Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review

4.5 out of 5
£549

For

Small and pocketable, customisable lens ring, decent image quality throughout the range, f/1.8-4.9 aperture, quality WRGB LCD screen

Against

No viewfinder or accessory option, lacks built-in ND filter, no manual focus, focus-distance display, would like more assignable lens ring options, it's pricey (pricier than a Sony NEX-5N)

The thriving high-end compact camera market is one area that Sony’s broad range of Cyber-shot models hasn’t infiltrated like many of its competitors. The current HX20V might teeter on the cusp of high-end, but it’s not got the guts to outperform the likes of the Olympus XZ-1 or Canon G1 X.

But that’s all set to change: The Sony RX100 is the company’s first large-sensor compact camera venture. Its 1-inch sensor is around four times larger than those in most standard compact cameras, including the aforementioned HX20V.

But does the RX100’s sensor - and its hefty 20.2-megapixel resolution - mean big things for image quality?

Bigger yet smaller

It’s often said that larger sensors are better, at least in terms of resulting image quality. Shallower depth of field and less image noise are key advantages, but the bigger a sensor gets the larger the camera and its associated lens will also be.

For a large-sensor compact to be truly pocketable its design has to consider not only the sensor size, but also the lens’s focal length, quality and maximum aperture. One look at the RX100 and it looks as though the Sony engineers have hit the nail on the head with this one.

Despite a conservative - yet design-necessary - 3.6x optical zoom (28-100mm equivalent) lens, the two section barrel design is able to fold into the body when the camera is switched off. Therefore the RX100 is genuinely pocketable, which is more than can be said about the likes of the Canon G1 X, for example.

But Sony hasn’t scrimped on features: the f/1.8-4.9 aperture is bright, in particular at the wide end.

So while a bigger sensor may often be desirable, Sony has found some middle ground and avoided a gigantic body - now that’s the kind of form factor crucial for such a camera.

Image quality

The 1-inch sensor size isn’t a brand new concept. The Nikon 1 compact system camera range uses the same sensor size, as produced by Sony. But the RX100’s sensor is brand new in that it’s the first 1-incher with a whopping 20.2-megapixel resolution.

First thoughts on paper? Somewhat mixed. Although the Nikon CSC range doesn’t outperform most of its competitors in the compact system camera market, it still does produce quality images.

With that in mind, the RX100 - and this is a compact camera we’re talking about here, nothing more - does a mighty fine job.

ISO 125-400 shots offer bags of detail, and it’s only from ISO 800 and above that image noise starts to impact quality to any notable degree. ISO 1600 is still decent, and ISO 3200-6400 are both usable despite more noticeable texture and loss of detail from noise reduction processing.

It’s not possible to increase the sensitivity upwards of ISO 6400 (there’s a pseudo ISO 25,600 setting that uses multiple frames), but there are ISO 80 and ISO 100 options at the lower end. However these can’t be selected using the auto ISO mode.

Impressively colour still retains much of its bite even at the higher ISO settings, avoiding the usual washed-out look of many other compacts.

The RX100’s high resolution means overall image quality might not be as exceptional as it could have been, but it’s still impressive.

For low ISO settings the Sony is a definite winner. But, and in a similar fashion to the company’s 24-megapixel SLT cameras, the higher ISO settings aren’t going to keep the competition at bay. Compared to the Canon PowerShot G1 X and it’s the Canon that takes first prize, though not by as much of a margin as we’d originally anticipated.

In short: high resolution or not, the RX100’s images are impressive.

Features & shortcomings

But image quality isn’t just the product of resolution and our pixel-peeping geekery. The RX100’s lens is another key component.

The f/1.8 aperture at the wide-angle end is great to have, and despite this dipping to f/4.9 at the 100mm equivalent setting, that’s still bright enough by most peoples’ standards. Quality is impressive throughout the frame, right to the edges where there’s not even a hint of any colour fringes.

But why have a bright lens and then not include a built-in neutral density (ND) filter? The 1/2000th second maximum shutter speed is fast, but it could be supplemented by such a filter for when shooting wide-aperture in daylight - as the lens folds away there’s no way to attach an additional filter to the lens itself. For most cameras this wouldn’t be a problem, nor something we’d raise as an issue, but the RX100 is clawing for the high-end market and, therefore, is a different kettle of fish.

And, the lack of a viewfinder or even an accessory option sold separately will put a cross in the box for some would-be buyers. Sony’s NEX series already has an OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) available that connects via Sony’s own Smart Accessory Terminal connection - one that’s far smaller than a standard hotshoe fitting. So it can’t be a case of technology lacking, nor can it be a case of price - the RX100 is a fair whack pricier than its larger-sensor NEX-5N cousin (including the kit lens) so wouldn’t undercut the different market.

Perhaps Sony’s confidence in its latest screen tech is to answer. The 3-inch LCD boasts 1,229k-dots but is still the same 640x480 (VGA) resolution as most other similar high end compacts. The high number is due to not only red, green and blue dots at the given VGA resolution, but the addition of a white dot layer too. The WRGB array can output a brighter image that stands out more in sunlight.

Better we certainly agree with, but it’s still not infallible; sunlight is an unavoidable problem for any LCD screen used outdoors. The screen is fixed in the design and, as much as a vari-angle screen would be a great addition to this camera, we can’t help but think it would bulk out and ugly-up the design.

No hotshoe or terminal also means no off-camera flash. That’s something even the likes of the Olympus XZ-1 has on offer. It’s not necessarily a common feature in a compact, but would have helped the RX100 to clean-up right across the board.

Performance

Amid our minor quibbles (and positives) laid out above, there’s a whole lot to like about the RX100’s performance.

The autofocus system is quick and the camera offers "multi", "center" and "flexible spot" options. The AF point can be placed around all but the outermost edges of the LCD screen, and is 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. Also, low-light conditions tend to rubbish the flexible spot option - often the camera opts to employ the AF assist lamp and then a more general focus area box is provided.

Close-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. Our one biggest gripe with the Canon was that its large sensor meant even wide-angle shooting was restricted to distance.

But it’s manual focus that’s particularly cool. It’s possible to use the RX100’s lens ring to focus, and we’re not talking any of this “clicky” focusing business either, this lens ring is one silky-smooth customer.

The inclusion of a manual focus assist to magnify into the desired area and what’s known as "peaking level" - the latter which highlights in-focus areas with a user-defined red, yellow or white colour fringe - helps make focusing even easier to use. One small quibble though: there’s no way to gauge focus distance.

The lens ring isn’t just used for focusing though: there are up to seven functions that can be assigned to it. Bizarrely you can even apply the same function to appear up to seven times over, which seems like a bug in the system.

We would like this assignable function menu to be a little more expansive and accommodate more than seven options total, by and large because the menu system is so extensive that it can be a little tiresome to dig out a specific option, including the function button assignment option. Fortunately the previous menu screen will display upon reopening the menus again.

The camera’s burst mode is impressive too. Set to Speed Priority Continuous mode and shots can be snapped off at up to 10 frames per second. This is cut back to around 4fps when shooting both raw + JPEG, but the camera is ready to go again in next to no time - more impressive than something like the Samsung NX20.

Verdict

There’s a whole lot of good to say about the RX100. Bags of customisation, a silky smooth lens focus/custom ring, great performance, that high quality, wide-aperture lens and decent image quality - even at that high resolution - make the camera stand out.

The rear WRGB LCD screen is superior to a standard compact, but it won’t eliminate light reflection issues and the lack of a viewfinder or any possible accessory may put off some high-end snappers.

Oh, and then there’s the price. £550 sounds like a lot - and it is - but it’s shrewdly positioned about £150 below the Canon G1 X’s £700 price point.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. The RX100 will be exactly what many demanding photographers have been waiting for: a truly pocketable high-end, large-sensor compact. It’s not quite perfect, and some may query its price point against the NEX-series, but otherwise it’s a roaringly good first attempt. Tasty stuff.