Pentax has a reputation for making good quality cameras. They don't come with all the fanfare of Canons or Nikons but their owners can wallow in the knowledge that they've bought a fine photographic tool. Not only do they work well, Pentax cameras look neat and tidy - or at least they did until the Optio Z10 came along. When the rest of the camera world is going svelte, this little Pentax has gone lumpy and dumpy.
You see that rectangular chunk of metal on the front? Well that doubles up as both a lens cap and an on/off switch. Subtle it's not but it does make it one of the easiest cameras to turn on and off.
Despite the swiftness with which you can pull back the lens cap, the Z10 isn't quite so quick to respond. From a standing start it takes about four seconds to be 'picture ready' - that's too sluggish in this day and age. The problem here isn't shutter lag but the autofocus system.
The autofocus does a good job of locking on a target as long as you have the time to wait and a reasonable amount of light to play with. If you use the default 'multiple' focus area the camera hunts around the frame looking for something to latch on to. We found the Spot-focus mode more cooperative and faster, but an action camera it's certainly not.
Perhaps the weary focusing isn't surprising when you consider that light entering the camera has to go through something of a tortuous path before it finally reaches the sensor. To fit such a substantial zoom into a camera of this size, the lens has been turned on its side and prisms are used to deflect light through to the 8-megapixel sensor.
The Pentax engineers have produced a minor miracle in packing a 7x zoom into a pocket-sized body and what makes it more impressive is that it's a non-protruding type and silent in operation. It's not the smoothest zoom as it moves through the impressive 38-266mm range but at least it does so without making a great deal of noise about it.
While the Z10 represents a considerable accomplishment in engineering terms, this innovation does come at a price. Throughout the zoom range the camera sometimes struggles to deliver sharp, crisp images. When used at the widest angle of 38mm there's significant distortion. At the long end of the lens images can be washed out unless taken in bright light. The metering is fairly accurate but again the best results are achieved when the sun's shining.
This is a camera that needs a good dose of sunlight. Ask it to perform in anything other than good light and it can struggle. At ISOs as low as 200, noise becomes an issue - this camera is afraid of the dark. Crank up the dials to the maximum ISO of 3200 and the noise has to be seen to be believed. Why on earth Pentax has included such a high setting, when the image quality it produces is so poor, is really beyond us.
The Z10 is a confusing camera from a manufacturer that's usually reliable. Despite the idiosyncratic styling, it's well made and the brushed aluminium body feels solid. The menu system and general function of the camera works well, but in trying to fit that 7x, non-protruding lens into a pocket-sized body, the boffins at Pentax appear to have forgotten the most important aspect of a digital camera - image quality.
This is a camera that's aimed at the casual snapper and it should be a fun thing to use but, in the end, it's a camera that's anything but a pleasure to live with. Don't misunderstand us - it can produce some good images with careful use, good light and a fair wind. The lens is sharp and the zoom range is stunning, but it's certainly not a camera for all seasons.