Pentax *ist DS
At a Glance
Pentax Ricoh Imaging Company *ist DS Digital Camera with Pentax DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL Digital SLR Lens (6.1MP, 3008x2008)
A no-brainer if you own Pentax lenses, this smallish camera shot well in auto mode, but its smaller-size CCD is a drawback.
If you've looked longingly at digital single-lens-reflex cameras but have been put off by their size and weight, you'll want to check out the Pentax *ist DS ($900 with an 18mm to 55mm lens; $800 without). It's the smallest SLR I've seen to date--just a hair smaller than the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT--and, at 17.8 ounces (body only, without battery), it weighs about the same. With its largish right-hand grip and nicely placed controls, the Pentax feels solid and comfortable in your hand.
As with the other digital SLRs in our September roundup, the *ist DS has a slew of creative features; once you master those--particularly the exposure controls--you can take some truly fine photos. But where the Pentax falls behind its competition is in the lack of dedicated control buttons: It has almost none. A function button, combined with the four-way navigation thumb button, lets you quickly change the ISO, white balance, flash setting, or drive mode (single-shot, self-timer, or exposure bracketing). But for everything else, you have to step into the menu system; though working through the menus is fairly quick, most of the other SLRs I've reviewed are faster to set because they have lots of buttons. One plus is a Custom Setting menu that lets you fine-tune many of the *ist DS's controls. I'd be a lot happier, however, if I could customize the Function button to the controls I use most frequently.
Like the original Canon EOS Digital Rebel and the Nikon D70s, the Pentax has a 6.1-megapixel CCD. That number seems a little behind the curve, however, as most digital SLRs are moving to 7 or 8 megapixels. Whether it was the pixel count or the image processing technology Pentax gave the *ist DS, image quality was below the average for SLRs cameras run through the PC World Test Center's formal tests. In particular, the *ist DS earned low scores for the sharpness of its images.
Along with six scene modes, it has an Auto Picture mode that turns the *ist DS into an expensive point-and-shoot, choosing all the settings for you. In this full automatic mode, the Pentax produced accurate exposure values. Colors looked bright--even slightly oversaturated, in some cases. It captured pure whites and neutral grays especially well. Like the other SLRs we tested, the *ist DS earned higher scores for its color accuracy once we made manual adjustments to exposure settings.
The *ist's burst mode seemed a little rough, compared with the competition. Writing to a high-speed SD Card, the camera sped up and slowed down as it recorded a sequence of shots, for an estimated average frame rate of about only 1.5 fps (our chart lists the manufacturer's spec of 2.8 fps for burst mode). By comparison, the 8.2-megapixel Olympus EVolt E-300 impressed me by consistently shooting at 2.5 frames per second at its second-highest JPEG setting until it ran out of space on its CompactFlash card.
This Pentax does have one distinct advantage over most of today's digital SLRs: While the vast majority of them employ proprietary rechargeable batteries, the Pentax uses two disposable CR-3Vs or four AAs. That means you can buy your own rechargeable batteries, and in a pinch you can switch to disposable AAs.
The *ist DS is best suited for hobbyist photographers on very tight budgets, but $100 more will get you the Canon Digital Rebel XT and its better image quality.