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Ricoh goes modular for GXR camera system

Rather than interchangeable lenses, Ricoh's new system uses sealed modules combining a lens and sensor. But will its high price render the whole thing a nonstarter?


In what has to be the oddest new camera technology announcement of 2009, Ricoh unveiled its GXR system. It's not a mirrorless interchangeable lens (dare I say EVIL?) system, as was rumored around the blogosphere, but what the company catchily calls an "Interchangeable Unit Camera," where the "Unit" in question is a lens/sensor module which slides into a housing that includes the rest of a point-and-shoot's pieces--920,000-pixel 3-inch LCD, controls, hot shoe, and flash. A tiltable EVF that fits in the hot shoe will be optional.

When it ships in the beginning of December, Ricoh plans to have the body and two camera units. Also, according to the company, it promises to deliver a new camera unit every quarter, starting with a nonspecific telephoto in the second quarter of next year.

One of the initial modules consists of a 24-72mm-equivalent f2.5-4.4 lens coupled with a 10-megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensor-shift-stabilized CCD; it supports ISO sensitivities from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200, VGA movies, and a raw burst speed of 5 frames per second for an unspecified number of frames. Essentially, with this unit the camera becomes a slightly updated version of the GX100, with the better sensor from the GR Digital III and a bump up in LCD-screen size.

The second module is a 50mm-equivalent f2.5 macro lens coupled with an APS-C-size (23.6x15.7mm) 12.3-megapixel CMOS that supports 24fps 720p video.

According to Ricoh, this architecture has a few advantages. Because the lens/sensor is a sealed unit, you don't have to worry about dust on the sensor as you might with an interchangeable lens. Ricoh expects that the system will have a variety of modules, not just cameras, including photo viewers, projectors, as well as a sort of adapter unit that could take a Micro Four Thirds lens. Finally, according to the Ricoh, this system lets it better match the characteristics of the lenses with the sensors to optimize optical paths and so on.

Ricoh's novel aperture-bladed lens cap. Please excuse the flipped photo; it's cropped from a weird Ricoh shot. Ricoh

The real question is, is this brilliant or a blunder? Well, to me that depends primarily upon the pricing; and that's where Ricoh pushes it towards blunder territory. The body alone will cost $549. That's more than a complete camera such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 or Canon PowerShot G11. The 24-72mm unit will cost $440 (for a total camera cost of almost $1,000) and the 50mm macro unit will be a whopping $830. So the total cost of a zoom and prime package is about $1,800. In contrast, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 with the zoom and 20mm prime plus body is only $1,300. Ouch. And while it's certainly more compact than a dSLR, it's not significantly smaller than the compact Micro Four Thirds cameras. Instead, you can buy several entire cameras. That's not as clever or as compact, but it's certainly more cost effective.

However, what about Ricoh's whole deal of matching the sensor to the lens? This is a wild card. It's possible that Ricoh could eke out some optical gains from doing so; however, only time and testing will tell.

But with the GXR system, you're playing roulette. In the case of the overpriced 50mm macro unit option, you do get a large sensor, and if the lens is good, it should be a pretty nice pocket enthusiast model. But based on the spec sheet, it's likely that the 1/1.7-inch CCD paired with the 3x zoom lens will be pretty ho-hum, or maybe a solid but overpriced model for its class. At least with a dSLR or with a Micro Four Thirds camera you're buying into known characteristics of the system. Maybe Ricoh will pair its next lens, a telephoto, with an APS-C sensor; more likely, it will pair it with a small sensor to maximize the zoom prospects. Since the camera units are more complex than simply a lens, the probability of third parties jumping in to provide more options is fairly low; also, simply creating third-party adapters for existing lenses seems to defeat the purpose of matching the lens with the sensor. On the other hand, if Ricoh could make a not-obscenely priced generic APS-C module that could be outfitted with mounts for various brands of dSLR lenses, which might be cool.

And as for the additional gadget modules, is that the sort of thing that you really think about when you're looking for a camera?

I can't take a poll, so feed me in the comments. Am I missing something? Or does this sound like as much of a nonstarter to you as to me? Would it make more sense if it were a lot less expensive and targeted toward the snapshooter instead of the enthusiast?