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First Look: Ricoh RDC-5000 digital camera
Ricoh makes a strong entry in the 2+ megapixel competition.

("First Look" Review posted 4 June, 1999)

 

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2.3 Million pixel sensor
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1792 x 1200 pixel resolution
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2.3X optical zoom + 2.8x digital
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Autofocus lens focuses to 1.6 inches
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Built-in 7-mode flash
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Dual-function RS-232/USB(!) interface port

 

In the midst of all the hoopla over the recently-announced (June, 1999) 2-megapixel cameras from Fuji, Olympus, and Nikon, Ricoh's entry hasn't received much attention. Officially announced at the PMA show in mid-February, 1999, little has been heard of the RDC-5000 since.
Ricoh has been quietly active though, with the result that we recently received a production unit of the RDC-5000 for evaluation. We hastened to get some images up on the web quickly, as the first rollout of the product is scheduled for June 6, on the QVC shopping network. (Unusual move, that!) The following is intended as a quick overview of the camera that will suffice until we can get our typically detailed full review posted.
Background
Ricoh has been a player in the digicam market from the very early days, and was an early innovator in merging multimedia capabilities with their cameras. More recently, they've focused on delivering high value with more conventional feature sets. One hallmark of their cameras has always been excellent macro performance, a tradition the RDC-5000 continues.
Ricoh has considerable experience building film-based point & shoot cameras, a market they only recently exited, intending to focus their photographic expertise solely on the digital marketplace. The RDC-5000 is the first product released since this change of direction, so its design and capabilities are interesting as possible indicators of things to come.
High-Points Overview

  • 2.3 Megapixel CCD sensor delivering 1792 x 1200 or 796 x 600 pixel resolutions
  • 1.8 inch, 110,000 pixel color LCD plus a "real image" optical viewfinder
  • Zoom lens with f2.8/3.2 lens maximum aperture
  • Lens focal length: f=8-18 mm (38 -86 mm on 35mm cameras)
  • ISO 100 equivalent (approximate)
  • 1 to 1/500 second shutter speed
  • Auto focus from 1.6 inches to infinity
  • Manual focus override for tough-to-focus scenes
  • Three recording modes: Still, Text, and Continuous Shooting
  • Three color capture modes: full color, sepia-toned, or black and white
  • Built-in flash with seven modes: Flash Off , Auto , Forced Flash, and Slow Synchro, plus red-eye reduction available in all 3 flash-active modes.
  • Flash range from 1.3 to 9.8 ft (0.4 - 3.0m) (telephoto), or to 11 ft (3.4m) (wide-angle)
  • Five white balance settings: Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Fluorescent, and Incandescent
  • Manual exposure compensation from -2 EV to +2 EV, set in .5 EV increments
  • Three image-compression settings at each of two file sizes
  • 8 MB internal memory with support for 3.3v SmartMedia cards in 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 MB capacities
  • Transfer of images to PC through a single port capable of both Universal Serial Bus (USB) or standard RS-232 connection
  • Video out capability in either PAL or NTSC format
  • Stores images in standard JPEG format
  • Auto Power-Off activates at 5 minutes, but can be disabled for continuous operation(!)
  • Easy-to-navigate menu system and camera controls
  • Easy-to-handle design
  • Uses 4, AA Alkaline batteries (NiCd or NiMH)
  • AC Adapter included in the box(!)

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"Executive Overview/First Look"

We've recently been adding "executive overview" sections to our reviews, to provide our readers with a more compact presentation on each product, for those not yet interested to the point that they're willing to brave a full-size Imaging Resource review. In the case of the Ricoh RDC-5000, this First Look will eventually become the Executive Overview for the full review. (Actually, as we've been writing this, it's turning out to be something between a full review and the simple overview: We'll probably end up doing a fairly extensive rewrite when we complete the full review.)

First impressions
The RDC-5000 is a relatively compact digicam, with a long, slender profile makes it a workable fit for the average pocket, albeit a somewhat heavy one. With dimensions of 5.17" x 2.71" x 1.78" (131 x 69 x 45mm), and weighing in at 11 ounces (315g) without the batteries, it is about midrange in the current field of digicams, in terms of size and weight.


The RDC-5000's case appears to be about a 50/50 mixture of aluminum and structural plastic, and we were very pleased to see not only an automatic lens cover on the telescoping zoom lens, but a unique protective shield over the LCD screen. Both of these encourage "take it anywhere" handling by the user, a design goal we constantly preach. The photo below shows a rear view of the camera with the LCD cover closed, while the small inset shows it with the cover open. The cover retracts via a purely mechanical connection with the same slide switch that powers-up the camera, meaning there are no finicky little motors or gears associated with it. Some reviewers have dismissed the LCD cover as a gimmick, but we feel it's a genuinely useful design feature: In the constant flow of digicams we receive for review, we've seen several with scratched LCD screens from the hard knocks of a review unit's life. Certainly, we'd be more comfortable putting the RDC-5000 into a crowded purse or backpack than other cameras lacking its tortoise-like protection. (The LCD cover won't do anything to prevent nose prints though: It will perforce always be open when the camera is operating, and the LCD is wonderfully positioned to receive nose imprints from right-eyed users looking through the viewfinder!)

In the photo above, you can see the rear-panel controls: Under the LCD display are the Display button, to turn the display on or off in record mode, the Menu button, which brings up the LCD menus in each of the operating modes, the Enter button, used for making selections in the LCD menus. The Power button is a slide-switch with a fairly long travel, as this is also how the protective cover over the LCD is retracted. At top center is the optical viewfinder, a "real image" design that's fairly immune to framing errors due to eye position, but does have a fairly low "eyepoint", and no diopter correction, making it less than ideal for eyeglass wearers. At upper right is the rocker toggle that controls the zoom lens, or (in manual focus mode) the lens' focus setting. Also at upper right, you can see an edge-on view of the mode dial, which selects from among 5 different camera operating modes. (We're big fans of mode dials, feeling that they simplify camera operation, and reduce menu clutter.)
The photo below is a shot of the top of the camera, showing the control buttons there, another view of the mode dial (also shown at right), and the shutter button. Right of center is a small LCD readout that shows current settings for resolution, image quality, flash setting, pictures remaining, and memory selection. This last is a particularly interesting aspect of the RDC-5000's design: When we first opened the box, we hunted high and low for the SmartMedia card we were sure should have come with it. – It turns out that the camera has 8 megabytes of built-in Flash memory, allowing it to take pictures right out of the box, without any additional memory cards. Normally, we're not keen on cameras with built-in memory, since it can take so long to get images out of the camera. With the RDC-5000 though, two factors make the built-in memory quite useful: First, the camera is equipped with a fast USB port, which greatly speeds image downloads to your host PC. Second, the camera includes menu options that let you transfer images from the internal memory to an inserted SmartMedia card or back quite quickly. We appreciated this feature in our studio test shooting: We have a FlashPath floppy-disk adapter for the SmartMedia cards, but it can be pretty slow when dumping 8 meg or more of data to the computer. With the RDC-5000, we could shoot onto the internal memory, transfer it quickly to a SmartMedia card, which we then popped into our FlashPath to transfer the images to the PC, while we continued shooting with the camera. While this may not be a common usage pattern, we found it very handy while we were testing the camera. (Note: Some other reviews we've seen have referred to the internal memory as a RAM buffer – There is a RAM buffer, but the 8 meg of memory that stores the images is nonvolatile Flash memory, not volatile RAM.)

From left to right across the top of the camera, the buttons are:

    • Card/In: Select which memory to use for camera operations
    • Flash: Choose one of four flash operating modes
    • Self-Timer: Enable the 10-second self timer so you can get in the picture too.
    • Pic: Picture quality control: Cycles through 3 image quality settings and 2 resolution levels

The photo at right shows the left side of the camera, with the cover over the I/O & power ports open, but the hatch concealing the SmartMedia closed. Ports include a power connector for the (included!) 5Vdc wall adapter, a digital connector for the dual-function Serial/USB interface, and the video port. – This last was immediately intriguing to us, as there's a switch that reads "Video – In/Out." At first, we thought perhaps the RDC-5000 could not only output video, but capture it as well! We didn't find any mention of this capability in the manual, so tried connecting the camera up to a camcorder output. Somewhat to our disappointment, it turns out that the video "in" function is limited to using the RDC-5000's LCD screen as an NTSC (PAL in Europe) monitor: The camera will display video signals, but not capture them, but it does switch between NTSC or PAL under menu control.

 

Completing our tour around the camera, the photo below (flipped 180 degrees, so the text would read right-side-up) shows the bottom of the unit. At right is the battery-compartment cover, the tripod socket (plastic) is just left of center, and what looks like a thin slot on the far left is actually a tiny thumbwheel to adjust LCD brightness.

 

Lens
The RDC-5000 has a 2.3x optical zoom lens, with a focal length range equivalent to a 38-86mm zoom on a 35mm film camera. The lens is fairly "fast" optically, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8-f/3.2 (wide to tele), and a minimum aperture of f/13.5-f/14.4. The lens is an autofocus design, using a contrast-detect system that operates directly from the CCD. (Providing true through-the-lens (TTL) autofocus.) The lens does not have any filter threads on it for mounting external accessories, but a press-fit removable lens shade (see photos below) holds the potential for third-parties to provide filter adapters for the camera.
The inclusion of a lens shade is interesting: This is the first case we're aware of in which one was provided as an accessory to a digital camera. Lens "flare" seems to be a fairly general issue in lens design. Because we haven't had a good "scientific" test for it, we haven't reported on it the past. At least one camera that we're aware of though, had an "internal lens shade" added to its optics in the form of a black rectangular mask on the lens' inside front surface, as part of a general redesign. Since Ricoh included the lens shade with the camera, we suspect there's a good reason for it's existence, and so recommend that RDC-5000 owners use it routinely. Unfortunately, the shade adds a bit of bulk to the unit, making it a tougher fit for typical shirt pockets.
We mentioned the automatic lens cover before: It takes the form of two diagonal leaves that open by rotating to the sides as the lens telescopes out when the camera is turned on. While they do protect the lens from careless fingerprints, they don't strike us as especially robust, since nothing locks them in place: A slight touch can easily rotate one or both of them to the "open" position, leaving the lens exposed. We therefore don't know how much protection they'd provide to a camera dropped into a purse. Ricoh does provide a lightweight padded carrying pouch for the camera though, which should afford the extra protection required. The combination of pouch and automatic lens cover ought to work pretty well, and you'll never need to worry about losing the @%$# lens cover, as you do with many digicams.
One rather unusual feature of the RDC-5000's optics is an option for manual focus: You can select manual focus via a menu option, and then control the focus of the lens with the rocker toggle that normally operates the zoom lens. (You'll want to adjust the zoom prior to entering this mode, for obvious reasons.) This is potentially a great feature, as there are bound to be situations in which the autofocus won't work (such as very low-light shooting). Even better, the continuous focusing offered by the RDC-5000 is much preferable to the discrete steps offered by some other cameras with manual focus override, offering the potential for truly precise focus, rather than "sorta close". The problem we see with the RDC-5000's implementation though, is that there's no feedback on the manual focusing available, other than the image you see in the viewfinder, which is really too small to be relied upon. – Either a distance readout in feet or meters, or some sort of feedback on how good the camera thinks the focus is would make the manual-focus option much more useful.
In normal mode, the lens autofocuses from infinity down to about 15.8 inches (40cm) at the maximum telephoto setting, and an amazing 1.6 inches at the wide-angle setting, in a single, continuous range. (There's no separate "macro" mode.) Even though the lens must be at its wide angle setting, the minimum macro area is quite small, covering an area of only 1.4 x 2.0 inches (35 x 52mm).
There's also a roughly 2.8x "digital telephoto" mode that kicks in when you continue pressing the zoom toggle for several seconds after the maximum optical telephoto setting is reached. Like all digital telephotos, that on the RDC-5000 trades-off resolution for magnification, cropping the image to 640x480 pixels. Thus, the final effect is no different than cropping the relevant area out of a full-size image after the exposure. The only difference is that you save yourself a cropping step on the computer, and you use less memory space to store the image in the camera. A little different twist with the RDC-5000's digital tele though, is the way it tells you what the active capture area is: Rather than trying to blow-up the image to fill the LCD screen (usually resulting in dramatically blurred LCD images), the RDC-5000 simply indicates the active area by drawing a box of four white lines on the LCD display. We're not sure which approach we like better, but probably come down in favor of the full-screen, interpolated method. (But then, we're not big fans of digital tele in the first place.)
We mentioned the lens shade earlier: Here's a couple of pictures of it. It press-fits over the body ring around the lens assembly, with the tab at the bottom keeping it square with the camera body.

 

Exposure
Ricoh rates the RDC-5000 at an equivalent ISO of "about 100" (the "about" showing remarkable candor about the "guesstimate" nature of such ISO ratings). Combined with a shutter speed range of 1-1/500 seconds, and an aperture range of f/2.8 to f/14, the camera should produce usable images under light levels ranging from EV8 to EV22, a very wide range. We haven't yet had the opportunity to verify this performance with our own low-light tests, but the camera did seem able to capture pretty bright images under rather dim conditions. The "official" minimum of EV8 should let you get usable pictures outdoors at dusk, but probably not true night shots.
The RDC-5000 sports the usual assortment of white-balance settings, including auto, sunny, cloudy, incandescent, and fluorescent. Exposure compensation of +/- 2EV, in 0.5EV stops is also provided, a good range and degree of control, although we dislike having to resort to the LCD menu system to make exposure compensation settings. (We find ourselves using exposure compensation fairly often, to adjust for unusual subject conditions, or unusual lighting, so prefer to be able to make these settings from the camera's external controls directly.)
Besides the standard exposure mode, the RDC-5000 also provides "text" and "continuous" modes. The "text" mode is designed to enhance contrast and reduce noise when photographing monochrome subjects, such as text. In our own tests with the ISO resolution target, we were surprised by how much the "text" setting increased the apparent resolution. (Note we said "apparent:" The actual resolution didn't change any, it's just that the fine detail was made more evident.)
The "continuous" capture mode grabs one image after another, about a second apart, until the buffer memory is filled. This corresponds to only two images at maximum resolution and quality, but as many as 28 images at the small image size and lowest quality setting.
An unusual feature is the inclusion of a time-lapse exposure mode, in which you can set the camera to snap pictures at programmable intervals, ranging from 30 seconds to 3 hours, in 30 second increments. The camera will continue taking pictures until it runs out of memory space to store the images, or you disable the mode via the menu options.
Finally, there's an enhanced-sensitivity exposure mode, intended to reduce camera shake problems under low-light conditions by reducing the exposure time. Ricoh calls this "S" mode (for sensitive?), and warns that image noise may be increased when it is used. We haven't played with this yet, but will do so when we perform our low-light tests. If the resulting increased noise isn't too objectionable, this could boost sensitivity enough for true night-shooting. (Defined in our book as the ability to take pictures under typical artificial illumination outdoors: Streetlights & such...)
Oops – Almost forgot: There are also black & white and sepia recording modes. Black & white makes sense, as it could save memory space those times you don't need color photos. Sepia strikes us as more of a gimmick, present more because it's easy to add, rather than arising out of any strong user need or demand. (This is injecting a little more opinion than we're usually comfortable with: There may well be people out there who consider a sepia option a necessity...)
Flash

The RDC-5000's flash is more flexible than most: Besides the usual on/off/auto modes, it offers a slow-sync mode and red-eye reduction in conjunction with all other flash modes. The slow-sync mode combines a slower shutter speed with the flash, allowing more ambient light into the image. This helps lighten backgrounds for flash shots, and avoid some of the starkness of typical flash pictures.
Other Modes

Playback Mode
Playback on the RDC-5000 is fairly typical, although it does include a "zoomed" playback mode that enlarges the image on the LCD monitor about 3x, and lets you scroll around different parts of it to observe details. This is a useful function for checking image detail, although we prefer smooth scrolling, rather than the roughly 1/3-image jumps the RDC-5000 provides. (Not a big objection, just feedback for Ricoh and others for their next-generation cameras.) Other playback-mode functions include Auto Playback (a slide-show mode with selectable timing), image protection (to guard against accidental erasure), a copy function (to move images, either one at a time or all at once, between the internal memory and a SmartMedia card), a folder selection option, if your memory card has separate storage folders on it, and a DPOF (digital print order format, or direct print of file) option to mark images on the memory card for subsequent output by intelligent photo printers.
Delete Mode
Just what it sounds like: Three options provide for erasing single images, all images, or selected images.
PC Mode
Enables the camera's digital I/O ports, and puts it into a mode where it waits for communications from the host computer.
Power

The RDC-5000 runs from 4 AA-cell batteries, preferably high-capacity NiCd or NiMH rechargeables. We're still setting up for our actual camera power-consumption measurements, but our distinct impression was that the RDC-5000 was rather power-hungry as digicams go: Get a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH batteries and a good charger, you won't regret it. Big kudos to Ricoh in the power department though: The RDC-5000 comes with an AC adapter in the box, a very unusual move for digicam manufacturers, and one we'd like to see repeated more frequently by others!
Included Software

The RDC-5000 has one of the most complete packages of bundled software we've seen in a while, providing the entire ArcSoft PhotoSuite package, as well as an intro pack for our favorite on-line photo-sharing service, ClubPhoto. The software package includes:

  • PhotoStudio – Image enhancement and manipulation (Mac/Windows)
  • PhotoBase – Image organization (Mac/Windows)
  • PhotoPrinter – Prints multiple images per page, using a variety of layout templates (Windows)PhotoFantasy – Create "fantasy" images (you as a movie star, etc.) (Windows)
  • PhotoMontage – Unique application to convert your photos to "montages," composed of thousands of tiny images.
  • ClubPhoto – Great desktop photo organizer, create and share photo albums (for free!) on the 'web. (Organizer currently Windows only, sharing is Mac/Windows)
  • Drivers & Utility Program - Standard TWAIN drivers and a utility camera-connect program from Ricoh are also included.


In Use
We found the RDC-5000 very easy to shoot with: In most situations, we didn't have to touch the controls, and the pictures came out fine. The instruction manual was a model of clarity. We really liked the larger format, function-by-function organization, and single language, not to mention an actual PAPER manual, as opposed to the print-your-own-from-the-CD approach that appears to be becoming more prevalent. This would be a great camera for the more casual shooter, as you can get great pictures from it without having to go to "digital camera school" for a week to learn how to use it.
The RDC-5000's image quality is a bit of a mixed bag, mostly very good, but with one annoying flaw. The good parts are that resolution, detail, color, and tone are all very good, clearly in the running with other 2+ megapixel cameras. (Check our pictures page, we have a subset of our full test suite currently on-line, and will add more shots as we're able.) The flaw is that some pictures show pattern of noise or compression artifacts across them, most noticeable in areas of relatively flat color. We're not sure what this is, as it doesn't look like a typical compression artifact, nor does it look like typical sensor noise. (Maybe it's a combination of both, the compression acting on image noise?) Regardless, it's evident enough that we noticed it in some of our test shots in areas of flat tint, and several readers have commented on it in other images we've shot. We haven't shot our official low-light tests yet, but it appears that the artifacts dramatically increase when taking available-light shots. We're hoping this is the result of some sort of early production glitch, as it's the only thing that keeps us from a very high opinion of the camera: If you're printing images shot in fairly bright light on typical inkjet printers, this artifact may not be evident at all. In our own viewing of the test images taken under normal lighting conditions, we didn't see it as a serious problem, but from the email we've received, it's obviously very much a subjective reaction: Some readers feel it's no big deal, others view it as a deal breaker. Under low light conditions (dim interior shots), it is much more apparent, and would likely be a problem, regardless of the images' final use. The best suggestion we can make to our readers is to download some of the test images we have posted on the pictures page, print them out on your own printer, and decide for yourself what you think of the results. Meanwhile, we've communicated our results back to Ricoh and are waiting to hear what they have to say about the test images.

See for Yourself!

Take a look at the test images from the RDC-5000 (with extensive comments), or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images with those from other digital cameras.
Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the RDC-5000 provides great value for the money (we've been told the retail price will be only $699, a very low initial price point for a 2.3 megapixel camera with a true optical zoom lens), but at least the early unit we tested showed some image noise/artifacts, particularly under low-light conditions. Decide for yourself: If the image quality as shown in our test images is sufficient to your needs, the RDC-5000 is one of the best buys on the market. It takes sharp pictures with good color, and the fast USB interface is a huge plus. It's more of a pure point & shoot design, rather than trying for the semi-manual exposure options of some other cameras on the market. If you want lots of exposure control, this probably isn't the camera for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for a point & shoot with good color & resolution, that's easy to operate, and that takes really BIG pictures, this could be your answer.

Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a RDC-5000 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at photos@imaging-resource.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!

 

For More Info:
View the data sheet for the RDC-5000

View the test images from the RDC-5000

 

Reader Comments!
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Ricoh RDC-5000, or add comments of your own!


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