A few years ago I speculated that an ultrazoom compact digital camera equipped with an APS-C sized sensor might be the ultimate one-size-fits-all type of compact. You could have a lens focal range spanning a modestly wide to long telephoto range, and the big sensor would be a boon to image quality and high ISO noise performance. Nobody has built one of these just yet, but manufacturers have begun putting larger physically sized sensors into what amount to specialty or niche type cameras within their overall compact digital product lines. One of the more recent examples of this trend is Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, announced in mid-May of 2012 and available in the marketplace in mid-July.
While Sony describes the RX100 as the new flagship of their compact digital line, its MSRP is $150 more than the next most expensive Sony compact sibling. The camera carries a newly designed 1.0-inch Exmor CMOS sensor (13.2 x 8.8 mm), coincidentally the same physical size as the sensors in the Nikon 1 system cameras. But while the Nikon sensors carry 10 megapixels of resolution, Sony has squeezed 20.2 megapixels onto the RX100 sensor. The camera also features a high-resolution 3.0-inch LCD monitor, offers fully automatic, scene and full manual shooting modes, full 1080 HD video and a 10 frame per second (fps) continuous shooting rate at full resolution. Images may be captured in JPEG, RAW or RAW/JPEG formats.
There's a 3.6x Carl Zeiss zoom lens covering the approximately 28 to 105mm focal range (the camera can be set to capture still and video imagery in different aspect ratios and the focal range can vary slightly depending on the specific aspect ratio chosen) and featuring a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture at the wide-angle end of the zoom. Maximum aperture at telephoto is a less impressive but still fairly fast f/4.9. Construction is aluminum and the camera dimensions are approximately 4 x 2.375 x 1 inch with a shooting weight of about 8.5 ounces. Unfortunately, the camera battery must be charged in the camera - there is no external battery charger, a curious oversight for a camera carrying an entry-level DSLR price tag. Still image files are output at 350 dots per inch, an ideal size for high quality printing (and while you'll want to resize to 72 dpi for e-mail transmissions, I personally prefer output at 300 dpi or above).
The camera has a solid feel, owing in large part to the metal construction, and its size and weight make it easily shirt pocket portable. Shutter lag seems to be virtually absent and autofocus acquisition times at both ends of the zoom in bright conditions are quick. While the camera can shoot RAW files there is no in camera RAW processor or converter and my Photoshop CS5 doesn't recognize the RAW file. There is "Play Memories Home" software built into the camera that allows you to import still images and video to your computer, but this software is not compatible with Mac operating systems. You have to go a Sony website and download "Image Data Converter" software to develop RAW images, but at least there are links for Mac and Windows systems. Considering the entry-level DSLR MSRP of $650, I think Sony could have at least bundled the RAW converter with the camera as a CD-ROM.
JPEG Fine image quality looks quite nice out the camera with accurate color rendition and pleasing sharpness. However, a quick run through the camera's menus didn't seem to produce a "reset all settings" menu item, so it's hard to tell if this camera, which has obviously been shot before, is at default settings. With a focal range going from modestly wide to short telephoto, the RX100 would seem ideally suited for general photography where a long telephoto is not required to capture distant subjects. Its compact size and light weight make it easy to toss into a suitcase for travel, and it just so happens that this RX100 will be doing just that. Sony has graciously extended our time with this camera in order that it can accompany us to Ireland, where it'll get its shot at photographing Dromoland Castle in County Clare along with Dublin.
At first blush the RX100 looks like a typical compact digital with outstanding autofocus acquisition and shutter lag times, terrific image quality and solid feel. There will be a lot of shooting with the RX100 this week before the hop across the pond, and we'll have a complete review of its performance after returning home the first week in September.