HandlingThe Pentax VS20 is a bulky camera with an all-plastic casing and buttons that don't do it any favours on the design front. A metal lip above and around the edge of the lens does help add a mark of individuality. The VS20 isn't the most comfortable camera to grip—its weight, the rounded finish around the back, and the small, smooth grip handle all make the VS20 slippery character that's not always easy to keep hold of.
The second shutter release button is a nice idea, but it hasn't been put into practice very well (see inset). Once you're holding the camera vertically, your fingers tend to cover up the lens and they have nothing to grip on to—a handle or some kind of finger-rest would make things much easier.
On the upside, the camera's interface is simple and the menus—although not the most stylishly designed—are at least clear and easy to find your way around. That's more than can be said for the scene mode descriptions descriptions seen in some previous Pentax cameras.
The screen definition of 460,000 dots is on par with current mid-range models, but the use of TN technology means that viewing angles are quite poor, especially along the vertical axis. You'll also need to take care when viewing back pictures onscreen, as the weak gamma washes light greys out to white and colour reproduction is unreliable, even if the colour temperature is relatively stable.
ResponsivenessThe Pentax VS20 is no speed demon, with some results that are a little disappointing and others that are worthy of a much older camera. The three-second photo-to-photo turnaround time is particularly slow. In low light too, today's decent autofocus systems work in less than half the time it takes the V20 to sort itself out.
In good light, the autofocus is within average, as is the start-up time. All in all, the VS20 does a reasonable job in day-to-day situations.
Picture QualityThe VS20 uses the same 16-Megapixel CCD as its predecessor, the Pentax RZ18. However, the VS20 comes loaded with a new lens that only starts at a wide-angle setting of 28 mm, with long focal lengths taking priority in this model.
This camera under-exposes pictures slightly, perhaps in an attempt to mask digital noise. All in all, our ISO tests were nothing special. Up to 400 ISO, image quality is still fine for 8" x 10" prints (20 x 27 cm). However, at 800 ISO it gets more problematic, as granular noise is counteracted with visible smoothing. This ISO setting isn't recommended if you plan on making prints, and full-screen images won't look too great on your computer either. The extra 3200 ISO and 6400 ISO settings are pretty ridiculous, even with the resolution pushed down to 5 Megapixels.
The VS20 shows up the limitations of CCD sensor technology, and given that this superzoom snapper is a relatively ambitious model, we would have preferred to see it loaded with a better-quality BSI CMOS, even if that would push the price up slightly (given its very competitive price, a few extra quid wouldn't do too much harm to the VS20).
The lens does an acceptable job. The edges of wide-angle shots hold up well, although colour fringing is visible on full-sized images. Towards 200 mm, quality is very consistent across the frame. At the maximum zoom settings, however, the image is slightly hazy, and a lack of consistency will show on an 8" x 10" print.
The stabilisation system in this camera works by moving the sensor. It didn't prove particularly effective in our Barbie without flash test—the image isn't perfectly sharp at 1/15 ths of a second, and if we push up above 400 ISO Barbie looks even more blurred due to smoothing.
The Pentax VS20 makes do with 720p video and mono sound with a constant hissing that spoils quiet scenes and metallic noises that sound tinny. Video noise is a problem when filming indoors, and this only gets worse if you decide to use the digital zoom. Add to that an excessive contrast and you'll soon see that the VS20 video mode is nothing to get excited about.