What do you get when you cram 12 megapixels 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 our Top 10 Point-and-Shoot Cameras chart. The Optio S12 is a cinch to use, fits comfortably into just about any pocket and looks as stylish as its predecessor, the Optio S10. Though it lacks some key functions (optical image stabilization 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 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 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 customizable "Green Button," which you can set to provide instant access to your choice of four of the camera's manual functions, or to turn the camera to full-automatic mode.
I used the S12 in a number of situations, and for the most part it performed well. The 2.5-inch 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 camera's "super macro" mode, which supposedly reduces the focus range to 6 centimeters, worked like a charm. In our PC World Test Center 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 downside, I found the night scene mode (one of the few scene modes that I use on point-and-shoots) to be pretty useless: The shutter speed was consistently too slow, producing overexposed images with excessive streaking. I was 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 S12 was annoyingly slow to adjust manually. Perhaps most painfully, the 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 color, and its 12 megapixels of detail mean that you can crop to your heart's content.
Despite these flaws, you could do a lot worse for US$230. If you want a gazillion dedicated buttons and specialized functions, you'll have to look elsewhere. But if you're looking for a sturdy, toss-it-in-your-pocket camera that takes good (though not stellar) pictures, the S12 is a solid value. And the Optio S12's streamlined interface and controls allow you to concentrate on what's most important: taking pictures.