Sony’s RX100 is perhaps the most desired and groundbreaking compact camera of the decade. Every year, it gets better. But every year, it costs more. Is this latest model really worth $1000?
A very small camera that takes very high-end photos. It accomplishes this with a 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor, which is much larger than the sensor you’ll find in a smartphone or a traditional point and shoot. Combine that with a 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens (that’s a 3x optical zoom), and you’ve got a very capable setup that fits in a pocket.
Those specs have not changed since the last generation of the RX100. In fact, the camera hasn’t changed much at all. The major difference in the Mark IV is the construction of the sensor. The details are very technical, but basically Sony found a new way, by reconfiguring the sensor’s components and wiring, to read data much faster. That enables things like 4K video, super high shutter speeds up to 1/32,000, and an insane burst rate of 16 fps. Yes, it’s a speed demon.
Other changes include a higher resolution viewfinder with 2.35 million dots (the Mark III had 1.4 million), an upgraded autofocus system, and super slow motion video up to 960 fps.
People who want the most camera they can fit in a pocket will gravitate toward the RX100 Mark IV. All of the RX100 models are great as carry-around cameras for amateur enthusiasts, but I also know a bunch of pros who keep one stowed in their backpack in lieu of toting a DSLR around.
You’d also be tempted to think that amateur video makers would also gravitate toward the RX100 because of its flashy new video powers, but I don’t quite think that’s true. I’ll explain a bit later.
The new RX100 looks exactly the same as the last one, and almost the same as the original. It’s actually remarkable that over the course of four years, Sony hasn’t changed the look or ergonomics of this camera. It looks cool, for sure, with sleek undecorated lines and a smooth matte finish, but it’s certainly not beyond improving. How about somewhere to grip its slippery surface? How about re-tooling the teeny tiny buttons on the back? Something!
At its core, using the Mark IV is the same as using last year’s Mark III, or the Mark II before that, so I’ll mostly be focusing on the new features here. If you want a more complete picture of what this camera can do, you’ll want to start by reading our Mark III review.
The good news is that the Mark IV takes the same terrific quality photos. I couldn’t really say whether there is any slight improvement in image quality over the Mark III, as I didn’t have one to compare to directly. Lightroom hasn’t updated it’s RAW compatibility to view Mark IV images yet, so I couldn’t do much to assess noise levels.
Still, I could tell that autofocus has been improved and feels snappy in all but the darkest of conditions. That’s huge, because earlier versions have been a bit sluggish in finding focus, hampering the usability. It’s not as fast as a DSLR, but it’s on par with high-end mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D EM1. I put them head to head, and the Mark IV was just as good at single-shot AF.
This last image is ISO 3200 with noise reduction turned off.
For more image samples at their original resolution, visit our Flickr album. All images are JPG out of camera (no RAW converter yet available).
The pop-up electronic OLED viewfinder, which debuted on last year’s Mark III, is neat in concept but I still find it awkward on such a tiny camera. To pop it out, you have to push a button and then also pull out the eyepiece. I never ever found myself wanting to use it, and when I did, the pressure of my brow resting on the eyepiece was enough to push it back in accidentally. Very annoying. The higher resolution is nice, but it’s still a tiny screen and it feels like you’re looking through a tunnel to see it. Some people like having the stability of holding the camera against their face, but I just don’t see it as worth the additional cost. I’d still rather have the hot-shoe that came with the Mark II.
I’ve always found the RX100’s ergonomics frustrating, too. The buttons are tiny and there’s just no grip whatsoever. Canon’s G7X, which is almost the same size as the RX100, certainly wins in user experience. It has bigger buttons and a great touch interface.
Instead of tweaking these types of things, Sony focused on adding more marketable features. Let’s check out some of ‘em:
The biggest addition is 4K video. Up until now, the only company that has been able to successfully engineer high quality 4K recording into their consumer cameras is Panasonic. Samsung tried, too, but their implementation is janky due to a codec with scant compatibility. Panasonic’s GH4, LX100, and G7 all shoot really great ultra-high-resolution footage that’s easy to store and edit. But now Sony has figured it out in the RX100 Mark IV, as well as the new RX10 and pro level A7r Mark II.
Looking at the 4K footage, it’s richly detailed as you’d expect. The new sensor enables a full pixel readout, which should mean that you won’t see messy jagged edges and rainbow moire patterns. It’s mostly true. The image is clean overall, but not 100% devoid of jagged lines in areas of really fine detail. In low light, it looks OK up to ISO 1600. Any higher and things get quite muddy.
For all the abilities of the new sensor, it couldn’t ameliorate the rolling shutter effect. Distortion is very apparent on quick pans. Also, you can only shoot 4K in 5 minute clips. That probably won’t matter to most people, but it’s the kind of limitation that mentally irks you. But the biggest missed opportunity for the RX100 to be a great serious cam for videographers is the lack of mic or headphone ports.
4K is great, but should you choose to shoot in regular HD mode, you’ll be delighted to find a much smaller amount of rolling shutter. It’s still there, but won’t make your footage look ridiculous when moving the camera around. I still suggest shooting in 4K most of the time, which provides much more detail even when scaled down to 1080 resolution.
Of course, if 4K is your thing, you might want to consider the Panasonic LX100. It’s not quite as small as the RX100, but almost—and it has a superior viewfinder and control layout.
Another whiz-bang feature being hyped on the Mark IV is the slow motion mode. You can record at 60, 120, 240, 480, or 960 fps. That’s pretty insane, and the kind of feature usually restricted to really expensive specialty cameras. 960 fps will play back footage 40x slower than real time (when viewed at 24 fps). But before you get too excited, there are many caveats to consider.
You can only record for 4 seconds at a time (2 seconds in Quality Priority mode). When slowed down that extends to a long stretch of time—three minutes at 960 fps. At least Sony makes it pretty easy to capture the right moment. You can choose to have the camera continuously buffer slow-motion footage, then just press record to store the last few seconds you saw. This is what I did to catch myself lighting a match in our sample video below.
Unfortunately, it’s a pain in the ass to set up. You’re not just pressing record like a normal video. First, you have to flip the camera into HFR (high frame rate) mode. Then you have to press the rear center button to enter Standby mode. Then you have to press the record button to actually start recording. If that’s not enough of a chore, it’s not clear what the camera is actually doing during that process. When you’re recording, the display says “buffering.” When you reach the 4 second limit, the display says “recording”—even though it’s actually converting the already-recorded footage into slow motion. It’s really weird and bound to confuse a great many users.
You also might be disappointed with the result. The slow-motion modes sacrifice resolution the higher you go, with the top speed recording at a pretty low-res 1200 x 800. In 960 fps mode, the image is jagged and blurry. And you need a lot of light—either studio lights or ample sunlight—to get a decent result. Bumping the ISO will make it look even crappier. These modes are fun for novelty effect, for sure. But you won’t want to intercut the clips into your polished cinematic production. 240 fps mode is much better, but I’d recommend shooting at 120fps at 1080 for the best result.
Small and stylish, even with a three old design.
Great image quality.
Autofocus is improved.
Great overall 4K image quality.
New sensor tech enables neat tricks like super slow motion, 1/32000 shutter speed, and 16 fps burst mode.
Controls are cramped, and they’ve been that way since 2012!
The viewfinder’s hampered by awkward mechanics and tiny size.
Image quality on super slow motion footage is extremely bad.
There’s no way to attach an external microphone.
Whoa is it expensive.
It’s hard to find a great reason to drop $1000 on the RX100 Mark IV. The biggest reason lies in the Panasonic LX100. That camera is cheaper, has better controls, and does 4K video just as good, if not better. Sony’s only technological advantage is the super slow-motion, which has very niche appeal. Plus, if you need something pocketable, the Canon G7X is a great buy at $650. There’s also the option of going with previous versions of the RX100, which range in price from $500 to $800.
Sony loves to show off new technology as fast as possible, and that’s what they are doing with the Mark lV. The technology that brings super fast readout speeds to their digital sensors is amazing, and it will enable new and awesome things in many future Sony cameras. The RX100 Mark IV is a preview of those awesome things.
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