Nowadays the giants of the photography world compete on a variety of features. Today's announcements from Canikon and the rest are full of boasts about low-light performance, autofocus tracking and buffer size - important, but not so interesting once you have enough of each category to tide you over. However, there was a time not so long ago when the desirable features were ease-of-use, portability and weight - Compact cameras were all the rage in the late 90s, catering to consumers who here happy to pay a little bit more for a camera that could fit in any pocket, sit comfortably at the bottom of any bag and weigh little more than a carton of cigarettes. The camera I'm looking at today is the Ricoh Gr1v, the penultimate iteration in Ricoh's film-GR range, and almost certainly the best.
The main rivals to the GR1v are the Contax T2 and T3. They were released at a similar time and fall comfortable into the 'premium' end of the compact range. If people were going to be willing to spend extra money on these high end cameras they'd need a feature list to go with it, and the lenses and autofocus on these premium compacts was up there with the best. Whilst not boasting the clean lines and metal casing of the Contax T2/T3 range the GR does retain a hint of retro charm. Although similar in size to the Contax cameras it is somewhat thinner and weighs less with its plastic casing. It certainly feels cheaper in the hand but I guess the low weight must count for something if you truly need a 'pocket' camera.
Though small the Ricoh packs a very nifty lens. A retractable 28mm 2.8 that is up there with the best lenses ever put in a compact and compact it is, retracting completely flush with the body when the camera is turned off. This lens is fantastic: distortion free and tack sharp - it was and still is a major selling point of the Ricoh Gr series. The 28mm focal length is wider than the 38mm on the Contax Ts and doesn't lend itself to portraits in quite the same way but holds its own in tighter spaces and allows for a greater hit rate when firing from the hip.
Whilst the shutter is whisper quiet the camera winds to the next frame immediately and the motor is quite loud. A feature that allowed the camera to take the picture on the first press of the shutter and wind it on the second would make it significantly stealthier. Another quirk is that the camera rolls the entire canister out then winds it back after each shot. On the one hand the camera protects the part of the film containing latent images but this comes at the cost of 30-40 seconds of noisy winding upon loading. This process is VERY loud and will definitely raise eyebrows if done in public, especially since film compacts aren't seen around so much these days.
The autofocus is accurate and relatively fast and the viewfinder shows a degree of parallax correction when close focused. Nothing special but no complaints. There is the option to set focus to 1m, 2m, 3m, 5m and infinity yet you're only able to select them in this order. This might not sound so bad but is incredibly tedious in practice. Shifting from 1m to 2m takes a single button press and yet shifting from 2m back to 1m requires four clicks, it also requires you to look at the LCD top screen to ensure you've reached the right point. If I'm zone focusing I'm likely out shooting moving subjects which I can't rely on autofocus for - to have difficultly focusing on subjects that are moving towards the camera just seems unreasonable. People manage... but they shouldn't have 'manage' after spending such a ridiculous price- the price was an still is incredibly steep for such a dinky compact.
This brings me to my final point: The camera WILL die and they are completely irreparable. Buying a Gr1v is like buying a camera made of Ice. If you keep it in a refrigerator (shelf) and look at it then it's likely to last you a good while but if you're using it often then it's melting in your hands. First the screens die (which makes your zone focusing nigh on impossible) and then the motors die making the camera nothing more than a paperweight.
For what it's worth the contax cameras make much prettier paperweights. Buy a working one of those instead, it'll serve you much better.