Sony RX1 claims title to smallest full-frame camera

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Lori Grunin/CNET

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.)

Relative sensor sizes compared

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 A99 (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
Lens
(35mm-equivalent focal-length multiplier)
35mm
f2
1.5x
n/a
1x
35mm
f2
1x
28-100mm
f1.8-4.9
3.6x
Closest focus (inches) 3.9 n/a 7.9 1.9
Continuous shooting 5fps
10 JPEG/8 raw
2fps
8 frames
2.5fps
(5 fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
Viewfinder Optical/EVF switchable Optical Optional Optical, EVF None
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
n/a 25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Metering 256 zones n/a n/a n/a
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
Flash Yes Optional add-on Yes Yes
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes No
LCD 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
2.5-inch
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
Image stabilization None None Electronic (movie only) Optical
Video
(best quality)
720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV stereo None 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 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.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Guide Number (m / ISO 100) 6
  • Weight 453 g
  • Sensor Resolution 24.3 Megapixel
  • Lens Aperture f/2.0
  • Focus Adjustment automatic
    manual
  • Min Focus Distance 24 cm
  • Digital Zoom 2 x
  • Optical Sensor Size 23.9 x 35.8mm
  • Optical Sensor Type Exmor CMOS
  • Image Stabiliser electronic (Steady Shot)
  • Sensor Resolution 24.3 pixels