Sony DSC-RX100

20MP | 28-100mm (3.6x) Zoom | $650 (US) £450 (UK) €550 (EU)

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is one of the biggest steps forward we've seen in the compact digital camera market, with a sensor over four times larger than most compacts, in a still genuinely compact body. It combines this big sensor with a pretty bright (F1.8-4.9) lens that covers a useful 28-100mm equivalent range. Add to this a customizable front dial and the best video specs in its class and it very quickly begins to justify the premium over its peers that Sony is asking. At around $650 'street' price, the RX100 is a good $100 or so more expensive than any of the other cameras in this roundup. 

Key Features

  • 20MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor
  • ISO 125-6400 (80-100 available with reduced highlight detail, and up to 25,600 in multi-shot mode)
  • 28-100mm (equivalent), F1.8-4.9 optically stabilized zoom lens
  • Front lens ring dial (stepless) and rear four-way dial
  • 1080p60 video with stereo microphones
  • 3.0" 'WhiteMagic' LCD screen with 1.23m dots
  • 330 shot battery life (CIPA)
The RX100 also includes all the clever shooting modes and image processing options that Sony has rolled out across its range (including the most reliable automatic panorama mode of any brand), giving it an unbeatable balance of size and capability.
The RX100 is a small, fairly ordinary-looking compact camera. Unless you knew otherwise, you'd never guess its secret identity as a large sensor camera. Despite this, it manages to squeeze a stabilized 28-100mm lens into its body - giving an impressive degree of flexibility. The rear screen on the RX100 uses Sony's WhiteMagic technology - adding a white dot to every pixel to allow the screen to be brighter or more efficient. This helps the camera to remain usable in bright light (though the brighter 'Sunshine' mode is fairly well buried in the menus).
The main means of controlling the RX100 is the lens ring dial. Its function can be reconfigured but that of the rear dial can't, so that often dictates your decision. Without the camera's sounds (including focus beep and fake shutter noise), you get almost no feedback that's you've moved the dial, which can be distancing. The other main means of controlling the camera is via the customizable Fn menu, which can include up to seven camera parameters and is arranged in the order you wish. It means that, despite the low number of external control points, the RX100 still makes it pretty quick to change any setting you might want to.

In use the RX100 is as competent an all-rounder as its specs suggest - its large sensor means it can't match the lens range of all its peers, but its 28-100mm equivalent zoom is useful nonetheless, especially given the increased image quality that the RX100 offers.

A few minor handling niggles (the lack of feedback from the stepless front dial and the inability to customize the function of the rear dial, in particular) mean the shooting experience isn't as engaging for the enthusiast photographer as it could be. However, the results easily make up for this, and its equal composure as a point-and-shoot means it will deliver these results regardless of how involved you want to get with the photographic process.

Performance and Image Quality

The RX100 fits more camera into a smaller space than just about anything we've previously seen and the image quality is consistent with that. Its 20MP sensor is able to resolve excellent detail in good light and the corner performance is solid too. The camera's metering is reliable with the occasional tendency to let the red channel slightly over-expose. The large sensor ensures the image quality is well-maintained as light drops, although the slower aperture at the long end of the zoom means it loses its advantage over the competition once you get beyond around 60mm. The JPEG processing is impressive at low ISO but, as you'd expect, at high ISO you can get better results by shooting Raw and tailoring the noise reduction to your own tastes.

In addition to the RX100's still image quality, it also offers the highest video specifications in this group. Indeed if you're at all serious about capturing video, only the Panasonic LX7 can match the RX100's 1080p60 capability. And, in movie mode the clickless dial becomes an asset - turn on focus peaking to aid manual focus and there's no compact as easy to manually focus for video.

Finally it's worth noting the RX100's impressive focus speed. It slows down a little in low light, but in most situations is at least a match for anything else in this company.

Wide Angle (28mm Equiv.) Telephoto (100mm Equiv.)
The Sony captures more detail than any of its rivals in the daylight scene and, impressively for a lens that contracts into such a small space and is being assessed with such a high-res sensor, the corners of the images don't present any problems for the camera.
The portrait exposure is rather dark (something we saw fairly regularly when we reviewed the camera), but the skin tones are pretty good. Despite the apparently slow maximum aperture at the long end of the zoom, the RX100's large sensor allows it to nicely isolate the subject from the background. The effect isn't as pronounced as a DSLR with a portrait lens would be, but it's a great talent for a pocketable camera to offer. The flash exposure is good if perhaps a little under exposed. This slight underexposure leaves the skin tones nicely warm. The purple fringing around the catchlights in the subject's eyes is rather off-putting, however. The RX100 does at least offer the change to reduce the flash power output if you want (or to control an off-board flashgun remotely, if you prefer).
The RX100's 20MP sensor allows it to capture impressive levels of detail. In good light nothing in this class can touch it. It's also small enough that it can easily be fitted in a pocket, making it more likely that you'll carry it with you. And you know what they say about the camera you have with you...

Summary

The RX100 has received plaudits from many directions - it's an excellent camera and represents an exciting development, both for Sony and the industry as a whole. It offers all-round ability and pocketability that's hard to match. Overall it's a step ahead of the competition in terms of capability - it's only the shooting experience that stops it rendering much of the rest of this class irrelevant. If the prices are similar when you come to make your decision, the RX100 should be near the top of your shortlist.

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

When looking at the studio scene, it's important to understand that the RX100 isn't at its best at the close focus distances required for this test, making the edges of the scene less sharp than the camera is capable of in most normal shooting.

Studio Comparison Tool Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 Samples (41 images)

What we like: Excellent image quality and good lens performance. Impressive video capabilities. Compact body with quick access to key settings. Good rear screen.

What we don't like: Clickless dial gives uninvolved shooting experience, slow-ish lens (at the long end), no ND filter limits flexibility in good light. No viewfinder option.

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