The design of the all-metal camera body is very plain and simple, with lots of flat planes and straight lines. It features a rubberised handgrip which wraps around the right-hand end of the body and is shaped to form a thumbgrip at the back. It's not the biggest handgrip ever, but it is more than most compacts offer and does make the camera very comfortable and secure to hold. The controls are also very simple, although this is due to excellent design rather than any lack of features. The most obvious feature of the control interface is the replacement of the usual D-pad by a simple four-way button like a small joystick, which doubles as a quick function menu button and navigation control. Pressing it activates a live menu offering quick control of up to five shooting parameters, with the default options being ISO setting, exposure compensation, white balance, AF mode and focusing point, although this list can be customised by the user. This system is a refinement of the control interface used on several previous Ricoh models, and I have found it to be one of the quickest and easiest control systems around.
The main selling point of the R8 is its unusually compact and versatile lens. This is unchanged from the previous models in the range, a 4.95 - 35.4 mm (equivalent to 28mm - 200mm), f/3.3 - f/5.2 unit that folds flush with the camera body when closed. Both the Panasonic TZ series and the Canon SX100 can beat it on focal length range (both feature 10x zoom), but both of their lenses protrude from the camera body when closed.
The R8 has a number of other interesting features, not least its LCD monitor. At 2.7 inches it is slightly larger than average for a compact, but it has an exceptionally high resolution of 460,000 dots, double that of most other compact camera monitors. It also has a good fast refresh rate and a very wide angle of view, easily wide enough to be visible when holding the camera at arm's length above your head, handy when you're trying to shoot over a crowd.
Refreshingly, the R8 lacks the auto-everything "idiot mode" found on many compact cameras. Instead its standard shooting mode allows full control over the camera. Although it lacks manual exposure control it still offers a wide range of useful photographic options, such as a movable AF/AE point, auto bracketing, adjustable sharpness and colour depth, several focusing modes including spot AF and manual focus, a live histogram in exposure compensation mode and the ability to limit both the slowest shutter and the aperture setting. As well as the standard program mode the R8 offers two user-defined program settings, useful if you want to return to a particular combination of settings frequently. It also has a scene mode with 11 options, including a face detection portrait mode and a perspective-correction function useful for photographing documents or whiteboards.
The R8 also features Ricoh's own moving-sensor image stabilisation system. This is unusual for a compact camera; most other manufacturers have opted for optical stabilisation systems in cameras of this size. As IS systems go it's better than a simple ISO boost, but it has the be said that it's not as effective as the systems used by Canon or Panasonic. It provides only two stops of additional stability at best, and even then it isn't terribly reliable, with some shots exhibiting movement blur while others at the same shutter speed are sharp. If you're shooting in low light it's probably a good idea to take three or four shots to be on the safe side. Better still, use a tripod.