The Pentax K-x was a camera that took a lot of people by surprise. Offering a killer combination of features and low price, it bought the company a lot of the name recognition it had been sorely lacking in the entry-level dSLR market, and won ample attention from critics, industry insiders, and consumers alike. It's been our favorite entry-level dSLR at Digital Camera HQ for the better part of the past year, beating out rivals from Canon, Nikon, and Sony. However, despite its successes, the camera was not without its notable issues. Perhaps most glaring was its lack of illuminated autofocus points in the viewfinder. Some also decried its lack of a dedicated lithium-ion battery, as it instead ran on AAs.
The new K-r arrives as an incremental upgrade. It's clear that the engineers at Pentax were tasked with addressing the aforementioned user concerns, but the new model also offers refreshed cosmetics, a revised version of the much-loved 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, expanded ISO range for added low-light sensitivity, and a new autofocus system identical to the one found in the flagship K-5 model. In reality, the K-r is less a direct K-x replacement and more of a midway point the K-x and K-5. A smattering of software features from the K-5 have migrated down to the K-r, and its price is positioned somewhat above that of its predecessor.
Since the K-x was introduced, competition in the entry-level market has only gotten more intense. Ever-increasing numbers of point-and-shoot users are migrating to interchangeable lens cameras, either traditional dSLRs or the smaller mirrorless options, and today's entry-level models are increasingly feature-packed. In this kind of environment, it really takes something to stand out from the crowd. Thanks to its rich feature set, outstanding sensor, and reasonable price point, the K-r looks like a winning proposition -- but a good camera is more than just a good spec sheet.
Body and Design
Compared to the K-x, the K-r is marginally bigger and heavier, though it's still quite small by dSLR standards. The camera weighs in at 598 grams with its battery (or just over 1.3 pounds), and its dimensions measure just 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 inches. This is smaller than any of its competition -- including the Nikon D3100, Canon T3, and Sony A55 -- but slightly heavier. Built on a stainless-steel chassis, the heavy-duty polycarbonate body feels extremely solid in your hand, with no flex at all. The slight added heft is actually reassuring, and helps to steady your hand when composing shots.
Though the overall shape is similar, several cosmetic changes have been made since the K-x. First of all, the rubberized grip material continues all the way around the front of the body to its left side, making the camera easier to hold onto. Second, the tough plastic used for the entire casing has a new matte finish that's more in keeping with upmarket models. The K-x had a shinier plastic finish with chrome trim, which struck some as gaudy; in contrast, the K-r is all business. Continuing with this theme, the bright blue power-LED that was placed just behind the K-x's shutter release is now an indented white stripe that's much less distracting. A focus-assist lamp has been added between the lens housing and the hand grip, nullifying another user gripe about the K-x design. The prism and flash assembly is now somewhat larger and more angular, presumably due to the addition of illuminated AF points in the viewfinder. This new profile gives the K-r a passing resemblance to the K-5, but unlike it's big brother and like its predecessor, the camera can also be ordered in a number of different colors (up to 100 different body/grip color combinations, if you live in Japan).
Aside from the lack of a power light, the top and rear of the camera are identical to the K-x, at least in terms of button and dial placement. As before, the power switch encircles the shutter release on the right side of the camera. Just behind are the EV compensation and "green" buttons, and closer to the rear is the mode dial. Along the upper edge of the rear face is a combined flash release/trash button to the left of the viewfinder, and the sole e-dial and an AF/AE-lock button to its right. Below, to the right of the LCD screen, are buttons for playback, live view, Info, and the main menu, as well as a 4-way control dial and OK button. Each of the 4-way buttons provides direct access to a vital setting, such as white balance, flash, ISO, and self-timer. Speaking of the LCD, the K-r is equipped with a new 3-inch, 921,000-pixel IPS screen -- exactly the same screen found on the $1,600 K-5. It's brilliantly bright and sharp with great viewing angles, and the increased resolution is a great help when focusing in live view or reviewing images for critical sharpness.
As with most Pentax bodies before it, the K-r's ergonomics are superb. Even though it's a tiny body, the vital buttons fall perfectly under your right index finger and thumb. Every control is just where it should be. The grip is contoured to fit the hand, with an ident for your index finger, though the size of the body requires that most users curl their pinky under the bottom.
Where the K-x took only four AA cells, the K-r accepts either the included proprietary Lithium-Ion unit or AAs (via a separate adapter). The 1050mAh battery that ships with the kit is a bit on the small side, probably since it's made to fit inside a compartment big enough for AAs. Battery life is rated at about 470 shots, though I got closer to 370 when shooting mainly still images without flash, mixed with some 720p video recording. AAs, particularly disposable lithiums, may last longer.
Inside, the K-x's 12.4-megapixel, Sony-manufactured sensor has been replaced by a new model, also 12.4 megapixels and also made by Sony. This new sensor offers a native ISO range of 200-12,800, which can be expanded to 100-25,600 -- truly remarkable for an entry-level model. The shutter assembly has also been upgraded, now maxing out at a top shutter speed of 1/6000 of a second. This higher shutter speed allows for shallow depth of field shooting in bright daylight, greatly expanding your creative possibilities. Finally, the autofocus mechanism has been upgraded from the K-x's SAFOX VIII to the new SAFOX IX system. The K-r is equipped with 11 focusing points, 9 of which are "cross type."
The software user interface is Pentax-standard. The main menu is grouped into four main categories (shooting, playback, setup, and custom settings), each of which has several pages of options. The array of custom settings is pretty dazzling, allowing for control of EV and ISO steps, bracketing order, metering time, and other more esoteric options. When shooting, the rear display takes the place of the dedicated top LCD found on higher-end cameras. It shows live aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and EV compensation settings, as well as recording mode, quality, remaining shots, and so on. Pressing the INFO button brings up quick settings for all frequently-used controls.
Performance and User Experience
Like nearly all dSLRs, the K-r provides a no-muss, no-fuss shooting experience. Startup is virtually instantaneous -- you can shoot less than a second after turning it on. Shutter lag is an absolute non-issue when you've pre-focused, and autofocus speed is a definite step up from the K-x. In good light and at apertures smaller than f/1.8 it's quite snappy and deadly accurate. However, at f/1.8 or wider I did notice some accuracy issues, both with auto and manual focus. In manual focus mode, the green hexagon in the viewfinder would sometimes light up to confirm focus, but the resulting shot wasn't always correctly focused. Granted, it's extremely difficult to maintain precise focus at such wide apertures, even with a crop-sensor camera, and it could simply be that my hands aren't the steadiest.
Continuous shooting has been bumped up to 6fps, which beats most rival models by a sound margin, and the AF system does a good job for the most part in keeping up with the action. For the K-r, Pentax has introduced a new AF mode called AF.A, which bridges the gap between AF.S (Single) and AF.C (Continuous) autofocus, basically letting the camera guess which of the two modes to use. In practice it works quite well, refocusing on the fly when you're tracking a subject and not fidgeting too much when the target is static.
Live view autofocus has been drastically improved since the nearly unusable implementations found in the K-x and K-7. The speed is really quite remarkable, and the contrast-detect AF system never misses focus. It's quite helpful for macro shooting and other kinds of photography where you want pinpoint accuracy and clarity, and have time to set up your shot (e.g., landscapes). When using live view, the center portion of the image zooms in, achieves a focus lock, and then returns to the full image view before snapping the shot. Unlike mirrorless cameras and some of Sony's newer hybrid systems, the K-r still needs to flip up its mirror when entering live view mode, and has to perform some mechanical operations between pressing the shutter release and actually recording the image, so it's not recommended for action shots.
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