Launched at the start of May 2004, the Ricoh Caplio GX is the new flagship model in the Ricoh digital camera range. The Ricoh Caplio GX has gained a lot of attention because of its unique combination of a 5-megapixel CCD sensor, wide-angle 28mm lens, having the world's fastest shutter response and start-up times, and an affordable price-tag of £279.99. Previous Ricoh cameras that I've reviewed have offered great handling, but have been rather let down by the image-quality. So has the Caplio GX rectified this crucial problem? Read on to find out.

Features


The Caplio GX has a 5.13-megapixel CCD that includes a vastly improved image processor, making colours look sharper and cleaner than previous Ricoh models. The largest image size available is 2592 x 1944 pixels, big enough to print A3-size high resolution photos, and there are a total of 8 different file quality settings.
It has a 3x optical plus 4x digital zoom that delivers a combination of 12x zoom (equivalent to a telephoto range of 28-336mm on a regular 35mm camera). The Caplio GX's 28mm-85mm optical wide zoom lens gives an angle of view of 75 degrees, compared with just 62 degrees in conventional 35mm digital cameras. The lens design has 9 glass elements placed in 7 groups that help to supply a substantial amount of light to the edge of photos even in wide-angle operation. In addition, 4 aspherical lenses and 4 high refractive index- low dispersion lenses work to make corrections for aberration in all zooming areas in a controlled and balanced manner.
The Caplio GX features a convenient electronic dial intended for the index finger to manually control a variety of settings that include aperture, white balance, ISO sensitivity and exposure levels. The control dial you to select a specific f-stop with aperture-priority AE (automatic exposure) or manual exposure. This functionality helps the Caplio GX to meet the creative demands of serious photographers that require certain images to have a particular "depth of field" or other desired elements. Furthermore, its sleek, compact design is only 29mm thick and carries the trademark rubber handgrip that contours the right side of its lightweight 205-gram aluminum die-cast body.

The Caplio GX has a start-up time of just 1.2 seconds. The shutter response is the world's fastest in its class at just 0.12 seconds (May 2004). This time is calculated from the time the user presses the shutter button, rather than the time when focus lock is achieved.

The Caplio GX is able to capture objects of 18mm(H) x 24mm (W) at a distance of just 1cm. Keep the camera still at this distance and take advantage of its auto-focus target functionality that allows your to conveniently pan around the image in order to find the desired focus point. There is also a built-in flash for shots as close as 15cm that highlights objects while protecting against any unwanted whiteout effects.

The Caplio GX has added 64 and 100 to its ISO speeds for a total ISO light-sensitivity range of 64-1600. The Caplio GX comes equipped with six scene modes (portrait, sports, landscape, night scene, text and high-sensitivity) that are intended to help the photographer capture various shooting situations in their best light. In high-sensitivity mode, the screen automatically illuminates subjects to aid in framing the picture in dim lighting environments. In tricky lighting situations, the convenient auto-bracket function allows you to take three individual shots at one time at three different exposure settings. White balance bracket, on the other hand, applies tones of red, normal white, and blue to three separate images.

The Caplio GX has various continuous modes. In M-continuous mode, with the shutter button held down the camera memorises the last 16 shots in one file for two seconds of footage. In S-continuous mode, it can take a series of 16 shots in one file for two seconds of footage with just one press of the shutter button.

The Caplio GX allows you to take up to 400 shots between recharges when using the optional rechargeable lithium-ion battery, or you can take advantage of a nearby power source and use the optional AC adapter. The Caplio GX also has the ability to switch to two AA alkaline or nickel metal hydride batteries and a synchro monitor mode that conserves energy by turning the monitor on automatically only when the shutter button is pressed to preview a shot or operate the zoom.

The Caplio GX captures up to 120 seconds of AVI video action clips in a video size of 320x240 or 160x120 and can add "voice memo" stamps of up to eight seconds to photos. The Caplio GX can also be used as a multipurpose voice recorder.

The Caplio GX comes equipped with an 16mb internal memory chip and can use optional Secure Digital memory cards or Multimedia Cards. Transferring files to a PC is extremely easy. Simply turn off the camera and link the Caplio GX up via a USB cable. The Ricoh Gate software installed on the computer will then instantly start transferring images to an automatically created folder at a rate of three megabytes per second.

The Caplio GX kit that I reviewed contained very little in the way of accessories. In addition to the camera, there is a USB cable for downloading photos to your PC/MAC, a CD containing the Caplio GX software, a Video cable, 2 Alkaline batteries and a User Guide. There is no memory card supplied, which is very annoying as you can only fit a couple of images on the camera's built-in 16mb memory at the highest quality setting.

Ease of Use


The Ricoh Caplio GX is virtually identical to the Caplio RX that I have previously reviewed. The main external difference between the Caplio GX and the older Caplio RX is the addition of a dial next to the shutter button, which allows you to control a variety of settings that include aperture, white balance, ISO sensitivity and exposure levels, and also scroll through the camera's menu system. So Ricoh have finally added the option of being able to manually adjust the aperture and shutter-speed, which will please more creative photographers who like to have full control. The addition of the control dial has also resulted in the addition of a sculpted handgrip, which makes the Ricoh Caplio GX much more comfortable to hold than previous Ricoh digital cameras.

It's not all good news, however, as Ricoh's implementation doesn't quite allow "full" control. With the camera set to A/M mode, you can choose to set the aperture and let the camera work out the appropriate shutter-speed (aperture priority), or set both the shutter-speed and the aperture (full manual). You can't set the shutter-speed, however, and and let the camera work out the appropriate aperture (shutter-speed), which seems to be a major oversight for a camera that is geared towards action with its fast start-up and operating times.

Also, you can set the aperture yourself, but there are only actually 3 different values available at any time, which in turn depend upon the focal length that you are using. For example, at the wide-angle lens setting, you can choose from f/2.5, f4.7 and f/8.1, and at the telephoto-angle lens setting, you can choose from f/4.3, f8 and f/14. These are different enough values to allow a variety of depth-of-field effects in your photos, but maybe not quite different enough to allow you to fine-tune those effects.
In terms of handling, the Ricoh Caplio GX is a solidly built, pocketable camera that instantly feels "right" as soon as you pick it up and start using it for the first time. As with the RX, I really enjoyed using the GX during my 2 week review period from a handling point of view and was quite sad to have to send it back! It easily fits into a trouser or coat pocket, yet doesn't have tiny controls that you can't operate properly. For such a small and slim camera it actually feels quite heavy, but I prefer this to a lighter camera that feels more flimsy.

The Ricoh Caplio GX is an exceptionally easy to use digital camera that will not put off new users, whilst being very intuitive for anyone who has picked up a digital camera before. Its secret lies in not being too different from other brands on the market. The Caplio GX's interface, both software and the camera body, employs options and concepts that are an accepted part of the photographic industry.
Having said that, the Caplio GX does have a couple of neat touches of its own. The Adj. button on the rear of the camera is a particularly nice feature that allows you to quickly adjust 3 different settings that are commonly used. Press it once and you can alter exposure compensation; press it again and you can change the White Balance setting; press it once more and you can adjust the ISO speed. The other thing that I liked was the Power button. Unlike many digicams, the Caplio GX has a dedicated button that lets you turn the camera on and off, regardless of which setting (Play, Camera, A/M, Scene, Movie, Voice, Setup) the camera is currently set to. It's not the most radical feature in the world but a nice addition nevertheless.

Ricoh's claims about the speed of the Caplio GX in terms of starting up the camera and shutter-lag do seem to be accurate. With other digicams you can often wait 4 or 5 seconds for the camera to turn itself on, extend the lens and get ready to take a shot. And you often miss the shot anyway because the of the slow shutter lag. The Caplio GX seems to have solved both these issues and even improves on earlier Ricoh models like the speedy Capio G4.

Both the camera body and its menu system are logically laid out and the rear LCD screen is a good size. The optical viewfinder isn't very usable, however, especially at the wide-angle setting, as the lens is clearly visible in the bottom-left, therefore making accurate composition more difficult. Also the viewfinder is devoid of any markings or information of any kind - it is completely blank and doesn't provide any feedback on the picture-taking process. The most fiddly aspect of the camera's design is the Card/Battery cover. The memory card and the battery are both housed within one large cover on the right of the camera, which is difficult to fully open and then close again. This was an issue with the Caplio G4 and RX and one that I wish Ricoh had fixed by now.

In addition to the various N(normal) and F(fine) JPEG modes, you can select NC (non- compression)mode for recording in TIFF image format. Accroding to Ricoh, this is a flexible format that preserves all picture data allowing for a 'digital positive' as it represents a true image. Unfortunately, it's also a format that locks up the camera for 15-20 seconds as the TIFF file is recorded onto the memory card, which means that this mode is only useful when you aren't in any particular hurry. I resorted to using the highest-quality JPEG setting instead.

So overall, the Caplio GX's ease-of-use is a bit of a mixed bag. It's commendable to see Ricoh adding more control over the photo-taking process in terms of allowing you to control apertures and shutter-speeds, but the way they have implemented it seems to be something of a half-hearted attempt that doesn't follow photographic convention. If you typically set your camera to aperture-priority and forget about it (as I do), then you will like the Caplio GX a lot more than if you usually set your camera to shutter-speed priority. Even the implementation of full manual is unintuitive. Full marks for Ricoh for the intention, but only half-marks for the actual implementation. In all other areas, the Caplio GX has inherited the positive and negative aspects of the Caplio RX. Overall I really enjoyed using the Caplio GX, as is suited my particular way of working, but action photographers should definitely try and test it out before purchasing.

Overall Image Quality


The image quality of the Ricoh Caplio GX is quite disappointing. It's biggest achilles heel seems to be purple fringing, with more in evidence than other digital cameras that I've reviewed, even in photos where the sun is not in the frame. The images aren't particularly noisy at the lower ISO speeds of 64 and 100, but at faster speeds there is too much noise to be acceptable and I can't imagine ever using ISO 1600, or even ISO 400 and 800 for that matter. At the default sharpening setting of "Normal" the images are fairly sharp and won't require too much sharpening during post-processing. So overall not a great performance, which is doubly disappointing because the camera is such a joy to use.

Verdict

The Ricoh Caplio GX builds on the strengths of the Ricoh Caplio RX, G4 and G4wide models, resulting in a camera that is exceptionally easy to use and which instantly feels "right". The 28-85mm wide lens makes it stand out from the crowd of digital cameras that only go as wide as 35mm, and the sheer speed of its operation means that the Caplio GX will never leave you waiting around. The major thing from a features and handling point of view that was lacking in the previous Caplio RX, namely full control over aperture and shutter speed, has been added by Ricoh, but unfortunately it doesn't allow as much control as many photographers will demand. I think this is something of a missed opportunity by Ricoh - separate Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual modes would have really added to the camera's appeal.
The second and most disappointing aspect of the Capilo GX is once again image-quality, which has proved to be a thorn in the side of all the Ricoh models that I have reviewed. Whilst the camera is a joy to operate, the actual images themselves are only just about adequate, being very similar to those from the Caplio RX. Large amounts of chromatic aberrations are present in high-contrast situations, the colours are a little on the dull side and noise is very apparent at ISO 400 and faster. If only Ricoh could have improved the image quality, they would have had a winner on their hands, but sadly I can't quite recommend the Caplio GX because of this major stumbling block. Ricoh have improved the handling of their Caplio series by adding aperture/manual control - next time they need to concentrate on what the camera is actually recording.