Ricoh might not make the coolest looking digital compacts - in fact, design wise, they're uniformly rather drab. But at least the manufacturer channels its efforts towards where it matters most, namely the cameras' image quality plus useful wide-angle lenses.
Ricoh has also, along with Panasonic, recently pioneered larger zooms on compact bodies, and the latest example on the CX3 is a wide angle 10.7x optical variety, equivalent to a whopping 28-300mm in 35mm terms. It builds on the success of the earlier CX1 and CX2 models – the latter announced barely 6 months ago and with which it unsurprisingly shares chief attributes.
The thing that immediately strikes you when using the CX3 is - in the absence of a traditional viewfinder - the high quality of the 3-inch, 920k-dot resolution screen with wide viewing angle and scratch and reflection resistant coating.
That's the kind of specification more commonly found on a semi pro digital SLR, not a compact costing just under £300. Its clarity and life-like crispness blows the knee socks off other compacts in this price bracket with their, typically, 230k-dot resolution LCD offerings, and lends the user the reassurance that they're capturing some great shots. Too often lesser LCDs give the impression of sharpness only for images to appear disappointingly soft when downloaded to your PC.
While the CX3 may otherwise look a little plasticy at first glance, with its brushed metal top plate, comfortably rounded yet roughly ridged front grip for added purchase and metal buttons and dials, it's actually rather well made and solid feeling, particularly with rechargeable lithium ion battery (good for a maximum 310 shots from a full charge) and removable SD or SDHC card inserted. While it may not be as svelte as rival point and shoots, it can still be described as a pocket model that sits comfortably in the hand, with a weight of a manageable 206g.
With a press of the small-ish power button recessed into the top plate the camera powers up in around 2 seconds, lens barrel extending from storage within the body to its maximum wide angle setting ready for the first shot. Next to the power button is the springy shutter release button with a definite halfway point, taking a moment or two in determining focus and exposure with a beep of confirmation when pressed, the screen briefly blurring and lens audibly adjusting with a mechanical buzz.
The same buzz accompanies the zoom when moving through the available range, a process taking 3 seconds when gliding continuously from maximum wide-angle to extreme telephoto. Luckily image stabilisation is provided in the form of mechanical sensor shift to combat any external wobble and deliver a higher percentage of blur free images than achievable without.
The CX3 offers a "sensible" maximum resolution of 10 megapixels, the same as Canon's flagship G11 compact, which may not appear high by the standards of the latest raft of 14MP compacts, but as we know by now resolution isn't everything. And of course the more pixels you cram onto a sensor, the more chance there is of noise destroying images at higher ISO settings (here up to ISO 3200), rather than necessarily more detail. In fact the back-lit 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor incorporated by the Ricoh makes use of the noise-reducing algorithm deployed by the manufacturer's higher-end GR III model, which itself promises DSLR-like quality in compact form. The severity of the noise processing can also be manually controlled by the user, with options comprising off, auto, weak, strong or max, and there's the ability to capture close ups as near as 1cm from the camera's lens.
Introduced on the CX3 also is an HD movie function of 1280 x 720 pixels which brings the Ricoh range into line with its competitors. Most consumers will now, arguably, expect HD when spending this much, although unlike Canon models that incorporate the feature, there is no HDMI port provided yet for hooking the camera up to a flat panel TV, just the standard USB and AV out connections under a rubber panel on the CX3's side.
Still, as well as a new auto scene mode - a version of intelligent auto found on its rivals if you like, which automatically selects the camera settings that best match the scene or setting for optimal results (a new "pet" mode also added to bring the total to 13) - we also get a slightly more exciting dynamic range double shot mode. As this sounds, the CX3 takes two images in rapid succession at different exposures and combines them to present a "best of both worlds" solution, lifting detail for example in shadow areas that would otherwise have been murky, whilst preserving detail in lighter regions, such as the sky.
The fact that the image/s are taken so rapidly means that it is possible to use this shooting mode, found via the top plate dial, when taking photographs handheld. Rivals that offer similar require a tripod to achieve comparable end results.
Continuous shooting at five frames per second at maximum resolution is also offered; again this betters entry-level DSLRs, and there are further resolution shaving high-speed options of up to a crazy 120 consecutive images per second, saved as a single file, if the need ever presents itself.
This being a Ricoh model, we also get the very useful (for shooting landscapes) level indicator as a line of dots across the bottom of the LCD screen that flash green when the camera - and so hopefully the horizon - is on an even keel.
With the ability to shoot Fine or Normal quality JPEGs in the absence of a RAW file format setting, whilst we were generally very pleased with the CX3's picture performance there were a few niggles. Purple fringing was evidenced rather more obviously than most between areas of high contrast - nothing new for a digital compact - and there was some loss of focus towards the edge of frame when shooting at maximum wide angle. Also, if not holding the camera rock steady in dynamic double shot mode an eerie ghosting effect can be produced, though generally we were impressed by how well this feature held up and delivered without the aid of a tripod.
So while the Ricoh CX3 may look prim, proper and just a little bit boring from the outside, start to strip away its layers and it turns into a bit of a tiger. Having such a big zoom and resulting broad focal range in a small-ish camera is a real boon, as we've found in the past when using the feature on Panasonic's TZ range, basically letting the user capture shots that most other compacts can't quite manage. Going back to a 3x optical zoom model after this feels like trying to take photographs with one hand tied behind your back.