It's me, well it must be, Contax don't make rubbishy cameras, they're up on the same photographic Mount Olympus as Leica. When the shutter falls on a Contax camera an angel beats its wings over your photograph and your image is blessed. Or at least that's what I though until I used the Contax U4R.
The background to the U4R is complicated, so let's start with the camera's lineage. The origin of the species is made by Kyocera and is called the Finecam SL300R, launched in September 2003. Kyocera then added a Carl Zeiss lens to SL300R to make it the Contax SL300R T* launched in December 2003, both cameras being virtually identical in design and specifications. Now jump forward 10 months to September 2004 and the Contax U4R is launched. This looks almost exactly the same as the SL300R T* and the only discernible difference is that the newer version is 4Mega Pixels, whereas the older version was only 3.1.
The two older models have a 1.5” screens on the reverse, the U4R has a larger 2”, all three have the swivelling lens and body shape that has almost died out in the digital camera market. The lens is well made, but small, and simple things, like cleaning it, are made fiddly by the plastic hood that protects the glass front. Parodying evolution, the later models of the camera are covered in more ‘fluff' than their earlier predecessors, with the U4R being available in black, indigo or camel-coloured leather trim on their bodies, cute.
However it's the functionality that gets me. The Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens, with its 6 elements arranged in their 6 groups and the fetching 38mm to 115mm (35MM equivalent) optical zoom feature all seeming rather wasted, as the camera simply cannot take a decent pictures. Operations menus are strewn between a set-up section and a left to right scrolling selection list of options, located in the camera feature, making functions difficult to locate, to say the least.
The 9-point auto-focusing went from temperamental to downright stubborn, and that was in daylight, in darkness there was no AF assist so it simply focused on the brightest object it could find, whether it was the intended subject of the image or not. The AE faired little better, with a lot of the test pictures mis-exposed or blasted with excess flash. The pre-set shooting modes are just plain strange. You're offered Sports action, Portrait, Night Portrait, Sunset, Twilight, Night View, Black and white and Sepia. Problems occur when you wish to take a picture in a situation that is none of these, and it seemed that once a selection was made returning to selecting none of them is near impossible (the trick is simply press the scene button twice, quickly). The aperture of the compact lens and ISO are too feeble to cope with low-light conditions and the resulting image blur on night shots, even on an illuminated subject is dreadful. Movement and selection of menus and options is done via a 5-way navigation rocker that also doubles as the zoom rocker. In order to select a menu option the centre button must be depressed, but due to the excess of movement, that can occur when trying to push this down, most of the time to slide into another option or menu, rather than the one you had intended to select.
The only strength the U4R has is speed, with the backbone of the cameras imaging power coming from the Kyocera's ‘RTUNE' image processing system. Off the grid the camera starts up in less than a second and the shutter lag is just 0.07 of a second. It can shoot an impressive 3.3frames per second. Naturally that's without flash. There are claims of the 9-point AF working during speed-shooting to keep moving objects in focus, but I saw little evidence of this working.
Overall the Contax is a disappointment. It's rare that a digital camera takes consistently poor pictures in all situations, but the Contax manages this amazing feat. Any basic aesthetics are ruined by the leather trim, that makes me feel if the camera were alive it would a don a medallion and chat up my mother. Further enfeebling the overall image is the USB 2.0 plastic docking station that the U4R sits into to download the images, but ugly though it, at least the docking station works.