLR-lite handling, and presumably higher image quality than many of its point & shoot underlings. In bringing the company into a new battle in an already crowded segment, the camera has a lot to prove and a lot of competing cameras to best. Does it do it? Let's find out
Build and Layout
For a camera in the superzoom class, the X70 is of about average size. However, it is extremely lightweight thanks to a build composed nearly entirely of plastic (even the tripod mount). This featherweight sensation gives an immediate feeling of cheapness or toy-like build quality that is only somewhat assuaged by the reassuring firmness of the buttons, dials, and various wheels that populate the body. Some will appreciate the camera's lightweight nature, as it will undoubtedly be a breeze to carry all day. To me it was a disappointment, since I've always been a fan of the extremely solid build quality of the company's dSLRs. Most noticeable was a distinct rattle from the lens moving inside the plastic lens housing—this never caused any issues while shooting, but it was disconcerting to say the least.
The camera's layout is similar to most others in its class, reminiscent of a dSLR in many respects. In fact, Pentax seem to have done as much as possible to make the X70 resemble the K2000, Pentax's entry-level dSLR. The huge 24x zoom lens (26-624mm equivalent range) goes from a nice wide angle to an extreme telephoto view. The lens housing dominates the front of the camera. An AF assist beam is located to the left, the pop-up flash is directly above, and the shutter release and zoom ring are on the far left. Rubberized with a nice texture, the grip feels good in the hand but is a bit small for adult male hands—your pinky will certainly curl under.
At the top of the X70 you'll find the flash release (to the left of the flash itself), the mode selection dial, and exposure compensation and on/off buttons. The mode dial offers a decent range of choices, including: Automatic Picture, Scene (20 scene modes to choose from), Program (P), Shutter Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av), Manual (M), USER (which lets you set pre-defined favorite settings), Movie, Digital SR (increases ISO as needed to reduce motion blur), and Sport.
The rear of the camera comprises the 2.7", 230,000-pixel LCD screen, the 200,000-pixel electronic viewfinder (EVF), and a myriad of buttons including: an EVF/LCD toggle, a display toggle, a dedicated button for face detection modes, the playback/shooting toggle, the main Menu button, and the usual OK button surrounded by a four-way directional pad whose buttons also have secondary dedicated functions. These four include flash, timer/continuous shooting, macro, and mode options. Finally, at the bottom right is the "Green Button," unique to Pentax cameras, which takes the user directly to Basic Mode (full auto controls), no matter what setting is chosen on the mode dial up top. To go back to the mode selected on the dial, tap the green button again. The Green Button also doubles as the Trash button when in playback mode. A scroll wheel located above most of these buttons changes settings in non-automatic modes, pages through menus, and zooms in on images when in playback.
The X70 handles relatively well for such a small camera that tries to do so much. Navigating between shooting modes is simple thanks to the SLR-style mode dial, and the Green Button makes it easy to ditch experimentation and go to the tried-and-true auto mode when the need arises. The camera is easy to hold, and the ergonomics are such that buttons are generally placed just where you need them to be.
The LCD is big and bright, with good lateral view angles but not so good vertical angles. In direct sunlight it can sometimes be difficult to make out, but that's why Pentax included the EVF, right? Though reasonably high-res, the EVF screen is frustratingly small and has a tendency to blur around the edges. That said, it does also display all of the info found on the external LCD, and has a nice refresh rate that won't put any further strain on your eye.
Operating speed is generally very good, at least in line with the best cameras in the class. Most importantly, the shutter feels snappy, with the barely a hint of any lag. The real Achilles heel of the camera is one it shares with virtually every other superzoom: slow autofocus in low light, and occasional total autofocus failure when using the telephoto end of the zoom range in these conditions. Frustratingly, when zoomed all the way in, you can often see the AF focus from one extreme to another, blithely passing by the correct focal point, before giving up. The X70 offers a manual focus mode, but as with most point & shoot cameras (or any camera without on-the-lens-barrel focusing, it's a clunky pain to use. However, several other focus modes are more useful, including a very good Super Macro mode that lets you focus on objects as close as 1 centimeter from the lens glass, and an "Infinity Focus" mode that's ideal for shooting faraway subjects.
Image stabilization in the X70 is handled by standard CCD-shift technology, which moves the sensor on a gyroscope to compensate for movement, as well as digital shake reduction, which uses variable ISO settings to better freeze action. In general, the mechanical shake reduction works well, though it is really put to the test at the long end of the zoom. But to be fair, 620mm is a lot of zoom to ask of any image stabilization technology. When combined with digital shake reduction, clarity is better but shots are sometimes compromised by the increased image noise that higher ISO settings bring. There's always a trade-off.
Movie mode is dead simple to operate, allowing you to select between 1280 x 720 (720p HD, but at 15fps), 848 x 480 (30fps), 640 x 480 (30 or 15fps), or 320 x 240 (30 or 15fps) pixels. To start recording, simply press the shutter release, and to end recording press it again. Thanks to the Green Button, you can switch between full automatic still shooting and video with the press of a single button.
The X70 is blessed with a very nice 12-megapixel CCD sensor that's paired with an excellent 24x zoom lens. Superzoom lenses are always a compromise, sacrificing ultimate image quality for range, but this one is a beaut, capturing great detail throughout the zoom range, with great sharpness at most apertures. The camera's manual settings allow the user to select an aperture as low as f/2.8, which results in lovely background blur (or "bokeh") in close-ups and portraits. It also means that the camera is capable of shooting in lower light situations than some of its competition. The lens does have some minor issues—namely barrel distortion (curved edges) at full wide angle and chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) at full telephoto, but these issues are not uncommon to say the least in cameras of this class and zoom range.
In automatic shooting mode, the X70 can excel, but more often produces images of average or just above average quality. Part of this seems to have to do with the camera's tendency to slightly underexpose photos—a trait shared with its big dSLR brothers. This underexposure preserves detail by preventing highlights from blowing out, but also invites increased image noise. The camera also seems to have low default noise reduction. This again serves to preserve detail that would otherwise be smeared away to produce a "smooth" looking image, but it does leave a slightly grainier image.
Thankfully, the camera is equipped with a bevy of manual and semi-manual modes that can help the user avoid some of these issues. When taking full advantage of these options to control aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation manually, the X70 is capable of some beautiful shots. In general, exposing to the right is a good practice, as it maximizes the sensor's signal-to-noise ratio. Luckily the X70 is equipped with a live histogram display to help you do just that.
The camera's ISO setting ranges from 50 to 6400, but for 100% viewing most users will find 50-800 preferable. 1600 is occasionally usable, but is generally only fit for reduced image size—likewise 3200 and 6400, which is good only for very small images, if at all. The on-board flash can be employed in low light to recover lost detail, and it works about as well as any other point & shoot or bridge camera flash—which is to say that it produces a very "flat" result, lacking in contrast and interesting shadows.
Colors are generally quite accurate, with the auto white balance perhaps defaulting a bit to the "warm" side of the spectrum. As with most point & shoot models, the auto white balance is fooled by indoor incandescent lighting, but the X70 offers a bevy of alternate white balance options, some of which work perfectly under such conditions. At default settings, saturation in the camera's JPEGs appears correct and not overblown like the output from some competing models. Shots are very contrasty except when lens flare rears its ugly head, which is rare thanks to the very good coatings applied. Still, I wish there were a lens hood included, as there is with, for example, the Canon SX1.
One major regret I had with the X70 is that it does not support RAW shooting. RAW images capture far more data than JPEGs, and can be adjusted (or "developed," to frame it in film terms) much more thoroughly after shooting than JPEGs can. Some cameras in this class do offer RAW recording, which makes its absence in the X70 all the more disappointing, especially considering the camera's original $399 MSRP (now down toward the $300 mark).
Another is the small, proprietary lithium ion battery, which can record about 250 shots without flash, or 170 with a decent amount of flash usage. In general, the battery life felt extremely short, compared to both my dSLR (which is obviously an unfair comparison) and my now quite ancient Canon PowerShot S2 IS (which is a good deal more fair, perhaps even friendly to the X70) that ran on AA batteries.
The last subject to touch on here is the video quality. In a word, it's disappointing. The addition of a 720p movie mode is a smart move by the engineers, but limiting it to 15fps (rather than the more conventional 24 or 30fps) is not. Moreover, image quality in nearly any of the video modes is quite noisy, with occasional strange splotches or lines of color. To be honest, discouraged with the results from my first few attempts, I didn't spend much time with the video mode while using the camera. I suspect many owners may have the same experience.
Despite my few quibbles, the fact is that the X70 is capable of producing excellent still image quality when care is taken and manual settings are employed. In automatic mode it will occasionally pop out a gem, and at worst it's just average for its class. The level of manual control is excellent, the feature list certainly places it in the top tier, the lens is a marvel, and the camera's lightweight and compact nature will be a boon to many photographers. Build quality may be suspect, but it didn't damper my enjoyment while actually using the camera. With its price dropping steadily, the X70 becomes a more and more attractive option when entering the superzoom market, and prospective buyers would do well to consider it.