Thursday, September 17, 2009

A First Look At The K-x in NYC

Pentax's Special Launch in New York

(For a quick introduction to the K-x, see my previous post "Red. White. Blue. Black. Take Your Pic With the New K-x.")

About a month ago, I received a very nice "X Marks The Spot" invite to Pentax's Sept. 16th launch of a mystery camera at the International Center for Photography in NYC, a camera which was then under wraps but which I soon learned was the Pentax K-x. I have to admit, I'm a bit out of the loop this year while I concentrate on my full-time job in the book industry, so I was wondering if I would be impressed or not. Well, obviously I'm coming out of the woodwork again because I saw something I could relate to and it was interesting enough to write about. And I'm really anxious to not just parrot the talking points that were impressed upon all of us there. There's something about all the colors available in Japan that has my mind stirring.

Wednesday night launch at the International Center For Photography for Pentax

While the launch did take place yesterday on the 16th, an embargo was in effect until midnight, so this is being published on the 17th, a few hours after the Pentax event. (I didn't prepare this little essay in advance... The photo industry is well served by people with advance information who beaver away on "advance" reviews—I don't need to be another one of them. And leakers be damned. These are just my straight up impressions.)

Comparing the K2000 to the K-x.

It Comes In Colors

So, it wasn't until more recently that I began to have an idea of what they were planning and I have to admit that the colors were the first things to jump out at me in the advance press materials. I reflected on that and wondered what my impression would be when I saw the colors in person. The last new DSLR camera I've really gotten close to knowing, a K20D I asked for on loan from Pentax, is one that I would never have touched if it was only in red. It's not my thing. Fender guitars in custom colors, yes. Cameras, black please (or brushed silver if black isn't available). Still, I was as curious as I get to see it up close for myself.

A Pentax staffer holds out the new kit lens for the red edition K-x.

Seeing the red K-x and a white K2000 finally in my hands, it somehow made me want to play with them. These are small DSLRs, so in your hands the color seems less aggressive. The color doesn't constantly jump out at you and quickly becomes acceptable. Maybe not completely acceptable at a catered party. Maybe not for professionals, but definitely doable for the average iPhone user and the shenanigans we get into in daily life.

It's true that Pentax has been pilot testing colors in special editions, in silver, white or olive green (and this one was tempting), but this is the first time that they're coming out to the regular retail channels as an option you can buy, for example, on Amazon. The limited color editions worked as a way to get direct feedback from consumers about demand for color models. As Pentax USA President Ned Bunnell explained, it was better to spend the $125,000 building limited edition cameras and sell them directly than to tour 12 cities and interview people about cameras they weren't holding in their hands. The end result is that Pentax received strong demographic numbers that showed that women bought more colored cameras than they would have bought black models. The numbers jumped from a skew of 20% female and 80% male buyers to 50%-50%. Something worth doing on a larger scale.

Ned Bunnell, exhibiting his own photo at the ICP, alongside the present Avedon exhibit.

There's much more to be said about how Hoya is influencing this experimentation and new drive to be focused on results that make Pentax a break-even company. We certainly heard a lot about it at the press event, and I'll comment on that in another article. But suffice for now that Pentax sees growth with women customers for its entry-level cameras. After all that demographic positioning with the K-m last year, I'm not really surprised.

Setting The Tone For The User Experience

And this really sets the overall tone for other curious customers of the K-x and first-time DSLR buyers: it's not really aimed at people going on Antarctic expeditions, shooting models in Paris, or putting together an exploration of contemporary bird habitats. There's no confusion. It's making an effort to be fun and appealing, which is what we've seen Olympus and Panasonic do with their lines of entry-level consumer DSLRs and Four-Thirds cameras.

Do the colors have custom color finish names, like "Starlight Blue" or "Ferrari Red?" No. The colors are just glossy plastic, not coated anodized aluminum or anything too extraordinary. But the effect is simply fun in that way we're all familiar with custom color gadgets. The color lets you tell your camera apart from your friends' cameras, and it almost anthropomorphizes the object with its "otherness."

Dumbing Down?

Despite how some elite hobbyists who would never buy an entry-level camera may think that these color finishes dumb down the product (why disguise the fact you have a decent piece of technology by making it masquerade as a toy?), it helps the camera stand out and that serves a purpose for some users. It's a conversation piece. It makes people who see it form a new opinion, regardless of their previous impressions of Pentax, and that helps them remember the brand. This is interesting in a typically very conservative industry. At this point, I know I sound like a Pentax apologist and that I'll drink any Kool-Aid they put out on a tray, but I really wanted to be irked by the colors and I just couldn't do it.

And customers who take the chance on it because of the colors should find that Pentax is offering the K-x as something entry-level that has feature overkill. It's red, it's white, it's blue and it's still more DSLR than most people will use.

Catching Up With Consumer Demand For HD Video
The End of Western Civilization

The camera itself has similar specs to the K-7, and shares the same PRIME II computer engine for JPG and RAW processing (in camera RAW processing is Pentax's strong suit), so the chips consequently handle 720p 24fps HD video easily. But this is a first for an entry-level DSLR from Pentax. We've already seen Nikon and Canon explode the market demand for DSLR HD video, but Pentax is quick to point out that they're the only DSLR company who's entire line now offers HD video.

Of course, everyone can nitpick about how it's implemented. Last year, folks like were quick to point out the conspicuous absence of Live View in the K2000 and bemoaned it, and similarly I expect there will always be specs on the comparison tables where this camera fails to meet feature overkill expectations from people who chart such things. The K-x doesn't have HDMI, 30fps, stereo audio output (and you can only use the onboard mic and no other input), and I heard that's what caused the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.

Single-hand control for the K-x.

Beefing Up The Specs In A Competitive Landscape

Overall, this is a camera that out performs the K100D of a few years ago by leaps and bounds. Entry-level consumers are getting harder pressed to really complain about what they have now when they compare this generation to older models, much like I should hardly complain about my big HD widescreen TV when I seemed to be living comfortably enough with a 13" CRT just a couple years ago. Live View and HD video are standard already? Wasn't that strangely fast?

And What About the Sample Pictures?

It's good to see Pentax finally setting other competitive entry-level standards, with specs for higher ISO and faster shutter speed than ever before, but I bet you're thinking, "it remains to be seen what the image quality is like." Let's think about this rationally. We have to assume it's halfway between the K-m/K2000 and the K-7. I'm yawning from anticipation because I already know it's going to be good enough for college kids and moms.

But what's interesting to me is that I saw Ned Bunnell tell his audience flat out that pixel peepers who are agonizing over noise should really just stop giving in to hypotheticals and ask themselves why the best photographs surrounding us at the ICP overcome technical limitations because of the creative content. A good picture isn't just one free of grain or noise. Okay, he didn't quite put it in those words, but that was the gist, and no one yelled out "You lie!"

He spoke about this to an audience of sales people and press without any need for apology. If the iPhone is nearly the most popular camera on Flickr, we know that we're living in a golden age of technical opportunity and it's about time we try to let our creativity catch up to the tools we've been given. So why not have a little color? If a red camera sells and it means people start taking fewer pictures of cats, what a noble cause the K-x truly is.


Jarda said...

Hey, what a great blog post. I've read several K-x hands-on and first impressions this morning, but your article stands out.

Yvon Bourque said...


I'm envious. Michelle Martin sent me an invitation but New York is across the Country for me. That's a real good report you posted.

Best Regards,

Yvon Bourque

Anonymous said...

Hey! What do you have against taking cat pictures!?!?!

Michael said...

As someone who has had a photo on I Can Has Cheezburger, I think I know full well about the dangers of cat photos. Your cat's ego inflates tremendously, as if it wasn't big enough.

mark dimalanta said...

Hi Michael,

We didn't get a chance to talk at the event, there were so many in attendance. However, I loved your write up about the KX launch. succinct and to the point. well done!


Enche Tjin said...

Nice report Michael, love it.

MadK said...

Wow. Just found this site. Well-done, mate. Really nice review. I am a Nikon-lover interested in checking out this latest Pentax. Spending loads of time checking out reviews--this one is really tops. Liked the one at Imaging Resource, as well-but for diff reasons. Photocrati has a nice, photographer-centric field test review of the Kx which is quite nice (good raw videos), but again yours really stands out.

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