Ricoh GXR Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Ricoh GXR
Resolution: 12.30 Megapixels
Sensor size: APS-C
Lens: n/a
Viewfinder: LCD
ISO: 200-3200
Shutter: 180-1/3200
Max Aperture: 2.5
Dimensions: 4.5 x 2.8 x 3.0 in.
(114 x 70 x 77 mm)
Weight: 14.9 oz (423 g)
MSRP: $1,380
Availability: 12/2009
Manufacturer: Ricoh
Full specs: Ricoh GXR specifications
12.30
Megapixels
n/a
APS-C
size sensor
image of Ricoh GXR
Front side of Ricoh GXR digital camera Back side of Ricoh GXR digital camera Left side of Ricoh GXR digital camera    

The Ricoh GXR features optional modules that allow the lens and sensor to be interchanged together. The camera body itself doesn't contain a lot beyond the LCD display, connectivity for an optional external viewfinder, slots for battery and flash card plus internal memory, a flash strobe and hot shoe, microphone and speaker, plus the various control buttons and dials. The meat of the camera - its lens, sensor and (one presumes) image processor - are to be found in the modules. At launch, two lens/sensor modules are offered for the Ricoh GXR. One provides a 3x optical zoom range from 24mm to 72mm equivalents with an aperture varying from f/2.5 to f/4.4 across the zoom range, while the other has a fixed focal length equivalent to 50mm, with maximum aperture of f/2.5.

Each lens module has benefits and limitations compared to its alternative. The smaller and lighter zoom lens module offers sensor shift image stabilization, allows sensitivities as low as ISO 100 equivalent, can focus as close as one centimeter, enables a Zoom Macro scene mode, and offers battery life of 410 shots. On the flip side though, it uses a much smaller 1/1.7" CCD image sensor with a slightly lower resolution of ten megapixels, almost halves the burst rate to 1.6 frames per second in JPEG mode, requires noise reduction to be applied at ISO 800 or above, doesn't allow shutter speeds faster than 1/2000 second, and doesn't offer high-definition movie recording or industry-standard 24 fps framerates. Flash range with this module is 20cm - 4.5m at wide angle, and 15cm - 2.7m at telephoto.

The 50mm-equivalent lens module meanwhile uses a much larger APS-C image sensor with slightly higher twelve megapixel resolution, increases the burst rate to three frames per second in JPEG mode, allows shutter speeds as fast as 1/3200 second, allows noise reduction to be disabled at all resolutions, and enables HD movie recording (1,280 x 720 pixels), although the 30 frames per second rate is replaced by 24 fps. To achieve this, it trades away the mechanical image stabilization, has a minimum sensitivity limit of ISO 200, won't focus closer than seven centimeters, increases body weight by 98 grams and depth by 32.7mm, and drops battery life by almost a quarter to 320 shots. Flash range with this module is 20cm to three meters.

As for the magnesium alloy camera body itself, it is dominated on its rear by a 3.0" LCD display with high 920,000 dot resolution, placing it in the region of 640 x 480 pixels, with three dots per color. A built-in flash strobe offers six modes including red-eye reduction, and offers 2.0EV of flash exposure compensation plus manual strength control in twelve steps from full to 1/64th of full power. Images are stored on SD or SDHC cards, or in approximately 86MB of built-in memory. File formats include Adobe's .DNG Raw and JPEG compressed still images, as well as OpenDML compliant Motion JPEG AVI movies. Connectivity includes NTSC / PAL standard definition and HDMI high-definition video via a Type-C Mini HDMI connector, plus USB 2.0 High-Speed data transfer. Power comes from a 3.6 volt DB-90 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Body size without a module attached is 113.9 x 70.2 x 28.9 mm, and weight is 160 grams body-only without a module.

The unusual module-based design is intended to offer several main benefits. By combining lens and sensor into one item, Ricoh can ensure the sensor and lens designs are complementary to each others' requirements. The design also allows size and weight benefits over interchangeable lens cameras with fixed sensors - zoom lens size can be kept down by reducing the size of the image circle to that of a smaller sensor, while a relatvely compact prime lens can use a larger sensor with better light-gathering capability. Finally, with a sealed module, dust can be kept away from the sensor - at least, for lenses with internal focusing and either fixed focal lengths, or an internal zoom design.

For lenses with an external focusing or zoom mechanism, the design could have the exact opposite effect however. The action of zooming or (to a lesser extent) focusing such a lens moves air (and with it, dust) into and out of the lens barrel - and once that arrives on the sensor, there's no way to manually clean it back off inside a sealed module. This is the normal state of play for compact fixed-lens digicams, but offers a potential limitation as compared to Micro Four Thirds and digital SLR cameras where the sensor can be easily cleaned. Bundling lens and sensor together in a single module also means that every lens purchase must also include a sensor - commonly one of the most expensive components in an APS-C camera. It also means both parts must be replaced if one fails outside the warranty period. Likewise, as advancements in rapidly evolving sensor technology appear, they can't be used with any current lens for the system, and will necessitate new lens purchases when appropriate modules become available. The design also means more complex electronic connections - instead of passing only data to and from the lens to pass power, enable autofocusing, aperture adjustment, correction of lens defects, etc., the design requires that the power, still image / video data, live view stream, flash control, etc. must all be passed between module and body. There's also an element of potential confusion in the fact that basic camera functionality like still image and movie resolutions, available shutter speeds, etc. changing depending on which module is mounted.

Ricoh is not the first company to experiment with offering interchangeable modules at retail, which couple a lens and sensor into a single package for connection to a camera body. That honor goes to Minolta's DiMAGE EX1500, offered some eleven years ago - and interestingly, also having debuted with the choice of a 3x zoom module, or a fixed focal length module. In Minolta's case, the camera wasn't successful enough to cause the company to offer any further lens / sensor modules, and only two accessory modules were ever offered for the camera - a flash hot shoe module and a MetaFlash module for 3D photography, both of which plugged in between the camera body and lens / sensor module. The DiMAGE EX1500 also offered a capability not found in Ricoh's camera - the camera body and module could be connected by a short cable, allowing the lens to be pointed in a different direction to that of the attached display.

While US pricing hasn't been officially announced, the camera and both modules have already appeared in the inventory of reputable US retailers. US street pricing is a rather steep $550 for the camera body without a module. Street pricing for the 50mm-equivalent lens module with APS-C sensor is $830, and the 24 - 72mm equivalent zoom lens module with 1/1.7" sensor is another $440. That brings the total cost for the system without optional external viewfinder to $1,820, leaving Ricoh with something of a challenge, when two cameras offering not dissimilar combined specifications can be purchased together for several hundred dollars less.

Ricoh GXR

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