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Sony has a long history of making interesting cameras and has, in recent years, produced some of the most innovative products and technologies. Not all of these developments have caught on but we've admired its pioneering spirit, even when we haven't always loved the products.

The Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 combines aspects of two of the company's most imagination-catching cameras - the current RX100 II zoom compact and the near-legendary R1 from 2005. It revives the large-sensor, long-zoom concept of the R1, but utilizing the RX100 II's 1"-type BSI CMOS sensor, meaning it can offer a balance of high image quality and long zoom in a sensibly sized package. In this case it means the RX10 is able to offer a 24-200mm equivalent F2.8 lens.

That relatively big sensor means the RX10 is not a small camera - it's about the height and width of a small DSLR. Its body is slimmer than a DSLR but its 8.3x lens adds a stout, weighty bulk to the proceedings.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 key features

  • 20MP 1"-type BSI CMOS sensor (13.2 x 8.8mm)
  • 24-200mm equivalent stabilized F2.8 lens
  • Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body
  • Manual zoom and aperture rings
  • Tilting 1.23 million dot rear LCD
  • 1.44M dot OLED viewfinder
  • ISO 125 - 12800 (expandable down to ISO 80)
  • Built-in 3EV Neutral Density filter
  • Approx 10 fps continuous shooting in 'Speed Priority mode'
  • 1080/60p video with full-sensor sampling, uncompressed HDMI output
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

Of course, a lot of time has passed since the R1 was launched, so it's no surprise that the RX10 is a more capable camera. However Sony says it has added a lot over even the RX100 II launched earlier this year. For example by using the same Bionz X processor as the Alpha 7 and 7R, it gains more sophisticated image processing. Significantly it also gains a built-in 3EV neutral density filter, meaning you can make use of that F2.8 maximum aperture, even in bright light.

The RX10 also becomes the first Sony to feature a 'Direct Drive SSM' focus motor, which uses piezoelectric materials to position the focus element, rather than linear motors. The company says this allows the lens to be both moved and stopped more accurately - reducing focus times. The lens also has a pretty reasonable close-focus distance, that increases from 3cm at the wide-angle end to 30cm at the other extreme (giving magnification ratio of 0.45x and 0.38x respectively).

And Sony appears to have been thinking about more than just stills when it made this cameras - the RX10 offers one of the most extensive lists of features for videographers we've seen on any camera. The big news here is that the camera uses every pixel on the sensor to create video (instead of sub-sampling), which dramatically reduces moiré. Other video features include step-less aperture control, headphone and mic sockets, focus peaking, zebra exposure warning, and uncompressed video output.

The only problem is likely to be trying to convince anyone to spend so much on a compact camera. Because, while it was relatively easy to make the argument that the RX100 was worth nearly twice as much as a Canon PowerShot S110 (given it had a sensor three times larger) it's a little harder to explain to people why they should pay $1299 for a zoom compact - no matter how capable.

That's always a problem with camera trying to carve out its own niche: you don't have easy reference points to compare it to. So, while the RX10 is rather large and expensive compared to other compacts, it's also a camera that offers a unique combination of capabilities, for shooting both video and stills. The question is whether that combination of needs exists.

So what's the big deal?

Part of the problem with trying to explain why the RX10 costs so much (and we're still not sure why it costs quite so much), is that it requires you to understand not just the equivalent focal length range and aperture, but also the effect of sensor size.

This understanding isn't necessarily helped by the use of F-numbers to describe aperture. In terms of exposure (and by definition), F2.8 = F2.8 = F2.8. However, that doesn't tell the whole story. In terms of depth-of-field and total light projected onto the sensor (which is a major determinant of image quality), you also need to consider sensor size - otherwise the 24-200mm equivalent F2.8 lens on this camera doesn't sound any more impressive than a camera half the size and, more importantly, less than half the price.

  Equivalent focal length Maximum aperture range Sensor size Equivalent aperture range
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 25-600mm F2.8 1/2.3"-type F15.5
Canon PowerShot G1 X II 24-120mm F2.0-3.9 1.5"-type F3.8-7.5
Nikon Coolpix P7800 28-200mm F2.0-4.0 1/1.7"-type F9.5-19
Olympus Stylus 1 28-300mm F2.8 1/1.7"-type F13
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 24-200mm F2.8 1"-type F7.6

So, while at first glance the Olympus Stylus 1 looks most impressive, the equivalent aperture figures tell a very different story. Equivalent apertures tell you how the lens compares to a full frame lens with similar characteristics - much as the more familiar 'equivalent focal length' does. However, rather than telling you which lens has a comparable field-of-view, it tells you which full frame lens would provide the same control over depth-of-field and the total light hitting the sensor.

So, while it might initially appear that the Olympus Stylus 1 offers a comparable lens in a much smaller body (and for much less money), the truth is quite different.

This chart plots equivalent aperture over focal length (35mm equiv.) As you can see, the Canon PowerShot G1 X II bests the RX10 at their equivalent focal lengths.

Two superzooms that advertise 'fast' lenses really aren't, when put into perspective. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 and Olympus Stylus 1 are never in the race - the RX10 is effectively 1.5 - 2.0 stops faster at all focal lengths. One compact camera that does compete very well is the Canon PowerShot G1 X II. It doesn't cover the same focal range (it's 24-120mm), but its large sensor allows for better low light performance (in theory) and more control over depth-of-field.

The one setup that consistently beats the DSC-RX10 is Sony's a6000 mirrorless camera mated with its 18-105mm F4 lens. It doesn't quite cover the same range as the RX10 (and we don't think the user experience is as good), but it costs less and is more expandable.