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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

It's far from perfect, but an intelligent combination of design, performance, and photo quality make the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 one of the best compact cameras for the money we've seen to date.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
8 min read

Sony may be a camera-come-lately with its Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 enthusiast compact, but boy, what a debut: a fast performer equipped with a relatively large sensor and a bright, fast lens, and wrapped in a small, sleek body. It seems like Sony made a lot of intelligent decisions about design and feature tradeoffs to get the job done. Compared with many of its competitors it's relatively expensive, but it doesn't feel overpriced for what you get.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
8.1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

The Good

Speed, good looks, and pretty pictures number among the <b>Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100's</b> strengths.

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's compact, elegant design, generally excellent photo quality, bright, fast lens, and speedy performance make a great package if you don't mind spending a little more money.

Image quality
The RX100 generally displays good JPEG processing and noise reduction; it does a creditable job of balancing trade-offs between color noise and softness. Out-of-focus areas still suffer from mushiness as low as ISO 400 -- a common problem with cameras with smaller sensors -- but in-focus spots stand up pretty well until about ISO 800. Overall, the camera's JPEGs look solid up to ISO 400 and acceptable through ISO 1600, depending upon scene content. From a noise and artifact perspective, I was happy with an uncorrected 13x19 print of the ISO 1600 photo downloadable below.

But it's nice that you're not forced to rely on the high ISO sensitivities that often. While the lens aperture gets pretty narrow at the telephoto end of the focal range, it's still relatively wide for a nice chunk of the way. Here are the points at which the maximum aperture changes:

Keep in mind that while the aperture determines the amount of depth of field you'll have at a given focal length, so does sensor size. That means competing aperture specs are only moderately useful when it comes to comparing cameras: the f1.8 on the XZ-1 will look very different from the f1.8 on the RX100 because of sensor size difference. Larger sensors can achieve shallower DOF at a given focal length and aperture than smaller sensors, which gives the RX100 a compositional flexibility advantage over cheaper competitors. But typically, unless you're always shooting at a wide angle or close up, you'll probably still end up without a lot of background defocus. The more practical advantage the lens confers is simply allowing for more light.


Relative sensor sizes

The camera produces very nice low-ISO-sensitivity shots with lovely tonality. It doesn't have a neutral Creative Style, so the photos have Sony's typical Standard look, high contrast with pushed saturation. That said, it doesn't stress the range so badly that hues shift or shadow detail clips substantially. The one possible issue I encountered was that bright highlights on yellows get completely blown out. They're unrecoverable from raws in Sony's Image Data Converter software, but they might be there for better software. On the other hand, some clipped areas in bright, saturated reds of JPEG images proved moderately recoverable in the software.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 photo samples

See all photos

The lens displays very good center sharpness through f5.6, with a slight falloff at f8 and noticeable softness at f11. There's also some aberration at f1.8, which is typical, and a little bit of barrel distortion on the left side at its widest -- it looks like Sony is performing in-camera distortion correction, which tends to make wide angle images look oddly linearized.

Click to download ISO 80

ISO 800
ISO 1600

Video looks good, bright, saturated, and reasonably sharp, with no notable artifacts in bright light, and is relatively noise-free in dim. The autofocus works well while shooting video, and the lens is sufficiently quiet while zooming. Audio comes through loud and clear and doesn't sound too compressed or tinny.

Performance
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance information, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

The RX100 is significantly faster than its competition for all but continuous shooting. It takes about 2.1 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot -- while that's not blazing-fast, it's still ahead of quite a few other models. Focusing and shooting under all but the darkest conditions takes about 0.3 second; in very low light, the autofocus automatically expands to the entire scene. Two sequential shots with the first prefocused take about 0.2 second for raw or JPEG. That increases to 2.3 seconds with flash enabled, which is on the fast side for this crowd. Shooting raw+JPEG with a fast SD card (a 95MBps SanDisk Extreme Pro) is fast and fluid without any interface lag.

With a fast card, the camera can burst JPEGs at 2.5 frames per second for an effectively unlimited number of shots without slowing. You can shoot raw continuously at the same rate for around 17 shots; after that, it drops to around 2.2fps. However, while faster than many competitors' times, neither of these is really great. Continuous shooting with the RX100 and many other viewfinderless models is mostly a point-and-pray process, anyway. In the case of the RX100, the tracking autofocus seems to lag behind even slow-moving subjects, another not-uncommon problem.

The LCD becomes a little washed out in direct sunlight but remains sufficiently visible.

Design and features
With only a couple of possible exceptions, the RX100 is a sleek, well-designed camera; it's compact and attractive, with a sturdily built aluminum body.


No grip! Not even a textured surface.

My biggest problem with the RX100's design is 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. Over and over again we've seen companies drop the grip to make the camera seem smaller or shinier or somethinger only to add it back in a subsequent generation. It's nuts.


Like the equivalent PowerShots and the Olympus XZ-1, the RX100 incorporates a multipurpose adjustment ring on the lens.

What you see while zooming with the control ring.

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. However, you can't use the control ring while the camera's on a tripod (unless you have a very small plate); the ring extends just far enough below the bottom of the camera that there's no clearance to rotate.


You can tilt the RX100's flash for more-attractive illumination.

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.

Canon PowerShot S100 Olympus XZ-1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 Samsung EX2F Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
Sensor (effective resolution) 12mp CMOS 10mp CCD 10.1mp MOS 12.4mp BSI CMOS 20.2mp Exmor CMOS
1/1.7-inch
(7.6 x 5.7mm)
1/1.63-inch
(8.07 x 5.56 mm)
1/1.7-inch
n/a
1/1.7-inch
n/a
1-inch
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
Sensitivity range ISO 80 - 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 80 - ISO 6400 ISO 80 - ISO 3200/12800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Lens 24-120mm
f2-5.9
5x
28-112mm
f1.8-2.5
4x
24-90mm
f1.4-2.3
3.8x
24-80mm
f1.4-2.7
3.3x
28-100mm
f1.8-4.9
3.6x
Closest focus (inches) 1.2 0.4 0.4 0.4 1.9
Continuous shooting 2.3fps
n/a
2fps
23 JPEG/8 raw
5fps
12 JPEG/ n/a raw
(11fps without tracking AF)
n/a 2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
Viewfinder None Optional EVF Optional EVF None None
Autofocus n/a
Contrast AF
11 area
Contrast AF
23-area
Contrast AF
n/a
Contrast AF
25-area Contrast AF
Metering n/a 324 area n/a
n/a n/a
Shutter n/a 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 16 min 60-1/4,000 sec 30-1/2,000 sec 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hot shoe No Yes Yes Yes No
LCD 3-inch fixed
461,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
610,000 dots
3-inch fixed
920,000 dots
3-inch articulated AMOLED
614,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical
Video
(best quality)
1080/24p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
720/30p Motion JPEG AVI
Mono
1080/60p AVCHD @ 28Mbps; 1080/60p QuickTime MOV @ 28Mbps
Stereo
1080/30p
H.264 MP4
Stereo
1080/60p/ 50p
AVCHD Stereo
Manual iris and shutter in video Yes No n/a n/a Yes
Optical zoom while recording Yes Yes n/a Yes n/a
External mic support No Yes No Yes No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 200 shots 320 shots 330 shots n/a 330 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.1 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.8 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.1 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.4
Weight (ounces) 7 9.3 10.6 (est.) 11.4 (est.) 8.5
Mfr. price $429.99 $399.99 $499 $499.99 $649.99
Availability November 2011 January 2011 August 2012 August 2012 July 2012

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'd argue that the camera (like a lot of cameras, actually) offers too many automatic mode options: there's a scene program mode, intelligent auto, and Superior auto. I always thought the whole point of automatic was to not have to make any choices.

The movie button on the back is a bit hard to press because the location demands it be too recessed in order to keep from accidentally hitting it. The rest of the controls have just enough travel to keep from being difficult to operate.


I wish there were more control over what settings appear in this display.

In order to get rid of useless or screen-cluttering information like the Soft Skin or flash compensation setting -- the latter shouldn't even appear if the flash is forced off, for example -- you have to switch to the graphic display, which I find harder to parse quickly.

While the RX100 has a nicely rounded shooting feature set, I'd hardly call it expansive. The camera lacks a hot shoe, viewfinder, or articulated LCD. And even if you're willing to trade those off for the more compact size, it also lacks geotagging capability and wireless connectivity. It has features like the aforementioned Soft Skin Effect and Auto Portrait Framing, which I think are out of place in a camera for more advanced users. I'd rather have the ability to manually invoke macro mode, which, like with Sony's point-and-shoot models, here can only occur automatically. In addition to face detection, it can register up to eight faces, which it can then use for Smile Shutter or autofocus tracking.

For effectsionistas, the RX100 offers a handful, with a few very nice 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.

Conclusion
While the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is pricey and imperfect, it's still darn good. Plus, based on past experience, even if competitors I haven't yet tested can surpass it in design or speed, I don't think they'll be able to match the photo quality. (Canon might be able to if it matched a fast lens to the G1 X's sensor.) Despite its drawbacks, I'd still rank it as one of the best compact cameras I've ever tested, and certainly the best under $700. But if you can't bring yourself to pay the premium price, one of these other enthusiast compact models will probably suit.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
8.1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 9Image quality 8