Pentax’s EI200 is an eagerly-awaited product according to camera retailers, and worth waiting for, too. There’s a bunch of features that make the camera notable, and solid performance and design that make it useful.
The Pentax EI200 is a 2.1 megapixel (1600x1200pixel maximum) digital camera about the size and shape of a compact 35mm camera. The size and weight of the unit fit easily in the hand and in a pocket or carrier. The optical zoom lens is a notable feature, covering an effective focal length of about 35 to 100mm equivalents in 35mm photography, with excellent resolution and clarity. The aperture can be opened to about f2.4, allowing lots of low-light shots that other digital cameras would render dark. Our resolution tests shown only slight vignetting and loss of sharpness at the edges at the two zoom extremes, certainly nothing to be noticed on photographs.
The LCD on the back of the camera allows access to functions through an easy-to-use menu interface. Default options will suit many photographers, but it is nice to have control over exposure and metering modes, white balance, and other parameters. The toggling of continuous shooting and time-lapse imaging provide creative options to a photographer. The built-in flash is small and almost useless for any task other than fill, but that’s par for the course with almost all digital cameras. The backplane features a button and microphone for recording up to 45 seconds of audio clips to the removable CompactFlash card, allowing quick notes about location, exposure, of even audio sound bites to accompany photographs.
The wimpy 8MB CompactFlash card supplied with the unit is almost a throwaway. The camera’s three resolution modes allow you to choose the number of shots you save on a card, but most users will want to purchase larger CompactFlash cards for more capacity. At the highest resolution, the supplied card can store a (gasp!) one single shot. At thw lowest resolution you get about 25 shots on the card, but pixelation causes image problems on any blowup larger than 4x6. Why camera manufacturers skimp and give us flash cards that end up being useless is a mystery: wise up guys! Charge us a few extra bucks for a reasonable capacity card that we won’t waste! You get discounts in bulk!
Battery life is about average for digital cameras of this resolution. The camera’s four AA batteries will last for quite a while as long as you don’t use the LCD continuously. Use of the LCD, or repeated use of the zoom lens, all drains the batteries at an alarming rate. With constant use of the LCD we managed only about 20 shots from a flesh set of alkalines, but with judicious use of the back screen only for final keep/delete functions, we could get 100 shots from a set. Flash drains the batteries must faster, of course, and since the flash is rather weak the drain is not worth it.
The controls of the Pentax EI200 are well placed, the camera feels good in the hand and in constant use, and the overall impression of the unit is of solid workmanship. Modifying the default behavior of the system is easy with the menu, although again you’re draining battery life by using the LCD. All the options are easy to move between using a couple of buttons and a rocker panel. The range of adjustments will suit all but the most demanding photographer.
Our test shots showed good exposure calculations, with a choice between center-weighting, spot, and average metering. The spot metering was a little off, averaging a wider area than you would think, but still acceptable. White balance can be thrown off with overly white content, assuming an average gray pall as with most cameras. White balance adjustments are quite easy, though you have to remember to perform them when necessary. Two buttons on top of the camera allow toggling between portrait, landscape and a fast shutter mode for sports. ISO ratings can be selected as 100, 200, or 400.
As mentioned, the flash is underpowered and drains the camera batteries quickly. Accompanying the camera is a CD-ROM of Adobe PhotoShop LE, a USB to firewire cable for downloading from the camera, and a cable adapter to display photos and sound on a TV. There’s no AC adapter, although one is probably available as an extra since there’s a socket for it underneath one of the swing-out panels. Pentax includes a belt-loop case for the EI200. Transferring images from camera to computer is slow, made worse by the battery drain imposed during this process.
Flash and Zoom
We’ve already commented on the small flash. To Pentax’ credit, the built-in flash does have some nice features such as red-eye reduction and adjustments to the zoom setting of the lens. Recycle time depends on the battery state. For shots in reduced light, we had to boost the ISO rating to 400. With subjects that are not close to the camera, a little brightening in software was also necessary to get good exposures in a print, at the cost of a little contrast loss.
The zoom feature of the lens is activated with a back-panel rocker switch. At full extension, the lens sticks out about half an inch from its retracted position. The zoom movement is smooth. From the resolution tests we’re pretty sure the lens elements are glass (the manual – ours was in Japanese only – doesn’t identify the components).
The little things
The shape and design of the Pentax EI200 got comments from many rubberneckers while we tested the unit. Many mistakenly thought it was a 35mm compact camera, the size and shape very similar to those units from Pentax. Only the LCD on the back gave it away to most onlookers.
The camera was a joy to use, with the on-screen menu, rocker switch, and small push buttons all well conceived. Those with thick fingers may find the buttons small, but our testers had no trouble with any of the camera’s gadgets. A big rotary wheel on top toggles different modes, and the shutter release has a smooth feel to it. Apart from the 8MB memory card, it’s difficult to fault the camera in any way. We enjoyed our time with it.