When the Sony RX100 was announced, its one-inch sensor and f/1.8 aperture seemed too good to be true. Near-DSLR power packed into a body the size of a compact point-and-shoot camera? What's the catch?
Turns out, this camera is a significant achievement for Sony. In fact, it makes you remember that Sony is still capable of making some amazing things.
Why It Matters
There has arguably never been a better time to be a camera enthusiast. But this is also such a strange time for cameras. DSLRs are no longer luxuries for pros and the wealthy. There are mirrorless cameras which are nearly the size of compact shooters. Mobile phones can sometimes pull off images that go toe-to-toe with far more powerful cameras. And then there's the point-and-shoot.
For nearly a decade, this was the camera category for the masses. But in 2012, most of them can't compete with the quality of DSLRs, nor can they attain the diminutive size of a cameraphone. It leaves people to wonder why they'd even want a compact camera. For the first time in a long time, the RX100—with it's massive one-inch sensor, wide f/1.8 aperture, and wonderful low-light handling—provides people with a reason to think small.
At first glance, the RX100 doesn't look much different than Canon's S100. A bit more stout, sure. But after you pick the RX100, you begin to appreciate its differences. Its build quality is rock solid. Lines are squeaky clean. Buttons, knobs, and dials have much more satisfying clicks and spins. It looks and feels like a premium device in ways that the S100 could only dream of. OK, cool, so it's another small, expensive point-and-shoot. But then you turn it on.
Startup time is fast. The camera can fire up and lock onto a target in under three seconds. In nearly every scenario, autofocus and shutter reaction time is speedy, but with the aperture set to 1.8, it feels quicker than lightning. All of this is attributable to the Exmor R sensor, Bionz image processor, and the 28-100mm equivalent Zeiss lens.
The lens—and the smooth motion of its ring—makes manual focus work really well on the RX100. That's something designers of cameras this size are only starting to figure out. Here, beginning to turn the ring activates a zoom mode. Then, you can finely hone in on a region of the screen before snapping your crystal-clear pic. It's a matter of preference, but the smooth moves of Sony's lens ring seem to work better than the clicky nature of the lens ring on the Canon S100.
Focus abilities aside, the photos are beautiful. Neutral tones are accurate, and vibrant colors pop off the screen. With the lens zoomed out wide and the aperture set low, the camera performs nearly as well in low light as it does in ideal conditions. At times, images look as good as any those of an entry-level DSLR (that is, until you give a close examination at full magnification).
But one thing you'd never confuse with a DSLR is the RX100's size. For its small size, it's dense—heavier and thicker than the Canon S100, but not so much that it would ever pose a problem. At first, the weight and added volume didn't seem to make a difference on portability. But after a week of carrying it around, it became clear that the RX100 is just a shade too thick to slide in a pocket and forget it's there. It fits, but it's just a bit cumbersome. Given what this thing can do, it's an acceptable tradeoff.
There is a lot to like about the camera, but without question, the camera's focusing abilities are its best feature. In low light, bright light, near, far, or anywhere in between, images look great. The ability to pick up macro-level detail isn't easy for a camera this size (the Canon G1X proves that), yet the RX100's abilities are very good in this regard. The camera's powerful depth-of-field strength, as it focuses on something in the mid-ground, while blurring the foreground and background, gives images the stunning look that's long been a DSLR exclusive.
The focus only experiences some blur is at low ISO or more narrow aperture settings. The shutter remains pretty speedy throughout. Intelligent auto settings are surprisingly adept, and there's plenty of power to be unlocked when you start playing around with manual settings and the wonderful, Canon-inspired lens ring (which is fully programmable).
The screen is also a strong point for the RX100. It uses Sony's WhiteMagic technology—an extra white element to each pixel makes the screen more viewable in sunlight, allowing images to have a bit more pop overall. But the benefit can be felt in any setting. The sharp and vibrant display can really give you an idea of how your image came out before you upload the shots to a computer.
The product is nearly perfect, with flaws so nitpicky and minor that most every user would shrug them off. The biggest hangup, really, is the price. But you can find a few tiny technical shortcomings if you look hard enough.
For example, there is a pop-up flash, but it's only marginally better than what'd you get from a point-and-shoot. There's no option to add a better one. It's one of those weird concessions a camera like this has to make in the name of size. If you're a skilled photographer who frequently shoots with flash, it may affect your finished product.
You can also feel the limits of the sensor, which is generally good, but suffers from some image softening, especially along the edges. Though the RX100 picks up more detail and less noise than the S100, some S100 images came out sharper. But you really have to look closely to notice this problem—it's only apparent when poring over the images at full magnification.
And then there's video. It's definitely solid, providing 1080p recording at 60 frames. It's a wee bit nitpicky to expect anything too advanced from a camera this size, but look, it can't compete with the Canon EOS M. It can do 1080p video, but all of the 1080 modes shoot at 60 frames (except for this bizarre 1440x1080 resolution that shoots at 30 frames). You can get 640x480 MP4 video. And, yes, it sticks to that pain-in-the-ass AVCHD format.
Should I Buy This
On performance alone, absolutely. This is a camera that 90% of the population can pull out of a pocket on a whim to fire off a few beautiful shots without much trouble. Still, this is not a camera for everyone.
Let's say you're thinking of buying a DSLR or mirrorless camera, slapping a 50mm lens on it, and shooting whatever you come across during the weekend Buy the RX100 instead. It's smaller, and for your purposes, will yield photos that are just as beautiful with less tinkering.
Or, let's say you're a serious photographer who doesn't want the burden of always carrying around a DSLR. The RX100 is right for you as well. No, you absolutely won't get all the same shots you can pull off with your bigger camera. But you will get some of them (especially in good light). And you won't have five extra pounds strapped on at all times. Plus, this is way better than your smartphone camera (even the good ones). Sure $650 is expensive, but considering all the money you blow on photo gear already, you likely won't consider this a huge extravagance.
Now, this is not quite right if you prefer to keep a camera set to all auto everything to occasionally take a few pics of a kid, a dog, or a summer vacation to Niagara Falls. Using the RX100 is easy enough, and you can get some beautiful shots out of it. But, at $650, you may be spending extra cash on a camera with benefits you won't fully appreciate. Look into the $420 Canon S100 instead.
The other class of folks that might avoid the RX100 is the group looking to get into photography as an actual hobby or profession. You should instead spend that money on an entry-level DSLR—like the Canon Rebel T3i. There's only so much you can gain from a fixed lens attached to a sensor—and this sensor may be big by compact standards, but it's still small on an absolute scale.
This is a great camera to buy. Just make sure you're buying it for the right reasons.
Sensor: 20.2-megapixel, 1" Exmor R
Battery: Up to 330 shots
Video: Up to 1920 x 1080 @ 60p
Screen: 3" LCD