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- Review Date: 08/02/2012
- Bottom line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 packs a relatively huge 1-inch image sensor into a point-and-shoot body, delivering close-to-SLR-quality images from a camera you can fit in your back pocket. It's expensive, but worth it.
- Pros: Large image sensor. Superb image quality, even at high ISOs. Fast lens. Customizable controls. Large, extra-sharp LCD. Virtually no shutter lag. Raw shooting support.
- Cons: As expensive as some D-SLRs. No EVF option, GPS, or Wi-Fi. Limited zoom range. In-camera battery charging only.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 ($649.99 direct) is the point-and-shoot camera that many an enthusiast has dreamed of. It's got an image sensor that's the same size as the mirrorless Nikon J1 and a 3.6x zoom lens that opens up to f/1.8 on the wide end, all packed into a camera that can slide into your back pocket. The only thing large about the 20-megapixel RX100 is its price tag, but the image quality it delivers justifies the cost, even if it doesn't pack bells and whistles like GPS or Wi-Fi. The camera is not without flaws, but its photo quality is so far beyond any other pocket camera that it easily earns our Editors' Choice award for high-end compacts.
Design and Features
When powered down, the RX100 looks a lot like a black version of the Canon PowerShot S100. It's got the same lines, a similar button layout and control ring around its lens. It measures 2.4 by 4 by 1.4 inches and weighs 8.5 ounces, slightly larger on all sides than the 7-ounce, 2.3-by-3.9-by-1.1-inch S100. That the RX100 is only slightlier bulkier than the Canon is more impressive when you consider that the S100's image sensor is a mere 1/1.7 inches in size—the RX100's 1-inch sensor boasts more than 2.5 times the surface area. It's nowhere near the size of a sensor in a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C interchangeable lens camera, but those models don't fit into your shirt pocket with a zoom lens attached. The RX100 fits into the back pocket of your jeans.
This isn't the first attempt to put a large sensor into a compact digital camera. The Sigma DP1, released in 2008, squeezes an APS-C sensor into a pocketable camera, but doesn't feature a zoom lens. More recently, Canon put a 1.5-inch sensor into its PowerShot G1 X, but that camera can only fit into the largest of pockets and was held back by slow autofocus, very limited macro shooting functionality, and a sky-high $800 sticker price.
Even though the lens is very fast and the sensor is large enough to create a smooth, creamy, out-of-focus blur behind subjects, you shouldn't expect the RX100 to produce images that are quite as good as those from a D-SLR. Sensors in those cameras are nearly three times the size of the RX100 in terms of surface area, and do a much better job at capturing fine detail and rendering gradations in color and tone. Close examination of photos captured by the RX100 show them to be much better than you'd expect from a point-and-shoot. You won't be disappointed, but you are still sacrificing some image quality for portability.
The lens is a 3.6x zoom, covering a 28-100mm (35mm equivalent) field of view. It opens up to f/1.8 at its widest, narrows to f/3.2 by 50mm, and closes down at f/4.9 at its extreme. All in all, this is pretty impressive. It captures more light than the S100's lens, but doesn't quite match the 28-112mm f/2-2.8 lens that is packed into the Fujifilm X10. The X10 is a larger camera with a nice, bright optical viewfinder—one of the weak points of the RX100 is its lack of any sort of eye-level viewfinder. There's no accessory port to add one like there is on the Olympus XZ-1 , nor is there a hot shoe.
What you'll use to frame and review images is the rear LCD, just like on any other point-and-shoot camera. At 3 inches, it features a staggering 1,229k-dot resolution, about a third more than on competing 921k-dot displays. Sony has added white pixels in addition to the standard red, green, and blue dots. The result is an LCD that is brilliant, even when viewed in bright sunlight.
Control layout is designed to satisfy the demands of serious shooters, but isn't completely perfect. Save for the shutter release, zoom rocker, Mode dial, Menu, Playback, On/Off, Display, EV Compensation, and Help buttons, the RX100's physical controls are largely customizable via its software menu. You can choose up to seven items that can be adjusted via the Function button, and the ring around the lens, the Self Timer/Drive mode button, the Flash button, and the rear center button can be configured to your liking, with some limitations. The Control ring can change behavior based on your shooting mode, or you can set it to act the same at all times. I'm generally an Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority shooter—it's rare that I venture into full manual mode—so I programmed it to act as the EV Compensation control. This makes the ring useless in Manual mode, so during testing, I'd have to remember to change it back to standard before setting up a manual exposure. If I didn't, I was left with the rather awkward proposition of using the rear control wheel to adjust both Aperture and Shutter Speed.
The button with the lowest level of programmability is the rear center button. By default it engages Object Tracking Focus, but it can also be set to engage Auto Exposure Lock, toggle between Manual and Autofocus, or to magnify the image when the camera is set to manual focus mode. It's a really convenient button, and I would have liked to have seen these options expanded.
One other quirk is the behavior of certain adjustments you make with the front or rear control wheel. Some settings, including EV Compensation and Flash Compensation, show up as a finite arc on your screen with a cursor to indicate the current value—moving the wheel to the left moves the value to the left. Others show up as an undefined arc with transparent edges that fade into your live view screen. Instead of a cursor indicator, the selected setting is itself highlighted in orange. For these, moving the wheel to the left selects the value to the right of the one that is currently highlighted. This can take a little getting used to, and isn't really a problem except in one case—ISO. For Shutter Speed and Aperture, Sony smartly starts the scale on the far right, so the behavior of the wheel is intuitive—moving to the left gives you a smaller number, to the right a bigger one. With ISO, you need to move the wheel to the left to increase the sensitivity, and to the right to reduce it. It stands out as one aspect that doesn't make sense in a camera with an otherwise well-designed control system.
The camera's flash hides inside the body when not in use, popping up at the half press of the shutter button once it's been enabled. It sits on a hinged neck, which makes it possible to tilt it back with your left index finger and to bounce light off of a ceiling. It's not powerful enough to act in this capacity in, say, a ballroom, but for snaps around the house using this method will help to soften the light. Of course, there's also Flash Compensation available, so you can reduce the power output to provide just a little bit of fill when you're not using it as a bounce flash.
Performance and Conclusions
The RX100 is a little slow to start up, requiring about 2.2 seconds to power on and grab a shot, but is a otherwise a speed demon—there's virtually no shutter lag thanks to quick, accurate autofocus. When shooting JPG files in its Speed Priority mode it can capture a burst of 10 shots in a second, although if you're shooting in Raw the camera takes 2 seconds for the same 10-shot burst. If you need to grab more than 10 shots, you can shoot in the standard continuous drive mode—the camera is able to shoot JPGs continuously at 2.5 frames per second, but is still limited to capturing about 10 Raw shots at that rate. The Nikon Coolpix P7100 starts up faster at 1.6 seconds, but records a 0.3-second shutter lag and can only fire off a photo once every 0.9-second.
I used Imatest to see how sharp the RX100's lens is. Generally for point-and-shoot cameras we only test at the widest aperture and focal length, but given the size of this image sensor and the speed of the lens, it was tested more like an SLR. At 28mm f/1.8 the lens records 2,126 lines per picture height—much better than the 1,800 required for a sharp photo. At f/2.8 it crosses the 2,300-line mark, and improves a little bit through f/5.6.
At the 50mm f/3.2 setting the RX100 is right around 2,000 lines, improving to 2,300 by f/5.6. At the 100mm f/4.9 extreme of its zoom it hits 2,250 lines. Stopping the lens down smaller than f/5.6 does hurt sharpness at every focal length, presumably due to diffraction of light. You can set the aperture to be as small as f/11 if you want to maximize your depth of field, just be aware that in doing so you'll end up with images that aren't super sharp—at 100mm f/11 it comes in just shy of 1,800 lines. Perhaps even more impressive than the sharpness is the minimal distortion produced by the camera at each tested focal length—at its worst it produced 0.2 percent pincushion distortion, which is only noticeable if you're really looking for it.
Imatest also measures noise, which can rear its ugly head and rob an image of detail as ISO is increased. Thankfully, this is not an issue with the RX100. The camera keeps noise below 1.5 percent through its top ISO of 6400, which should let you shoot in very little light when you take its fast f/1.8 lens into account. There is noticeable loss of image detail at ISO 6400, which is not surprising. To my eye, JPG images look great through ISO 800, very good at 1600, and pretty good at 3200. Comparing Raw and JPG files side by side, there's very little evidence of noise reduction in the JPGs at the top ISO settings. In terms of detail, high ISO images from the RX100 run neck and neck with those from the Canon PowerShot S100, but the shots from the Sony exhibit significantly less noise once you cross ISO 1600.
Video is recorded in AVCHD format at 1080p60 or 1080i60 resolution. Footage is very smooth and sharp. The lens zooms in and out quietly while recording, and the focus does a great job keeping details sharp. You have the option of adding a bit of digital zoom in addition to the optical magnification when rolling footage and, while there is a noticeable drop in quality as this is engaged, it's useful in a pinch. The micro USB port doubles as a charging mechanism for the battery—there's no external charger included with the camera—and there's also a micro HDMI port to connect to an HDTV. In addition to standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, Sony also supports its proprietary Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick PRO Duo, and Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo formats.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 doesn't have the largest sensor of all zooming point-and-shoots—that would be the Canon PowerShot G1 X, which unfortunately suffers from slow autofocus, has a comparitively slow lens, an even higher sticker price than the RX100, and a downright chunky design. The RX100 focuses fast and can capture images with a shallow depth of field, much like an interchangeable lens camera. And the 3.6x zoom lens is very sharp throughout the entirety of its zoom range. Even though photos don't quite match the quality of a D-SLR, they're the best you'll get from a zooming camera that can slide into your back pocket, which is quite a feat. The Canon PowerShot S100 is a more affordable ($430) alternative that can take some great pictures, but its 1/1.7-inch sensor just doesn't produce the same caliber of images you'll get from the RX100.