What do you get when you cram 12Mp and great battery life into a very tiny, very durable, and sublimely easy-to-use camera? You get the Pentax Optio S12, a solid competitor for the upper echelons of the point-and-shoot category.
The Pentax Optio S12 is a cinch to use, fits comfortably into just about any pocket and looks as stylish as its predecessor, the Optio S10. Although it lacks some key functions (optical image stabilisation in particular, but also zoom in video mode, and advanced manual capabilities), the camera earns points with its ease of use.
Instead of packing the Pentax Optio S12 with buttons and dials, Pentax kept the number of controls to a minimum. The back of the camera features a four-way navigation pad for accessing the self timer, flash options, focus mode, and 12 scene modes.
Pressing the Menu button displays the Pentax Optio S12's small cache of manual functions, which include dynamic range, white balance, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, metering, contrast, sharpness, saturation, pixel count, and quality level.
The only other button on the back is the customisable "Green Button", which you can set to provide instant access to your choice of four of the Pentax Optio S12's manual functions, or to turn the camera to full-automatic mode.
We used the Pentax Optio S12 in a number of situations, and for the most part it performed well. The 2.5in LCD screen was perfectly viewable in bright sunlight (which was not the case with the similar Optio V20, despite the latter's larger screen). The 3x (37mm to 111mm) optical zoom, standard for its class, was fast and smooth.
The Pentax Optio S12's "super macro" mode, which supposedly reduces the focus range to 60mm, worked like a charm. In our battery tests, the S12 outlasted all but one camera we've tested thus far, managing 371 shots on a single battery charge (the Casio Exilim EX-Z1080 managed to hit the lab's ceiling of 500 shots on a charge).
On the down side, we found the night scene mode (one of the few scene modes that we use on point-and-shoots) to be pretty useless: the shutter speed was consistently too slow, producing overexposed images with excessive streaking.
We were also disappointed at being unable to zoom while recording a movie. Manual focus is rarely a usable feature on point-and-shoots; and sure enough, the Pentax Optio S12 was annoyingly slow to adjust manually.
Perhaps most painfully, the Pentax Optio S12 scored below average in overall image quality in our lab tests. This was due mostly to its shortcomings in the flash-exposure category. The camera showed good sharpness and colour, and its 12Mp of detail mean that you can crop to your heart's content.