Ricoh CX4

Long before Panasonic ever incorporated a larger than standard-at-the-time 3x optical zoom into one of its pocket compacts, Ricoh was doing it to critical plaudits but less mainstream fanfare. The CX4, a fast off the blocks upgrade to the CX3, continues its manufacturer's early if largely unnoticed lead. It sports an all-encompassing 10.7x reach, ranging from a 35mm equivalent 28mm at its widest setting to 300mm at the telephoto (maximum zoom) end.

It further offers a 10-megapixel resolution from a back-illuminated 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor potentially better for light gathering. There's no RAW shooting option, but rather Fine or Normal compression level JPEGs, plus 1280 x 720 pixels HD video capability.

While the big zoom with broader than average focal range impresses at the front end of the camera, at the back it's more than matched with a 3-inch, 920k-dot resolution LCD screen for framing and reviewing images. That's the sort of monitor specification found on semi pro digital SLRs, so is atypical for this class of point and shoot.

With the CX4 powering up from cold in 2 seconds with a press of the recessed top-plate power button, very clear and lifelike the image on the screen is too; so much so that when you later download the shots to your larger PC desktop they can actually pale in comparison.

Attendant features, such as the DSLR-like spirit level that appears along the bottom - glowing green when the camera (and so theoretically your horizons) are level, red when they're not - therefore also given the opportunity to shine.

In practical terms the Ricoh's build quality is robust, so it will withstand a few accidental knocks. There's not much in the way of a handgrip however, just a narrow sliver down the front into which you can dig your fingernails, the thumb coming to rest on a raised rubber pad at the back.

The camera weighs a manageable 250g even with rechargeable battery and optional SD or SDHC card inserted. And that, along with dimensions of 101.5 x 58.6 x 29.4mm, ensure the CX4 will slide as easily into trouser pocket as it will a bag of any description. So here we have another candidate for the burgeoning travel zoom market.

Drill a little deeper into the feature set and it appears that Ricoh has most bases covered. Its lens reach is supported by sensor shift image stabilisation, arguably the most reliable of the alternative options. A 1cm macro option and 5 frames per second burst shooting at maximum resolution are similarly up there with the best in its class.

Newly installed on the CX4's dime-sized right hand dial are a Creative Mode shooting option, with six featured settings that somewhat mirror the Magic Filters and Art Filters found on the Olympus compact range. On the Ricoh we get a similar "Miniaturized" option that apes the look achievable with specialised tilt and shift lenses, along with a toy camera option that attractively smudges the edges of frame, pinhole camera style. The other quartet of options includes Dynamic Range (two pictures taken and combined for a greater range of tones), high contrast black and white, soft focus and cross process.

Plus Ricoh has further introduced subject tracking Auto Focus (AF) for biasing focus and exposure toward subjects on the move. This is implemented with a press of the rear "Fn" (function) button, one of just six controls on the backplate.

All this, and the fair pricing, somewhat excuses the fact that admittedly the camera isn't the easiest on the eye. As with all Ricoh's it's rather drab and boxy, its remit being function rather than fashion. That said, its manufacturer has dropped its usual serious regard with the CX4, and issued a version in frivolous pink along with black and silver. 

In terms of imaging performance the Ricoh is capable of delivering some good colours and even exposures, though there's a tendency to underexpose to preserve highlight detail, so you might find yourself occasionally brightening the results in Photoshop to get the best of out them.

Good edge to edge sharpness is maintained even at the extremities of the zoom, though inevitably camera shake is a problem when shooting interiors without flash, despite the inclusion of sensor shift anti shake.

The spirit level proves a real boon however in getting your subjects nice and level and generally we were pleased with the quality of images the CX4 delivered. The new Creative Modes are fun, if arguably inessential, though they do provide another point of difference between this big zoomed Ricoh and the myriad of other pocket cameras sporting big zooms.

We were rather disappointed to find however that the camera's optical zoom is disabled when recording video. This is due in no small part, we suspect, to the mechanics of the lens sounding like a house fly in its death throws as it moves through the entirety of its range, a process mercifully taking all of 3 seconds. 

Verdict

The lens reach and monitor resolution may mark the CX4 out as a more serious proposition for the photo enthusiast than your average snapshot camera, but in fact this Ricoh is a pretty much auto everything point and shoot model none the less.

While it may lack the finesse of big zoom compacts from bigger name brands the CX4 is another competent and solid performer from the manufacturer. Though it doesn't really offer a significant step on from previous iterations, it does most of what is required of a modern travel zoom and won't break the bank.