Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II isn't a casual camera purchase. It touts itself as the big gun of the compact camera world, and with an asking price of £650 it's about as far removed from a back pocket change purchase as a compact can be. But we're still excited by this latest version of the RX100. Why? Because it comes complete with an updated 1-inch sensor that promises top-notch image quality and there's a new hotshoe for adding an accessory viewfinder. Combined, these tweaks over the original RX100 model ought to make the RX100 II the compact camera to watch. Is it crazy-good or, at that price, just plain crazy?

Mark II: What's new?

High-end products tend to ditch the usual naming conventions for "marks" and the RX100 II looks to assert its high-spec stature by following suit. After all we're talking about the RX100 II - or "mark II" as we can't help but say - rather than the "RX200" or some similar such new number. There's likely another reason for that: the difference between the original RX100 and the RX100 II isn't wildly different. There's the same 3.6x - or 28-100mm equivalent - optical zoom lens in body design that's more or less the same as we've seen before.

If you're brand new to the RX100 camp then you've probably already spent some time scratching your chin over the differences between the two models - both of which are on sale - and which makes most sense, particularly in relation to price which, a good year after the original RX100's launch, is now hundreds of pounds apart.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review

Two external changes are key to the RX100 II: the inclusion of a hotshoe - which can accept the FDA-EV1MK or FDA-EV1S accessory electronic viewfinder (EVF) units - and the rear 3-inch, 1,229k-dot WRGB LCD screen - which is otherwise the very same panel as the original RX100 - is now mounted on a tilt-angle bracket.

There's more, too: Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) have both been added for the first time in a Sony camera, while under the hood there's a brand new 1-inch Exmor R sensor that's said to perform a whole stop better than the earlier model. The resolution remains the same high 20.2-megapixel count as before, it's just that the sensor's construct has changed: the "R" designation means it's back-side illuminated and, therefore, light should have a more direct path for a cleaner signal. This also brings with it the ability to shoot at up to ISO 12,800.

But here's the thing that's niggling at us: why do these tweaks add an additional £100 compared to the original RX100's already high £550 asking price? The RX100 II doesn't include a viewfinder which would mean spending at least an additional £250. By which point you would be at the door of Panasonic Lumix GX7 levels of cash.

READ: Hands-on: Panasonic Lumix GX7 review

But the RX100 II is no ordinary beast. Those viewfinders could work as part of a wider package concept and Sony's probably banking on your owning other products that can also accept the EVF - the RX1 or a compatible NEX compact system camera. Even if the RX100 II doesn't have an interchangeable lens system, its interchangeable finder concept might appeal to some, irrelevant of the cost implication.

READ: Hands-on: Sony Cyber-shot RX1R review

Others will be looking to the RX100 II as the do-all compact camera package instead of ever considering buying into an interchangeable lens system camera such as a DSLR. That's not a bad bet either - this is one well-made, high-performance compact camera and it feels just that in the hand. It has its limitations, but it's otherwise got plenty to shout about compared to much of the compact camera competition out there.

Biggie Smalls

It's often said that larger sensors are better because of their accentuated shallow depth of field - that blurred background effect - and premier image quality. Yet with physical size comes certain limitations elsewhere. While the 1-inch sensor found in the RX100 II is far larger than in a standard compact camera - around four and one-third times larger than a 1/2.3-inch sensor - it means that at longer focal lengths, on account of the design for the sake of physical size and cost, there's a limited maximum aperture that won't surpass smaller models such as the Panasonic Lumix LX7.

READ: Panasonic Lumix LX7 review 

The RX100 II's f/1.8-4.9 aperture means a wide-open f/1.8 aperture is available at the 28mm wide-angle setting, but this quickly dips down by two and three-quarter stops to f/4.9 at the 100mm equivalent. That's the equivalent of, say, shifting from ISO 125 to ISO 800 assuming all other settings remained fixed when zooming from the widest to the longest focal length. But for a large-sensor compact camera such as the RX100 II to remain pocketable it has to forgo a more considerable lens - a brighter aperture range would otherwise end up creating one great big, hulking mass of a camera and the cost would skyrocket yet further too.

READ: Canon PowerShot G1 X review

When the RX100 II is turned on the lens pops out and is at its longest protrusion at the 28mm equivalent. Zoom in and the lens retracts a little, before then resting at almost exactly the same distance from camera body at the 100mm equivalent. Although it's not an internal mechanic, we like that the size has been kept within workable parameters and it's good that the lens doesn't continue to grow and grow as the zoom extends.

 

Overall Sony has managed to wrestle a big sensor into a fairly small body. The RX100 II isn't tiny by any means - although, for whatever reason, its control buttons are miniature - but then it's a fair balance considering what's on the inside. As the two-section lens protrusion whips back into the camera body when it's switched off, the camera is truly pocketable.

Let's do the twist

In use there are some elements of the RX100 II's design that really stand out, in particular the rotational dial to the base of the lens barrel. Its silky smooth motion rotates infinitely and the considered positioning makes it natural to use. It protrudes just enough ahead of the camera's body to get a good grip, which is more than can be said for something like the smaller-scale Panasonic Lumix LF1.

READ: Panasonic Lumix LF1 review

The RX100 II's lens ring has default controls which tend to make sense dependent on the mode you have selected - it adjusts aperture for aperture priority, shutter speed for shutter priority - but from within the menus it's possible to customise. Whether that's ISO, zoom or white balance - the choice is yours. There's even a new step zoom which, should you want to use the lens ring for zoom control, jumps between the classic focal lengths - 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm and 100mm - in double quick time. It's top stuff.

 

Manual focus also gains significant benefit from the physical lens ring - but, just like the original RX100, it's still not quite perfect. In addition to using the ring for focus control, it's possible to magnify the preview area, move the magnified area of interest around using the rear d-pad, and get extra focus feedback from the focus peaking feature which highlights in-focus areas in a bright colour (red, yellow or white). All that works well in combination, but - and just like before - there's no focus-distance meter of any form. A digital one would be nice to have, as companies such as Panasonic are now offering aperture-related digital focus-distance meters in G-series cameras. C'mon Sony, push the boat out that extra bit further.

When it comes to autofocus, which we suspect will be the default way the camera is typically used, there's the offer of multi-area auto, centre-only and user-defined flexible spot autofocus area options. Autofocus speed is quick and generally accurate in use. We would, however, like the ability to adjust the AF point size as some close-up work struggled to pinpoint focus on the specified area from time to time. Manual focus override (DMF) did come in handy for such situations, but if you happen to have a different focus type selected then digging though the menus to activate DMF will likely mean setting up shot all over again. Also, low-light conditions - and this is just like so many Sony compact cameras - tend to cause a more generalised focus where a large perforated-edge green box shows up around much of the image. Is it in focus, is it not? You won't know until after taking the shot.

Close-up focus is possible to around 4cm from the subject at the wide-angle setting which, while not as close as some smaller-sensor compacts, blows its biggest competitor - the Canon G1 X - out of the water. Zoom in a little more, however, and the RX100 II can't commit to close focus at its longer focal lengths, as is to be expected.

And shout

We've already alluded to the small buttons that reside on the back of the RX100 II. The more we used them the more fiddly they felt, in part because the integral Fn (function) button sits close to the edge of the tilt-angle screen; a little too close.

That Fn button, oh that Fn-ing button. It's brilliantly useful but not so much by default - it needs to be set up to suit your needs as best as possible. Out of the box and the Fn button opens up five quick-access functions which display on the rear screen, but the likes of focus type and focus area aren't - at least at first - included. Dig into the menus and it's possible to open the Fn menu out to a total of seven selectable active controls from a list of 17 options in total. We removed some of the nonsense ones like exposure compensation - which is already available via a press on the rear d-pad - and selected the more integral focus-based ones, among some other nice-to-haves. At this point we realised that we'd really like to see a manual AF/MF focus switch on the front of the camera - it's that advanced, it might as well up the ante that bit more.

 

Throughout the menus there's a slight lag too, and the same can be said for the lens ring's reactiveness - its rotation for, say, aperture value adjustment, feels a little behind the physical motion. But when it comes to mechanical operational speed we have no qualms at all - the autofocus system is responsive, as is the shutter, it's just the on-board software that's behind, a la the Sony Alpha A99 SLT.

READ: Sony Alpha A99 review

Furthermore the RX100 II has no touchscreen capability. In truth we're fine with this as we don't feel that it's a necessity by any means. But its addition could have introduced some cool focus methods and a quicker Fn menu selection, or even customised icon placement around the screen. Alas, no such possibility here.

Our criticisms with the original RX100 also aligned that the lack of a built-in ND filter - considering the f/1.8 aperture - was at odds with the maximum 1/2000th sec shutter speed. The RX100 II fails to add a built-in filter too, nor does the maximum shutter speed extend further.

Wi-Fi: The good and the bad

We've come to expect that Wi-Fi sharing direct from cameras, by and large, isn't going to be quite right for at least a little while. Outside of Samsung's direct from-camera sharing - think SIM-based Galaxy Camera or Galaxy S4 Zoom - and most other camera manufacturers are short of the mark.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

Sony is one that falls on the slightly more favourable side of the Wi-Fi wall, even if it's no Samsung in this department. The RX100 II offers Wi-Fi sharing, but there's no distinct button to give much clarity to the way the system works. Wi-Fi needs to be accessed from within the menus where it's been sloppily placed in our view. NFC doesn't make things much clearer either. The menus seem to suggest that direct sharing with a smartphone or computer is possible without additional apps or software - they don't say any different, anyway - but we just found it to time out.

 

Good job, then, that we're aware of Sony's PlayMemories app which we've used a number of times before for a variety of Sony cameras that we've reviewed. Run things through this app - available for Android or iOS - and it's possible to sort out smartphone sharing with relative ease. It's just a case of connecting the Wi-Fi network direct from camera to phone.

Sharing from within the app is wide open to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Picasa and so forth - not locked down as with some competitors' versions which attempt to push use of individual manufacturers' services - and it works well enough. But there are very few controls all in all.

Try to access things in reverse - opening the app before the camera is fired-up in its hard-to-locate Wi-Fi mode - and we ran, face-first, into the same time-out wall. It's an oddity as the Wi-Fi implementation in the RX100 II feels like it's a step backwards compared to something lower in the range, such as the Cyber-shot HX50 model.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot HX50 review

All about the images

But as much criticism as we can throw at the RX100 II - that's our job, after all - there's this windscreen-wiper moment of clarity when looking at the images; it's like all the ills are forgotten.

Wi-Fi sharing is one thing, and other niggles aside this is what the RX100 II is really all about: top quality images. We were impressed with the original model and the mark II sure does deliver with a bang too.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review - sample image at ISO 160 - click for full-size crop (JPEG)

The 1-inch sensor size isn't brand new, as the Nikon 1 compact system camera range uses the same sensor size, albeit at lower resolutions than the Sony. The 20.2-megapixel resolution of the RX100 II may seem almost to excess, but it has its place - at low ISO settings there's stacks of detail, and having such a large palette to play with means cropping in post-production can still yield large images that can be enlarged to considerable sizes.

It's arguable whether the RX100 II produces better images than the Nikon 1 series. But then the comparison is about context: we're only talking about a compact camera here, not an interchangeable lens system.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review - sample image at ISO 800 - click for full-size crop (raw)

Just like its predecessor the RX100 II's ISO 160-400 shots offer bags of detail, and even at ISO 800 there's plenty of finery to be seen. Above that and image noise starts to impact quality a little, but colour noise is held at bay until further up the sensitivity ranks. ISO 3200 is still decent despite the considerable resolution and colour intensity is largely maintained throughout the range. There is the odd auto white balance blip too: greens can come across a little blue, or taking successive shots will produce different results, particularly further up the ISO scale.

It’s also possible to push the sensitivity down to ISO 100-125 with some impact to dynamic range - note that the ISO 80 offered by the original RX100 has now vanished - while a new top setting of ISO 12,800 is a stop beyond the original RX100's maximum ISO 6400.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review - sample image at ISO 6400 - click for full-size crop (raw)

We've taken snaps of a candle in low light, shot at ISO 6400, and the raw file shows rich blacks and a limited amount of disruptive image noise, all things considered. The JPEG equivalent is softer due to processing, but it goes to show the value of raw files as just how high quality this camera is. Is it a full stop better than the original RX100? It's hard to be that critical - all we know is that we sure are impressed.

Verdict

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II is all kinds of wonderful, yet all kinds of pricey too. To cut to the chase the latest model is ultimately the original with a hotshoe attachment which, for some, will make it worth every penny. For others, and with the lowering price of the RX100, it makes the original model all the more appealing.

For the RX100 II to achieve five star perfection - we're less forgiving when the cash outlay is so high - it needs to iron out those smaller details. Build-in an ND filter, push the mechanical shutter yet faster, speed up inter-menu responsiveness, improve the sloppy Wi-Fi integration, enhance specific focus accuracy - particularly when in low-light autofocus conditions - offer up a digital focus-distance meter and a physical AF/MF control. We'd even like to see a touchscreen, and a more resilient glass on the rear screen - something Sony smartphones can manage, so why not here? For £650 we want the whole hog, not just most of it.

But the counters are obvious: that silky-smooth lens control ring, the pocketable size coupled with large sensor benefits, the staggering low-mid ISO image quality and, ultimately, image quality throughout the range. Without doubt: the RX100 II is one of the best compact cameras out there.

All in all we're fairly smitten, despite the shortcomings. f/1.8 in good light at ISO 160? Yes please. There's bags of detail and, despite that crazy price tag it seems something crazy has been triggered in our brains: we want to go and buy an RX100 II. Lots of money does deliver lots of camera, and there's stacks of goodness to be found here; it's both crazy by price yet crazy-good all at the same time.



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