Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review: A pricey slice of heaven

Continuous autofocus in video operates quietly but tends to pulse, which isn't unusual. Manual focus for video has its own drawback, unfortunately, detailed below.

If you use manual focus most of the time, the sluggish autofocus doesn't matter. However, it takes at least five partial rotations of the lens ring -- my hand at least can't rotate the ring 360 degrees in one movement -- to go from one focus extreme to the other, and in practice always took more rotations than I felt comfortable with. This is a tradeoff for the fully mechanical lens operation rather than the full or partial servo-mechanical that's found on other cameras. So, not a criticism as much as a warning.

The battery life is rated as pretty short, and seems even shorter with the optional EVF attached. I operated predominantly with the back display set to standard quality instead of high in order to conserve charge, and didn't notice an appreciable difference in the display. (It uses the same display as the RX100.) The RX1 uses USB battery charging, about which I have mixed feelings. It doesn't work with every USB charger -- for instance, it doesn't work with my LG phone charger but it does with a Samsung charger -- so it doesn't always save you from carrying an extra piece of equipment. Plus, since the battery life is short, USB charging makes it difficult to use the camera while charging a spare. You can buy an optional external charger, though.

Design and features
Though reasonably compact, especially for a full-frame camera, the RX1 is no lightweight; at over a pound, it weighs almost as much as some consumer dSLRs. Of course, that's because it's tanklike, made of magnesium alloy. Some weatherproofing would have been nice for the money, though. There's a rubberized layer on the front and back to improve grippability, but a real outset grip would make it a little more comfortable to hold. Sony offers an optional -- and at $250, pretty expensive -- thumb grip (which I didn't get to try), but it looks like the grip covers both the playback button and adjustment dial.

The top of the camera has large exposure-compensation and mode dials, the latter with the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes , including a dedicated movie mode and three custom settings slots. The shutter button has an old-fashioned threaded remote release, and there's a small programmable button nearby. The hot shoe uses Sony's updated multi-interface connection; the pop-up flash doesn't tilt, unfortunately.

On the back, there's an adjustment dial at the top as well as a physically NEX-like programmable thumb dial, plus an AE-lock button and Fn button to pull up all the most frequently needed shooting settings; including some that don't really belong on a camera of this class, like soft Skin Effect, Smile/Face detection, and auto portrait framing. (I suppose you could operate the camera in full automatic if you really want to, but if that's your plan buy an RX100 instead and save the money.) Embedded on the right side is a tiny recessed record button that is difficult to operate under normal conditions and even harder with cold hands or gloves.

The lens has three rings on it: a manual aperture ring with one-third stop demarcations from f2 through f22; a ring with the choice between two focus distances, 0.2m - 0.35m and 0.3m through infinity; and a focus ring. I love the feel of the aperture ring -- it has just the right tensioning and produces the perfect click feel as you rotate through the stops. (It'd be really cool if Sony could figure out a way to make it feel just a little different as you passed through the full stops compared with the third stops.) I wish the lens could focus closer than 7.9 inches, though, and found myself cursing a bit because I was just outside one focus range or the other.

A small, moderately difficult-to-control switch on the front selects between auto, manual, and Sony's DMF (manual focus with automatic prefocus on partial shutter press) focus modes. The camera has tracking autofocus as well, which works out to the edges of the scene.

Despite the aperture ring, from an operational perspective, Sony definitely takes a modern approach compared with the X100S' or X2's completely retro ideal. (The latter two cameras have a shutter-speed dial as well as an aperture dial instead of a mode dial.) So if you're looking for an old-fashioned shooting experience, this isn't your camera; functionally, it has the same interface as Sony's SLT dSLR-type models.

Fujifilm X100s Leica X2 Nikon Coolpix A Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.3MP X-Trans CMOS II
n/a
16.2MP CCD 16.2MP CMOS
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS 20.2MP Exmor CMOS
23.6mm x 15.8mm 23.6mm x 15.8mm 23.6mm x 15.7mm 35.8mm x 23.9mm 1-inch
(13.2mm x 8.8mm)
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (exp)/200 - ISO 6400/25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12500 ISO 100 - ISO 3200/25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp) / ISO 100 - ISO 51200 / ISO 102400 (exp, via multishot NR) ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Lens
(35mm-equivalent focal-length multiplier)
35mm
f2
1.5x
24mm
f2.8
1x
28mm
f2.8
35mm
f2
1x
28-100mm
f1.8-4.9
3.6x
Closest focus (inches) 3.9 11.8 4 7.9 1.9
Continuous shooting 6fps
31 JPEG/n/a
5fps
8 frames
(raw+JPEG)
4fps
n/a
2.5fps
(5 fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
Viewfinder Hybrid
Reverse Galilean
90 percent coverage
EVF
0.48-inch/ 2,360,000 dots
100 percent coverage
Optional
EVF
Tilting LCD
n/a
($449.00 est)
Optional
Reverse Galilean
($449.96)
Optional
Reverse Galilean
Zeiss
n/a
($599.99)
Optional
EVF
Tilting OLED
0.5-inch/ 2,359,000 dots
100 percent coverage
($404.99)
None
Autofocus n/a
Contrast AF
11-area
Contrast AF
n/a
Contrast AF
25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Metering 256 zones n/a n/a n/a n/a
Shutter 20 - 1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 minutes 30 - 1/2,000 sec 30 - 1/2,000 sec; bulb 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes No
LCD 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
2.7-inch
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
Image stabilization None None None Electronic (movie only) Optical
Video
(best quality)
1080/60p/30p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
None 1080/30p/25p/24p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
AVCHD: 1080/60p/50p @28Mbps; 1080/60i/50i @ 24, 17Mbps; 1080/24p/25p @ 24, 17Mbps
stereo
AVCHD:
1080/60p/50p
stereo
Manual iris and shutter in video n/a n/a n/a Yes Yes
Optical zoom while recording Yes n/a No n/a Yes
External mic support None n/a Optional
(with WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter)
Yes No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 330 shots 450 shots 230 shots 270 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 5 x 2.9 x 2.1 4.9 x 2.7 x 2 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.6 4.5 x 2.6 x 2.8 4 x 2.4 x 1.4
Weight (ounces) 15.7 (est) 12.2 (est) 10.6 (est) 17.6 8.5 (est)
Mfr. price $1,299.95 $1,995 (est) $1,099.95 $2,799 $649.99
Availability March 2013 August 2012 March 2013 November 2012 July 2012

I also tested the expensive EVF -- the optional optical viewfinder is even more costly, if you can believe it -- and have to admit that it's great, if huge. It's especially nice for shooting video. Speaking of video, you can shoot using full or partially manual controls or program. But there's no manual-focus peaking (edge highlighting) in movie mode, which is nuts. I don't mean that there's no peaking while you're shooting. If you're in the movie mode, which you must be in to adjust aperture or shutter speed, there's no peaking.

While there's a full set of manual shooting features, there's nothing above and beyond that, such as wireless connectivity or geotagging. Factoring in the lack of any type of built-in viewfinder, and I find the feature set a bit lackluster for the price; in fact, it would be kind of lackluster at $1,000 less.

Conclusion
If you're looking for the best photo quality you can get in a unibody digital camera, this is it. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 delivers a more natural-looking sharpness than even the OLPF-free X-Trans sensor of the Fujifilm X100S and based on my preliminary testing, better color. Plus, the Zeiss lens blows away the Fujifilm's (I haven't seen the Leica's or Nikon's yet). While I'm not crazy about the slowish performance, it's pretty typical for these types of cameras, regardless of price segment.

That said, if you want a great "compact" and still want money for food, unless you're really picky the APS-C models are still an excellent choice.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)
Fujifilm X100S
1.5
1
1
0.7
0.6
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
2.3
0.3
0.3
0.7
0.7

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Optical Sensor Type Exmor CMOS
  • Sensor Resolution 24.3 Megapixel
  • Image Stabilizer electronic (Steady Shot)
  • Optical Sensor Size 23.9 x 35.8mm