Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II review: The best enthusiast compact to date

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The Good The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II delivers excellent photos, speedy performance, and a broad feature set in an attractive, compact package.

The Bad The camera tends to clip bright highlights more than we typically see, and the slippery body lacks a grip. Plus, the lack of a manually triggered macro mode might put off some fans of close-up photography.

The Bottom Line The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II's combination of looks, speed, flexibility, and photo quality makes it a great choice for enthusiasts who can afford the price tag.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 9

I'm a believer.

When Sony swapped the 1-inch standard CMOS of the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 for a BSI (backside-illuminated) sensor in the DSC-RX100 II, I expressed some skepticism. My experience with BSI sensors has always been that what they gain in low-light latitude they lose in bright light. But the RX100 II delivers better photo quality than the RX100 across the entire ISO sensitivity range, and better quality than the rest of its similarly priced competition. Add in the new features like a hot shoe -- for accessories like an electronic viewfinder or microphone, as well as a flash -- plus Wi-Fi and a tilting LCD, and despite slightly slower performance the RX100 II is the best sub-$1,000 camera I've seen to date. (For a discussion of the importance of sensor sizes, see the RX100 review.)

Image quality
Overall, JPEG photos look excellent up through ISO 400, good through ISO 1600, and usable depending upon scene content through ISO 3200. Despite the rated ISO sensitivity range having been raised to ISO 12800, it's still -- unsurprisingly -- bad at ISO 6400 and ISO 12800. You don't gain much by shooting raw except perhaps retaining a little more detail in the midrange sensitivities and the ability to bring back shadow detail without too much noise. Like the RX100, it clips highlights more than I like and you can only recover some of the highlight detail.

Colors look saturated and contrasty, typical for Sony, and a camera at this price really deserves a neutral-color preset.

Click to view/download ISO 200

ISO 800
ISO 3200

Video looks very similar to the RX100's, with possibly a hair more detail resolution. It's bright, saturated, and reasonably sharp, with no notable artifacts in bright light, and is relatively noise-free in dim. The lens is sufficiently quiet while zooming. Audio comes through loud and clear and doesn't sound too compressed or tinny.

Though it's still fast -- and certainly faster than most of its competitors -- the autofocus seems to bog down the RX100 II a little more than the RX100. It takes 2.5 seconds to power up, focus, and shoot, which is a little on the high side for its class. In good light, focusing and shooting takes about 0.4 second, rising to about 0.5 second in dim conditions. It's really fast going from shot to shot, running about 0.1 second for JPEG and 0.2 for raw, and a mere 0.3 second with flash enabled. It sustained a continuous JPEG burst for more than 30 shots at 3 frames per second and a respectable 15 raw shots at 2.7fps (using a 95MBps SD card). Those speeds should suffice for typical kids-and-pets photography. And during field testing, the camera focused and snapped quickly most of the time.

I did run into a couple of autofocus issues with the RX100 II, some of which are simply settings-related. In my initial testing I used the center-focus option, but it consistently focused at the bottom of the focus area, resulting in incorrect focus and unusable test samples. Switching to the Flexible Spot setting, which offers a smaller focus area, fixed that.

Autofocus at night is a bit more troublesome. Sony's cameras routinely expand the focus area to the whole screen in dim light. But turning off the focus-assist illuminator (and there are a lot of times you really don't want a huge orange beam lighting up the vicinity) and shooting with the Flexible Spot to prevent the full-screen AF area left the camera frequently unable to focus, even on high-contrast subjects that other cameras had no trouble with, like the neon lights of my test restaurant. When shooting video, I had to switch to manual focus -- which is very nice thanks to the intense focus-peaking setting.

Design and features
For good or ill, Sony made no changes to the design of the camera save the addition of the hot shoe and tilting LCD. So while I still think the camera is well-designed overall and a great size, my biggest problem remains the lack of a grip. That combined with the slippery metal body means I'm constantly in fear of dropping it, and forced to grip it extra-tightly, which can get really tiring if you shoot one-handed a lot. This time around I also found myself accidentally hitting buttons -- hitting movie instead of menu, hitting power when trying to plug the camera in to charge. There's now an accessory grip option, but the camera already costs $750; charging another $15 bucks for a piece of plastic that you adhere to the camera seems like Sony nickel-and-diming us.

As with its predecessor, I like the control ring, which you can program to operate for one default setting (such as zoom or shutter speed) and to use in conjunction with the Fn button, which you can program to access up to seven more settings. The camera can be customized quite a bit. In addition to the Fn button, you can also reprogram the operation of the left and right navigation keys on the back dial as well as the center button. And there's a Memory Recall option on the mode dial so you can select from three custom settings slots.

Still a problem: no grip on the camera makes it slippery and difficult to hold. Sarah Tew/CNET

The top mode dial offers the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, plus a dedicated movie mode (with a full set of manual and semimanual exposure controls) and Sweep Panorama.