In common with all of Ricoh's cameras, and indeed its recent CX3 predecessor, the 10-megapixel, back-illuminated, 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor-sporting CX4 is outwardly drab and boxy. The whimsical curves and arcs of premium Canon IXUS and Panasonic Lumix models are not for this camera. Even Ricoh admits it's "workmanlike," but don't let that put you off this £260 compact travel zoom.
The R&D budget for the CX4 has been spent on its lens and components -- yes, the bits that truly matter -- suggesting this is a camera for those who care more about photographic image than personal image. It's a tool for everyday snapping that's slightly more sophisticated than the average point-and-shoot. It will slide easily into and out of trouser pockets or handbags. Surprisingly, for the ever-so-serious Ricoh, the CX4 comes in frivolous pink along with standard black and silver. There's no raw shooting option, just fine or normal-compression JPEGs.
As well as looking like it was fashioned in a Russian tractor factory, it feels like it, too. The CX4 is reassuringly robust and solid at 205g with card and battery. The CX4, 24.4mm at its slimmest point, lacks much in the way of a definitive handgrip, save for a thin sliver down the front of the camera that you can dig your fingers into.
From ugly duckling to swan?
It powers up in just over two seconds, but it's when it comes to headline specification that the CX4 really shines. Before Panasonic and its acclaimed high-zoom compact TZ series, Ricoh lead the way for larger-than-average zooms in compact camera bodies. Here, a 10.7x optical zoom with 28-300mm equivalent focal range is folded away within the body when not in use, and its extremities are protected by an automatic sliding lens cover when inactive.
Also impressive is the 76mm (3-inch) LCD with a 920k-dot resolution -- the sort of spec found on semi-pro digital SLRs. There's no optical viewfinder to fall back on, so it's good that the clarity of the image on screen is fantastic. The electronic spirit level that appears along the bottom of the LCD is another funky feature reincorporated from previous generations of Ricoh. When shooting landscapes, it helps to keep everything level.
The CX4 features enhanced blur reduction/anti-shake in the form of sensor-shift image stabilisation, a 1cm macro mode and 5fps burst-shooting at maximum resolution (or 120fps at VGA resolution). Ricoh has installed a subject-tracking autofocus (AF) for biasing focus and exposure toward subjects on the move. This mode is activated with a press of the rear 'Fn' (function) button. Select the new 'creative shooting' mode using the mode dial, which is sunk into the CX4's right-hand edge. The dial is positioned naturally under the thumb as your forefinger hovers over the shutter release button. This is encircled by a lever for operating the zoom, maintaining the ergonomic layout.
Give the zoom lever a nudge and the lens takes just under three seconds to travel through the entirety of its range, quickening as it reaches maximum telephoto distance. Unfortunately, the zoom is quite noisy, sound-tracked by a mechanical buzz resembling a gnat hovering close to your ear. Still, there's no denying the creative scope of such a broad focal range. A half-press of the shutter release button and the CX4 takes a couple of moments to determine focus and exposure, with the lens once again buzzing as it makes its adjustments. There's a Motion JPEG movie mode found on the same shooting dial -- offering 720p footage at 30fps -- but no HDMI output, just standard AV out and USB ports under a rubber flap at the side. Unsurprisingly, the full extent of the optical zoom cannot be reached when recording movies. No doubt this is to prevent the operational noises ending up on the audio. Other settings on the dial include a 'smart' scene auto mode, regular scene mode and two customisable user modes.
Navigate the camera's menu by toggling the thumb-operated joystick, at the top-right of the back plate. Changes are effected with a downward press. This can be fiddly, as it's easy for your thumb to slip when doing so. Other than that, the camera is reasonably easy to use, suitably responsive and not overly burdened with controls.
The newly installed 'creative shooting' mode mirrors the likes of 'magic filters' on Olympus compacts. It's here you can select from six digital-effect options, such as toy camera, strength-adjustable dynamic range, cross process, soft focus and miniaturisation. The 'mini' effect imitates that of a tilt-and-shift lens, also found on Canon's 14x-zoom PowerShot SX210 IS. These features are fun, but no match for the sophistication of the 'art filters' on the Olympus Pen range. Unlike said Canon, the portion of the area in focus and that which is artistically blurred cannot be manually adjusted. In an attempt to reduce image noise in low-light shots, there's a night landscape multi-shot mode for combining four exposures into a single photograph. There are more modes and features, but, at its heart, the CX4 remains a point-and-shoot camera. Images are written to optional SD or SDHC media with 86MB of internal memory.
In spite of its sensor-shifting properties, camera shake and softer shots in lower lighting can be a problem. Though pictures appear crystal clear on the camera's impressively sharp screen, once downloaded to the desktop and displayed in full, that tell-tale softness is more apparent. Inevitably, you can come away feeling slightly disappointed. To give the softer images a positive spin, for those who complain that digital makes everything look too sharp, the CX4 could fit the bill. Conversely, there's a tendency for the camera to underexpose images to preserve highlight detail. Colours look good, though.
The Ricoh CX4 doesn't look very promising on first inspection, but with minimal user effort this camera is capable of taking some decent photographs. It's a modest update and images pale in comparison with the likes of the brighter Panasonic LX5, admittedly at nearly £200 more. The CX4 is better than your average point-and-shoot, especially given its 920k-dot-resolution LCD. It retails for a fair price, but lacks the star quality to make it stand out from the crowd.
Edited by Emma Bayly