For what seems like eons a debate has raged over who makes the best digital cameras? Is it technology firms who make up for a lack of optical knowledge with their ability to produce top-notch consumer electronic kit? Or is it the 'old school' camera makers who have the photographic heritage to sweep aside concerns about their lack of electronic experience?
So far, it's been the established names in photography - companies such as Canon and Pentax - who have seen what photographers want and have built well on their reputations. Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to this rule.
Companies such as Sony, HP and Casio have produced some stunning models over the past couple of years. So what of Ricoh, a company better known for sucking up smaller Japanese electronics firms and being one of the largest manufacturers of photocopiers on the globe? It certainly has a wide presence in the camera field, from the 4-megapixel R1 to the 8-megapixel GX8.
The Caplio R3 is a 5-megapixel camera with an extra compelling feature - it has an impressive 7.1x optical lens when most other compacts are still stuck with the regulation 3x zoom lenses. With a good zoom range of 28-200mm, the R3 has a chassis that's slightly bigger than most compacts with this level of megapixel rating.
Ricoh says it can pack such a lens into a smaller body due to a new system it has developed that 'doubly retracts' the lens during storage. Unfortunately there is a problem with having a lens of this size - the fins covering the front element are flimsy and it's clear from the outset they don't close that well.
This is the second review model we've had and both have developed problems with the lens flaps not closing over properly. Any interference with the flaps when they are closing results in one of the flaps coming loose from the others in the assembly. If this camera was £150, such a problem might be forgivable, but it isn't and Ricoh really needs to improve on this.
Still, the Caplio R3 is a good proposition should you want a wider-angle lens in your digital compact. If you do, you might also like to consider Ricoh's new Caplio R30 - this is a slightly cheaper version of the R3 announced in January, with a slightly lower price point and a 5.7x optical zoom lens instead of the 7.1x featured in the R3.
Keen macro photographers will be impressed with the R3's ability to shoot objects from just 10mm away, while a zoom macro function can automatically set the focal distance of the lens correctly to capture the subject. The shutter has an extremely good response with a lag time estimated at around 0.09 seconds by Ricoh.
The camera can also correct skewed images through software which detects trapezoids to rectangles. Clever stuff, but almost certainly of limited use - although Ricoh does suggest it could be handy for shooting images of presentations and suchlike, where you're rarely square on with the action.
As well as the expected video function, there's also a feature to create audio recordings should you need to capture them. These are saved as standard WAV files.
Battery life is excellent - we used the R3 during a two-day city break and it only needed a recharge after the second day. But expect a lot less mileage if you're doing a large amount of reviewing with the LCD.
A great feature of the R3 is the on-screen reviewing; the navigation is far smarter than many systems adopted by far bigger digital camera manufacturers. One of the best features is that while moving through thumbnails of images, a zoomed-in view of the image is shown.
Clever. Unfortunately such features are let down by the mediocre quality of the screen - it just doesn't look good enough to cope with the highresolution of the images. The menu system also has a rather basic look to it, too, but it's hardly enough to discount this camera. Dan Grabham