Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 Silver, Part 1

Panasonic Lumix GX1 with Lumix 1.7/20mm

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It now costs 1/5 what it originally sold for.
The Long Version:

It may say "Henry" on my birth certificate but my middle name is really "Cheap." That's why I wait until the very end of a product's lifecycle to pick up a lot of µ4:3rds camera gear, especially camera bodies. I did that with my E-PL1 (US$150) and my E-PL2 (US$200). And I did it again when the price of the Panasonic GX1 body dropped to $200. With free shipping.

My primary reason for owning a Panasonic body is to have a reference against which to use my three Panasonic Lumix lenses; the 14mm, the 20mm, and the 25mm. I've never had any issues using any of those lenses with any of my Olympus µ4:3rds bodies, including the OMD E-M5, but I keep reading about the terrible problems other posters in other fora seem to have when using one vendor's lenses (Panasonic) with the other's bodies (Olympus). So far I'm happy to report that all my Panasonic lenses work just fine with the GX1, just like they work just fine with all the Olympus bodies I own. And if you think I own too many µ4:3rds bodies, I direct your attention to photographer William Eggleston's fine collection of Canon and Leica rangefinder cameras. I got nothin' on him.

In The Beginning...

The GX1 was first introduced nearly 18 months ago with a 14-42mm X kit lens for US$950. That put it squarely in the same price league as the Olympus E-P3.  I'd already heavily panned the E-P3 on my personal blog, stating in no uncertain terms that hell would freeze over before I'd buy an E-P3 at Olympus' asking price. Two years later, even with the heavy discounts the E-P3 has undergone, I still feel no desire to own a copy. I took a dim view of the E-P3 and unfortunately cast the same jaundiced eye towards the GX1 when it was introduced. That was my loss.

With 20/20 hindsight I've come to realize the GX1 does have some key advantages over the E-P3. Foremost is the GX1's sensor vs the E-P3's. At 16MP, it could be argued the GX1's additional 4MP won't buy you much and you're probably right as far as raw resolution goes. But there's a lot more going on with that sensor and associated image processor than just four additional megapixels. Quoting DPReview conclusions about the E-P3 from August 2011: "The E-P3's biggest problem, through, is that its 12MP sensor is essentially the same as that which we first saw in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 almost three years ago, and in the face of rapid progress from other manufacturers it's now looking distinctly dated." The GX1 borrowed the sensor from the G3, which was released the same time as the E-P3, and which had at least two years of refinement behind it. DPReview's conclusions about the G3 (and later the GX1) were glowingly effusive in comparison to their E-P3 conclusions. I don't mind buying a two-year-old sensor from Panasonic, but five years for Olympus is more than a bit of a stretch, especially when I realize it's the same sensor I have in the E-P2, E-PL1 and E-PL2. Note that while I still don't care for the E-P3, my feelings for the OMD E-M5 are just the opposite, which I own and like greatly. You can have my E-M5 when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. But I digress...

Working with the GX1

The GX1 has a compact body with a design quite reminiscent of the Olympus E-PL2. Sit the two side-by-side and the Panasonic GX1 and Olympus E-PL2 look more alike than different, even if the E-PL2 is supposed to be channeling the old Olympus film Pen lines. Their construction bears remarkable similarities, even down to the use of the same number and placement Phillips screws on both ends of the body as well as across the bottom plate of the body. You'd think they came out of the same design bureau.

Dig a little deeper physically and there are differences between the two. The E-PL2 makes greater use of composites ("plastics") in its body, while the GX1 body is nearly all metal (the E-PL2 used metal on the front face plate, composite on the back). The tripod mount on the GX1 lines up with the lens mount and sensor, while it's very offset on the E-PL2. There're more direct controls on the GX1. Finally, there's an explicit on-off power switch on the GX1 top plate that wasn't mimicked by Olympus until the E-M5 and the just-announced E-P5. The construction, at first blush, appears a bit more robust with the GX1, although I wouldn't classify the E-PL2's construction as either poor or flimsy, far from it. They both exude good quality fit and finish. The best way to describe the GX1 with a Lumix 1.7/20mm and the battery is "dense", which goes to further reinforce the feeling of quality with the GX1.

Out in the field the GX1 is fairly easy to get to work the way I expect all my cameras to work. The menus in the GX1 are radically different from the Olympus Pens, which is to be expected. The GX1 menus are fairly "flat" (few menu levels) while the Olympus cameras have greater depth (more levels to traverse). Having now had to deal with both I don't see where either one is better than the other. They're both equally bad in my not so humble opinion, but their menu systems aren't deal breakers. You dive in, learn the menu layout, make your changes, and then get on with photography.

I'll note at this point in the review that I set auto review to '0' (turning it off) and turned the focus assist light off. With auto review off there is no apparent delay between shutter releases (having the image pop up like that always surprises me enough to cause me to delay, even if very briefly). With the focus assist light off the camera and I are a bit more stealthy, and the battery lasts a bit longer.

As I noted earlier the GX1's sensor resolution is 16MP, which matches the resolution of the OMD E-M5. However if you look at the sensor scores for those two cameras at DxOMark, you'll see that the overall score of the E-M5 is 20 points greater than the GX1. That's pretty substantial and is due in part to the E-M5's greater exposure range (about 1 1/2 stops if I read the numbers correctly). From my limited experience so far with the GX1 with the 20mm produces excellent results, especially close to base ISO. I've set auto ISO on the GX1 with a maximum of ISO 3200. While I've gotten fairly high, I've yet to reach a point where noise has become a problem.
ISO 250
ISO 160
Monochrome, ISO 400
ISO 1000
The GX1 in Black and White, or the Poor Man's Leica M Monochrom

I have tried for years to get a decent monochrome exposure out of the Olympus Pens, and for my uses I've been pretty dissatisfied. And then, on a whim, I set the GX1 to Monochrome Photo Style, and further tweaked the following settings: Contrast -1, Sharpness +1, Saturation -1, and Noise Reduction -2. It took a few times to reach those settings, but once there I realized I'd finally found a decent monochrome µ4:3rds body. Coupled with the 1.7/20mm and I suddenly had a pretty decent "artsy" camera that more than satisfied my wants. I love the deep blacks that come out of the GX1 instead of the muddy darks that the Olympus produces. If I had any doubt about keeping the GX1 that doubt was completely removed when I saw the SOOC black and white JPEGs it produces.
ISO 800
ISO 160
The last two photos show what the GX1 RAW files are capable of. The top photo is straight out of the camera. The "problem" with the top photo is that the sky looks overexposed with what many in the fora would call blown-out highlights (which I don't totally agree with). The bottom photo is the RAW file with LR 4.4's highlight slider set to -100 to recover the maximum information from the highlights. Now you can distinctly see the clouds in the sky.

Unfortunately it has also brought up a lot more detail in the mid-tones, especially in the bushes and across the car hood in the lower left corner. The top photo seems softer, more romantic, but there's enough detail and byte in the bushes to add interested to the overall composition. The bottom photo has too much busy detail. But these are meant to be references and comparisons. If I were really serious about producing a good final image and print from these files, I'd use at least two layers in Photoshop, one for the sky and the other for everything else, to isolate changes to the clouds in the sky. It would be the same as me burning a bit of the sky in a wet darkroom in the past.
ISO 160
Edited with LR 4.4 and Silver Efex Pro 2

That pretty much wraps up the first part of this review. In the final part I'll spend more time examining the ergonomics and how the GX1 compares with the E-PL2 and the E-M5. In the mean time, if you want a recommendation on whether to buy a GX1 or not, I heartily recommend you grab a copy while the price is down to $200. If you don't have any µ4:3rds lenses then I recommend either the Lumix 1.7/20mm (40mm equivalent) for $350 or the 2.4/14mm (28mm equivalent) for $250. If you get the 14mm you'll discover you have a camera that competes with the latest fixed lens cameras from Ricoh and Nikon that also have 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lenses, except they cost a whole lot more money and they're fixed lens


Hero photo of the GX1 taken with the Olympus E-M5 and M.Zuiko 12-50mm set at macro mode. All other photos taken with the GX1 and 1.7/20mm set at f/1.7. Color photos were processed in LR 4.4 and Color Efex Pro from RAW. Black and white were SooC except where noted.
last updated 29 may 2013


Lowepro Photo Hatchback AW 22L

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Yes, it's yet another camera bag review.

The Long Version: I'm going to get this out of the way right up front – the Lowepro Photo Hatchback AW is an exceptional mixed-use camera daypack. I've owned seven different backpacks, with four currently in the rotation, and the 22L Hatchback is easily my favourite.

As a mixed-use bag the Hatchback has a large compartment to hold non-camera items, which is reached through a zippered opening across top of the bag. The secret to the bag, and the feature that gives it its name, is the body-side access panel to the camera compartment that takes up its lower half. This is basically invisible when the bag's being worn, letting the Photo Hatchback be mistaken for a basic daypack or student's book bag.

The Hatchback looks so unremarkable that it's almost remarkable. There's a fabric grab-handle on top, tall elastic water-bottle pockets on each side, and a couple of access zippers across the top and front of the bag. There's no tangle of cinch straps and clips, no lash points for MOLLE gear, no intricate panels of heavy-weight Cordura that can double as a cheese grater. It's an untechnical and unpretentious bag.

The lower compartment of the 22L Hatchback can carry a large SLR with a short lens attached. There's still room alongside for another lens and perhaps another small accessory. The 60/2.8G with its hood attached squeaks in and still leaves room for my entire three-lens Nikon V1 kit alongside it, and I can tuck the battery charger in as well. Even my F5 can fit by lying flat when it's lensless or with a 50/1.4D on it; there's still room for a decent-sized lens beside it, too. This could be an uber-stealth way to carry a full-sized SLR and separate standard zoom.

The top compartment can fit enough stuff to get me through an overnight trip somewhere. It has two internal mesh organizer pockets and a zippered nylon pocket that's big enough to hold tickets, passports, or paperback books separately and securely. There's even a keychain leash inside. The side bottle pockets are tall enough to securely hold an 800ml steel water bottle or 710ml plastic soft drink bottle, and strong enough that I'll never worry about losing what I carry. Considering that Penny's MEC Book Bag will dump her travel mug onto the sidewalk with regularity, this ability isn't something to take for granted.

An iPad-like tablet, or the svelte 11" Macbook Air, will fit in the padded slot in the Hatchback's front organizer panel. I really prefer this to the customary back-panel laptop slot because it stops the weight of the bag's contents from squeezing and damaging the laptop screen. There's also an unpadded front compartment to the organizer panel, and it has a triangular profile that makes it substantially wider at the bottom, making it very useful for longer objects that otherwise wouldn't fit inside the bag.

My day-job load is to have a camera or two, like my GA645zi, V1 system, or Ricoh GRD4 tucked into the camera compartment. My laptop, audio recorder, and its shock-mount go in the front panel, where they can be reached easily. A water bottle fits in one side pocket, and an umbrella or beverage – depending on the weather forecast – rides in the other. The top compartment can hold a light jacket when it's cold or a change of clothes when its hot, and a brown-bag lunch will fit in either the top or bottom of the bag depending on my priorities for the day.

For more serious outings this little bag will hold my D800 with 60/2.8G (or 50/1.4 if I expect it to be dark out) and Nikon V1 system, with its two zooms and fast normal lens, in the camera compartment. There's still room in there for their mutual charger or a compact camera. My audio recorder's shock mount assembly and Joby Gorillapod Focus, with its Manfrotto 484RC2 head, fit side-by-side down the front panel. Then I can either put the audio recorder and headphones into the top compartment loose – which is great for recording when I may need to move along promptly, like under a highway overpass – or use a Crumpler Haven insert to keep them organized, along with another small camera, alternative windscreen, multitool, and other bits and pieces that make up my audio kit.

Like the Flipside Sport bag that I previously reviewed, the padded camera compartment is removable, and has a built-in draw-stringed cover and handles for the occasion. (Protip: this is a great place to stash a few runs of gaffer tape.) The interior panel that divides the bag is held in place with velcro, so it can be tucked out of the way to create a single full-height compartment should the need ever arise.

As one of Lowepro's "AW" bags the Hatchback includes a cover for poor weather. I'm normally not too diligent about deploying these, but because this is a lighter-weight bag I do use it when I'm carrying my laptop. I really like the outward-facing, top-loading tablet-slash-Macbook-Air compartment, but it closes with a standard YKK zipper and has only a modest storm flap to cover it. Life's a barter.

The good news is that the AW cover is well-designed, and has loops that secure it around the shoulder straps at the top of the bag. The cut is roomy enough to fit over water bottles or similarly-sized items in the side pockets, as well. It's also handy for keeping the front of the bag clean when it's set down, as the camera compartment remains accessible. And of course when the cover's not needed it tucks into its spacious compartment at the bottom of the bag, where it provides a little extra cushion to the contents.

The fit on the 22L model is wider than I'm used to, with the straps resting toward the outside of my not-overly-broad shoulders. The sternum strap, which is removable, becomes very useful if I'm carrying a lot of weight. Otherwise I just see it as an opportunity to improve my posture, and it's a fairly easy trait to live with. There is also a removable webbing waist strap, which I immediately removed and haven't missed. While this bag can carry a lot of weight when it needs to, other bags, like as my Flipside Sport 20L, will still be filling the heavy overland hauler role for me.

Even with the large and stylishly-distressed 'LOWEPRO' running up the front of it, this bag looks like nothing. In my neighbourhood, which is on the edge of a large university, wearing this bag is the next best thing to being invisible. It's also worth pointing out that that the Hatchback is the least expensive of all of the camera backpacks I've ever owned, which makes this next bit especially telling: it and my Billingham Hadley Pro are the only camera-centric bags that I'll use even when I'm not carrying a camera.

I don't drive, so having the right bag matters a lot – I walk, at least part of the way, for everything I do. If I'm moving it means that I'm carrying everything that I need. I've spent hours sitting with the Hatchback on my lap during inter-city bus trips, have walked a couple hundred kilometres with it in the city centre, and I may have even taken it around fences and into places that I might need to depart from unexpectedly. After all that I've had no problems and no complaints. It doesn't look like much, but the Hatchback is a pretty awesome little bag.

last updated 21 may 2013


Toronto Coach Terminal

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Like Opus said, "Well maybe not THAT bad, but Lord, it wasn't good."

The Long Version: The Toronto Coach Terminal, which is home to Greyhound, Megabus, and Ontario Northland, among other bus lines, is an excellent example of how not to do things.

First, the good points: Inside the main doors is a large ticketing area, as well as a traveller's information kiosk that's occasionally staffed by (presumably) friendly, patient, and helpful people. There's a considerable amount of seating, which is eclectically arranged and cosy, even though much of it is roped off as an 'express' area. There are information screens that show which platform each bus will be departing from, and there are even storage lockers available, which is quite a luxury these days.

And that concludes the summation of the good points of Toronto's Bay Street bus terminal.

It's not glamorous, but restrooms are one of the most important consideration for travellers. These are absurdly small and in terrible repair – if there was any doubt that this building is owned and run by the TTC, this will remove it. Accommodating four people will make the Men's uncomfortably crowded, and the Women's is rumoured to be worse. For bonus points they're in the basement, far away and out of sight of the bus platforms. The up and down escalators are in different places, so you don't return to where you started, and neither one is convenient to the bus loading platforms. I'm trying to imagine a worse implementation of such a fundamental amenity, and keep coming up blank.

Also downstairs is a small convenience store selling touristy things and a poolhall to help pass the time. There are no food-equipped vending machines in the building, though, so when those are closed it's time to explore the neighbourhood. The basement does have a pedestrian passageway to the Atrium On Bay shopping complex, which mostly keeps office hours, but has a food court with much better washrooms and a McDonalds. That seems to be the best we can offer visitors with two kids, three suitcases, and half an hour left before they need to go stand outside in a garage.

Yes, dear reader, the best is yet to come.

The bus platforms don't deserve the term. Civilized bus stations have indoor waiting areas with seats and heat, and the people walk up to the bus when it's ready for them. Toronto does it backwards. People here are expected to line up – at least half an hour early, because buying a ticket doesn't guarantee a seat – and stand waiting in an outdoor garage. Metal railings mark the places for the queues, but a bus that can hold fifty or eighty people can create quite the line.

Did I mention that this is in Toronto? There is a roof that keeps most of the rain and snow out, but our weather is lousy for most of the year, being either too hot or too cold. And even on a pleasant day, spending it standing squished between buses with their engines running is nobody's idea of fun.

When a bus wants to reach the loading area it needs to drive through the lines of queueing people, who now need to shuffle themselves and their luggage out of the way. Did I mention that these massive vehicles need to turn to reach the correct positions, often with just a few feet of clearance? I can't imagine the stress this must put on long-distance drivers as they try to navigate a moving obstacle course of tired people pulling toddlers and wheeled suitcases.

And the crowning glory of the whole endeavour is just how busy the whole thing is. I've been waiting at a platform for the suggested half-hour prior to departure only to have two other buses depart from the same platform in that time. This leaves the bus drivers walking up and down the line calling out their destination. "Peterborough? Peterborough? Niagara Falls? Owen Sound?" I think the term I'm looking for is 'cluster farce', but I could be mixing up two expressions.

And once the bus is ready to go the experience still isn't quite over. The buses get to pull out onto a nice and wide public roadway, but it's also used for bus parking, which narrows it considerably. Having your bus need to do a three-point-turn is just the crowning touch on a congested and absurd experience.

This station needs to be torn down. It can't handle the passenger volume, which is increasing, but its replacement hasn't been a priority for the city planners. GO Transit has a more sensibly designed station farther south to serve its regional buses, but there's no way to add on significantly more service there, and the main inter-city bus station really needs to be in the city's core.

The fact is that a city will make the room, and find the money, for the things that it wants. Improving the TTC-owned Toronto Coach Terminal just doesn't rank highly enough to happen. The commercial district that houses the existing bus station has had massive redevelopment over the past decade, including a huge parking and shopping complex on an ideally-located prime intersection. It should have been an automatic choice for a transportation hub, but even with that opportunity missed, other block-scale development projects are not hard to find.

I can only hope that our next mayor can see beyond the suburbs.

last updated 15 may 2013


Brief Impressions: Ricoh GR

Concept: TBA
Execution: TBA
Yeah, but: More to come when I know anything useful.

Counter Opinion: Today I spent a brief amount of time with the New Ricoh GR, and I'm as determined as ever to buy one. True, my hands-on time was less than twenty minutes, but when I had a chance to try the 'Coolpix A' I set it back down after just a fraction of that, impressed at the concept but uninspired by its execution. Button-and-dial EV comp? No thanks, I prefer to spend my time taking pictures.

The GR that I used, like all of the ones that people have been writing about so far, was a late preproduction unit without final firmware. Unlike some bloggers, I'm not about to attempt a definitive or comparative analysis of image quality and performance, especially as its DNG raw files are still waiting for proper profiles from Adobe. However, as a newly-minited Ricoh GR Digital owner nothing I saw made me unhappy.

The GR is slightly longer than the GR Digital IV, but that's an improvement, not a demerit. There's more finger room around the front grip, and the camera feels better than the Girdiv in my average-sized hands. It remains a small camera, and isn't bigger-enough to make a practical difference for carry; while the camera is also a little thicker than the previous model, it can still be tucked in a back pocket when it's not in use. Finding a good case might be a challenge, but it's one I'm happy to accept.

The lens has only one extending section versus the GRD-IV's two, and seems less point-and-shooty when the camera is powered on. But rather than looking more 'serious', a la Fuji X100, I think the look is more reminiscent of an unthreatening film camera. I could absolutely see bringing the GR as my only digital camera for my annual summer-starting trip to New York City, should I be lucky enough to own one by then.

The biggest operational difference between the GRD-IV and the New GR is the macro mode. While the GR isn't bad – nothing at all like the Canon G1x – because the two cameras look and feel the same I kept trying to get too close for the new kid. As a result I can see an Eye-Fi equipped Girdiv becoming my camera of choice for easy product review photos, such as these ones, while the GR does the real work.

In terms of speed I couldn't feel much difference between the IV and the New GR / GRD-V models, with AF being pretty snappy on both. The GR seems like a bit of an improvement in pretty much all areas, and I have remarkably few complaints about the old one, so that works just fine for me. I'm looking forward to having this camera to call my own.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 10 may 2013


Ricoh GR Digital IV

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Three cheers for clearance pricing!

The Long Version: No offense, but there's really only so much you can learn from reading about cameras online. Sooner or later the time arrives: back away from the forums, pick up a camera, and GTFO – get the film out, if only metaphorically.

The New Ricoh GR digital – V, but who's counting – is coming. I've read just about everything I can find as I await my preorder, including GRD-era reviews to learn more about the Ricoh GR paradigm. After a dozen days I was completely saturated and there was only one sensible thing to do: I bought a Ricoh GR Digital IV, GRD-IV, pronounced "Girdiv", that was on clearance at the local camera chain.

Well, I suppose "stopping" also would have been a sensible thing to do, but that wouldn't have given me much to write about. So this review is about what I've learned in the time that it's taken me to work the kinks out of the Girdiv's camera strap.

The first thing I've learned is that the reviews that look like fawning adulation aren't as over-the-top as they seem. This is easily the best-designed digital camera that I've used. The GR design language stretches back farther than the Canon G-series, all the way into the film era, where the GR1 was the contemporary of the Nikon F5. Combined with a clear design intention about how the GR would be used, the result is an uncommon clarity of purpose. The GR is a scalpel that makes a Leica look bloated and self-indulgent. I mean, different focal lengths? Who needs that kind of superfluity?

The GR Digital IV, at its core, is a camera with an incredibly well-honed design housing a sensor and processor that were already dated when it was launched in late 2011.

I suspect that the sensor is the same as the one in the Canon S90, which debuted two years before the GRDIV came along; this sensor also appeared in the Canon G11 and Samsung EX1. It's a perfectly respectable choice as long as you don't like high definition video, but it wasn't cutting edge even when the Girdiv first came out. Its contemporaries – the Canon S100 was announced on the same day as the IV, September 15 – offer slightly better DxOMark performance, but more significantly the shot-to-shot time and buffer on the Girdiv has a distinct lag.

For a 'street photography' camera the noticeable delay in shot-to-shot time is either critical or irrelevant. Film cameras from the rangefinder aesthetic school wouldn't be able to take a burst of photos, so the decisive-moment timing purist won't even think about the followup delay. Those of use who are a little more digital in our thinking, especially those used to SLRs, may initially be frustrated by the press-and-pause method.

It's important to point out that the GRD-IV is perfectly snappy taking that first shot. Not only is the AF system fairly quick, sometimes it's not even necessary.

A feature of the GR Digital line – and the film GRs before them – is the ability to take a shot focused at a preset distance by skipping the shutter button's half-press AF-seeking pause. Jab and done. The Girdiv even allows Snap Focus to over-ride the current iso sensitivity and use the cameras' user-set auto-iso range. It's a pretty cool customization ability.

I'm not usually too concerned with the image quality of compact cameras; I choose them for their smaller size so I'm not going to be too picky. But the GRD-IV is a tremendous low-iso small-sensor compact, and holds up reasonably well into the mid-iso range as well. The majority of all of my photography is done within an iso range that can be comfortably handled by film, so I'm not too worried when iso1250 shows some noise. I'm impressed when it doesn't, to be sure, but it's not something that my personal expression depends on.

The 28mm-equivalent prime lens is excellent, both sharper and more flare-resistant than the zoom on the Canon S100. Point light sources within or just outside the frame can cause some unpleasant ghosting, but veiling glare is minimal.

Working with the 28mm-e field of view has taken some adjustment, but that's partly because I haven't used a compact camera since the end of my Five Thousand Photos project six months ago. Half of the 11,000 photos that I took for that series – I'm bad at math – were taken either at the cameras' widest angle or with just a quick tap of the zoom toggle to improve their lens quality. So the GR's prime lens is the natural extension of that priority, and while I occasionally missed the zoom in the first few days, now I don't think about it at all.

Some might call the GRD-IV a niche (rhymes with quiche) camera, but most photos these days are taken with cell phones. Wide and ultra-wide prime lenses dominate social media. While spending actual money on a stand-alone camera that can't take closeup photos during Billy's baseball game might still be a hard sell for most consumers, the entire compact camera market is imploding anyway. Ricoh (et al) don't have much to lose by swinging for the fences.

Physically the GRD-IV is exceptional. The build quality of the camera rivals any other that I've owned, including the Nikon D800, and, dare I say it, the legendary Olympus E-1. It doesn't claim any weather sealing, which is too bad, but it has an excellent control layout and is extremely comfortable to use.

I can quibble with the best of them, but my only little nit with physical design of the Girdiv is the SD card position. Why camera makers put the SD card slot up against the hinges for the battery door is beyond me; this makes it harder to remove than it should be. Using an Eye-Fi card solves that problem, but the extra WiFi power drain means that the battery compartment is going to get a workout regardless.

In an emergency the GRD family can be powered – briefly – by a pair of AAA batteries. This is done with an extra set of contacts and a flap to reduce the size of the battery compartment, which the regular DB-65 just pushes aside, so there's no need for an adapter. For what it's worth the DB-65 looks to be cross-compatible with the Sigma BP-41 and Pentax LI106, but the Ricoh-branded one is consistently the cheapest of the three.

Now, have a look at the next photo, and check out where I've attached the wrist strap: this is so much more comfortable and convenient than the usual method that other makers should be embarrassed. Naturally, mounting the strap on the top right or left is also an option.

The LCD screen is the best one I've ever used, and it really is visible in Toronto's interpretation of direct sunlight. I do sometimes prefer using the GV-1 viewfinder to frame images, and the camera has a handy green AF-confirmation lamp to support it, but it's really just a matter of working style and personal preference rather than overcoming any sort of deficiency.

Th GV-1 includes both 21mm and 28mm frame lines, and there's also a much smaller GV-2 viewfinder that only shows 28mm. But with my glasses I'm only barely comfortable with the 28mm lines on the GV-1, so I'm glad I chose the bulkier one.

Aside from its approximation of framing, there are two advantages to having the shoe-mounted viewfinder, and they're both that they make the Girdiv look even more harmless than the typical point-and-shoot camera that it superficially resembles. The big GV-1 OVF makes the GRD look like a toy camera, perhaps from the 'Lomo' family, and less like a serious black rectangle. Also, the GR Digital cameras can turn off their LCD – a feat the sparkly new Nikon Coolpix A can't accomplish, not that it's a competition – making them look inert and drawing less attention to themselves.

The OVF downsides, of course, are substantial: they're expensive, easily smudged, and good luck finding a case that will fit the complete assembly.

When the LCD is off hitting a control button can be set to turn it back on momentarily to review the settings change. Unfortunately this involves a bit of a breakdown in the Girdiv's control logic, as the first button press only activates the screen instead of changing the settings. Making adjustments without looking at the camera means remembering if the LCD is on or off. But naturally it's not even that straightforward, as exposure compensation always uses the first button press to call up the adjustment scale and a really good histogram display, regardless of whether the screen is on or off.

Overall I consider the EV control quirk a positive, since exposure compensation is one of the two controls I use the most, so it's good to have it behave consistently regardless of the LCD status. It also makes it easy to call up the histogram without actually changing any settings. But the other control that I use a lot is aperture, and that does behave differently when the screen is off. For everything that isn't EV comp I would vastly prefer it if the first button press would change the intended setting as well as call up the control display on the LCD.

This is a small thing, but it does make a difference in practice, even if the subtlety of this UI quirk is so far beyond the level of competence that other makers strive for. Did you know that the $1100 Coolpix A can't even turn off its LCD screen?

Sadly the LCD display is the source of more of my UI quibbles with the Girdiv. It cycles through in five steps: Info - Info with Histogram - Grid Display - Image Only - LCD Off. I'd really like to be able to take some of those out of the rotation. The display with the histogram is somewhat redundant, as using the exposure compensation rocker automatically calls up an even better histogram. I also don't find the information overlay distracting, so I can live without the info-less screen setting. Being able to choose which screen views to include in the rotation, which in my case would be "Info - Grid - Off", would be a big improvement.

The Grid View screen is worth special mention in its own right, and not in a good way. It's the only view mode that doesn't show which AF areas are active, which is unsettling, and doesn't include the excellent dual-axis level indicators from the two Info display screens, which would be really, really useful to have in conjunction with the grid options. Granted, my D800 can't simultaneously display its grid and level in the viewfinder either, and my V1 doesn't have a grid screen or a level, but the Ricoh interface really does aim higher than those two.

The mode dial on the Girdiv has a safety interlock so that it can't be changed accidentally; this is a design consideration that's reserved for high-end SLRs from the leading national brands. The GRD can embed copyright information into the EXIF information, disable the power LED, and has an intervalometer. It's a little odd that a camera that lets its owner recalibrate the electronic levels doesn't include pixel mapping, but it does have little rubber feet on the bottom to stop the camera from sliding when it's set down.

I check the manual for the GRD-IV more than any camera that isn't a Nikon SLR. Some of this is simply due to the different way that Ricoh thinks and writes compared to the bigger brands – 'white saturation display' means blinking highlights on the LCD – but it's mostly because there are so many interlocking options. Not all of these are readily apparent or grouped in the menus, but with a bit of perseverance it generally works out in the end.

There's an entire menu section devoted to how the function buttons can be set, paired, and changed. Most menu options are confirmed simply by choosing them from the pop-out options list and then navigating away; there's no need for a separate "OK" button-press before moving on to something else. Touching the shutter button can also be set to confirm changes, making for a quick and responsive camera to navigate. I'll say it again: this is the best-designed digital camera that I've ever used. It somehow manages to simultaneously rival my D800 for customization and my Zeiss Icon for operational elegance, which is an unlikely combination to hit.

The Girdiv is unlike other cameras in how it chooses its own settings, too. I typically use aperture priority and allow its iso to run as high as 640 without supervision, and it really seems to enjoy it. The selection of these values is unusually granular: the EXIF data shows it using iso values such as 168, 176, 183, and 192; I have more photos taken at a shutter speed of 1/130s than at 1/125. If nothing else it makes for an interesting Lightroom catalog.

Buying a camera so that I could learn to use another camera seems a little odd, even to me. But Ricoh uses the same battery in the New GR, and the 2013 camera doesn't include a stand-alone battery charger, so I can almost believe that owning both of them makes sense. And given that I sold my Canon S100 for about what the Girdiv cost, it worked out fairly well for me.

I prefer the small-sensor Ricoh to its Canon counterpart, giving me a camera that I enjoy and use in exchange for one that I had stopped using, so the trade is a win-win. The Ricoh is more satisfying, offers few real limitations in actual practice, and its image quality is better enough that I can use it for prints that the Canon compact couldn't do. Maybe, just maybe, the GRD-IV will continue in active use even when there's a GRD-V in the house. Time will tell.

I've been interested in the GR family since I saw a GR1v years ago, but the cost of the small-sensor digital versions just seemed too far out of line with the rest of the market. Cutting the price in half has fixed that problem for the old model, and I'm very pleased to see the New GR with its 1.5x sensor being priced quite aggressively compared to other high-end compacts. The camera industry could definitely use a little more Ricoh.

updated mere days later: I've been able to take a New Ricoh GR for a spin, and wrote about it.

Updated again, 15 May 2013: My, My, My.

I know it's time to move on, but I've been spending some time with the "MY" modes, and they're worth reopening the review for.

Many decent cameras, such as my now-departed S100, can store a particular settings state in a custom memory mode. For the Canon camera I used this for my long exposure preferences, which were wildly different from my usual values, but having a single user-set mode made made it more of a party trick than something that was useful on a day-to-day basis. That's probably why I didn't rush to set up the "MY" positions on the Girdiv's dial, and that was a mistake.

The GRD4, like the upcoming GR that I'm practicing for, has three "MY" shooting modes, so there's no need to reserve them for exotic contortions. And just about everything can be remembered, such as the LCD display mode and permitted auto-iso range, along with more typical things like exposure mode and settings. Making the camera even better, there's a menu that lets just about every camera setting be edited after the mode position is registered. If you later want a different custom self-timer configuration, noise reduction threshold, or grid display, the process to change the saved settings is just as easy to use as everything else on the camera.

I've set "MY2" to my preferred all-around settings: aperture priority, f/1.9, auto-iso authorized to 640, LCD on, etcetera. This way it doesn't matter if I was last taking macro photos at f/8, or landscapes at iso80, the camera always starts up the same way. I know exactly what the camera will do just by looking at the mode dial it when I turn it on, and predictability is a good thing.

The settings I've saved to "MY1" are identical to "MY2", except the LCD is turned off. A minor difference, perhaps, but this fixes one of my few nagging UI quibbles. No more cycling through the different view modes with the display button, just push-and-turn and done. Similarly, "MY3" holds my 'street' settings. The LCD stays off, the camera moves to shutter priority at 1/500s, and auto-iso can run as high as 1250: perfect for catching grab shots when I'm on the move. Having this programmed into a MY mode makes 'snap focus', a distinctively Ricoh feature, vastly more useful for me.

The GRD4's amount of customization would be pretty impressive even if it stopped right there, but of course it doesn't. I've still only just started to understand the different ways the camera can be configured and changed from moment to moment. And to reward all of this hard work, the Girdiv can even store additional inactive "MY" settings in its memory. These stand ready to be called into service with fewer button-presses than it takes for me to change the iso setting on my Nikon V1.

Not bad for a point-and-shoot.

last updated 15 may 2013


Victorinox Mechanic

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Mechanic don't care.

The Long Version: Why would someone want a small multitool that includes pliers, but not want a pliers-based multitool? It might sound silly, but it's a serious question. Without an answer to it, there's not much point looking at the Victorinox Mechanic, which is May's SAK Of The Month.

Honestly, I'm not really sure of any reason why a Mechanic might be a better choice than a Leatherman or similar pliers-tool that also includes a knife blade and screwdriver. Many of them have cap lifters and can openers; some even include SAK-style tweezers. My Leatherman Style is smaller, slimmer, includes scissors, and its pliers are better. From a strictly practical point of view the Mechanic is a bit of a stumper.

If I really need a pair of pliers then I'd probably reach for one of my four pliers-based tools, each in a different size, or – heaven forbid – an actual pair of pliers. While the jaws of the Mechanic are good, they're not good enough to beat the competition. No, the real advantage of the Mechanic over its competition is that it simultaneously does a stellar job of being a Swiss Army Knife. Swinging a small set of pliers out of a traditional-looking red cellidor SAK has a certain appeal. The Mechanic is a pretty cool knife.

The Mechanic, as a SAK, has exactly the tools it should carry. There's two blades, large and small, as well as the can opener and bottle cap lifter with all of their assorted functions. Normally I'm happy enough to exchange the openers and small blade for a combo tool, as on the Bantam or Compact, but the Mechanic really deserves its dedicated tools.

The cap lifter is a better slot screwdriver than the combo tool, and the sharpened edge of the dedicated can opener doubles as a scraper and staple puller, neither of which are something the combo tool is very useful for. I also prefer twin blades on any SAK that will do heavy cutting, as on the Electrician, so that I can use the short blade for most utility tasks and keep the bigger blade sharp for when its size makes a difference.

Add in the backside philips screwdriver and awl and the Mechanic becomes a very useful tool to have for working-around-the-whatever. Pulling lightly-embedded nails, punching pilot holes and driving screws, prying, lifting, and cutting – this is a very helpful utility knife. Over just the past couple of days I've used the can opener to punch through and remove a plastic insert from the neck of a soy sauce bottle that was slated for recycling, the pliers to move something that was too aesthetically unappealing to touch, and the knife to cut stuff. No, I'm not exactly MacGyver's understudy, but I do okay.

The Mechanic is a three-layer knife, but the pliers layer is the thickest on any SAK, so the total knife isn't exactly svelte. It's still a bit slimmer than the four-layer Explorer, and is still small enough that I'm willing to fit it in my jeans watch pocket, but it's right on the threshold. That stops the Mechanic from replacing my Tinker, which is the same tool set without the pliers, since there are times when it's more tool than I want to carry. But I do carry the Mechanic, and use its pliers, more than any of the pliers-based tools that I have.

It may not objectively make sense, but the Mechanic is a pretty cool knife.

last updated 3 may 2013

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