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Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark III review: Sony RX100 III: A better camera but not necessarily a better buy

Sony's enthusiast compact has some great features and delivers on image quality.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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10 min read

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III (aka RX100M3) is quite a different animal from its sibling, the Editors' Choice RX100M2 . With a manufacturer price of $800 (£700, AU$1,100) it costs about $150 (£110, AU$200) more, and targets enthusiasts willing to pay more for a faster lens, improved video quality, and an electronic viewfinder. And the M3 is an appealing camera for that group, albeit not without causing some aggravation along the way.

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8.2

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark III

The Good

A great electronic viewfinder that doesn't increase the size of the svelte Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III is one of the camera's highlights. Plus it offers excellent performance, photo and video quality.

The Bad

The camera shuts down when you retract the viewfinder, the autofocus system could be more consistent, and it has poor battery life.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III is an overall great camera that delivers significant improvements over the RX100 II, but not everyone will think it's worth the extra cost.

Because the camera incorporates the newer Bionz X processing engine, you get some enhanced features over the M2, including Lock-On (tracking) autofocus and adjustable autofocus area size. For video shooting, it incorporates the higher bitrate 50Mbps XAVC S codec in additon to the veteran AVCHD and MP4 codecs; a dual-video record mode that will let you shoot low-resolution video for wireless upload alongside the better-quality video; Zebra (tonal clipping indicator); and clean HDMI output. Because Sony expects it to be used for video, it also has the Intelligent Active Mode IS which compensates for shooting while walking, though it's missing a mic input.

Image quality

Both its still and video image quality are excellent for its price class -- and even beyond, in some cases -- though that's not without caveats. The camera incorporates a new 24-70mm f1.8-2.8 lens, with a faster aperture than the lens on the other two RX100 models, and which uses the Zeiss T* coatings. Of course, it's all about trade-offs: you lose a bit of the zoom range in exchange. I think it's worth it, however.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III full-size photo samples (pictures)

See all photos

Depending upon how you plan to use them, the photos can be considered acceptable through the top of its sensitivity range, ISO 12800, although you probably don't want use those shots at 100 percent. The processing and noise reduction are okay, though even at ISO 400 you can start to see some mushy edges and the not-terribly-smooth out-of-focus areas that typify small-sensor cameras. Nevertheless, in-focus areas still look good up through ISO 1600.

The tonal range is just okay, though it's still better than the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II. You can recover highlight details that aren't too blown out and shadow areas at lower ISO sensitivities. At about ISO 800, the range starts to compress and clip the dark areas, but that's pretty common. Colors generally render accurately, even with the default Standard Creative Style, though it does clip the highlights a little more than I'd like. It does have a Neutral setting, though, unlike the RX100M2.

The RX100M3 supports Sony's high-bitrate XAVC S codec, and the videos shot with it look better than anything I've seen from a compact camera. While they still show edge artifacts like jaggies and edge crawl, even in low light you don't get the typical crackling caused by color noise in motion. The camera supports dual record -- it simultaneously captures XAVC and MP4 -- but the MP4 is pretty low quality and pretty much just for reference or very small playback. The AVCHD looks great as well. It's too bad the camera doesn't have a mic input, though, because the sound isn't terrific.

The biggest caveat here: In order to record the XAVC video you need a 64GB SDXC Class 10+ card; the manual only obliquely specifies this (in the card capacity section, under XAVC S, it simply doesn't list anything for the other capacities). But don't buy a Sony card. It works fine in the camera, but is the slowest card for file transfers I've seen in years, taking hours to do what takes minutes with other cards.

Analysis samples

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ISO 80 and ISO 100 are in the camera's expanded range, and the images came out surprisingly soft at ISO 80. At ISO 400 you can start to see some artifacts in the shadow areas. (Unless you view the samples at their full 770-pixel width they won't look right.) Lori Grunin/CNET

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In-focus, well-lit areas remain okay at ISO 800, and are generally still usable, depending upon content, through ISO 6400. While ISO 12800 isn't great, it's still much better than competitors. Lori Grunin/CNET

sony-rx100m3-color-770.png
The M3's color reproduction is pretty good, even with its default Standard Creative Style; while it pushes the contrast so that some highlights blow out a bit more than usual, I didn't see any gross hue shifts. Lori Grunin/CNET

sony-rx100m3-awb-770.png
The automatic white balance doesn't quite get mixed lighting, rendering images that are too cool. Lori Grunin/CNET

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By ISO 800, you can get greater detail by processing the raw, but only at the expense of some graininess. Lori Grunin/CNET

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The lens has some asymmetric distortion as wide as 24mm in the lower left corner. Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance

The RX100M3 ekes out some performance improvements over the M2, turning it into one of the faster models in this class. The camera defaults to Pre-AF enabled -- Sony's term for semicontinuous autofocus -- which we turn off for testing. I personally don't like leaving it turned on; the sound of the lens constantly in motion irritates me and shortens battery life.

Given that battery life is so short when using the EVF, which I think is far more useful, that it's worth saving where you can. Also, the battery takes almost 4 hours to charge, but you can easily drain it in half that time. Carry a spare.

That said, I did spot checks of the performance with and without Pre-AF during testing, and overall there was generally no significant difference between the two.

However, I did have problems getting the camera to focus on the correct spot. I finally ended up using the smallest spot focus choice for lab ISO sensitivity photo samples; with the medium or large spots it focused in front of the subject. During the performance testing at its widest angle, though, even the smallest center spot didn't work.

Time to power up and shoot is still a bit slow at 2 seconds, but time to focus and shoot in bright light is an excellent 0.2 second and a decent-for-its-cohort 0.4 second in dim conditions. Two sequential shots runs just under 0.2 second for raw or JPEG, which is excellent. With flash enabled it increases to 2.1 seconds, a lot slower than the M2 and on the high side.

Continuous shooting with autofocus enabled actually fared better than its specifications, achieving 2.9fps for raw and 3.3fps for JPEG, with no drop in speed up for at least 30 shots.

The autofocus works well enough, though it's not stellar on objects in motion; I really wouldn't use this camera for shooting action if the results matter to you. For instance, the list of conditions under which the Lock-on AF (tracking autofocus) won't work includes: low light, overly bright light, varying levels of brightness, and objects too small or too large.

I guess that's why Sony made it so difficult to access; you actually have to dive into the menus every time you want to invoke it, which means every time the subject moves out of frame. The auto-autofocus, like many systems, frequently chooses the wrong subject, instead opting for whatever's closest. Focusing manually works well thanks to the focus peaking, but it's not very effective in low light.

The LCD remains visible in direct sunlight, and the electronic viewfinder, while quite small, does the job. Neither accurately reflects the exposures, making me think some highlights were blown out when they weren't.

Shooting speed

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.2 2.0Canon PowerShot G16 0.3 0.9 0.7 1.4 1.6Nikon Coolpix P7700 0.4 1.1 1.5 3.2 1.8Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II 0.4 0.5 0.1 0.2 2.5Fujifilm X20 0.4 0.4 0.7 0.7 1.5Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II 0.8 1.3 1.0 1.3 1.6
  • Shutter lag (typical)
  • Shutter lag (dim)
  • Typical shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance

Typical continuous-shooting speed

Fujifilm X20 6.3Canon PowerShot G16 5.8Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III 3.3Nikon Coolpix P7700 3.3Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II 3.1Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II 3.0
Note: In frames per second, longer bars indicate better performance

Design and features

Despite the addition of a cleverly retracting viewfinder, the camera is small enough to fit in a loose pants pocket, obviously a big plus for some folks. And Sony fixes some of the feature and design drawbacks of the M2, including adding the flip-up LCD for selfies (with Sony's well-implemented auto-countdown and mirroring when it's flipped up) and adding stepped zoom to the semimanual and manual modes.

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The neatest part of the RX100M3's design is the retractable electronic viewfinder. Sarah Tew/CNET

On the other, the body is still slippery and gripless, the movie button is still hard to find and press without looking, and the tradeoff for the EVF is dropping the hot shoe. Plus, the EVF implementation has one utterly infuriating drawback: every time you push it in it shuts off the camera. It also suffers the EVF/LCD autoswitching problem that all cameras have: it switches off the LCD automatically when it perceives something near the viewfinder, like your body if you're shooting low. But combine the two and it's foot-stomping frustrating. To keep the LCD from switching off when shooting low, I had to push it in, which turned the camera off.

And it retains some implementation issues from its predecessors. Auto flash is only available in full auto mode, and you still can't manually invoke macro mode.

As with its predecessor, I like the control ring, which you can program to operate for one default setting (such as stepped zoom or shutter speed) and to use in conjunction with a Custom (C) button, which you can program to access 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.

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. I think that the RX100 III, like the RX100 and RX100 II before it (like a lot of cameras, actually), offers too many automatic mode options: a scene program mode, intelligent auto, and Superior auto.

It retains the tilting popup flash, an excellent feature to have; it allows you to quickly control intensity and direction to bounce the light or simply prevent hot spots.

Like the M2, the camera supports Wi-Fi with NFC (near field communication) to make connecting the phone to your mobile device a lot less annoying than with most Wi-Fi camera connections -- provided your device has NFC. That leaves out Apple folks, but you can still use the clunky manual process to connect.

It uses the same Wi-Fi implementation as recent Alpha models, including support for Sony's proprietary PlayMemories app ecosystem. It supports direct upload to Flickr via an app -- that's the only direct upload offering -- and there's a new, free RX100 III-only app for fixing faces. I still loathe that you have to download the free Smart Remote app if you want anything more than basic remote shutter capability. The apps are now available in 44 countries at least (the complete list).

It's still not the most streamlined operation. For instance, you have to invoke the connection differently if you want to transfer photos (initiate from the playback menu in the camera) than if you want to remotely control the camera (initiate from the PlayMemories Mobile app on the phone).

With this model, though, Sony has added the ability to one-tap transfer photos to your smartphone via NFC.

For effects junkies, the RX100 III offers a handful, with a few very nice and unusual ones. But you've got to scroll through every variation -- a rotating cornucopia of 33 slots when there are really only 13 filters -- which gets seriously annoying. They're not accessible in raw or raw+JPEG mode (though the camera doesn't bother to tell you that's why they're grayed out) so you can't save a simultaneous version without effects, and you can't control any of the parameters.

As for the rest of its features, the camera has a bunch of the usual suspects, including a built-in neutral- density filter with an automatic option, Zebra for quick identification of blown-out highlights and face recognition.

Despite some of its drawbacks, I think most of the camera's issues can be rectified with a firmware upgrade, if Sony chooses to address them.

For a complete accounting of its features and operation, download the RX100 III's manual. Choose "Help Guide (Printable PDF)", not the useless "Instruction Manual."

Conclusion

Overall, the M3 is a great camera, but a little more niche focused than the significantly less-expensive M2. So for now, at least, I'm leaving the M2 with the Editors' Choice. Lots of folks are fine without an EVF and the M2 has better battery life and a longer zoom range, at least for the price. But if the lens, EVF or better video are important to you, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III is the camera to beat.

Comparative specifications

Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II Ricoh GR Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II DSC-RX100 III
Sensor effective resolution 12.8MP HS CMOS 16.2MP CMOS 20.2MP Exmor R CMOS 20.2MP Exmor R CMOS
Sensor size 1.5-inch
(18.7 x 14mm)
APS-C
23.7 x 15.7mm
1-inch
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
1-inch
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
Focal-length multiplier 1.85x 1.5x 2.7x 2.7x
OLPF Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 (exp)/ISO 160 - ISO 12800 ISO 80 (exp)/ISO 125 - ISO 12800
Lens (35mm equivalent) 24 - 120mm
f2-3.9
5x
28mm
f2.8
1x
28 - 100mm
f1.8-4.9
3.6x
24 - 70mm
f1.8-2.8
2.9x
Closest focus 2.0 in/5 cm 3.9 in/10 cm 1.9 in/5 cm 1.9 in/5 cm
Burst shooting 3fps
(5.2fps with fixed focus)
n/a
4fps
4 raw/unlimited JPEG
2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
13 raw/12 JPEG
2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
Viewfinder
(mag/ effective mag)
EVF
Tilting TFT
(EVF-DC1, $299; est £284)
Optional
Reverse Galilean
(GV-1, est $230; £150; AU$300)
Optional
OLED EVF
Tilting
0.5-inch/12.7mm
2.36m dots
100 percent coverage
($350/£380/AU$500)
OLED EVF
0.4-inch/10.2mm
1.44m dots
100 percent coverage
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes No
Autofocus 31-area
Contrast AF
190-point hybrid AF 25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity n/a 1.5 - 17.5 EV n/a n/a
Shutter speed 61 - 1/4,000 sec 300 - 1/4,000 sec; bulb; time 30 - 1/2,000 sec; bulb 30 - 1/2,000 sec; bulb
Metering n/a n/a n/a n/a
Metering sensitivity n/a n/a n/a n/a
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p
Motion JPEG AVI
1080/30p/25p/24p
AVCHD
1080/60p/50p/25p/
24p
XAVC S
1080/60p/30p/25p/24p; 720/120p
Audio Stereo Stereo Stereo Stereo
Manual aperture and shutter in video No Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB/29:59 minutes 25 minutes 29 minutes n/a
Optical zoom while recording Yes n/a Yes Yes
Clean HDMI out No n/a No Yes
IS Optical None Optical Optical
LCD 3 in/7.5 cm
Tilting touch screen
1.04m dots
3 in/7.5cm
Fixed
921,600 dots
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
3 in/7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
3 in/7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
Memory slots 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, NFC None Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes
Wireless flash No No No No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 240 shots 290 shots 350 shots 320 shots (LCD);
230 shots (Viewfinder)
Size (WHD) 4.6 x 3.0 2.6 inches
116.3 x 74 x 66.2 mm
4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches
116.8 x 61.0 x 35.6 mm
4.0 x 2.3 x 1.5 inches
101.6 x 58.1 x 38.3 mm
4.0 x 2.3 x 1.6 inches
101.6 x 58.1 x 41 mm
Body operating weight
19.5 oz
552 g
8.6 oz (est)
245 g (est)
9.9 oz
280.7 g
10.2 oz
288 g
Mfr. price $800
£800
AU$1,000
$700
£550
AU$850
$650
£590
AU$900
$800
£700
AU$1,100
Release date (US) April 2014 May 2013 July 2013 June 2014
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8.2

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark III

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Image quality 8
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