The Pentax *istDL is the latest contender in the growing budget digital SLR (single lens reflex) market, offering 6.1Mp (megapixel) resolution and a 3x zoom lens for £649. In some respects it's a simplified version of the earlier *istDS, but there's several improvements. It faces tough competition from the Nikon D50, Canon EOS-350D and forthcoming Konica Minolta Dynax 5D.
The sensor is the same 6.1Mp CCD (charge-coupled device) employed by the earlier DS and most rival SLRs to date. It delivers images with 3,008x2,000 pixels and sufficient detail to make good-looking A3 prints. As with other SLRs, the sensor is physically larger than those in consumer cameras, allowing lower noise levels even at high sensitivities.
The DL can use just about any Pentax lens, directly handling K, KA, KAF and KAF2 models and even screw-mount or medium-format optics with an adapter. Like other budget SLRs, though, the DL's sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film, so all lenses effectively have their focal length multiplied by 1.5. As a result, the optionally bundled 18-55mm f3.5~5.6 lens has an effective range of 27-82mm.
Like the DS before it (and now also Nikon's D50) the DL shuns CompactFlash in favour of SD Memory Cards, although as with all SLRs you'll need to supply your own. Images can be recorded with three different levels of Jpeg compression or as RAW files; sadly there's no RAW plus Jpeg option. Best-quality Jpegs take up around 3MB each.
Measuring just 125x93x67mm, the DL is fractionally smaller than Canon's EOS-350D, making it the most compact SLR on the market. Despite its size, it's comfortable to hold and also feels very well-built. Amazingly, Pentax has managed to squeeze in a huge 2.5in screen, both bigger and more detailed than its rivals and predecessor - and there's also a large status display on the top.
Following its budget rivals, Pentax has swapped the viewfinder prism of the DS for a cheaper and lighter mirror on the DL. Total weight including lens and batteries is down to 790g, although Canon's 350D beats this by 65g. The DL is powered by four AA batteries - it comes supplied with disposable alkalines, so budget for rechargeables.
The main dial lets you choose from the usual Program, Manual, Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, along with six scene presets and Auto Pict (see box). Exposures range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds and bulb, while sensitivity runs between 200 and 3,200 ISO. Burst mode shoots up to 2.8fps (frames per second), but the buffer fills after three best-quality Jpegs.
The DL starts quickly and takes good-looking pictures with ease. Resolving power and noise levels are as good as the best 6Mp DSLRs.
Some will find the simplified three-point auto-focus a little slow at times and the three-frame burst buffer restrictive, but the majority will feel compensated by the huge and highly detailed screen. Fans of polarising filters will also appreciate the non-rotating front lens element, and it's nice to have a lens hood thrown in - Canon and Nikon take note.
The DL has some unique plus points, but Nikon's D50 costs the same, comes with a rechargeable battery and has the edge in overall performance, while Canon's 350D costs little more on the street and boasts an extra 2Mp. Cameras, however, are very personal items, and there'll be many who prefer the look and feel of the *istD. It's a welcome addition to the market.