Almost nothing is technologically out of reach if you throw enough money at the problem; the real trick is doing it for the right price. So while Sony justifiably gets to check the box next to "first full-frame compact" with its Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, at a price of $2,799, I'm not sure it'll also be able to check the box next to "first commercially successful full-frame compact."
The most obvious question here is "why does full frame matter?" To recap: a full-frame sensor is the equivalent size of a frame of 35mm film. Larger sensors are generally more desirable for two main reasons: they potentially allow for larger photosites (light receptors) per pixel for a given resolution, and they provide more creative flexibility with respect to depth of field (DOF) at a given focal length. Larger photosites mean better light sensitivity, which usually means higher-quality photos. As for DOF, for a given distance from the subject, for example, f2 at 35mm will produce a more defocused background with a full-frame sensor compared than an APS-C. (Want to see the math? Here's a lovely depth-of-field calculator.)
Thus, for professional and hobbyist photographers, a pocketable camera offering most of the creative options of a high-end dSLR really is a bit of a holy grail.
But how much is that grail worth to you? The RX1 is smaller than, say, the NEX-7, but the fixed focal-length lens juts out pretty far, rendering the camera jacket-pocketable at best. As long as it's that big, a few inches more doesn't make that much of a difference -- and based on some conversations with Sony, it sounds like the company opted for a fixed lens instead of interchangeable simply to shave off those few inches. When I pointed out how I disagreed with that decision, I was treated to a Mona Lisa smile and the comment "don't rule anything out." So unless you absolutely must have the latest and greatest and have the money to toss after it -- especially since you're going to want the ILC version, too, whenever it appears -- there are real drawbacks to purchasing one.
So much for the philosophy; what's in the camera? It uses the same sensor and image-processing engine as the(and NEX-VG900 camcorder); the chip has larger photo diodes and improved on-chip lenses than predecessors, and the new processor incorporates Sony's latest area-specific noise-reduction technology. The camera can output 14-bit raw files. The lens looks quite nice, with Zeiss T* coatings, a mechanical switch for macro mode (though 7.9 inches isn't awfully close) and a nine-bladed aperture. The unit we saw during the briefing wasn't made of the final materials, but it felt nice and solid, as you'd expect from its magnesium-alloy construction. It uses the same display as the RX100.
Sony's rolling out a host of accessories for the camera, including an optical (Galilean type) viewfinder, a large thumb grip (perhaps to compensate for the gripless front?) and an updated version of the existing add-on EVF that works with the new Multi Interface Shoe. Sony claims similar performance to the NEX-7, which would make it good, but not great.
While the RX1 doesn't have any direct competitors, it certainly has alternatives, such as Fujifilm's cheaper APS-C-based X100, the relatively compact but breathtakingly expensive interchangeable-lens Leica M9 or M9-P, or Sony's own excellent and far less expensive, smaller-sensored RX100. Here's how they compare:
|Fujifilm X100||Leica M9||Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1||Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100|
|Sensor (effective resolution)||12.3mp CMOS||18mp CCD||24.3mp Exmor CMOS||20.2mp Exmor CMOS|
|23.6 x 15.8mm||36 x 24mm||35.8 x 23.9mm||1-inch |
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
|Sensitivity range||ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded)||ISO 160 - ISO 2500||ISO 50 (expanded) / ISO 100 - ISO 51200 / ISO 102400 (expanded, via multishot NR)||ISO 100 - ISO 25600|
(35mm-equivalent focal-length multiplier)
|Closest focus (inches)||3.9||n/a||7.9||1.9|
|Continuous shooting||5fps |
10 JPEG/8 raw
(5 fps with fixed exposure)
(10fps with fixed exposure)
|Viewfinder||Optical/EVF switchable||Optical||Optional Optical, EVF||None|
|n/a||25-area contrast AF||25-area contrast AF|
|Shutter||30 - 1/4000 sec; bulb to 60 min||32 - 1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 min; 1/180 x-sync||30-1/2000 sec; bulb||30-1/2000 sec; bulb|
|LCD||2.8-inch fixed |
|3-inch fixed |
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
|3-inch fixed |
|Image stabilization||None||None||Electronic (movie only)||Optical|
|720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV stereo||None||AVCHD: 1080/60p/50p @28Mbps; 1080/60i/50i @ 24, 17Mbps; 1080/24p/25p @ 24, 17Mbps |
|Manual iris and shutter in video||Iris only||n/a||Yes||Yes|
|Optical zoom while recording||n/a||n/a||n/a||Yes|
|External mic support||No||n/a||Yes||No|
|Battery life (CIPA rating)||300 shots||n/a||270 shots||330 shots|
|Dimensions (WHD, inches)||5.0 x 2.9 x 2.1||5.5 x 3.1 x 1.5||4.5 x 2.6 x 2.8||4.0 x 2.4 x 1.4|
|Weight (ounces)||15.8||20.6||17 (est)||8.5 (est)|
|Mfr. Price||$1,195.95||$6995 (est)||$2799||$649.99|
|Availability||March 2011||October 2009||November 2012||July 2012|
If the X100 is the poor man's Leica, than the RX1 looks like the middle-class man's Leica. Do I think Sony can achieve great photo quality with it? Yes; all the pieces are there. And it looks especially yummy if you like street shooting. Do I want to try it? Hell yeah. But for $2,799, especially for a first-generation model, as a potential buyer I'd expect a little more. Wi- Fi and/or geotagging support would have been nice, for example. Then again, while it'll never be a mass-market product, unless there's some showstopper production or operational issue, I suspect enough people will buy it to have made it worth Sony's while.