This luxury-oriented model is actually a fancy version of the Kyocera Finecam SL300R, with the chief difference being the leatherette body and the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens, which has the same specifications as those listed for the Kyocera version's optics but is apparently improved with a T* coating. Small at 4 by 2.5 by 0.6 inches and 5.5 ounces, this little wonder has a lot more to offer than its blazing burst performance. A limited-range but fast-operating 3X zoom lens, excellent macro capabilities, and 640x480-pixel video capture at either 30fps or 15fps make this a versatile minimachine.
The Contax SL300R T* has a two-section body; the lens/flash module rotates up or down 120 degrees, making it easy to point the lens where you want while previewing your shot on the 1.5-inch LCD. (There is no optical viewfinder.) The lens offers a 38mm-to-115mm zoom (35mm-camera equivalent) that's not quite wide enough for interior photography in cramped quarters or long enough for many sports pictures unless you're right down on the sidelines. The lens does offer a choice of wide-angle or spot autofocus, as well as manual focusing, and you can get as close to your subject as 8 inches in macro mode. The SL300R T*'s Speed Autofocus mode makes focusing faster but freezes the LCD screen during the process. A modest number of scene modes provide programmed settings for sports, portraits, night shots, night portraits, and landscapes.
Most of the time, you'll let the camera choose the exposure, but you can select from multi-area, center-weighted, or spot metering and choose aperture priority--but not shutter priority--if you like. If you want a little more or less exposure, you can make adjustments in 1/2EV increments to plus or minus two stops. ISO can be adjusted up to ISO 800.
The impressive burst-mode performance can be credited to the SL300R T*'s pipelined processor, which uses direct memory access to hustle images onto a high-speed SD memory card at a furious clip. Our tests yielded 434 full-resolution photos in less than 2 minutes.
Performance such as that makes this camera's quirks easier to live with. The SL300R T*'s controls are small and easy to fumble over, and the lens hood makes a perfect finger-grip when you pick up the camera: be prepared to remove a fingerprint once or twice each shooting session. You probably won't miss the absent optical viewfinder except when you're shooting under direct sunlight outdoors or trying to focus manually; the LCD otherwise works well for composing and viewing your pictures. Its backlighting can be switched off to conserve battery power. There's no socket for a tripod or any other brace to steady the camera for longer exposures or to let you use the self-timer to get into the picture.
Aside from those few ergonomic drawbacks, the camera is easy to use. There's no mode dial: you use a pair of left/right keys to switch from Setup to Playback, Shooting, Burst, and Movie modes. Other settings are accessible via the Menu button, which displays a strip of options along the bottom of the LCD, including the self-timer, quality and compression settings, ISO, metering mode, exposure compensation, and white-balance controls.
Most non-burst-performance figures were average in our tests. Time to first shot was 3.5 seconds, and thereafter we were able to snap off a picture every 2.2 seconds, or every 5.6 seconds with the flash activated. Shutter lag was acceptable at 0.7 second under high-contrast lighting, but the non-light-assisted autofocus system took long enough to make up its mind under low-contrast lighting to result in a 1.1-second lag. We got 332 exposures on a single battery charge after a workout that included 50 percent flash exposures and other power-sucking activities, such as zooming and picture review.
The Contax SL300R T*'s image quality was average. Exposures were even, and there was a reasonable amount of detail in both highlights and shadows, but the sharpness you might expect from a 3.2-megapixel camera just wasn't there. Noise was abundant at higher ISO ratings, limiting the usefulness of the ISO 800 setting for sports photography.