Pentax Optio H90 Review

April 16, 2010 | Gavin Stoker |


The Pentax Optio H90 is a new budget compact camera with style, sporting a retro look developed under Pentax’s new 'functional beauty' concept. In addition to its unusual looks, the entry-level Pentax H90 offers a 12.1 megapixel image sensor, 5x optical zoom lens with a focal range of 28-140mm), a 2.7 inch LCD, Face Detection system that recognises up to 32 faces plus Smile Capture and Blink Detection, compatibility with Eye-Fi wireless memory cards, and even 720p HD movie recording. Available in three different two-tone colour schemes, the Pentax Optio H90 costs £129.99 / $179.95.

Ease of Use

When Pentax's own press release begins with a description of the £130 H90 as 'no frills', the reviewer's emotions are mixed. Should we feel despondent at the thought of seemingly another bland, run-of-the-mill 'landfill' compact being forced upon us? Or applaud its manufacturer for some refreshing straight talk in an industry usually hailing the humblest point and shoot as somehow 'revolutionary'?

In fact here Pentax is doing its own camera something of a disservice. Yes, the H90 does look rather utilitarian from some angles, its traditional boxy design with nevertheless classy aluminium alloy construction consciously recalling film compacts from the 1960s and 70s. And going the retro route doesn't seem to have done recent Olympus Pen or Leica offerings any harm. Indeed it's got people talking. Pentax's own take is that the minimal design is inspired by Japanese lifestyle trends, a connection that is tenuous to say the least.

In any event, with our review sample matt black in the main with metallic silver top plate, the H90 thankfully isn't the unwieldy brick with two AAs we were formerly used to at this beginner's end of the market. With lithium ion rechargeable battery inserted it's small and slender enough to slip comfortably into the top pocket of a shirt come the summer. In fact it's rather cute, and you have to properly hold it to discover how lightweight at 131g with accessories and how tactile it feels. The almost credit card sized dimensions and hint of a front grip further ensure that it sits very comfortably in the palm.

So while its manufacturer won't claim the H90 will set your world alight, it's not completely without interest or merit. The headline specs reveal it welds a larger than average 5x optical zoom lens (28-140mm equivalent) to a 12.1 megapixel effective resolution and 2.7-inch, 230k dot 4:3 ratio LCD. Rather more of a surprise is that 1280x720 pixels HD video recording with mono sound also features, light sensitivity extends from ISO80 to ISO6400 (with a drop to 5MP at the top two settings), while the ubiquitous face detection can now spot up to 32 faces in the frame and gives rise to both smile capture and blink detection features. Like Panasonic, Pentax also sees fit to flag up what it calls an Intelligent Zoom function that extends the camera's range to 6.5x with a pixel drop to 7MP, or approximately 31.3x with a further decrease to a VGA 640x480 pixels.

Also unexpectedly found on a model in this price bracket - and so again giving the lie to the 'no frills' tag, are a set of well-hidden digital effects filters including 'toy' and 'retro' options - supplementing an Auto Picture mode that compares the scene before the lens with eight pre-optimised settings and (hopefully) selects the most appropriate - thus allowing for complete point and shoot freedom - plus auto tracking AF to keep a moving subject in focus. Add to this an exposure tweaking D-Range function to prevent lost highlights or irretrievable shadow detail (with the user being able to decide which to bias), digital panorama mode plus digital wide function - compositing an extra wide angle image from two pictures - for those looking to take in some dynamic scenery, and the Optio H90 looks to be shaping up as rather more than your average £100+ camera.

Pentax Optio H90 Pentax Optio H90
Front Rear

It's a pain though that the full manual is only offered on CD ROM, a cursory quick start pamphlet (that doesn't tell the user anything they couldn't work out for themselves) the only hard copy included. Like its bigger brother in the waterproof W90, the H90 offers compatibility not just with SD and SDHC cards but also Eye-Fi media; more expensive than non wireless enabled media for sure, but an automatic way of transferring your captured images when the camera comes within range of a similarly wireless enabled desktop or laptop computer. Otherwise there's a 32.7MB internal capacity to fall back on.

Predictably, the slot for this optional yet essential removable media nestles next to one for the power cell, under a catch at the base. Like most cameras in this price bracket, battery performance is so-so, the Optio H90 promising just 210 shots from a full charge. That said, our experience fell well short of this: at barely half that number we were already down to the last of three bars on the camera's battery life indicator, so you'll want to pack the charger if you're intending on holidaying with this device. It's one of the biggest black marks against this otherwise fun and easy to use snapper. The camera base is also where the dual-use single port for the combined AV/USB output cable lives, unprotected against pocket fluff and grit, with a screw thread for attaching a tripod over at one side, rather than the traditional location of dead centre.

With this Optio model activated with a press of the on/off button recessed into the top plate and marked with a red/orange dot - which might otherwise symbolize a record button on other models - the H90 powers up for action in just over a second (once location and date have been preset), lens extending to maximum wideangle setting with an audible flutter that resembles a moth buzzing close to your ear.

Next to this control sits the larger shutter release button with thankfully a definite halfway point determinable when pressed, allowing the camera to measure focus and exposure against your intended subject and then for user to recompose the frame as necessary. Go on to take the shot and, with a barely perceptible shutter delay, maximum resolution images are written to memory in a speedy two seconds - so the camera is as responsive as you've any right to hope for, given its budget pricing.

Pentax Optio H90 Pentax Optio H90
Front Top

Though the information displayed on the rear LCD is simplistic, with a press of the 'OK' button set into the middle of the four-way control pad at the rear a live histogram can be summoned up on screen to reveal the areas of brightness in the image. There's otherwise no dedicated 'display' control.

Thankfully then the H90 is a camera on which the essentials fall easily to hand. Top right of the LCD on the backplate is a rocker switch for operating the zoom, its position meaning that it falls conveniently under the thumb as your forefinger hovers over the shutter release button.

Response times are swift, the lens racing through its basic optical focal range in all of two seconds. Hold down the telephoto end of the rocker switch once you've reached the 5x marker and the camera will peddle furiously onward to reach its 31.3x equivalent. The images produced at this setting are so soft and low res however - looking as if taken through a frosted piece of glass - that there seems to be no useful reason to actually use it, so it does come across as something of a gimmick.

Beneath the zoom control on the backplate we find a pair of identically sized small buttons. On the left is a self-explanatory playback button, and to the right, symbolised by a smiley-faced icon, users have the ability to turn face detection on or off and/or deploy the automatic smile capture setting.

Beneath these two buttons we have the four-way multi directional control pad, as previously touched on. At 12 o'clock on the dial we have a means of selecting a drive mode: standard single shot capture, two or ten second self-timer option, continuous shooting or burst shooting. At three o'clock we find, unusually on this class of point and shoot, a means of adjusting the focus mode, from regular auto to macro or super macro, and then on through a pan focus, infinity focus and, finally, a manual focus option.

Select the latter and an enlarged central portion of the screen appears to aid the user's judgment, an adjustable distance slider appearing on the left of the LCD, with options of 0.1 metres to infinity. Again, this is more than Pentax had led us to expect at the outset, cunning devils.

Pentax Optio H90 Pentax Optio H90
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

At six o'clock we have access to the camera's shooting modes, via an on-screen toolbar of cartoon icon led options rather than a dedicated, physical, mode wheel. This is where users can either stick with the reliable auto everything default setting of 'auto picture', or tab to the right for program mode and an extensive 20+ range of scene modes, covering everything from night shooting to panorama mode, via ISO-boosting high sensitivity mode.

At nine o'clock on the shooting mode dial meanwhile, is a means of adjusting settings governing the built-in flash. Here the user can tab through auto, off, forced on, auto with flash, forced flash with red eye, or 'soft' flash.

A press of the menu button just below the dial, and in capture mode three recording screens are presented with a further three for the set up menu. It's within the former that users will find the exposure adjusting D-range setting with the ability to choose highlight or shadow correction or both, plus shake reduction, blink detection and activate (or not) the digital zoom. More unusually for a budget point and shoot, users can also adjust sharpness, saturation and contrast separately, in camera, via simple on-screen sliders. Also unusually, within the set up menu there's a pixel mapping function selectable to correct any defective pixels on the sensor. Not what you expect from a point-and-shoot.

The last button on the H90's back plate is the green button, which is in effect Pentax's easy mode. Push this and the on-screen icons get fewer and larger in size. Press the menu button when this mode is selected and all the recording options are gone, only for the user to be left with the basic set up menu. In other words it renders the H90 idiot proof. However, for more experienced users, the function of this button can be customized. In program mode its function can be reassigned to either become a short cut to adjusting the number of recorded pixels, white balance, focus area, metering or ISO sensitivity with a single button press. These options then appear as a thin unobtrusive toolbar along the top of the screen. It's a neat touch.

With the camera's flanks devoid of any features at all - except a lug for attaching a provided wrist strap - the bottom of the camera is the next place of interest. We've already mentioned the shared unprotected port for USB and AV output, and it's worth adding to that, that because of space restrictions, the catch for removing the battery is quite tight and so it's a tad fiddly to prise it free for a re-charge.

This feels like nit picking however, as for the money the Pentax Optio H90 suggests itself as one of current good deals for anyone looking for a straightforward point and shoot that fits neatly in both palm and pocket, plus throws in a touch of retro style too. Those looking for the ultimate travel compact and jack—of-all-trades might prefer a broader focal range still - look to the likes of the Canon SX210 IS for that - but, again, for the money this plucky Pentax ticks all the essential boxes.

So what of the pictures it produces. Do they betray compromises given the budget price, or surprise with their brilliance? Keep reading to find out…