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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
|Sensor (effective resolution)
|12.4mp BSI CMOS
|20.2mp Exmor CMOS
(7.6 x 5.7mm)
(8.07 x 5.56 mm)
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
|ISO 80 - 6400
|ISO 100 - ISO 6,400
|ISO 80 - ISO 6400
|ISO 80 - ISO 3200/12800 (expanded)
|ISO 100 - ISO 25600
|Closest focus (inches)
23 JPEG/8 raw
12 JPEG/ n/a raw
(11fps without tracking AF)
(10fps with fixed exposure)
|25-area Contrast AF
|60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 16 min
|30-1/2,000 sec; bulb
|3-inch fixed OLED
|3-inch articulated AMOLED
H.264 QuickTime MOV
|720/30p Motion JPEG AVI
|1080/60p AVCHD @ 28Mbps; 1080/60p QuickTime MOV @ 28Mbps
|Manual iris and shutter in video
|Optical zoom while recording
|External mic support
|Battery life (CIPA rating)
|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
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.
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.
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.