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At this point, the Sony RX100 probably needs no introduction. This powerful point-and-shoot has already received plaudits from virtually every reviewer out there, declared the best pocket camera of the year by some and the best compact of all time by others.
Featuring a huge-for-its-class 1-inch sensor and a f/1.8 Zeiss-branded lens, this camera certainly looks great on paper. Add to that the customizable lens ring and a menu system ported straight from Sony's interchangeable lens cameras and you have one serious photographic tool, capable of satisfying enthusiasts at any skill level. But sometimes spec sheets are revealed to be paper tigers in the lab, so before we break out the champagne, let's take Sony's pint-sized powerhouse for a spin.
Despite the 1-inch sensor, no compromises have been made with regard to the RX100's overall size. This is a true ultracompact—slim, minimalistic, and extremely portable. The simple external look is very much in line with the design language of Sony's other products, with matte black surfaces, clean lines, and a generally "modern" aesthetic.
That matte finish lacks any kind of texturing, though, making it rather slippery. We strongly recommend using the included wrist strap or, better yet, investing in a proper neck strap. The rear control panel is home to the RX100's only textured ergonomic feature: a rubberized thumb rest that's located in an intuitive and comfortable spot. It's possible to jog the rear rotating dial accidentally during general use, but these occasions are rare and the button layout is otherwise logically thought out—a commendable achievement to be sure.
While the RX100 did well in most of our lab tests, numbers alone don't tell the whole story. The combination of a 1-inch sensor and f/1.8 Zeiss lens provides the camera with the ability to capture shots with unusually shallow depth of field for a compact—almost on the level of a Micro Four Thirds system camera. Compact cameras have been claiming "DSLR quality in your pocket" for years, but the RX100 is the first to actually deliver on that promise.
The RX100 isn't a perfect DSLR replacement—its sharpness scores were great, but its color accuracy, noise performance, and dynamic range predictably lag behind true DSLRs. Nevertheless, it handily outperforms almost every other camera in its class, with only the Nikon P7700 out-dueling it in our ratings. The RX100 is also fairly quick, able to capture up to 10 frames per second (4.2 fps for RAW files) until it fills up its internal buffer. At a MSRP of $650, you're certainly paying handsomely for the performance—it's more expensive than some system cameras, in fact—but there's not much that the RX100 doesn't excel at.
Some point-and-shoot cameras stuff their spec sheets full of extras, trying to make up for lackluster performance with a bevy of digital filters, scene modes, and quirky focus modes that nobody asked for. The RX100 doesn't need to go to those extreme lengths, but it has plenty of attractive features all the same.
This Sony includes a batch of the usual color modes and some particularly fun picture effects, but it also puts the large sensor to use with some pretty remarkable full HD video. We were impressed by the level of manual control, too, with both RAW and full manual exposure modes on offer. Still, the f/1.8 lens and huge sensor are the best reasons to pick up this camera. The combination provides silky smooth bokeh (background blur) that outdoes every point-and-shoot we've seen to date.
The phrase "DSLR-quality image" is bandied about too often in the world of compact cameras, in marketing materials, on retail boxes, and even within some independent reviews. These claims are almost always accompanied by qualifiers and caveats, and disappointment follows. Sure, plenty of high-end compacts have strong image quality... for a compact. But DSLR caliber? No. Then there are mirrorless cameras, many of which can indeed produce images as good as any midrange DSLR, but how many of them actually fit in your pocket with the lens attached?
So after years of half-fulfilled promises, here it is: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is the first compact, fixed-lens camera capable of DSLR-quality images. The excellence of the RX100 is two-fold: a great lens, plus a great sensor. It's a simple formula, made even more complex when you consider the RX100 can slip into your pocket as well.
Sony's new 1-inch chip allows for true shallow depth of field, overcoming the biggest handicap of compact cameras, and producing beautiful images you'd be proud to hang on the wall. While you'll have to shoot in RAW to get the best out of the sensor—Sony's default JPEG processing is heavy-handed and destructive—there's incredible potential here. It's not cheap, and it's not perfect, but when the staff here is fighting to take the RX100 home for the weekend while the Canon 1D X and the Nikon D800 sit unmolested on a nearby shelf, you know it's something special.
Small complaints aside, the RX100 is easily one of the best compact cameras of the year. We like it better than Canon's new S110 and—sorry, Canon—we think it's a better pick than the expensive, bulky G1 X as well. At $650, this is certainly not an impulse buy, but if you're a photographer on the go we think you'll be hard-pressed to find a camera more satisfying than the Sony RX100.
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