Photography & Video
Large sensor, fast lens, tiny body... has Sony finally achieved the impossible?
Camera design is all about compromise. Great pictures ideally need large sensors and fast lenses, but this usually means a heavier burden on your camera bag or wallet. Mirrorless cameras try to strike a middle ground by helping you capture DSLR-style images in a smaller, often less expensive package, but they're not truly portable. What about dedicated DSLR shooters who want something fun to throw in their pocket on the weekend?
Until now, the vast majority of compact cameras haven't had much to offer. Perhaps the best to date has been the Canon S100, a fairly tiny point-and-shoot that offers excellent manual control and relatively impressive image quality, but its compact-sized 1/1.7-inch sensor and somewhat slow lens limit its creative possibilities. With smartphones eating into the market for convenient cameras that can fit into your pocket, I've been waiting for something that can offer a genuine leap in quality without compromising on portability.
Sony thinks it's found the right mix with its new RX100. Fresh from success with its popular NEX range of mirrorless cameras, the company's now trying to one-up Canon's S100 with a larger sensor and faster lens in a very similar body. It uses a 20-megapixel, 1-inch sensor — the same size employed by Nikon in its V1 and J1 mirrorless cameras — and pairs it with an f/1.8-4.9, 28-100mm equivalent Carl Zeiss lens. All this, however, has somehow been crammed into an average point-and-shoot frame. On paper, at least, it sounds like it could be the new king of pocket-sized cameras — and with a list price of $649.99 (nearly twice as much as the S100 currently sells for) it had better be. Read on to find out how it stacks up.
No less pocketable than the S100
Regular readers of The Verge will no doubt be familiar with the argument that there's only so many ways to design a tablet, smartphone, or ultrabook, but none of that makes the RX100 look any less like Canon's S100. And why not? Ever since the S90 was introduced back in 2009 Canon itself has barely iterated on its excellent premium compact design — 2010's S95 and last year's S100 refreshes were virtually identical. The basic idea of a simple, compact black box with a control ring surrounding the lens is present and correct here on the RX100, though Sony has added a few flourishes of its own. There's a line running between the strap loops that lends a distinguished design, along with a blue Zeiss logo (just a sticker, unfortunately) placed to the bottom right of the lens. The RX100 is slightly thicker than the S100 at 36mm thick and the lens protrudes a little more when closed, but it's no less pocketable at 240g and just 102mm on the longest edge. Build quality is excellent, with an aluminum body that almost feels like it was carved right out of a single block of metal, though the form is broken up slightly by a ledge that runs along the top on the back of the unit. This makes it easier to access the mode dial, which is a little stiff otherwise.
The RX100 is a completely self-contained unit, with almost no options for expansion. There's no flash hotshoe here, nor will you find a NEX-style proprietary expansion port. This is a fairly major limitation for anyone considering using the RX100 as their primary camera — you'll never be able to boost flash power, attach a viewfinder, or even use an external microphone.
With that in mind, it's at least reassuring that the onboard options are pretty good. The tiny pop-up flash is surprisingly powerful across the zoom range, and can be tilted back for effective light bouncing. The 1,229,000-dot LCD screen is also really good, and uses Sony's WhiteMagic technology for better outdoor visibility. We've seen this before on phones like the Xperia P — it adds a white subpixel to the standard RGB arrangement, which really does make a difference in brightness and, Sony claims, power efficiency. I do wish the LCD was tiltable, but it's understandable that it wouldn't be on such a diminutive camera.
Since you can't change lenses on the RX100, it's important that Sony include a good one. You shouldn't have too many complaints about this Zeiss effort, though — while it can get a little soft in the corners, it's fast, bright, and generally resolves a lot of detail. Distortion is a little strong at the wide end, though you'll only notice when shooting in RAW as the camera corrects everything for you in JPEG. I'd also have liked a little more flexibility in the zoom range; starting at 28mm isn't wide enough for a lot of shots, and the 100mm telephoto reach only offers 3.6x zoom from there. Canon's S90 and S95 had similar (albeit slower) lenses, but the S100 moved to a more versatile 24-120mm equivalent and it'd be good to see Sony do the same in future. It's also worth pointing out that you only get the f/1.8 aperture at the RX100's widest setting — it drops to f/2.0 at 29mm and by 50mm you're limited to f/3.2. Really, though, the lens is a pretty impressive achievement when you consider that it's faster than any of the considerably larger offerings for Nikon's 1 system.
To get a better idea of what Sony has achieved with the RX100's hardware design, take a look at this chart of various competing camera sensor sizes:
If you've ever used a Sony Alpha DSLR or SLT, you'll be right at home with the RX100. It uses essentially the same menu system, and it's a pretty sensible and logical one. The best thing about it, though, is that you won't have to use it much — the RX100's buttons and dials are customizable to the extent that you can usually just keep on shooting. It's all down to that S100-style control ring surrounding the lens, which has to go down as one of Canon's better innovations in the past few years. This ring can be programmed to do just about anything, from zoom to manual focus to aperture to ISO, and a Function button lets you quickly switch between these features.
Manual focus is a joy on the RX100
It works on the RX100 the same way it does on the S100, which is to say very well barring a couple of quirks. When zooming, for example, it requires at least two full turns to move from wide to telephoto, which seems a bit much. The action is very smooth, too, which is great for manual focus but may disappoint those expecting it to function like a stepped aperture ring — you'll have to watch the screen to be exactly sure of what you're doing, whereas the S100's ring has clicking detents. By default, the center button switches between auto and manual focus, with the latter overriding any previous lens ring settings. That's a good call on Sony's part, especially as the RX100 uses the NEX series' excellent focus 'peaking' feature to highlight sharp areas of the image. Manual focus is usually a pain on compact cameras, but it's a joy on the RX100.
There's a traditional PASM dial up top, too, and in these modes the RX100 prioritizes the wheel surrounding the directional buttons on the back — so in A mode, for example, the wheel will control your aperture, and you're free to use the ring surrounding the lens for other functions. The twin wheels mean the RX100 is actually easier to use in full manual mode than many entry-level DSLRs. I often used it in M mode with the lens ring set to aperture, the rear wheel set to shutter speed, the drive mode button assigned to ISO, and the center button for switching between manual and automatic focus. P mode is another useful option as it works with program shift — you're free to select reciprocal combinations of aperture and shutter speed while the camera handles the rest of the exposure calculations. Brilliantly, you're able to set upper and lower limits in auto ISO mode, so for example telling the camera not to go below 1600 in low light should leave you with less blurry images. This is a feature often left out of even high-end cameras, including Sony's own, so it's a hugely pleasant surprise to see it included here. Another uncommonly pro-level feature is the Memory Recall position on the mode dial, which lets you choose up to three exposure presets that can be quickly accessed at any time.
Otherwise, the button layout is conventional. The shutter button is surrounded by a zoom rocker, there's a power button up top, and the back of the camera features five separate buttons (movie, function, menu, playback, help / delete) in addition to the five-way combination dial. The help button brings up advice in shooting modes to assist those who may not be au fait with the ins and outs of an advanced camera, and to that end the RX100 also features a couple of point-and-shoot-style automatic modes as well as scene selection. These work well enough, but if you're buying this camera you're probably not going to want to use them.
Sony typically has included some useful software features in its cameras, and the RX100 is no different. It has the same trademark Sweep Panorama and Handheld Twilight modes found in its Alpha DSLRs and NEX mirrorless cameras, both of which I've found genuinely useful in the past and honestly consider a major selling point. Less convincing, however, is the Auto Portrait Framing feature introduced with the A57 and NEX-F3. I'm happy for my camera to automatically bracket or stitch photos together, but having the "best" composition selected for me is a bit much. Elsewhere, you'll find the same picture effects as on the NEX-7, including a pretty fun tiltshift mode that lets you select the in-focus areas Instagram-style, and the camera also has fairly robust options for automatic dynamic range optimization and HDR shooting.
Sweep panorama and handheld twilight are genuinely useful
Other compact camera makers need to take a long, hard look in the mirror
Here's the real reason why you'll want to pick up an RX100: the photos it takes are stunning to the point where all other compact camera makers will need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. It's often said that the majority of DSLR owners never remove the kit lens, and if that's the case then I wonder if they shouldn't be looking at the RX100 instead — its photos really are that good. Right out of the camera images show great color depth and dynamic range, and the combination of sensor size and lens aperture allows for blurred backgrounds and low-light performance unprecedented on a compact like this. It's honestly the first point-and-shoot I can see DSLR owners taking along as a backup and not feeling compromised — it gives you honest-to-goodness creative control over your images like never before.
Of course, you're not going to get the same flexibility as you would with a DSLR, but I do think it compares pretty favorably to an entry-level model with a kit lens.
Low-light performance and speed both feel DSLR-like
ISO performance is particularly impressive given the 20-megapixel sensor, and the Zeiss lens manages to keep up admirably. When it comes to low-light performance there's simply no competition from any other camera this size. The camera's maximum native ISO is 6400, which isn't as high as you'd get from a DSLR, but it actually produces usable images all the way throughout its range as long as you manage expectations (i.e. think web use rather than wall-sized prints).
Since neither Aperture nor Lightroom have been updated to support the RX100's RAW files yet, I haven't been able to run them through my usual workflow, but the JPEG files are surprisingly clean. Sony does, however, apply some pretty heavy noise reduction to JPEGs shot in low light, and it's there that the limitations of the sensor next to a DSLR become a little more apparent. RAW files don't suffer the same loss of detail, but your only option for processing them right now is Sony's own Image Data Converter software, which is one of the worst pieces of software I've ever had to use. I honestly didn't have the time or the patience to figure out anything approaching an efficient or effective workflow for processing RAW files, but once Adobe or Apple update their software it should be possible to get much better high-ISO performance out of the RX100.
It's not just compromises in image quality that have turned me off compact cameras in the past, as typically their performance leaves a lot to be desired. Shot-to-shot times, minimal shutter lag, autofocus speed, and quick start-up are critically important reasons to choose a DSLR in the first place, but I'm pleased to report that the RX100 performs fantastically well in all these areas. Shutter lag simply is not an issue, and you can fire off up to ten full-resolution frames a second in continuous drive mode. Individual shot-to-shot performance is incredibly responsive, too — I was able to fire off three or four shots a second, which never left me feeling like the camera couldn't keep up with my finger.
Not a trail-blazing video camera
Autofocus speed, too, is very impressive. In good light it's actually faster and more accurate than my experience with Sony's NEX cameras, though you may have to fall back on the orange illumination bulb at night. Along with a start-up time of just about a second, the RX100's performance makes it the most reliable compact camera I've used to date.
Video, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. While the 1080p quality is at least on par with other cameras in its class, it doesn't come close to matching most DSLRs. Clips taken with the RX100 exhibit the rolling shutter effect pretty badly with moving subjects, and the SteadyShot image stabilization doesn't do a great job when you're walking around. Although the built-in stereo microphones capture sound reasonably well, the lack of external mic input means the RX100 will never be a great choice for any video clips in noisy environments or where clear speech is important. There's also no manual control when you press the dedicated record button, though you can alter exposure settings when you turn the mode dial to the movie position. Overall the RX100's video performance is a little pedestrian when compared to the trails it blazes in still photography, but is fine for a compact camera and should do in a pinch for recording simple footage.
Sony claims that the RX100's battery will last around 330 shots, and I haven't found any reason to doubt that figure in my time with the camera. It's actually a lot easier to keep charged than most others; like the NEX-F3, it charges over Micro USB. I was a little skeptical of this at first — the RX100 doesn't even ship with an external charger, making it impossible to power up spare batteries in advance of a trip — but in practice it's a really convenient inclusion. There's something to be said for the ability to charge your camera using the same plug as your phone, or top its power up with mobile battery packs. I would still like a separate external charging option, though, so hopefully one will make an appearance sooner rather than later.
If you want something portable, the RX100 is impossible to beat
Sony's RX100 is nothing short of the best all-around compact camera I've ever seen. Where mirrorless cameras made waves by downsizing DSLR-quality photos into a package you could throw into your coat pocket, the RX100 does the same for your jeans. It's really no exaggeration to say that it produces images on par with an average DSLR and kit lens combination, making this a revolutionary camera that means you'll always be in a situation where you can take genuinely high quality pictures.
All this comes at a cost, of course, and at $649.99 you'll be paying around as much as an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera kit. For that reason I wouldn't recommend the RX100 as anyone's only camera unless portability is the number one concern — you'll get more flexibility and ultimately quality from something like a NEX-F3 at around the same price. If you've already got an interchangeable lens camera and simply want something more portable, however, the RX100 is impossible to beat right now. One thing's for sure — Canon is going to have to pull off something special this year if its S-series is going to stay in the game.