Saturday, June 17, 2006

The small gems are not coming from over-hyped companies

The statement in the title is not ALWAYS true - after all large and famous companies have the resources to do some important research - but the problem is again and again "defending the status-quo" - Microsoft is innovating only to keep users locked on their platform (and Google is also going on the same route), Apple is only interested in customers that will buy a new "overpriced but cool" MP3 player or notebook every half year or so (and as a result products tend to last less and less) - but the same is also true for digital cameras and this post will be a micro-review about such a small gem!

The top players in the digital camera market are probably Canon and Nikon in that order - on both the high-end and on the consumer market - and that's where the problem starts to show - both of them have a very, very large selection of models artificially created by simply holding certain features that will mostly cost nothing (firmware) of very little to implement but when missing will eventually push the consumer to a more expensive model or eventually to an earlier (but not quite needed) upgrade.

The most obvious moment of that consumer rip-off was the story of digital image stabilization (about 1-2 years ago) - for a long time Canon had a line of professional but VERY expensive image-stabilized lenses (1-2 models around 500 US$ and most of the rest in the 1000-3000 US$ range; and to tell the entire truth the quality was probably worth the price - FOR A PROFESSIONAL making a living out of that!) and Nikon was going pretty much on the same route - but there was no chance to break this marketing model from inside - and the innovation could only come from outside - so about 1-2 years ago Minolta (a much-much smaller player) launched the first digital SLR with image stabilization on the sensor that later spread to the consumer models and basically became the most important and practical innovation since the apparition of digital cameras. (sadly Minolta did not exactly survived - they first merged with Konica and later were sold to Sony).

Today the story is not dramatically different - neither Canon nor Nikon have sensor stabilization on their SLR models and Sony is the only one with such a product in development (based on Minolta legacy) - but the pressure from smaller players have forced both Canon and Nikon to add image stabilization to their consumer models - but again only in some models in order for the consumer to be forced to pay the maximum amount of money for their products ... so basically the most promising consumer models today are coming from Panasonic and Ricoh !!!

And this pico-review is precisely about a little-known gem from the second company - the Ricoh Caplio R4 - at this moment probably the only true pocket-camera with 7.1x zoom (28-200 equivalent of film) and image stabilization! (click on the image below for the Ricoh product page).

Ricoh is today a small player on the US digital camera market (actually they are no longer on that market directly) - so unlike for instance the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01 (which is also a small gem in itself and probably second only to the Ricoh R4) there are VERY few competent reviews - the best I could find were this one from ephotozine and this one published in Digital Lifestyles - but the Ricoh Talk Forum from dpreview is a very nice place and extra information can be found there! The camera is also difficult to find in US (mine was bought from popflash and they seem to be very nice).

However Ricoh was famous back in the days when film was king for the GR1 - probably one of the best point-and-shoot cameras that you could actually carry in your pocket and together with some other famous models like the Yashica T4/T5 or Olympus Stylus Epic have created history! (and serious photographers with over 20k$ worth of pro equipment were often using such gems for candid photos or just in order to have a decent camera at all times with them).

But technology evolved (mostly for the better I might say) and today for a very decent price (if we adjust the prices it is almost at the same level as the T4) you can have an incredibly small digital camera having a zoom with astounding range (28-200 film equivalent), image stabilization and usable noise!!! And just in case you still regret film-based point-and-shoot a little - you can take about 600-700 pictures with the R4 and only one (very tiny) extra rechargeable - compare that with the volume of 20 rolls of film and only then complain about technology :)

So now about the camera itself - yes, the noise is bad if you compare it with an EOS-1DS Mark II , but then again, the full R4 is smaller and lighter than only the battery from that SLR; and once you stop comparing it to cameras from a totally different class you can discover that the R4 is quite usable and the pictures can be great with a little tweaking. What is most important is that for a non-pro such a small camera can take pictures that a large SLR will never be able to make - since it will be left home! Even in low light the image-stabilization or the top ISO setting will be able to provide some results - of course that Neat Image and a little photoshop might help after that but the results can be quite lovable. The macro is amazing and the camera feels quite quick so my entire R4 experience was very pleasant so far!

As always there are things that can be improved - the battery/card cover could be (far) better and the small 'case' provided by popflash was indeed needed, but most important of all there could be one small extra firmware feature that would dramatically improve the entire R4 - in the ADJUST menu one extra option for a quick time-versus-aperture compensation would probably make this camera as close to perfect as we can get from just firmware !!!

So the final conclusion is that very smart gems can be found once you open up to brands beyond the 'market leader' - the Ricoh Caplio R4 is just one of them but examples can be found in any domain!


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