Zoom lenses have become so ubiquitous in cameras these days that a lot of people take them for granted, despite the fact that they have no trouble using a one-time-use camera at a wedding or on an action-packed vacation. Ricoh is banking that there are enough people who can skip the convenience of a zoom lens. In fact, it is so confident that it has introduced the GR Digital II, a follow up to their first foray into the fixed-focal-length digital world, which was known as the GR Digital.
The GR Digital II sports a 28mm-equivalent lens, which feeds light to a 10.1-megapixel CCD sensor, while a 2.7-inch LCD screen on the back lets you frame your shot. Instead of a built-in optical viewfinder, Ricoh offers a couple of accessory viewfinders that occupy the hot shoe: one (the GV-2) provides a 28mm field of view for the built-in lens; The other (the GV-1) can span 21-28mm, making it a perfect companion for the wide-angle conversion lens (the GW-1), which turns the built-in lens into a 21mm-equivalent. There's also a telephoto conversion lens (the GT-1), which narrows the field of view to an equivalent of 40mm. Both lens converters require the use of the main lens adapter (GH-1), which also ships with a lens hood, to cut down on any flare you might encounter when using the built-in lens.
The conversion lens system on the GR Digital II is a bit clunky. I found it difficult to remove the ring that covers the main adapter's bayonet mount at first (though it loosened a bit in time), and I had some trouble fitting the main adapter onto the camera. The lenses screw onto the adapter, so that wasn't difficult, but a better bayonet mount for the adapter would be a good idea. Also, the ring that covers the bayonet mount when the adapter's not in use feels very flimsy. Worst of all, the tiny pop-up flash becomes partially blocked when you use either of the conversion lenses.
For a camera that costs as much as the GR Digital II does, it's a bit absurd that they didn't just build in a viewfinder. However, anyone accustomed to street photography with a rangefinder will find Ricoh's approach familiar, since the wide-angle lenses used in street photography usually require optional shoe-mounted viewfinders on those cameras.
Because there's no zoom lens, the GR Digital II doesn't need a zoom rocker, so don't be fooled by the rocker switch they put where you'd normally find the zoom control. Instead, this rocker provides quick access to the camera's exposure compensation control when shooting, or zoom during playback. A nifty side-to-side rocking switch also lets you access exposure compensation, as well as white balance and ISO. Ricoh includes full manual exposure, along with aperture-priority and program mode. Strangely, they didn't include shutter-priority, though you can shift the exposure in program mode--something that some cameras don't allow.
For a compact camera, there's a fair amount of customization available in the GR Digital II. There are two customizable shooting modes: you can set the zoom rocker to access many other functions if you don't want to use it for exposure compensation, and you can do the same with the function button on the left of the four-way keypad you use to navigate the menus.
The GR Digital II didn't blow us away with its performance, but wasn't painfully slow, either. The main area it could speed up is at start-up. The camera took 4.4 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took 1.4 seconds between shots with the flash turned off and 1.8 seconds with the flash turned on. It took 2.1 seconds between RAW shots, which is quite fast for a compact camera, though it still might feel a bit slow in practice. Shutter lag measured 0.7 second in our high contrast test and 1.3 seconds in our low contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions respectively. Continuous shooting yielded an average of 2.3 frames per second.