Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Review

June 23, 2012

Sony RX100 vs Canon G1 X comparison banner
As a DSLR photographer I rarely find a point-and-shoot camera appealing in terms of image quality, but that changed since the introduction of large-sensor P&S cameras. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is one of those cameras, featuring a 1″ (13.2 x 8..8 mm) CMOS sensor. This sensor is a smaller than Micro Four Thirds (approx. 17.3 x 13 mm on Olympus E-M5 for example) but approx. twice as large as other compact digital cameras, like the Sony Cyber-shot W690 for example. In this article I want to talk about the pros and cons of such camera, who is it for and whether you should seriously consider buying one as your next camera.

Large-Sensor Compact Cameras

A large sensor will almost always result in better image quality due to the large photo diodes that captures light. The more light is gathered by the sensor, the less noise you get, the better the dynamic range and color accuracy. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why enthusiasts and pros prefer DSLR and MILC cameras over conventional compact digital cameras.

The Sony RX100 is not the first come of its kind, we cameras like the Sigma DP2 Merrill (And other models in the same series) and Canon PowerShot G1 X, both feature a large sensor. The Sigma DP2 features a 24 x 16 mm ASP-C size sensor and the Canon G1 X has a 18.7 x 14 mm sensor. APS-C size sensors are in the same size as those used in many DSLR cameras, including the Nikon D7000, Canon EOS 60D, Canon 7D and many others.

guy holding the Sony RX100 compact camera

Little camera but with BIG sensor! (Image credit: Sony)

When I talk about large-sensor cameras I refer to digital cameras with fixed lens, rather than MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras).  This trend becomes very popular among advanced photographers who are aware of the image quality difference and other advantages that large sensor cameras bring with them.

Another reason why people prefer having a large sensor is the ability to have better control over depth of field, and the option to produce a more shallow depth of field, or in other words, blurring the background and better separate the subject from distracting background and foreground elements.

Some large-sensor cameras come with a fixed focal length lens, like the Sigma DPx camera’s series, others comes with a zoom lens. A fixed focal length lens (also referred to as ‘prime lens’) means that you can’t zoom with that lens, you get a single angle of view to shoot with. The optical image quality will be better than on zoom lenses, but you lose the versatility. Most people prefer giving up on optical image quality in order to get a more versatile camera with the optical zoom option.

The Sony RX100 fits to the large-sensor compact zoom camera niche. Those type of cameras are becoming very popular and they are a good alternative to MILC cameras. Not everyone want to mass around with interchangeable lenses, although you can still get a MILC camera and purchase only one lens. In large-sensor cameras the lens perfectly matched the sensor and you usually find that camera manufacturers will use a very high quality glass. The Sony DSC-RX100 utilizes a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 lens, which is a in very high quality and also a very fast lens (f/1.8) for much better low-light performance.

So without even digging deep into the RX100 specs and just looking at the lens specs, we can see that the RX100 has an excellent lens, and that’s a great way to start our preview on this camera. I am very excited to see Sony coming up with such camera and I know that many of you will find this camera very appealing for your specific photography habits.

OK, enough of the introduction, let’s take a close look at the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 large-sensor compact digital camera!

 

Sony RX100 Specs

The RX100 belongs to the enthusiasts’ compact cameras category. Until recently the only option for a flagship compact was the Nikon P7100, Canon G12, Canon S100 and other type of advanced small-sensor cameras. It doesn’t matter what type of features you put in and what lens is used, the main limitation of those cameras was the size of its sensor (Nikon P7100, Canon G12 and S100 – 7.44 x 5.58 mm).

Sony RX100

So it doesn’t matter if you opted for an advanced point-and-shoot compact camera, you were stuck with a small sensor, which means average image quality. Sensor’s technology has been improved, but until a certain level of improvement. BSI sensors brought a decent improvement, but still I personally wasn’t convinced by it and wouldn’t touch those cameras due to relatively low image quality.

Sony Introduction/Ad Video

 

The Sony RX100 features a whopping 20.9-megapixels, which is relatively very high for a point-and-shoot cameras. I personally think that it is a bit too high maybe, and I am not a fan of very high resolution sensors, especially when the sensor is not a full frame one. The RX100 is equipped with a 28-100mm (35mm equiv.) f/1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens with ‘Advanced Asphetical’ element. It comes with Stead-Shot image stabilization for combating camera shake to reduce image blur during handheld shooting.

The camera utilize a contrast-detection 25-point AF, can shoot at ISO 125-6400, shoot at 10 fps in burst mode, has an amazing 3-inch 1228.8K-dots ‘WhiteMagic’ LCD screen, can shoot 108060p videos with stereo sound an has decent battery life of 330-shots (CIPA). We can see that Sony doesn’t play cheap here and bring some of its latest technologies (some are presented for the first time) to this compact camera.  The blue Zeiss logo sits nicely on the front right side of the camera, shouting ‘quality’ towards the potential buyer.

Right now the only main competition for the Sony RX100 comes from the Canon PowerShot G1 X and although the G1 X has already proven to be a winner in terms of image quality in many reviews, still, the RX100 is equipped with tons of features that will certainly give a good competition to the G1 X. One of the first attempt for large-sensor cameras came from Olympus with the XZ-1 camera. This camera has a 8.07 x 5.56 mm sensor, with its pretty large compare to other compact cameras, but much smaller than the G1 X as well as the RX100 sensor.

Worth mentioning that Nikon 1 MILC cameras have the same sensor size, a 1″ size sensors referred to as CX sensors.

Sensor size comparison pardigram

APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, CX, 1/1.7-inch and 1/2.3-inch sensor size comparison

The above image illustrates the differences between various sensor types/sized. The Nikon CX sensor (exist on the Nikon 1  V1 and J1) is the same size of the Sony RX. You might ask yourself why Sony has decided to go with a 1″ sensor and not a larger sensor like the one on the Canon. I think that its related to the price of the sensor (need to keep the price in reach of many potential buyers) and also to the complement technologies and lens that should be equipped with this camera. It seems that the idea is to create a large-sensor camera that won’t cost as entry-level DSLR, but will offer features that you won’t find on any DSLR camera as well as image quality that will be very close to what APS-C DSLR and MILC cameras can give you.

 

Sony RX100 Price Comparison

Let’s take a look at the MSRP price comparison:

Sony DSC-RX100 – $649
Canon G1 X – $799
Olympus XZ-1 – $499
Fujifilm X10 – $599
Canon S100 – $429
Nikon D3200 – $699

*MSRP prices

As you can see, the Sony RX100 is indeed much cheaper than the G1X. The G1X costs more than a Nikon entry-level DSLR, the D3200. So Sony priced the RX100 to be more affordable by utilizing  a smaller sensor. It’s also a more expensive than the S100, an advanced Canon compact camera. However, the price of the RX100 isn’t cheap and its very close to the D3200 in fact. Just remember that when you purchase a DSLR you must also purchase a lens and the D3200 MSRP price is for the body only. So when you purchase a lens the price will be higher (depends on what lens you pick). Furthermore, you won’t get a cheap lens at the price of a lens like the Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*, that’s for sure.

So taking everything into account, the RX100 certainly priced right and you should understand that you get a lot in return. We now dig deeper into the specs and learn about the key features and new technologies used in this amazing camera.

 

Key Features

In this section I will do my best to give you a good explanation about the key features of the RX100.

 

Carl Zeiss Lens

Maybe some of you don’t recall hearing the name ‘Carl Zeiss’ but enthusiast and pro photographers certainly knows that this name means  premium Quality. Carl Zeiss makes glasses and you are probably familiar with this name related to those products. However, Carl Zeiss is one of the world’s best camera lens manufacturers.  Carl Zeiss lenses are very expensive and you will find them in the hands of professional photographers.

Most of Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lenses have large aperture. According to Wikipedia, “Sonnar” is derived from the German word “Sonne”, meaning sun. It was given this name because of the large aperture. The Sonnar unique lens design became very popular due to its low cost but very high image quality and fast speed.

The lens used is a 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*. A very popular zoom range, starting from 28mm wide angle up to 100mm. The zoom is somehow limited (not a superzoom lens) for a few reasons, keep price low, keep lens complexity, size and weight low.  Furthermore, a less complex lens will result in better image quality. Prime lenses (fixed focal length lenses) will result in the best image quality, super-zoom lenses will give you the least image quality performance. So the more complex the construction of the lens, you should expect some kind of image quality degradation.

The T* (T-star) referred to the lens coating technology for reducing reflections and maximize transmission. Using T* Carl-Zeiss was able to make more complex lens designs because lights transmits better and therefore more lens elements could be used. You can find this T* coating mainly on Carl-Zeiss multi-element lenses that require such coating for optimal performance.   You can find more information about the T* coating on this page.

So what you need to know is that you get a very high quality lens from one of the world’s leading lens manufacturers, and a lens design with 7-bladed aperture for smooth out-of-focus Bokeh that complements the sensor size and performance. To really enjoy the 20MP resolution of the sensor to its fullest, a high quality lens had to be used.

Some people ask me how Carl Zeiss lenses perform in relative to Canon lenses? – It depends which lens, but in general Carl Zeiss have better optics and provide with better image quality. I am careful not to confuse you guys, and I prefer that you will read the image quality analysis because the lens is one factor (although an important one) that related to image quality.

The lens also have a ring that allows you to change the camera’s settings. So for example, you can change the aperture from smaller to larger by rotating the ring/wheel on the lens.

F/1.8 means that you can shoot images at the widest angle (28mm) at a very large aperture opening.  That means that more light can pass through the lens and reach the sensor. This is crucial for shooting in low-light (ie. night shots, indoors). Just remember that when you start zooming in, the aperture will automatically shrink and less light will pass through. So it’s recommended to shoot at 28mm if you want the largest amount of light passing through the lens (also referred to as ‘bright lens’, ‘fast lens’).

A few more things about the image stabilization system on the RX100. The Rx100 features Optical SteadyShot with Active Mode for blur-free movies even while walking.

In comparison, the Canon PowerShot G1 X features a 28-112mm f/2.8-5.8 lens.

Here’s a video from Sony that demonstrates the Optical SteadyShot Active Mode technology:

It’s not a gimmick, it really is helpful for getting smooth looking videos.

 

 

Aluminium Body

Usually most compact cameras are made of plastic body. The Sony RX100 is made of aluminium body. This is a very solid camera that doesn’t feel cheap when you hold it in your hands.  I personally love holding high quality cameras in my hand and prefer having an aluminium shell over plastic.  We can see that Sony didn’t skip this one. It’s not the most important feature, but it certainly a very nice to have one, especially for a premium compact camera. The metal body is lightweight, slim and strong and adds extra durability to the camera body.

 

1229K-dots WhiteMagic™ LCD

The Sony DSC-RX100 LCD is probably the best on the market for any digital camera. It’s a 3-inch 1229K-dots Xtra Fine LCD with WhiteMagic technology to increase visibility in bright daylight. How many times it happened to you when you wanted to shoot outdoors but the sun just made viewing the LCD image almost impossible? – Sony uses white pixels in addition to RGB to boost the screen brightness. So when you shoot outdoors with the RX100, you won’t need to strain your eyes in order to compose your photo, navigate through the menu or view images and videos on screen.

Sony RX100 LCD

Sony RX100 LCD with 'White Magic' LCD technology

Those type of technologies solve many of the problems that people have with digital cameras and I am really happy to see Sony listening to its customers and come up with new technologies to solve them.

Another great thing about the LCD is its resolution. A 1229K-dots resolution on a 3-inch LCD means that you won’t notice any pixels. Image will look crystal clear and menu fonts will be easier to read. We’ve seen LCD resolution such as 920K and a over 1000K, but from what I can tell, this is by far the highest resolution display on the market today. This certainly improves user experience but also very essential because the RX100 doesn’t come with electronic viewfinder. So you will be composing your shots only via the LCD. This is a fixed LCD, so you don’t get a vari-angle LCD. It’s not a big deal though, although any of you might prefer having a tilting LCD.

In comparison, the Canon G1 X features a 3-inch 920K-dots Fully articulated display.  I can assume that the viewing quality is better on the Sony, but the flipping option on the G1 X is very nice to have, especially when recording short movie clips.

The next video demonstrates WhiteMagic technology. It being demonstrated on Sony mobile phone, but works the same for digital cameras of course.

 

1080p60 Movie Recording

With the Sony DSC-RX100 you can record videos at Full HD at 60 progressive frames per second or 60p in short. If you read the specs of various cameras, you might find that many of today’s latest digital cameras can shoot at 60 frames per second, but they shoot at 60i (interlaced frames) and not 60p (progressive frames). Without troubling you with too many technical details. 60i Interlaced frames means that the camera record movies at 30 high quality frames but export the video in 50 frames per second. It does that by splitting one frame to two separate frames, one with the odd lines (1, 3, 5, etc.) and the other frame with the even lines (2, 4 ,6, etc.).

Each frame in the video is made of lines. 1080 means 1080 lines and 720 means 720 lines The more lines the better the video quality. 1080 is also referred to as ‘Full HD; and 720 referred to as ‘HD’. The Sony RX100 can shoot at Full HD 1080p60, which means very high quality video at 60 progressive frames per second. That’s the highest video quality standard we have to day on digital cameras, although there are cameras like the Canon EOS-1D C with 4K (4096 x 2160 pixels) resolution, but these are very expensive cameras that are dedicated to movie recording. For consumer-level cameras, 1080p60 is the best that you can get for 60 frames per second.

The RX100 can also shoot videos at 60i (interlaced frames) for reduced video file size (28MB per second vs 24MP or 17MB per second for interlaced – depends on quality chosen). You can also shoot at 1440×1080 at 30p and even 640×470 30fps for low resolution video clips.

OK. enough with technical details, let’s see some real Sony RX100 sample videos. I prefer Vimeo to analyze video quality because it doesn’t compress so much.

 

This videos was shot at night at 1080p and it certainly gives a good overview on how good the Sony DSC RX100 is in low light.

 

Wow! – what are we seeing here. Brilliant image quality and what an amazing low light performance.

Now let’s take a look at a video sample taken with the Canon PowerShot G1 X. I am not comparing video quality here, just wanted to give you a taste about the G1 X video image quality as well.

 

Canon G1 X image quality as you can see is amazing as well. Low light performance is excellent, sharpness and dynamic range are really impressive.  Those the results that you get with large-sensor cameras and you certainly won’t get this quality on small-sensor digital cameras – beautiful just beautiful!

 

Sony DSC RX100 vs Canon G1 X

The Sony DSC-RX100 will be compared to the Canon G1 X because both are large-sensor point-and-shoot cameras with fixed lenses and both are targeted for the same market segment.

Let’s take a look at a RX100 vs G1X specs comparison table that will give you a good overview of the main differences between those two cameras:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100Canon PowerShot G1 XNotes
AnnouncedJune 6, 2012January 9, 2012
Sensor20.2MP
13.2 x 8.8 mm
14.3MP
18.7 x 14 mm
Canon has lower resolution but a larger size sensor (APS-C size vs Nikon CX like sensor size)
Image aspect ratios1:1, 4:3, 3:2, 16:91:1, 5:4, 4:3, 3:2, 16:9
ISO100 - 25600 (inc. boost)100 - 12800 (inc. boost)
Lens28-100mm f/1.8-4.9
3.6x optical zoom
+ image stabilization (also Active Mode)
28-112mm f/2.8-5.8
4x optical zoom
+ image stabilization
Can shoot RawYesYesBoth support the Raw file format
Macro focus range5 cm (1.97")20 cm (7.87")Sony can shoot from a closer range in Macro mode
AF points259Sony much more AF points, great for tracking a moving subject across the frame (ie. sports photography, running kids, pets, etc.)
Body ConstructionMetalMetal
LCD3-inch
1228K-dots
WhiteMagic TFT LCD
Fixed
3-inch
920K-dots
TFT PureColor II LCD
Fully Articulated
Sony higher resolution screen, but the Canon is articulated one. The Sony utilizes the WhiteMagic technology for better viewing experience in daylight
ViewfinderNoYesThe G1 X features a viewfinder, but it only provides 77% field of view and its quite small. Forget about the same viewing experience as mirrorless or DSLR.but it's still better for shooting in very bright conditions (still need to test it out though)
Shutter speed30 - 1/2000 sec60 - 1/4000 secCanon more flexible shutter speed range for long exposure and faster maximum shutter speed for fast actions shooting
Built-in FlashYes, pop upYes, pop upThe Canon offers hot-shoe for connecting external flashes, the Sony does not. Certainly a more 'pro' feature
Continuous shooting (at max resolution)10 fps1.9 fpsMaximum continuous shooting on the Sony is much faster than the Canon's.. The G1 X can capture only 6 shots in a single burst
Exposure compensation±3 EV (at 1/3 EV steps)±3 EV (at 1/3 EV steps)
AE bracketing(3 frames at 1/3 EV, 2/3 EV steps)±2 (at 1/3 EV steps)
Video1920 x 1080 (60 fps, 60i and 60p), 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 1280 x 720 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps)

Stereo sound
1920 x 1080 (24 fps), 1280 x 720 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps)

Stereo sound
Higher speed videos that provide more flexibility when editing video, very useful for slow motion in videos when you want to capture the details for smooth movement
Battery life (CIPA)330 shots250 shotsSony has a much better battery life
Weight (with batteries)213 g (0.47 lb / 7.51 oz)534 g (1.18 lb / 18.84 oz)Sony much lighter
Dimensions102 x 59 x 36 mm (4.02 x 2.32 x 1.42")117 x 81 x 65 mm (4.61 x 3.19 x 2.56")Sony is smaller, pocketable compared to the Canon which larger and heavier

 

Please read the notes at the side column for more details. As you can see, the Sony was designed to be a pocketable camera, a compact large-sensor digital camera. The Canon is much heavier and larger in size, and certainly is not a camera that you can put in your pocket. However, with the size comes some neat features like a viewfinder, hot-shoe and articulated screen. That certainly adds to the size and weight, but put the Canon in a higher position when it comes to advanced features.

The Canon PowerShot G1X is capable of shooting at higher shutter speeds, starting form 60 seconds up to 1/4000 sec. Let’s not also forget that we are talking about a camera with a larger sensor. An 1.5″  size sensor,  very close in size to the  ones found on many DSLR cameras. That certainly will require a larger camera body to host such sensor and the complementary features.

When wide open, the Sony lens will give you some pretty damn good shallow depth of field, on par with some interchangeable lenses on DSLR cameras.  The Sony has much faster continuous shooting speed, more AF points, what looks like a better screen but it doesn’t rotate. Sony also enjoys longer battery life and a more compact and lightweight body.

Those two cameras are quite similar but have their differences. For those who are looking for a high quality compact, no doubt that the Sony RX100 looks like the best choice, mainly because of its smaller size. Those of you who enjoy shooting movie clips will certainly enjoy the articulated screen on the G1 X. Sony didn’t include a flip-out LCD probably because if the size and price of this type of display.

Image Quality – RX100 vs G1 X

I’ve observed a side by side image quality comparison on imaging resource in order to summarize my observation conclusion in this section.

ISO 100 – both images look almost identical. Noise is about the same, very low at this low sensitivity. The Sony extracts a bit more details, but it’s not a big difference as you might think, very small in fact. Overall images are sharp and clean.

ISO 200 – Same results here, very high quality images.

ISO 400 – we can see some noise at the dark areas, but nothing that should worry us. Image still very clean and the images looks very similar.

ISO 800 – noise can now be seen in the mid-tones but details are well preserved and image quality looks excellent overall – I am surprised to see that a 1″ sensor stands very good against the 1.5″ size sensor

ISO 1600 – noise is more evident even in bright areas. Here we can see that the Canon outperforms the Sony. That’s where we start to see the strength of APS-C size sensor vs the RX100 sensor. Canon G1X image quality at ISO1600 is really impressive!!

ISO 3200 – Both images suffer from quite high amount of noise. Canon takes the more aggressive approach with strong NR and we clearly see the patchy colorful noise patterns (which I personally hate in photos). I actually prefer  the Sony output in this case because I can get better final image when passing this image in noise reduction software. It seems that the recommended ISO is 1600 and below, at least if you want to print large or get very usable images. From ISO 3200 and above things start to get..let’s say, not that good.
I think we can say that the Canon have a 1.5 stops advantage over the Sony. Up to ISO 1600 both cameras perform extremely well. Of course the Canon utilizes a large sensor, and we should expect such performance. Maybe I was actually more surprised to see how well the Sony performs. It can certainly match the Micro Four Thirds performance. It won’t reach the same image quality as with the Sony NEX-5N, but certainly excellent image quality.

 

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G1 X or RX100 – Which Large-sensor camera to buy?

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is an amazing large-sensor compact camera. Sony was able to come up with incredibly feature rich P&S camera. It’s equipped with an amazing bright Carl-Zeiss lens, massive 20MP resolution, can shoot very high quality videos, have very useful image stabilization and the LCD is just gorgeous. The Sony also comes with some great features, including Auto HDR, Customizable function button, fast AF, memory recall (can memorize up to three groups of user’s preferred settings), sweep panorama and has a great auto mode. The camera can shoot at 10 fps which amazingly fast.

When we look at the Canon G1 X, we can see that it is a more advanced camera with its viewfinder, hot-shoe, articulated LCD and large 1.5″  sensor. The image quality is better, but it’s not such a big difference in my opinion. Having said that, the G1 X is much larger in size as oppose to the compact and slim size of the Sony. That makes the Sony a perfect camera to take everywhere you go. The G1 X will need a small camera bag.

Both cameras offer lots of manual controls (P/A/S/M) so you can get creative without any limitations by the camera. If I had to choose between the two I would probably go with the Sony mainly because of its small size, excellent Carl-Zeiss opticas, amazing LCD and with amazing video and stills image quality. The Sony also comes with more in-camera software features to play with, which is always a great thing to have in a point-and-shoot camera. The Sony is really hard to resist. I would personally prefer going with a MILC camera if I have to pay as much for the Canon G1 X. It’s more expensive, but you get more in return. The question is whether you actually need all the extra functionality (ie. faster shutter speed, hot-shoe, articulating LCD, 24p). If you don’t just get the Sony, it’s really an amazing large-sensor compact camera, the best of its bread in my opinion.

Of course this review is not completed without hearing your voice, so post your opinions and tell us which camera you think is better, the Canon G1 X or the Sony RX100?

Thanks for reading and please share this review with your friends.

 

Click here to buy the Sony DSC-RX100 from Adorama

Click here to buy the Canon PowerShot G1 X from Adorama

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