Digital camera manufacturers have yet to produce a must-have alternative to an SLR for pros. Compact cameras tend to be almost entirely focused on consumers, emphasising gimmicks and ease of use rather than manual controls and ultimate image quality.
The 10MP GX100 aims to change all that. It eschews the latest technology such as face-detection systems and ultra-high ISO speeds found on many fashionable compacts in favour of a spread of one-touch dials and custom controls, with the flexibility of a super-wide (24mm equivalent) zoom.
The metal matt-black case of the GX100 reiterates Ricoh's intentions. It's a small and tough package, with a rubberised grip on the right-hand side and precise, almost military-looking controls. These have been extremely well thought out.
The key power, Auto mode and playback controls are highlighted in green, with more advanced functions marked in white. The top-mounted mode dial is flush to the case (resisting accidental knocks), and the four-way menu pad is fast and accurate to use.
Dial D for dials
Two key controls are the Adjust and Up-Down dials. The Adjust dial pulls up a (customisable) overlaid menu of four features.
We went for exposure compensation, ISO, drive and AF/MF, but you could choose bracketing, metering, quality and much more. If that weren't enough, there's also a programmable Function button to the left of the flash. The speedy Up-Down dial then controls all settings, enabling you to adjust a whole spread in seconds, without taking your eye from the scene.
The slightly hesitant 24-72mm zoom lens is controlled by a vertical zoom lever, to the accompaniment of clicks. The lens is very good, with hardly any chromatic aberration and only a smear of softness at wide angle. Aperture Priority mode offers six settings, from a f/2.5 at 24mm to a useful f/15.8 at telephoto. You get Manual mode but no Shutter Priority. A CCD-shift stabilisation system seems only marginally effective.
The 2.5-inch LCD is sharp and bright, with a one-touch power boost for bright days. However, it does freeze momentarily when you half press the shutter - very annoying when tracking moving subjects.
There's no optical viewfinder but there is the (world's first) option to add a separate electronic viewfinder (£50) on the hotshoe. Our test unit didn't come with one but it promises data display and a folding action of up to 90 degrees for angled shooting.
More good news is that you can capture as JPEG, RAW or JPEG + RAW, with Ricoh using Adobe's DNG format for maximum compatibility. But start shooting and some of the GX100's professional gloss fades. Multi-zone autofocus lacks the speed and smarts of rival systems, and you have to wait for a file to save before being able to shoot again. Even Burst mode can only manage 1.7fps at its very fastest.
Luckily, the images are worth the wait. Colours are punchy, smooth and accurate with noise very controlled up to ISO 400 and even (maximum) ISO 1600 images retaining enough saturation and detail to be worth the effort. Full-quality JPEGs have good levels of detail and sharpness, although never rivalling that of a DSLR.
The manual pop-up flash is blinding: perfect for filling a room but too fierce for any kind of portrait, where you should switch to Soft flash mode. Don't worry if you burn through the Ricoh's 380-odd shot lithium-ion battery life, as you can swap it for a brace of AAA cells in an emergency.
Will the Ricoh tempt pros away from their SLRs? Probably not. Despite an excellent control system, useful manual options and decent image quality, it's too slow for the kind of close-up reportage shooting it seems designed for. But that shouldn't prevent keen amateurs from trying it out - that 24mm lens really is a beauty.