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Pentax K-01 review

Does the K-01's performance justify its excessive size and price?

Pentax K-01 hero

Pentax has a history of making cameras that are just a little bit offbeat. Just take a look at last year’s Pentax Q: rather than making a more traditional mirrorless camera like many of its competitors, the company released the smallest interchangeable lens camera on the market — but one that had a smaller sensor and a custom lens mount. Now, the company’s moving in the opposite direction with the K-01, which is one of the largest cameras of its type on the market today.

There's a reason for this extra bulk: the large distance between the K-01's lens mount and the sensor allows it to use the full lineup of Pentax K-mount lenses, while mirrorless cameras from Sony, Nikon, Panasonic, and others use a much smaller set of lenses. However, Pentax’s offering is at a distinct size disadvantage compared to the aforementioned cameras — and pretty much every single other mirrorless camera that’s on the market. And Pentax's lens advantage will inevitably shrink as its competitors grow their lens ecosystems.

The last component is pricing — at $749.95 for the body only, or $899.95 with a delightfully slim 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens (which I tested), the K-01 costs a good deal more than some comparable options. The question for buyers: does the camera offer improved image quality and performance to go along with its extra size and weight, or are you better off looking at a smaller, less expensive option? Read on to find out.


Hardware

Hardware / Design

How you’ll feel about the Pentax K-01 when you first pick it up will depend on your photographic pedigree — if, like me, you’ve spent the last decade shooting almost exclusively with a DSLR (most recently with a Canon 50D), the K-01 feels like a remarkably light and small piece of photographic equipment. That impression is enhanced by the ridiculously tiny 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, which measures only 0.36 inches thin and weighs a scant 51 grams (about 1.8 ounces).

If you’re used to a point-and-shoot (or one of the K-01’s competitors like the Sony NEX series or Panasonic’s Lumix DMC line), however, the K-01 feels rather thick and heavy. Its body width of 2.3 inches exceeds most of the closest competition by nearly an inch, while its weight of nearly 1.25 pounds is twice as much as comparable options on the market. It’s also a good half-inch taller than many other cameras in its class. Even with the pancake lens, this is not a pocketable camera — and if you add on a full-size zoom lens (like the 18-55mm and 50-200mm lenses that come in other K-01 kits), you’re a lot closer to a small DSLR than a slightly larger mirrorless camera. This is a unique and unusual design decision — the whole point of the segment is to offer most of the power of a DSLR in a significantly smaller body. The K-01 offers image and performance compromises (relative to a DSLR) while just not being small and light enough — a tough proposition to overcome.


Height Width Depth Weight
Pentax K-01 3.1 inches 4.8 inches 2.3 inches 1.06 pounds
Sony NEX-5N 2.31 inches 4.36 inches 1.5 inches 0.46 pounds
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 2.67 inches 4.58 inches 1.55 inches 0.6 pounds
Olympus E-M5 3.5 inches 4.8 inches 1.7 inches 0.94 pounds
Nikon J1 2.4 inches 4.7 inches 1.17 inches 0.52 pounds
Samsung NX1000 2.46 inches 4.49 inches 1.48 inches 0.49 pounds

Regardless of what you’re used to, you’ll immediately notice the K-01’s distinctive body. It just doesn’t quite look like any other camera on the market, and particularly stands out if you pick up the yellow or silver options (I was stuck with the more pedestrian black model). Noted Australian designer Marc Newson was in charge of the K-01’s design (as well as that of the pancake lens), and while it’s a distinctive look, a number of people who saw the camera remarked that the camera was odd or just plain ugly. There’s no doubt it is a polarizing design — I'd recommend seeing it in person before making a decision on whether or not it’s for you. For my part, I much prefer the more understated look of Panasonic’s Lumix GX1, or the extreme minimalism of Sony’s NEX series.

This is not a pocketable camera

Weight and size issues aside, the K-01 feels like a sturdy, solid camera. The grip is made of textured rubber to help make it easier to hold; unfortunately, the grip itself is very small, making it not the most ergonomic camera I’ve used. It’s certainly possible to hold with one hand, but it would be challenging with any lens bigger than the 40mm pancake. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention how the K-01's SD card slot and HDMI output are covered by that same texturized rubber, and it's extremely annoying to get the cover closed — plastic would be preferable here.

The rest of the camera is black, white, or yellow aluminium, which means there’s absolutely no flex or ‘give’ to speak of. Adding to the DSLR feel, the camera’s top is dominated by a control wheel, mode selection wheel, and shutter button (with a nice on / off ring surrounding it). The mode dial contains your usual full automatic, program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual modes as well as dedicated video, HDR, and scene modes. There’s also a pop-up flash and flash hot shoe on top, as well — we’ll get into more on all this a bit later.


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The control dial is used for adjusting shutter speed, aperture, or any other number of settings on the fly when shooting. Both wheels have a reassuring and satisfying click in use — it's not easy to accidentally change settings. There’s also a handy red button that automatically starts shooting video by default — if you’ve ever fumbled around trying to get your camera set to shoot a quick movie clip and found yourself missing it, you’ll appreciate this feature. For those who don’t want to start shooting video by accident, this button can be easily reassigned,

The camera’s back is dominated by the 3-inch LCD that you’ll use as the camera’s viewfinder. There are also four buttons in a vertical line for autofocus lock, image playback, "info" (a one-stop settings screen), and the more in-depth menu. This row is found on the right of the LCD screen and is easily accessed by your thumb, a smart design choice versus putting them below or to the left of the screen. Lastly, there are four directional buttons plus an "ok" button in the center. These buttons are used for either navigating through menus or to quickly access settings for ISO, white balance, the flash, or shooting modes (single frame, continuous, timer, etc.).

All in all, the K-01 gives the user a wide variety of manual control for those who want it, and does so without overwhelming the camera with buttons or dials. For DSLR owners who are used to tweaking every aspect of the shooting process, the K-01 offers similar flexibility without requiring too much diving through menus — almost everything is a touch or two away. The four-way buttons are positioned right where your thumb would like them to be, while the vertical row of buttons is easily accessible without having to stretch.

Display / Interface

Display / Interface

The K-01's menu system gets the job done with minimal hassle
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On a camera without an optical viewfinder, the LCD screen is of the utmost importance, and Pentax got this one right: the 3-inch screen has a relatively high resolution of 921,000 dots, an excellent refresh rate, and fairly true-to-life colors (though they do appear a tad over-saturated, particularly in the blues and greens). I used it outside on a number of bright days and found that the default brightness setting was usually sufficient, but Pentax lets you crank up the brightness significantly (or dial it down to save battery life). That said, the lack of an optical viewfinder on a camera of this price was disappointing, as is the fact that Pentax doesn’t currently offer an external electronic viewfinder as an add-on. If you’re at all averse to shooting exclusively through an LCD, this camera is definitely not for you.

Of course, you'll also rely on the LCD to dig into the K-01's extensive menu system, which is surprisingly easy to navigate given the wide variety of settings for users to adjust. The menus are divided into four main categories: still images, videos, playback, general settings, and "custom functions." Here's you'll find a wide variety of detailed settings that only those truly obsessed with tweaking every parameter of their camera will want to investigate. Those who dig into these settings will find even more granular controls that reminded me of the types of options you find in more expensive , full-featured DSLRs. The K-01 already feels a bit like a mini-DSLR, and these customizable settings add to that feeling.

While the menu focuses mostly on features you won’t tweak as frequently when out shooting, Pentax makes it easy to access more vital settings. As mentioned, there’s one-touch access to ISO, white balance, flash settings, and shooting modes; there are also deeper customization options when pressing the "info" button. From there, you can adjust autofocus and metering, activate some filters or HDR settings (more on those later), change whether you’re shooting in JPEG or RAW, tweak the aspect ratio, and more.

While this menu duplicates some options that are available elsewhere, it’s overall a strong system that lets you easily access a wide variety of options. You’ll rarely need to dive into the K-01’s deeper menu system to make changes while you’re out shooting — all of the main features are easily accessible, and the "info" button brings up nearly everything you’d want to adjust when taking photos. The full menus exist primarily for making broader changes that you won’t need to adjust on a regular basis. I rarely, if ever, needed to use the deeper menus during my extended shooting sessions with the K-01 — you can set most items to your personal preference ahead of time and then leave them be.



Features

Features

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As is often the case with cameras in this class, the K-01 contains plenty of user-friendly features for those upgrading from a point-and-shoot, but it also lets users tweak just about every setting one could want as his or her skills increase. This helps make the K-01 a good option for those willing to invest the time (and expense) necessary to master the craft of photography — and, of course, any lenses purchased can be transferred over to a more advanced Pentax DSLR down the line.

Thanks to Instagram, loads of new cameras come with filters and color modifications to help you improve / ruin your photos (depending on who you ask), and the K-01 is no exception. There are 11 different "custom image" filters that tweak saturation settings ever so slightly; each of these can be modified by the user, giving K-01 owners a wide variety of different custom color settings at their fingertips. There are also seven "digital filters" that offer more dramatic modifications — these can also all be tweaked (the photo above was shot in "high-contrast" mode). Between the two groups, the K-01 can shoot dramatically different images with just a few presses of a button, though I imagine most photographers will just pick the most true-to-life setting and leave it be.

Pentax also included an HDR mode in the K-01 and even found it fit to include it on the camera’s main control dial. Unfortunately, it's not the most flexible mode to work with, and the results didn't justify the feature's prominent placement. (HDR, for the uninitiated, allows for greater dynamic range in the light and dark areas of a photo by taking multiple images and then combining them so all parts of the photo are properly exposed). While in HDR mode, you have no control over the camera’s shutter speed and aperture (though you retain ISO control); you can also manually set the exposure range, or how much the three photos differ in terms of exposure level. In the end, when taking a sunset picture off my porch, it was difficult to distinguish between the HDR composite image and a standard photo. Certain circumstances might make for more useful results, but those interested in HDR photography are probably better off using the K-01’s bracketing mode and creating their own HDR photos in post-processing.

Like nearly every other camera on the market worth its weight, the K-01 shoots in both RAW and JPEG modes, but Pentax included a little extra flexibility. If you’re using JPEG mode (and have your drive mode set to single-shot), the camera automatically records the RAW data and saves it to a separate buffer. After taking a photo, just view the image in playback mode and press a preassigned button — the camera will then ask if you’d like to save the full RAW image. It’s probably not the kind of feature that will get used terribly often, but when you want to use it you’ll really appreciate having the option.

As for the K-01’s built-in flash, it’s moderately powerful and offers a good number of options for those who like manual control over artificial light. Of course, there’s also red-eye reduction built-in. Unfortunately, you’re stuck with the one position that the flash pops into when you activate it — there’s no way to bounce or swivel it at all. While it didn’t always produce pleasing results, a number of photos taken with it came out pretty well, with the subjects not looking overly washed out and red-eye kept to a minimum. There’s also a flash hot-shoe, so if you’re a heavy flash user you’ll want to upgrade to a dedicated module — but it’s nice to know the flash is there for you in a pinch if you need it.

There's enough flexibility to please both long-time shooters and new photographers
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Quality

Image and video quality


Still images

The K-01 has two big factors going for it in the image quality department — the huge variety of lenses available, and the quality of its image sensor. Thanks to the bulked-up body, the camera can use virtually any lens that is compatible with the Pentax K-mount, a collection that far exceeds anything available for other mirrorless camera systems. As for the latter, the 16.3-megapixel, APS-C CMOS sensor is right up there with its main competition in terms of raw pixel count and size (it’s the same sensor found in the Pentax K5 DSLR). It’s a potentially potent combo — but we’re betting that the majority of buyers will stick with the kit lens, so we’re looking to see how the unique combo of the K-01 and its 40mm pancake lens perform.

Given the pedigree of its sensor, photos taken with the K-01 were unsurprisingly excellent. Color reproduction was accurate, if slightly saturated, and in-focus photos were exceptionally sharp. If those saturated tones aren’t to your liking, there are plenty of ways to tone it down using the K-01’s custom color profiles. Dynamic range was also a strong point — photos with dramatically different lighting come show a surprising amount of detail in both light and dark areas. As for low-light performance, I found results to be quite usable up to ISO 3200, acceptable under limited circumstances at 6400, and basically unusable at 12,800 and 25,600 — there's very little reason to push the camera that far unless you want to show someone a great example of digital noise.

The auto white balance readings were relatively good, although they did seem to trend a little towards the yellow side of things — I took photos at three different weddings with this camera, and a lot of the indoor photos from those events could have used a cooler profile. Overall, the amount of detail and flexibility over your images far surpasses what you can get with even an excellent point and shoot, while coming close to matching that of a full-featured DSLR.

The autofocus system's performance was mediocre, at best

The K-01’s autofocus system is a bit of a mixed bag: it offers a wide variety of manual flexibility, but with unfortunately mediocre results. Pressing the "OK" button brings up a 100-section autofocus grid (the camera itself has 81 focus points). From there, you can select the size of the autofocus area (either four, 16, or 36 sections of the grid) and move that selection to any area of the viewfinder you desire.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that the K-01’s autofocus performance is just not that good. In bright light, it generally focuses reliably though not terribly fast, but in medium to low light, prepare yourself for a lot of hunting and possibly missed shots in darker situations. The camera includes a built-in focus assist light, but I’ve never found those to be terribly useful — and the K-01 hasn’t changed my mind. Overall, the autofocus system is passable at best: it’ll get the job done some of the time, but just not very quickly — and if you shoot in darker situations frequently, you’ll probably be better off sticking with manual focus.

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Video quality

For those looking to shoot some video, the K-01 makes it an incredibly simple affair. No matter what mode the camera is in, a press of the red button located on the top right-hand side of the K-01 will start recording video. In this mode, exposure is set automatically; for those looking for more control, select the dedicated video mode from the top control dial. From here, you can shoot video in either auto-exposure mode, aperture priority mode, or full manual. The K-01 records H.264 videos with stereo sound; you can use either the camera’s internal mic or bring your own to plug into the mic port. There’s a wide variety of resolutions and frame rates available, as well — you can shoot in either VGA, 720p, or 1080p at framerates ranging from 24fps all the way up to 60fps in 720p mode. When shooting 1080p video, however, you’re limited to 24fps, 25fps, or 30fps. Overall, it’s a pretty robust set of customization options for those looking to shoot a mini-masterpiece.

Much like autofocus, the K-01’s video results were a bit mixed — out of the camera, colors felt overly contrasty, and there’s a good deal of the dreaded "jello" rolling shutter effect when moving while filming. When remaining stationary, though, results are relatively clear and artifact-free. Unfortunately, autofocus while shooting video is a laborious process. The camera doesn’t automatically re-focus; rather, users can press the AE lock button on the back of the camera to prompt the camera to re-focus. It’s even slower than when shooting in photo mode — you’re probably better off just using manual focus. Overall, while it’s nice to have video included (and I appreciate the many resolution and frame rate combos available to users), the quality is ultimately not at the level where you’d want to do anything more than shoot a quick clip here and there for your personal enjoyment. At the end of the day, video is just not very good on the K-01 — I recommend looking elsewhere if you're a dedicated video shooter.

Lens

Lens

This glass is sharp, fast, and tiny
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Pentax’s unique 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens deserves a few words — it’s the default option for the most inexpensive K-01 kit and thus will likely be many users’ first lens option when using the camera. As mentioned earlier, the lens was designed by Marc Newson to match the stylings of the K-01; at a third of an inch thick, it’s just impossibly thin and light. It adds literally zero bulk to the large K-01 body. While the size and weight can’t be argued with, there’s a few limiting factors that make it not the perfect choice as a kit lens.

First off, it’s a prime, and not a very wide prime at that — a 40mm on an APS-C sensor feels rather tight for shooting indoors, though it makes for a decent portrait-length lens. The other notable downside is its minimum focus distance of 16 inches — you won’t be able to get very close to your subjects. Fortunately, this lens also has a number of things going for it beyond the the size. The relatively fast aperture setting of f/2.8 means you can pull in a good amount of light and also shoot photos and video with very narrow depth-of-field and the creamy, out-of-focus background that comes along with it (the lens’ nine aperture blades help quite a bit with this, as well). While some shooters might wish for a more versatile lens out of the box, seasoned photographers should have no trouble putting the 40mm pancake to good use — and they’ll certainly appreciate its tiny size.

Of course, I can’t talk about lenses without bringing up (again) the huge advantage the K-mount compatibility gives the K-01. The biggest downside with most mirrorless camera options is a lack of compelling glass options, and that simply isn’t an issue for the K-01 (and presumably any future mirrorless camera Pentax makes). There’s no doubt that this camera’s biggest potential market is people who already own a nice collection of Pentax glass — and those former DSLR users will probably find the K-01 small and light enough compared to their traditional cameras.

Performance

Performance and battery life

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While it might not seem so at first glance, the K-01 is a reasonably speedy performer. I was routinely able to go from completely off to having taken a photo in 1.5 seconds — a pretty impressive rate. As for the camera’s recycle time, I was able to shoot a photo every 1.3 seconds in one-shot mode with autofocus turned off. That’s miles better than a point-and-shoot, but will definitely trail more powerful DSLRs. It’s a decent, if unspectacular rate — and if you’re using autofocus, expect your results to drop quite a bit from there.

However, putting the camera into continuous shooting mode changes the story. Once focus is locked, holding down the shutter button will allow you to shoot pictures at up to 6fps. That’s probably sufficient for most people in the market for a camera like this, though it is bested by options like Sony’s NEX-5N, which shoots at a whopping 10fps. The buffer also fills up quite fast — after about 9 photos, things start to slow down. By the time you’ve taken 14 pictures or so, the camera settles into shooting about 3fps If you’re using a fast memory card, though, you can continue to shoot at a fairly rapid rate, though not as quick as that first 8 shots.

Still, the K-01’s performance in continuous shooting mode was more than adequate, and performance in the rest of the camera was similarly satisfying. There was nary a hint of lag when flying through menus, and the camera takes no time at all to render images when reviewing your photos on the LCD. While it’s certainly not the fastest performer on the block, I rarely felt like I was waiting for the camera to catch up to me — if only the autofocus matched the rest of the camera’s performance.

While speed ranges from acceptable to good, battery life was exemplary. I was easily able to get more than 700 shots taken in a variety of modes and ISOs, along with a handful of videos. Your mileage may vary, but for all but the most demanding shooters, battery life simply isn’t an issue with the K-01. The camera's removable 1860mAh battery is the same one used in Pentax’s K-5 DSLR and is significantly larger than the 1080mAh batteries seen in the Panasonic Lumix GX1 or the Sony NEX-5N. Sadly, the K-01’s battery charger is a rather chunky block, and you have to pull the battery out and throw it on the charger to fill it up. You’ll want to save room in your bag for it when traveling.

There's enough juice to shoot all day long
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Wrap-Up

Despite producing excellent photos, the K-01 lags behind the competition in some significant ways

In a vacuum, the K-01 is a reasonably compelling package. It’s smaller than the average DSLR, can use the wide variety of Pentax lenses that are readily available to customers, offers lots of customization and manual control, and shoots photos that are nearly as good as those from much bigger or more expensive cameras. Three years ago, this would have been a noteworthy achievement, indeed — but the market has evolved significantly as of late. If you’re interested in a smallish camera with a large sensor, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and a number of others offer cheaper and more portable options. The K-01 also has a number of notable flaws beyond its size and price — specifically its poor autofocus and video performance. For anyone without a lot of Pentax glass, you should be able to find a better camera for less money.

Ultimately, in spite of the excellent photos that the K-01 produces, the price and size discrepancies make it hard to recommend the K-01 to a wide range of consumers. While the K-01 offers more physical controls and access to the vast array of Pentax glass, the Sony NEX-5N can be had for $700, with a zoom lens — that’s $50 less than the K-01 without a lens. Still, the K-01 should find success with a specific audience. If you’re a long-time Pentax user who wants to move to a smaller camera and still take advantage of your lens collection, the K-01 makes a lot of sense. For my part, I’m hoping that the next mirrorless camera Pentax puts together keeps as much of the technology on the inside as possible — while at the same time making it a bit more appealing for both the eyes and the wallet.

GOOD STUFF

  • Excellent image quality
  • Excellent battery life
  • Huge lens ecosystem
  • Manual controls and easy access to key settings

BAD STUFF

  • Expensive
  • Relatively large and heavy
  • Mediocre autofocus
  • Bizarre physical design

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Hardware / design 5
  • Image quality 8
  • Video quality 6
  • Interface / controls 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Lens ecosystem 9
The Verge
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