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Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 Review: Simply Amazing
by Jim Keenan -  8/23/2012

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (henceforth the RX100) becomes the company's first entry into the burgeoning "small compact digital camera with a physically larger than usual sensor" market niche. The camera packages a newly designed 1.0 inch Exmor CMOS sensor into a 3.6x optical zoom compact digital weighing about 8.5 ounces and with dimensions that make it easily shirt pocket portable. This sensor has approximately four times more area than the 1/2.3 inch sensor found in many compact digitals and almost three times more area than the larger 1/1.7 and 1/1.63 inch models in other big sensor compacts such as the Canon S100 and Olympus XZ-1. The RX100 sensor measures out at 13.2 x 8.8 mm, the same size as the sensor in the Nikon 1 series cameras. But while Nikon stopped at 10 megapixels (MP) on their cameras, Sony has punched the resolution of the RX100 all the way up to 20.2 MP. One aspect of a high resolution sensor is the ability to crop frames fairly aggressively to change an image's perspective while still retaining enough data to produce good quality large prints.

[click to view image]The sensor is partnered with Sony's latest generation BIONZ processing technology and features a native ISO range of 80 to 6400; ISO sensitivity to 25600 is available using multi frame noise reduction technology.

That 3.6x zoom lens is a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonar T with a focal range of approximately 28 to 100 mm and boasting a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture at wide-angle - maximum aperture drops down to f/4.9 at the telephoto end of the zoom. That focal range is approximate because the RX100 allows the user to capture still and video images in a variety of aspect ratios, and you can experience a slightly longer focal range (30 to 108 mm) for still image capture by going to 4:3.

The camera is stabilized, offers typical compact digital automatic and scene shooting modes (as well as smile and face detection) along with full manual controls and JPEG, RAW and RAW/JPEG image capture formats. Video is full 1080 HD in AVCHD progressive format and video capture is available via a one touch dedicated video button. The camera also offers 7.2x "clear image zoom" and 14x digital zoom shooting options.

[click to view image]There's a high-resolution 3 inch LCD monitor, continuous shooting rates of up to 10 frames per second (fps) at full resolution and the camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC, microSD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick Duo/Pro Duo/Pro Duo (high speed)/Pro HG-Duo memory media. Sony includes an AC adapter, rechargeable battery pack, micro USB cable, wrist strap, shoulder strap adapter and printed user's manual with each camera.

Sony's press release describes the RX100 as ".. ideal for travel, portraits or street photography.." and "..a perfect step-up model for point and shoot users not interested in larger DSLR or compact system cameras, and also an outstanding choice for enthusiasts who may already own a large DSLR and are looking for a high-quality, pocket-sized 'all-in-one' second camera." Turns out the RX100 will be accompanying me and a large DSLR to Ireland on August 26, but before then let's get some local shooting done and see how the RX100 fares.

Build and Design
The RX100 fits the classic compact digital camera template, a rectangular body about the size of a deck of cards with slightly rounded edges - overall dimensions of about 4 x 2.375 x 1.43 inches make it a simple matter to slip it into a shirt or jacket pocket for easy transport when not in use. Powered up, the 3.6x zoom lens extends to its normal shooting position and that 1.43 inch depth becomes about 2.75 inches. Body construction is aluminum and the camera is made in Japan.

[click to view image]Ergonomics and Controls
The RX100 is easy to hold primarily by virtue of its small size -- there is really no design feature intended to promote a better grip with the exception of a small patch of rubberized material serving as a thumb rest on the camera back. The matte black paint finish is smooth, so use of the wrist strap or a camera strap would be a prudent decision to ensure against an accidental drop. The shooting finger of my right hand fell naturally onto the shutter button, but my right thumb gravitated to about one inch left of the thumb rest as a means to promote a firmer grip, and this ended up putting a large fingerprint in the upper right portion of the monitor.

Controls are largely what we've come to expect from a compact digital camera -- the pop-up flash, power button, shutter button/lens zoom lever and mode dial sit atop the camera body while the three inch monitor takes up most of the back. The dedicated video capture button sits at the top right rear of the body where it becomes a bit awkward to activate with the right thumb in one-handed shooting. Further down the right side are function and menu buttons, the control wheel/OK button in addition to playback and in camera guide/delete buttons. The function button allows you to register up to seven functions and recall those functions when shooting. A control ring at the base of the lens may be customized by the user to permit rapid changes to ISO, white balance, creative style, picture effect, zoom, shutter speed or aperture.

Menus and Modes
Menus in the RX100 are fairly simple and intuitive, but also somewhat lengthy, as you might expect from a camera offering a full range of manual controls and a fairly diverse feature set. There's a five page still shooting menu, single page movie shooting menu, three page custom menu, two page playback menu, single page memory card tool menu, single page clock setup menu and three page setup menu. You can scroll from page to page in the various menus without having to scroll through the individual functions on each page, or scrolling through all the functions will take you to each succeeding page of that particular menu and then on to the next menu after completion of the current menu. You can also scroll forward or backwards, and with the format command being found in the memory card tool menu it's actually quicker to scroll backwards to this menu rather than going forward to reach it -- eleven clicks to get there going forward but only five going backwards. Depending on your shooting mode, some individual functions in any of the menus may or may not be available.

[click to view image]The instruction manual provided with the RX100 is fairly basic, and the manual found on Sony's website is identical. For example, the manual says that your favorite functions can be assigned to the control ring when shooting, and established settings can be changed by just turning the control ring. However, the manual says nothing about how to assign the functions to the control ring. Here's where that fairly simple and intuitive menu format comes into play. On page 2 of the custom menu there is a "control ring" function and clicking on that item gives you the choices of camera functions you can assign to the control ring. There is an in camera guide that can display explanations for menu items and setting values as well as shooting tips, but there's really no excuse for $650 MSRP camera not to have a more complete user's manual. With its automatic shooting modes the RX100 is bound to attract an audience of at least some novice shooters, and requiring them to burn precious battery power wading through an in camera guide to find out something that could be easily put into print doesn't seem to be the way to go.

Here's the rundown on the RX100 shooting modes:

AVCHD audio is Dolby digital two channel; MP4 is AAC-LC two channel.

[click to view image]Display/Viewfinder
The 3 inch LCD monitor on the RX100 boasts a 1,229,000 dot resolution but this figure is a bit misleading as the monitor employs Sony's White Magic technology, which uses additional white pixels to boost screen brightness, reportedly allowing users to see subtle details and tones on the screen in all types of shooting environments, including outdoors in bright sunlight. This monitor measured 467 nits peak brightness in our studio measurement, along with a 530:1 contrast ratio. The former figure is a bit under, and the latter over, the 500 nit/500:1 thresholds we like to see for these values, as they tend to identify monitors with better performance in outdoor lighting conditions. I found the monitor on the RX100 fairly average in outdoor performance, during which the monitor could be difficult to use in conditions involving bright sunlight for both image composition and viewing.

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Performance

Sony describes the RX100 as an outstanding choice for the DSLR owner looking for a high-quality, pocket-sized second camera. Let's see how the ad copy stacks up against reality.

Shooting Performance
The RX100 presents a shooting screen about two seconds after power up and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.75 seconds. Single shot to shot times are basically as quickly as you can take the shot, reacquire focus and shoot again. The camera offers two continuous shooting modes: low and speed priority. Low produced an approximately 2.5 fps rate for about 35 JPEG fine images before the shooting speed slowed. Sony claims speed priority produces up to 10 fps at full resolution, but our studio measurement came up at 11.4 fps, and this for 13 images before shooting slowed. My shooting in the field in speed priority more closely matched the Sony claim as to speed, and the most JPEGs I saw was 9 before shooting slowed. The discrepancy in frames is not surprising as some scenes have much more detail than others, which results in larger files and can affect buffer capacity, but try as I might I couldn't get the 11+ fps figure. Rest assured that with an appropriately quick shutter speed the RX100 will deliver on that 10 fps claim, if only for about a second.

Write time to completely clear the buffer for those nine images took about 8.75 seconds (using a 16 GB 633x SDHC UHS-1 card), but the camera will allow you to capture more images as soon as there is any room in the buffer. Switch the RX100 into RAW/JPEG mode and you get about four images before things slow at speed priority; low produced nine images before things slowed.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR 0.14
Nikon Coolpix P7100 0.19
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 0.26
Canon G1X 0.65

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 13 11.4 fps
Canon G1X 5.6 fps
Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR 4 3.5 fps
Nikon Coolpix P7100 1.2 fps

peak brightness 467 nits
black luminance 0.88 nits
530:1 overall contrast ratio

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag seemed good in the field and was corroborated by our studio measurement of .01 seconds. Sony claims autofocus acquisition times as quick as .13 seconds, but our studio measurements produced a .26 second time. Frankly, the camera felt faster than this most of the time in good light, and was one of the faster focusing compact digitals I've ever reviewed. The camera retains a fairly quick autofocus acquisition capability as light dims and the focus assist lamp worked well out to about 10 feet in virtually pitch black conditions.

Switching into continuous autofocus produced an interesting effect - the image on the monitor would pulsate slightly as you held a half push to acquire and maintain focus, almost like the lens was zooming a tiny bit in and out. Whether that is symptomatic of the RX100 in general or a camera specific behavior of our review model (which clearly had seen some hard use before it reached us based on the scratches adorning the monitor) is not clear, but this didn't seem to affect continuous autofocus tracking of moving subjects. My wife drove down to the end of the block (about 100 yards) and then began driving towards my position. I acquired focus as she began to move towards me and began shooting in low speed continuous mode with continuous autofocus enabled. I tracked her and the vehicle for a total of 12 frames, covering a distance of about 150 yards with the closest approach to me of about 30 feet, and every frame displayed sharp focus.

Sony doesn't list a guide number for the built-in flash on the RX100, but claims coverage up to about 56 feet at auto ISO and wide-angle; coverage is up to about 20.7 feet at telephoto. Coverage at 6400 ISO is listed as about 79.3 feet and 29 feet, respectively. Flash recycle times ran a bit over three seconds in automatic shooting modes where the camera was free to set ISO; setting ISO at 80 and aperture priority with the lens stopped completely down to promote a full discharge of the flash resulted in recycle times a bit over five seconds.

Sony rates the battery life of the RX100 as 330 shots; the battery must be recharged in the camera and full charge of a depleted battery takes approximately 155 minutes. Sony's press release on the RX100 mentions new accessories including a battery charger, but no such item appears currently on Sony's website. There are third-party batteries and chargers available on the Internet but we were unable to test their viability. Once again, given the cost of the RX100, one would have hoped that Sony would have opted to forgo the charge in the camera routine and instead provided an external charger.

Lens Performance
Carl Zeiss lenses have typically shown fairly good performance in compact digital cameras that I've reviewed, and the Vario-Sonar T in the RX100 kept this string alive. The lens produced a sharp image at wide-angle center with some softness in the edges and corners and perhaps just a tiny bit of light falloff in the corners; telephoto was equally sharp in the center and perhaps even a bit better in the edges and corners than at wide-angle. There was no distortion to speak of at wide-angle, in the middle of the focal range or at telephoto -- no worries about horizon lines or other straight lines in images getting bent by lens distortion.

The wide-angle end of the lens showed some chromic aberration (purple fringing) in some high contrast boundary areas, but this defect was most prominent only at enlargements in the 200 to 300+ % enlargement range. The telephoto end of the lens was virtually free of this defect. Admittedly, a 3.6x zoom is a fairly simplified engineering exercise compared to producing a 20 or 30x-plus lens, but the RX100 lens is a very solid performer, one of the best I've seen in a compact digital camera.

Video Quality
Full HD video quality out of the RX100 was very good, and the autofocus did a good job of keeping the picture sharp when going from a near to distant subject, and vice versa. The camera is susceptible to wind noise but there is a wind cut feature, and the camera will on occasion record some sounds associated with zooming the lens. Because it utilizes a CMOS sensor, the RX100 can be susceptible to rolling shutter effect but Sony has done a pretty good job of minimizing this defect. Rolling shutter was present during exaggeratedly high speed pans, but these were certainly much faster than would be the norm in most cases. Pan with one of the Blue Angels on a high-speed pass with trees in the background and you might see some distortion, but just about anything else shouldn't pose a problem.

Image Quality
Default image quality out of the RX100 was quite pleasing with regards to sharpness and color rendition.

[click to view image]JPEG fine quality was quite good, with little if any JPEG artifacts being readily discernible in most cases. As this is written, Adobe products such as Lightroom and Photoshop reportedly do not support the RX100 RAW format (my Photoshop CS5 certainly doesn't) and there is no in camera raw converter. Sony's website provides an image data converter that may be downloaded to allow you to process RX100 RAW files, but I have to question why Sony didn't simply provide this RAW processing capability with a bundled CD. The Sony image data converter allows you to save RX100 RAW images as either JPEG or TIFF files, both of which are recognized by existing software such as Photoshop. Here are two JPEGs - one is a JPEG Fine out of the camera and the second is a RAW file saved as the highest quality JPEG via the Sony image data converter.

The camera also offers a 13 option "picture effect" menu with choices such as toy camera, pop, poster's Asian color, retro photo, soft high key, partial color (red, green, blue, or yellow), high contrast mono, soft focus (low, mid or high), HDR painting (low, mid or high), rich tone mono, miniature (with the effect applied to the top, middle, or bottom), watercolor, or illustration (low, mid or high). The picture effect menu is not available when the camera is set for either the RAW or RAW/JPEG image capture formats - JPEG fine or standard quality only.

Shooters in the manual modes have access to DRO (dynamic range optimizer) and HDR (high dynamic range) settings (enabled by default) to help expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera. The settings are mutually exclusive- you can enable one or the other, but not both simultaneously - and offer automatic or manually established levels of compensation. It is important to note that with DRO enabled the shutter may stay open for a relatively lengthy period in dimmer lighting conditions; with HDR multiple images are captured and again, in dim light, the shutter on individual images in the sequence may stay open for a long time. Shooting with either of these options enabled in less than bright conditions is best accomplished with a tripod or other means of camera support.

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Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

I used auto white balance for all the images captured for this review and in general it did a good job across a variety of lighting including daylight, cloud, open shade and flash. In addition to the automatic setting there are daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, four fluorescent (warm, cool, day white and daylight) and flash presets along with color temperature and custom settings.

Multi metering is the default setting and appropriate for most situations; I used the default for all the images captured for this review. This setting worked well overall but in some instances of high contrast could clip highlights, a not uncommon occurrence for compact digital cameras. There are center weighted and spot metering options available for shooters in the manual modes.

While I generally avoid even discussing digital zoom features on compact cameras, the RX100 offers what Sony calls Clear Image Zoom in addition to the typical digital zoom. Where the typical digital zoom performs an electronic crop to magnify pixel size and create a longer telephoto effect (lowering sharpness and producing image degradation), the Sony system performs an electronic crop, but then analyzes the image to digitally create pixels and match patterns, a process which Sony says retains pixel numbers and the image quality of an optical zoom. A Sony training bulletin backs off the image claim just a bit, describing image degradation as "almost imperceptible."

Pixel peeping on the original images I found the clear image zoom shots didn't look quite as good as the optical images, but they did look better than typical digital zoom captures. If all else failed and you had to have a closer perspective I'd use the clear image zoom, but good as it is it still falls a bit short of a true optical capture.

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ISO 100
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ISO 100, 100% crop
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ISO 200
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ISO 200, 100% crop
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ISO 400
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ISO 400, 100% crop
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ISO 800
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ISO 800, 100% crop
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ISO 1600
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ISO 1600, 100% crop
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ISO 3200
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ISO 3200, 100% crop
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ISO 6400
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ISO 6400, 100% crop

While the RX100's native ISO range includes low end sensitivities of 80, 100 and 125, in practice these three settings are virtually identical and impossible to tell apart so we chose to use 100 as the starting point for our ISO comparison. With a sensor the same size as that of my Nikon 1 but carrying twice the resolution, I was naturally curious what Sony had accomplished in the high ISO noise performance arena with an extra nine months plus of additional development time before bringing the RX100 to market. The answer, it would seem, is quite a bit.

Besides the obvious doubling of resolution, the RX100's 6400 ISO sensitivity is a complete EV greater than the Nikon's 3200. In a simple comparison of noise at 1600 and 3200 the Nikon 1 and the RX100 are really quite similar, but all that extra resolution in the Sony holds some of the fine details better than the Nikon. So, considering it's the same size but with twice the resolution of the Nikon 1 sensor, Sony has done a terrific job with the RX100 sensor, even with it being a later generation technology.

Looking at the individual ISO sensitivities in the Sony alone, 100, 200 and 400 are virtually indistinguishable and can be shot interchangeably. 800 shows just a hint of graininess here and there, with a few fine details impacted slightly. 1600 shows a bit more pronounced grain and some fine details are beginning to fall off a bit more, although this sensitivity is still quite good overall. 3200 is a bit grainier than 1600 and some fine details are impacted just a bit more, but 1600 and 3200 are actually quite comparable to my eye. 6400 represents a fairly dramatic deterioration from 3200, with increased graininess and fine details are now being smudged in most places on the image. 6400 is best left for those occasions when that sensitivity is the only way to make a viable picture.

Additional Sample Images

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