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Ricoh is a strange company. Its main business is its extensive but rather pedestrian range of white-cabinet office machinery, such as copiers, fax machines and printers. Another department manufactures specialist microchips for industrial applications, which while no doubt important is hardly exciting for most of us. Meanwhile its digital camera division has, for over a decade, managed to produce some of the most creatively ingenious digital cameras ever seen, often leading the market, and even opening new niches which other manufacturers have exploited. Ricoh's range of cameras has never been extensive, but models like the GD Digital, GR Digital II, R7, R8 and this year's R10 have established a well-deserved reputation for quality, performance, value and innovation. Ricoh was the first to introduce the wide-zoom compact, and now with the new CX1 it has taken that innovation one step further.
Outwardly the CX1 looks very similar to the excellent Ricoh R10, which I reviewed back in February. It has a strong aluminium body with the same uncompromising box-like shape, and the controls on the top plate are identical. It has the same 7.1x zoom 28-200mm-equivalent lens, and while the shape and layout of the rear panel has been tweaked to accommodate the larger LCD monitor it still has the joystick menu navigation control. However the CX1 is far from being just an update of the earlier model. The new camera features a 9.29-megapixel high-speed CMOS sensor and Ricoh's Smooth Imaging Engine IV processor, which give it some unique capabilities.
Dynamic range has always been a problem for digital cameras, especially those with very small over-powered sensors. Many recent cameras have attempted to compensate for this with contrast-balancing functions, but mostly these just adjust the tone curve of the image to boost shadow detail. Ricoh however has come up with a better solution. Using the high-speed capabilities of the new CMOS sensor the CX1 can take two pictures at different exposures in rapid succession, and then combine them internally to produce a single image with much greater dynamic range. It's similar to the Photoshop technique of HDR imaging, but the camera does it internally and automatically in an instant. The resulting images have plenty of shadow detail but avoid the burned-out highlights that plague many other compact cameras.