Ricoh Theta Z1 Review

Camera Reviews / Ricoh Cameras i Hands-On Preview
Basic Specifications
Full model name: Ricoh Theta Z1
Resolution: 22.60 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1-inch
(13.2mm x 8.8mm)
Lens: Non-Zoom
(7mm eq.)
Viewfinder: No / No LCD
Native ISO: 80 - 6400
Extended ISO: 80 - 6400
Shutter: 1/25000 - 60 sec
Max Aperture: 2.0
Dimensions: 1.9 x 5.2 x 1.2 in.
(48 x 133 x 30 mm)
Weight: 6.4 oz (182 g)
includes batteries
Availability: 04/2018
Manufacturer: Ricoh
Full specs: Ricoh Theta Z1 specifications
Non-Zoom 1-inch
size sensor
image of Ricoh Theta Z1
Front side of Ricoh Theta Z1 digital camera Front side of Ricoh Theta Z1 digital camera Front side of Ricoh Theta Z1 digital camera Front side of Ricoh Theta Z1 digital camera Front side of Ricoh Theta Z1 digital camera

Ricoh Theta Z1 Hands-on Preview

by Mike Tomkins
Preview posted 02/25/2019

A little over five years ago, Ricoh first took its camera line in a new direction with the launch of the original, VR-friendly Ricoh Theta. At a push of a button (or the prompting of your smartphone), this interesting twin-lensed camera could capture the world around you in its full, 360-degree panoramic glory, stitching images from its two lenses into a single all-encompassing image. The results could be viewed on the web, sure, but the real draw of the Theta series has always been the potential for VR viewing, which puts you back in the moment in a way that no flat image can.

The new Theta-series flagship has much larger sensors and variable-aperture lenses

Five years down the road, the new flagship of the Theta line -- the Ricoh Theta Z1 -- likewise records the world in its full, 360-degree spherical panoramic beauty, but it does so with a completely overhauled design that promises much greater image quality, especially in low light.

Past models already courted not just enthusiasts but pros as well, but thanks to a new large-sensor design and twin, variable-aperture lenses, the Theta Z1 has even more to offer professionals. (And with a price tag of right around US$1,000, even consumers with an interest in VR can come along for the ride, too!)

A powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and Android OS

Beneath the skin, the Ricoh Theta Z1 still runs on an unidentified Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. (The Theta V before it used a 64-bit, octa-core Snapdragon 625 processor, which is a fairly powerful mid-range system-on-chip.) As for its operating system, the Theta Z1 runs on Google's Android OS, a pairing which makes sense given the number of Snapdragon-based smartphones out there which also run on Android.

The processor is handling output from two new 20-megapixel, 1-inch type image sensors which, in terms of surface area, are each about four times larger than the 1/2.3-inch chips used by previous Theta-series models.

The Theta lineup. The Z1 (top left) isn't that much bigger than prior models.

A more substantial body (but it's still very pocket-friendly)

With its larger sensors and new lenses, it's no surprise that the Theta Z1 also debuts a brand-new body. Crafted from magnesium alloy, the new body has a cast-in texture that, says Ricoh, gives it a high-grade feel. (Not to mention a little purchase to help stop it slipping between your fingers, we're sure.)

With more to fit inside, it's also no surprise that the Theta Z1 has grown in size. In fact, the real surprise here is that it hasn't grown more, because this is still a very pocket-friendly camera. Dimensions are just 1.9 inches wide, 1.2 inches deep and 5.2 inches tall.

Sure, it's about one-third thicker than was the Theta V, but despite a more-than quadrupling of its sensor area, the Z1 has otherwise grown by only 6% in width and 1% in height. This does come accompanied by a 50% increase in weight.

But then, even a really pocket-friendly large-sensor compact like the Sony RX100 is both far thicker and heavier, despite having to fit in only one sensor and lens. Ricoh has clearly done something special in managing to cram all of this sensor and lens goodness into such a small package.

A brand-new Organic EL display gives at a glance status info

As if there wasn't already enough to fit into the Theta Z1's body, Ricoh has also gifted it with a brand-new status display that gives quick at-a-glance confirmation of basic setup.

It might be tiny, but the 0.9-inch Organic EL screen on the Z1 nevertheless manages to fit in an impressive amount of data. This includes the shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, file type, remaining still image capacity and battery level.

A new function button helps you forego your smartphone some, too

There's also one additional control, as compared to the Theta V. As well as the existing shutter button which sits beneath one of the two lenses, there is also a column of four buttons lining the side of the Theta Z1. Lowermost of these is a new function button, and above it you'll find the same power, Wi-Fi and mode buttons as in the Theta V.

So what does the new function button do? Quite a bit, according to Ricoh, we're presuming either in concert with other buttons or through particular press patterns. It will allow you to switch between display modes, enable or disable the self-timer, operational sounds and lights, or to switch between one of three plug-ins installed in the camera. (Both Ricoh and third-party developers can provide these. One such will be a time-shift shooting plugin that will help the photographer avoid their own presence in the shot.)

Smartphone control is still the main paradigm, however

Of course, with no color screen on which to preview or review your creations, interacting with the Ricoh Z1 through these five physical controls serves only as a stopgap. Most of your interactions with the Z1 will, instead, take place from your smartphone, using Ricoh's Android or iOS apps.

You can also save settings on your smartphone, and then restore them to the camera as needed. (One set for still imaging, and another for videos.)

The new sensors bring a worthwhile increase in still resolution, too

As well as being a good four times larger than the 12-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensors they replace, the new 20-megapixel, 1-inch sensors used in the Theta Z1 are also significantly higher in resolution. The total pixel count has increased by two-thirds, and with a maximum resolution of 6,720 x 3,360 pixels (or roughly 23 megapixels), output images should have around 1.25x the linear resolution than those of the Theta V, all else being equal.

The new sensors include backside illumination technology, which moves circuitry away from the active surface of the image sensor to allow as much light to be gathered as possible. Between this, the much larger sensor size and new image processing algorithms, we can expect a noticeable improvement in image quality, especially in low light.

Higher maximum sensitivity for stills, but movies are unaffected

The Ricoh Theta Z1 has a native sensitivity of ISO 80-equivalent, as compared to ISO 64-equivalent for the Theta V. At the other end of the scale, the Z1 simplifies things somewhat by having a maximum sensitivity of ISO 6400, regardless of shooting mode.

By way of comparison, the Theta V allowed ISO 6400 only for movie shooting and live-streaming. For stills, the limit was instead ISO 3200, and by default the earlier model wouldn't roam above ISO 1600 unless shooting video.

Oh, and for want of anywhere else to mention it, we'll just note here that the maximum shutter speed is 1/25,000-second, with an electronic shutter, of course.

New lenses bring aperture-control to the table

The new lenses of the Ricoh Z1, like those of the Theta models which preceded them, use a prism-folded design which allows the image sensors to be mounted at right-angles to the optical path. Ricoh terms the design of its lenses a "tri-fold structure", but sadly, we've yet to lay our hands on artwork showing the optical design.

We do know that there are 14 elements in 10 groups, and we'd imagine (given that each lens in the Theta V had seven elements in six groups) that this figure is for both lenses combined. (In other words, that the Z1's lenses each have seven elements in five groups.)

The actual focal length of each lens is 2.6mm, which based on the sensor size would translate to a 35mm-equivalent focal length somewhere around 7mm. Where the Theta V had a fixed f/2.0 aperture for each lens, the Theta Z1 has a three-step aperture which allows f/2.1, f/3.5 or f/5.6.

More choices than ever for exposure

In the Theta V, you had a choice of auto, shutter-priority, ISO-priority or manual exposure, but thanks to the fixed apertures of its lenses, not aperture-priority. Now that this is an option in the Z1, Ricoh has added aperture-priority to the list, as well.

(Note, though, that while these are available for both stills and movies, live-streaming allows only auto exposure. You can, however, bias it in your chosen direction with +/-2.0EV of exposure compensation in 1/3 EV steps.)

Other shooting modes on offer include high dynamic range capture, interval composite shooting and bracketing of one of 19 different settings types.

2K and 4K movie capture remain unchanged (but will benefit from the new image pipeline)

When it comes to video capture, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is little-changed from the Theta V in terms of its specifications. You still have a choice of shooting movies or live-streaming at 2K or 4K resolution with a fixed 29.97-fps frame rate.

For movie capture, the 2K resolution allows a 16Mbps bitrate, while 4K is 56Mbps. Audio for movies and streaming is supplied by an internal, four-channel microphone.

One handy feature of the Z1, again retained from the Theta V, is that it can rotationally stabilize your videos during capture, ensuring your footage remains upright even if your camera doesn't.

More modern wired connectivity, and Wi-Fi / Bluetooth for your smartphone

On its base, alongside a metal tripod mount, the Theta Z1 sports a new USB 3.0 Type-C connector, both a faster transfer standard and a newer reversible connector than are used by the Theta V.

And as before, there are still both low-power, always-on Bluetooth and high-speed, as-needed Wi-Fi radios with which the Theta Z1 can communicate with your smartphone. The Bluetooth radio complies with version 4.2, and the Wi-Fi radio supports Wi-Fi versions 1 thru 5 (that's 802.11b, a, g, n, and ac, respectively).

19GB of built-in memory feels more limiting than ever

A curious Achilles heel of the Theta-series cameras -- their built-in memory -- is sadly retained for another generation, with the Ricoh Theta Z1 sporting just 19GB of built-in memory, and no card slot through which it can be upgraded. Sure, you can clear some space by transferring images and movies to your smartphone, then deleting them from the camera, but when's the last time you thought to yourself, "Gee... I have too much free storage on my phone"?

And while 19GB sounds like a lot -- after all, per Ricoh's specs, you can fit around 2,400 full-res JPEG images on it -- enabling raw capture or shooting movies will quickly disabuse you of this notion. You'll fit just 350 raw frames before you run out of space, and as little as 40 minutes of 4K video. (That's a total between multiple clips, incidentally. Each individual clip is limited to five minutes for 4K, or 25 minutes for 2K footage.)

Raw capture is new, and JPEG filesizes much larger too

Incidentally, you heard us right: We did say raw capture just now. That's another new feature for the Theta Z1, and one we'd imagine will take best advantage of its new 1-inch sensors in low-light shooting or with particularly challenging subjects full of strong highlights and dark shadows.

The Theta Z1 uses the same Adobe DNG raw format that you'll find in some of Ricoh's other cameras, including (optionally) its Pentax-branded DSLRs. Based on the company's specs, you can expect file sizes in the region of 50-60MB for raws, and somewhere around 8MB for JPEGs, the latter being about twice the size of JPEGs from the Theta V (which could fit around 4,800 JPEGs in 19GB.)

We'd really like to see Ricoh add user-replaceable storage to the feature set in the next generation. Frankly, while the new Organic EL screen is cool, we'd rather have the option of shooting more images and videos without needing multiple camera bodies. And we can't imagine that a MicroSD card slot would add that much space.

Limited battery life will be a concern if shooting mobile

But before that becomes feasible, there's one other aspect of the Ricoh Theta Z1 which would need to change. Like its predecessors, the Z1 also lacks a user-replaceable battery, instead opting for a built-in battery which must recharge in-camera. Doubtless this was a decision made in the interests of keeping size (and especially depth) to a minimum. And we get that: A user-replaceable battery isn't always protected by the camera body around it, and so must bring its own size and weight penalty in having a sufficiently-rugged housing of its own.

If you're shooting with the Z1 tripod-mounted for a live stream, this likely won't be a concern as you can charge via USB-C from a convenient power outlet at the same time. But if you're not, well... The lack of a replaceable battery means that after just 300 frames or 60 minutes of video capture, you'll be done shooting until you've recharged the camera.

In fairness to Ricoh, the still imaging figure is identical to that for the Theta V, despite the need to handle significantly more data, and to power much larger sensors. But for video, it's a full 20 minutes (or 25%) less than the 80 minutes you could record with a Theta V.

Ricoh Theta Z1 pricing and availability

Ricoh has yet to disclose its plans for availability of the Theta Z1 in the US market. Pricing on the company's own store and from our affiliates is set at around US$1,000, and the latter are forecasting delivery from April 2019, however.


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