Does the world need another 10-megapixel 'starter' SLR?
Pentax seems to think so, and the K-m is the company's attempt to muscle in on this sector.
You should be able to pick it up for around £350, which is cheaper than the K200D and right in there with the Canon EOS 1000D and Nikon D60.
Although it's up against bigger names who've been in this market for longer, the K-m has got to have something special up its sleeve. In fact, it has a number of things up its sleeve. One of these is the Pentax SR anti-shake system.
This is a downsized version of the mechanism used in other Pentax SLRs, but it appears from our tests to be just as effective, and somewhat better than Sony's Super SteadyShot system, as fitted to its Alpha models. Because Pentax's anti-shake is built into the body, it should offer shake-reduction with any lens, whereas Nikon and Canon favour stabilisation systems built into the lens instead.
Who needs RAW?
The K-m has another feature found on the K200D and K20D – Pentax's 'expanded' dynamic range mode. It's surprising that Pentax doesn't push this more aggressively because it makes a big difference to the pictures.
Judging by the way this feature curtails the lower end of the ISO range by 1EV when it's activated (the new minimum is ISO 200), it works by changing the level of signal amplification (ISO) in different parts of the image. This offers an improvement in dynamic range to 200%, which doesn't sound a lot, but the effect on image highlights is easy to see. Not only are highlights less likely to blow, the camera's highlight gradation seems very subtle too.
Many of us shoot RAW files just to get the extra dynamic range in the highlights, but with the Pentax you hardly need to – the Pentax's JPEGs are fine and there may be very little to gain here.
And this makes the K-m's range of custom image modes all the more useful. There are Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant and Monochrome options, which can be tweaked for saturation, hue, contrast and sharpness.
That's not bad for a beginners' camera, but the K-m goes further. In the Monochrome mode you can tweak the 'filter' setting to reproduce the effects of black and white filters, using a 'red' filter, for example, to dramatically darken blue skies, or a 'yellow' filter to subtly lighten the foliage in landscape shots.
Great camera layout
Impressed yet? There's more. If you go back to the custom image modes, the camera previews each effect on the shot you've just taken, so you can quickly decide whether to change the settings and re-shoot.
This is a great camera for shooting JPEGs because you can experiment with all these colour modes knowing that you're scarcely losing anything in quality by not shooting RAW.
The K-m is so well laid out you kind of wish that the K200D and K20D had been designed the same way. The exterior is clear and uncluttered, and the controls are clearly labelled.
The finish is good, too, and underneath the matt black body panels is a stainless steel chassis – not bad for a £350 camera. The control dial has a positive action and the right weighting, and the viewfinder is big and clear.
You don't get illuminated AF points, alas, and although the K-m's 5-point AF system is a little more sophisticated than the 3-point systems in the Nikon D60 and Olympus E-420, say, there's very little advantage if the AF points aren't highlighted in any way.
On the subject of autofocus, the K-m can't match the smooth, near-silent systems used by Nikon and Canon. It feels noisy and coarse by comparison, though it does the job well enough. You'd have to invest in one of Pentax's more expensive zooms to get round this (the 17-70mm f/4, for example), but this will double the price.
It's worth considering, though, and not just with the K-m but the other Pentax models too. The standard 18-55mm lens is pretty poor, and with the K-m Pentax has released an even cheaper version with a plastic mount and no distance scale on the focussing ring.
Performance is okay in the centre of the frame, but detail softens considerably towards the edges and some pretty strong chromatic aberration creeps in. Only Sony's 18-70mm kit lens is worse than this. Canon's 18-55mm is marginally better and Nikon's 18-55 is better still.
There's one more interesting thing about the K-m – it runs on four AA batteries. Long-time digital camera users will be wary of any camera that uses AAs because it's a pretty unreliable power source. NiMH rechargeables steadily lose charge even when they're not being used, and alkalines are both short-lived and unpredictable. But here it's different.
Pentax quotes an astonishing battery life of 1,650 shots if you use disposable lithium AAs. They're more expensive than alkalines, but with that kind of life expectancy it's a lot easier to swallow. A set of alkalines should last pretty well too, though there are no figures on this and it will vary from brand to brand. Don't expect more that 100-200 shots, though.
The Pentax K-m really does deserve to sell well. The kit lens isn't particularly good, but it's not alone there. The camera itself is excellent, and not just for beginners. It's well-made, robust, versatile and practical. Pentax never seems to rush into new markets, but when it does make a move, you can tell a lot of thought has gone into it.