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The name of the Pentax K-5 II (MSRP $1,099.95 body-only, $1,249.95 w/ kit) says it all: It's the K-5, v2.0. The only major changes? A massively improved autofocus module known as SAFOX X, and a variant called the K-5 IIs that ships without an optical low-pass filter.
The new camera can be read in two completely different ways, depending on your perspective. If you're not a fan of the K-5, or of the brand, you can read it cynically: Pentax has nothing new to bring to the table. If you're a K-5 devotee, you can read the K-5 II optimistically: Pentax is so confident in the K-5's staying power that they've re-released it, pausing only to fix its one glaring flaw.
Which perspective you adhere to probably says more about you than it does about the camera, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. The K-5 was undeniably at the top of its class in 2010 and 2011, in large part due to its remarkable Sony-sourced sensor, but its class is now two years old. Re-releasing essentially the same camera smacks of weakness, but on the other hand, where's the competition?
Until a month ago, there wasn't any, but Nikon's announcement of the 24-megapixel D7100 changes everything. Comparable in terms of specs, build quality, and weatherproofing, it also boasts the same filterless sensor design as the K-5 IIs but ups the resolution considerably. The D7100 also outclasses the K-5 II in terms of autofocus points and tracking capability, and does so for only $100 more.
With this in mind, can the K-5 II hang with the current generation of APS-C system cameras, or is it a camera out of time?
We were deeply enamored of the Pentax K-5’s design when we reviewed it a couple years back, and we feel precisely the same way about the K-5 II. The ergonomics are still spectacular, the amount of physical controls still admirable, and the weather-proofing still highly desirable. In particular, the combination of the camera's compact, dense magnesium alloy frame and its perfectly sculpted grip makes it feel like a finely crafted weapon in your hand. The Nikon D5200 and Canon Rebel T3 are in the same ballpark size-wise, but feel far less substantial thanks to their primarily plastic construction.
Inside, you’ll find the same 16.1-megapixel Sony-sourced, APS-C sized CMOS sensor, paired with the same PRIME II processor. The only new internal component is the vastly improved SAFOX X autofocus module, which claims accurate focus down to -3 EV (roughly equivalent to moonlight). Also improved is the rear LCD. Though still 3 inches and 921,000 dots with an IPS panel, it’s now a gapless design that Pentax says creates a brighter, sharper image. We found that it provided slightly better viewability in bright light, as well as better off-angle viewing.
Like the older model, the K-5 II features a magnesium alloy body and full weather resistance, with 77 individual seals. It's rated to operate in temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) and as high as 104F (40C). We expect it can exceed both of those limits, though battery life and LCD performance may take a hit in extreme cold. Pentax's weather sealing is the real deal, as this internet-famous video of an American soldier burying his K-5 in Afghan sand and washing it off in the shower handily demonstrates.
The K-5 II's sensor and processing pipeline are essentially unchanged from the K-5, but that's not as much of a handicap as it may seem. The K-5's sensor was a benchmark for its class of APS-C DSLRs, and it still produces great image quality today.
In our testing, sharpness was outstanding when paired with quality lenses, though our DA 18-55mm WR kit lens proved to be relatively soft. The kit lens also produced significant distortion and chromatic aberration, though these can be addressed with in-camera JPEG processing options and post-processing editing suites. We were less than impressed by the value proposition of the filter-free K-5 IIs, but if ultimate sharpness is your goal, it might be worth ponying up. For all the details, check out our head-to-head sharpness comparison.
Dynamic range performance was admirable, particularly when recovering shadows in RAW files. As with the K-5, noise levels are manageable all the way up to ISO 12800, and even shots at ISO 25600 and 51200 are usable with a little post-processing and resizing. Chroma (splotchy color) noise was virtually nonexistent, giving high-ISO shots a more natural, film-like grain.
As usual, video quality is a serious problem for Pentax. The options here are unchanged from the K-5, and so is the performance—the best you can do is 1080/25p (an odd framerate for a camera sold in NTSC-land), and the camera still uses the bloated, outdated Motion JPEG compression protocol. In our tests, sharpness was fine if not outstanding and motion was fluid, but there was obvious trailing due to the low max framerate. Artifacting was kept to a minimum in good light, but there was significant frequency interference in the form of rolling shutter and moire.
Compared to similarly-priced DSLRs, the K-5 II is feature-rich—at least for stills shooters. A bevy of enthusiast-oriented shooting modes, including a couple unique to Pentax, make it easy for experienced users to jump in and get their hands dirty. Manual controls for all major settings further enhance the camera's photographer-friendly credentials.
The SAFOX X focusing system is a huge leap forward for Pentax, fixing long-standing problems with low-light focus accuracy and taking a big step ahead of much of the competition with -3 EV focusing capability. Subject tracking could still stand to be improved and we'd like to see more focusing points with a wider spread, but the new module is a great improvement overall. Continuous shooting speed is unchanged from the original K-5 at 7 fps, still very good for the class. That said, we'd still recommend other makes for sports shooters, mostly due to the tracking deficiencies.
As usual for a high-end Pentax DSLR, the K-5 II's ruggedness is beyond reproach. Its magnesium alloy build and 77 weather seals mean you can shoot in the rain, the snow, or even a sandstorm without worry. In-body image stabilization means every lens you mount on the camera enjoys up to four stops of shake reduction, even legacy manual focus glass.
Serious videographers will almost certainly want to take a miss on the K-5 II. While the camera feints at video-friendliness with its mic jack, it offers extremely limited video recording options and absolutely no audio control. Full-HD recording is limited to 1080/25p in the outmoded Motion JPEG compression format.
When it was announced at Photokina 2012, the K-5 II was an immediate disappointment for some die-hard Pentaxians, who had been primed by the photo rumor mill for a true follow-up to the K-5. They had hoped for a full-frame K-3, or at least a 24-megapixel APS-C body. What they got instead was a warmed-over K-5, with only a new LCD and improved autofocus.
Others, however, were quick to recognize the K-5 II as a smart tactical move. The K-5 had excellent staying power in an APS-C market starved of new high-end models, and the new camera addresses its predecessor's one notable failing: unreliable autofocus accuracy. The K-5 II attacks the focusing problem in style, too: The new SAFOX X AF module can find a focus lock in light as dim as -3EV, and in our experience it was extremely quick and accurate under all conditions.
While we can see the merits of both positions, we find ourselves firmly in the latter camp. Sure, we'd love a K-3, and we always love to see a smaller player beat the big two to the punch, but the K-5 II is a stellar APS-C DSLR regardless of the age of its design. Along with Sony's Alpha A77 SLT, the K-5 II is one of our favorite full-sized APS-C system cameras on the market today, and a particularly great option for street and landscape photographers. That said, it's bound to face some serious competition from Nikon's immensely impressive-on-paper D7100.
The D7100 is set to launch at $1,199.95, body only—just $100 more than the K-5 II and dead even with the K-5 IIs. Nikon's new top APS-C camera matches the IIs step for step in weatherproofing and low-pass filterectomy, but goes further with 51-point autofocus and a 24-megapixel sensor. Obviously, unaffiliated photographers buying their first top-tier DSLR will have a tough choice ahead, but Pentaxians are likely to stick with the home team. If you're looking to upgrade from a K-7, K20D, or K-x and don't require stellar autofocus performance in low light or with fast primes (brighter than f/2.8), the K-5 is a great choice and a real money-saver. But if you just love shallow depth of field and need the flexibility to shoot in the dark, the K-5 II is your answer.
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