While some camera-makers are already on their twelfth generation of expert compacts (e.g. Canon's G series, launched in 2000), Pentax has finally got round to outing its first advanced compact in 2013. The MX-1 is based on the same lens unit and sensor as the Olympus XZ-2 but comes loaded with Pentax's own image processing system and with a 60s-style retro casing.
So how can you be sure to stand out from the likes of the Olympus ZX-2, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Samsung EX2F, Fuji X10 and Canon G15 when you're a latecomer to the market? Easy—just delve back into your brand's past and seek inspiration from iconic cameras like the Asahiflex (1953) and the Spotmatic (1964). Next, update the hexagonal edges a bit, stick on a very nice rubbery grip and you basically get the Pentax MX-1. The cherry on this retro-flavoured cake is that the upper edge of the camera is made from brass, as you're handily reminded with "MX-1 -BRASS-" etched into the top of the pop-up flash (which is in turn made from plastic). Anyway, the bass top is very sleek, and comes in either silver or black. It should burnish nicely over time.
However, the MX-1's retro look is spoiled by a few annoying details. The tilt screen seems to have been shoved on haphazardly at the last minute, for example, and the rear face generally breaks with the suaveness of the camera's front. In fact, the MX-1 is actually a bit like Two-Face in its design. On top of that, the controls are made from shiny black plastic that's not exactly high-end, and they're not especially nice to press. Plus, there's nowhere to rest your thumb in the top-left corner, so you inevitably end up resting it on the screen. And that's all the more annoying since the camera's weight is largely concentrated on the left-hand side. You'll therefore probably need to use the MX-1 with both hands. The mechanism working the pop-up flash doesn't inspire confidence and the metal ring around the lens is unfortunately for decoration only (unlike the ring in the Olympus XZ-2)! One last annoying thing is that the strap lugs are on the front of the camera rather than on the sides, so the MX-1 ends up tilting backwards once it's hanging from your neck or shoulder.
The menus are pretty retro here too, with flat, neutral greys, salmon pink icons, pixellated text and highlighting in fluorescent green, bright yellow and sometimes royal blue (see below). In that respect, the MX-1 is sure to appeal to anyone who's nostalgic for the days of the Amiga or the Commodore. It certainly stands out from the crowd at a time when most other manufacturers are using carefully designed, contemporary menu systems. On the upside, this does make the menus very easy to read. And with loads of settings and options on offer—all nicely and logically organised—the MX-1 has an effective interface that's easy to navigate through, even if its design may leave you cold. No settings seem to be missing and everything can be user-adjusted, which serves as a welcome reminder that this camera is first and foremost aimed at advanced users. With that in mind, we particularly like the fact you get direct access to ISO settings and focusing modes (focus can be locked to infinity or the hyperfocal distance). There's also an "Info" button for fast access to a host of key settings (metering, white balance, Jpeg or DNG, stabilisation, etc.).
Even if the tilt screen does look like a bit of a rush job, this 3" display (4:3 aspect ratio) is actually pretty good quality. A tilt function is always a nice touch, especially when the hinge system seems robust, as is the case here. Plus, the viewing angles are excellent and the 920,000-dot definition keeps the onscreen image nice and sharp (something which still isn't all that common in digital cameras). The onscreen image is a little warm (we measured the colour temperature at 6132 K) and the gamma is nice and even if a little low (1.9 when is should be 2.2). Colour fidelity would have been good too if it wasn't for a very strong magenta—something that was visible to the naked eye and confirmed by our test equipment.
While the MX-1 may have an old-school design, there's nothing retro about its responsiveness. Harvey Keitel's line in Pulp Fiction—"that's thirty minutes away. I'll be there in ten"—just about sums up the autofocus, as the MX-1 has such a need for speed that the shutter-release tends to go off before the camera has focused properly. Note too that when starting up, the MX-1 doesn't need to wait for the screen to switch on before taking a first photo.
At the maximum zoom setting, this camera doesn't always wait until the shot looks sharp before shooting, which is particularly annoying. To get around this you'll need to go softly-softly with the shutter-release button rather than just giving it one short, sharp press.
From full aperture (f/1.8) to f/8, at all focal lengths, in the middle of the frame, in the corners and around the edges of the shot, the MX-1 lens is flawless. It gives ultra-sharp results and there's hardly any trace of chromatic aberration. There's barely a hint of moiré and no distortion. It's a real treat for the eyes!
And Pentax has obviously been working hard, as picture quality has moved up a level compared with the Olympus XZ-2 ... ... so long as you don't go past 800 ISO!
While some cameras go crazy with smoothing, the MX-1 is more about sharpness accentuation, emphasis and saturation. Colours are therefore quite rich and glaring at low sensitivity settings—sometimes too much so—but from 1600 ISO the opposite is true. The colours slowly become duller and more washed-out, with an annoying tendency towards magenta tinges. This accentuation (like a kind of "unsharp mask" effect) is pretty heavy at low ISO settings, but gets even heavier beyond 1600 ISO. Finer detail and granularity are therefore forced and over-emphasised with no distinction, giving the photos a very geometric and artificial-looking grain that's particularly unpleasant from 3200 ISO. On top of that, high ISO settings show up problems rendering large, flat, dark-coloured zones, not to mention an annoying magenta tinge.
In general, the MX-1 cheats a little, shooting denser, darker images and giving very deep blacks—a sign that the camera tends to under-expose shots. When the lighting conditions get more complicated (tungsten, halogen, fluorescent lighting), the white balance is less sure of itself and causes the camera to saturate shots and emphasise the dominant shade in each light source. The Barbie in our test lab is still recovering from the experience.
Picture quality in video mode is on par with photo mode. In other words, it's a bit under-exposed, it's saturated and it looks accentuated. Otherwise quality is good, with decent stereo sound, no aliasing and no judder or glitches with moving subjects. Under-exposing the image also means that bright, light parts of the picture don't end up being overexposed (as is the case in many cameras).
The MX-1 films 1080p Full HD video at 30 fames per second for a maximum of 25 minutes per film. You can take a still photo while filming video and the stabilisation system is effective. One rather strange thing about the camera, however, is that the red video-record button works in every mode except video mode. No joke! In video mode you start filming by pressing the shutter-release button!