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

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The Good Great photo and good video quality in a camera with a nicely functional and fluid shooting design are the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1's highlights.

The Bad It lacks a viewfinder, autofocus is sluggish, and there's no focus peaking in video mode.

The Bottom Line With a terrific lens and a great full-frame sensor, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 delivers the best photos we've seen from a fixed-lens camera. But that doesn't come cheap.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 9

Is the full-frame Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 a great camera? Sure it is. But that's almost beside the point; at about $2,800, the real question becomes, "Is it $1,500 better than its APS-C competitors"? Despite the squirming of my inner budgeteer, I have to say that the answer is a qualified yes.

Qualified, because there are things about this camera that drive me a little nuts. It lacks a built-in viewfinder; the macro ring, focus mode switch, and record button are hard to manipulate, especially with gloves on; the lens requires endless rotations for manual focus; the autofocus is inconsistent and frustrating at times; there's no peaking during video shooting; and the SD card shouldn't be in the battery compartment. But the stellar image quality, awesome lens, tanklike build and functional, attractive design compensate for its deficiencies enough that I have to say, if you've got the money, and photo quality is more important than any other consideration, it's worth it. (I tested the Fujifilm X100S at the same time and really the perfect camera would be a mashup of the two.)

While the RX1 doesn't have any direct competitors, there certainly are cheaper APS-C-based alternatives, such as the Fujifilm X100S, the Leica X2, and new Nikon Coolpix A. There's also the relatively compact but seriously expensive interchangeable-lens Leica M9 or M9-P, or Sony's own excellent and far less expensive but smaller-sensored Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. Sony emphasizes that it sees Leica as making its chief competitors for this camera, which, given that Leica doesn't offer a full-frame fixed-lens compact, is a fairly safe way to position it. If Leica did offer a direct competitor...well, that would be very interesting.

Relative sensor sizes

To recap why full-frame makes a difference: 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 and better ability to resolve detail, which usually means higher-quality photos. As for DOF, for a given distance from the subject, f2 at 35mm for example, you'll get a more defocused background with a full-frame sensor than with an APS-C. (Want to see the math? Here's a lovely depth-of-field calculator.)

Image quality
The photos that emerge from the RX1 are beautiful, and the camera delivers that right up through ISO 1600. The RX1 uses the same sensor and image-processing engine as the SLT-A99 (and NEX-VG900 camcorder); the chip has larger photo diodes than predecessors and improved on-chip lenses, and the new processor incorporates Sony's latest area-specific noise-reduction technology.

The combination of the full-frame sensor, great lens, and solid JPEG processing delivers extremely clean photos up through ISO 800, very good at ISO 1600, and reasonably good at ISO 3200. I wouldn't recommend shooting ISO 6400 or above in JPEG. You can gain some noise and exposure latitude shooting raw above ISO 1600, and I had some raw images that were quite usable as high as ISO 12800.

But the real secret to the RX1's stellar photo quality is the Zeiss T*-coated (T-star) lens. It's got great edge-to-edge sharpness and f2 looks as sharp as f8; f22 is a little softer than the rest of the range, but not seriously so. The lens has a nine-bladed aperture which produces gorgeous bokeh, and the combination of intelligent noise processing and the lens produces a lovely gradual transition from in focus to out, even in midrange-ISO-sensitivity shots. There's the usual wide-angle distortion you'd expect from a 35mm lens, but even so there's only a hair of resulting chromatic aberration in the corners at f2.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 1600
ISO 6400

It's capable of excellent auto white balance under challenging conditions, but like most Sony cameras it defaults to a color profile (Creative Style) that shifts the hues annoyingly. As usual, switching to the Neutral Creative Style fixes that.

Video looks relatively sharp with nice tonality. There's a little bit of moire and rainbows under tough conditions -- like layers of weaves -- and aliasing on edges, especially at midrange-to-high ISO sensitivities.

Performance is mixed, though there's less to complain about if you manually focus than if you rely on autofocus -- less, but not nothing. Time to power on, focus, expose, and shoot runs 2.3 seconds. That's thanks to a sluggish lens and the necessity of waiting until the camera is fully ready before touching the shutter (with many cameras you can hold the shutter down while powering up). It takes 0.7 second to focus, expose, and shoot in both bright and dim conditions; that's relatively slow for an expensive camera, and mostly occurs because the AF system hunts excessively before locking (I smell a firmware upgrade in the future). On the other hand, shot-to-shot time is very good, only 0.3 second for either JPEG or raw; it increases to about 1.7 seconds with the flash enabled. It can maintain a burst of 2.6fps for about 17 raw shots or 22 JPEG, after which it slows considerably. Those are good runs, but not a terrific speed.

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.

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