There aren't any gimmicks here. No GPS. No geocoding. No 3D movie mode. The Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is a compact point-and-shoot through and through, and all the better for it.
Sony's addressing a very specific user's needs here -- one who wants a high-end compact without an interchangeable lens, for whom price is no object. It's come up with an all-metal body, a high resolution and a fattened-up sensor.
What really sells it, though, isn't its specs but the stills it produces, as my day shooting at the beach with it confirmed.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 can be bought for around £500, an outrageous price that demands extraordinary results. Let's see if it delivers.
The DSC-RX100 has a 20.2-megapixel sensor producing 5,472x3,642-pixel images. More interesting than the resolution, though, is the size of the sensor itself. It measures 13.2mm by 8.8mm, so it has around four times the surface area of the sensor in a regular point-and-shoot. Sony's engineers have taken advantage of this and made each photosite physically larger, which means it performs well under a wider range of lighting conditions.
In low-light conditions, the DSC-RX100 can ramp up its sensitivity without introducing undue noise, while you should also see fewer clipped highlights in shots taken under brighter skies.
This paid dividends in my tests. In images with extreme contrasts, such as the fairground stall in the shot below, it captured accurate tones at either end of the scale. The bright canopy fronting the stall could easily have become over-saturated, but it didn't. The interior of the stall could have been lost, but it wasn't.
The DSC-RX100 did a great job of balancing the exposure in this shot, with plenty of detail in the darker interior of the stall (click image to enlarge).
When shooting directly into the sun, even the hard shadows on facing surfaces aren't dialled down to pure black. The seaweed-covered breakwater (pictured below), is characterised by deep shadows close to the camera. Again, the seaweed is accurately rendered and can easily be recovered in post-production, should you choose, by lifting the shadows and leaving highlight areas as they are.
In more evenly-lit positions, the DSC-RX100 handles vibrant colour extremely well, right across the spectrum. The flower beds in the frame below were shot in bright, direct sunlight, with the sun behind me. The result accurately reflects the original scene.
Despite these particularly vivid colours dominating a large portion of the frame, more muted tones elsewhere have still been truly recorded. A similar proportion of the frame is occupied by clouds and both these and the front of the war memorial have retained plenty of texture, despite their narrower palettes.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 125 to ISO 6,400, extendable to ISO 80/100 with an option to push it as high as ISO 25,600 using multi-frame noise reduction. Compensation allows for adjustments of +/-3.0EV in 1/3EV steps.
Pushing up the sensitivity didn't pose any problems in my tests. Even at a fairly high setting, the results are very clean and largely free of grain. The shot below, taken beneath a pier, looks comparatively bright -- certainly brighter than it was in real life -- as I'd hiked the sensitivity to ISO 800 to reduce the exposure time so I could shoot without a tripod. The frame was exposed for 1/20 second at f/2.2 and there's very little grain to be found anywhere in the picture.
Even at ISO 6,400 -- a level where you would expect significant degradation from many other cameras of a similar size -- the evident dappling was slight, very even, and barely had any detrimental effect on the image.
However welcome a large, high-resolution sensor might be, it's impossible to understate the importance of the lens in achieving accurate, tightly-focused shots.
The lens in the DSC-RX100 provides a 3.6x optical zoom, equivalent to 28-100mm in a regular 35mm camera. It's controlled by a dedicated rocker set around the shutter release. Depending on how you've set up the control ring that surrounds the lens barrel, you can optionally emulate a manual zoom by turning the ring. Do this and a zoom overlay appears on screen to show you the current 35mm-equivalent focal length and what level of zoom it represents.
If you don't want to use it for zooming, you can change the ring's function to handle exposure compensation, sensitivity, white balance, creative style, picture effect, shutter speed or aperture. When set to standard, its function changes depending on your selected shooting mode. In Aperture priority, it controls aperture. In shutter priority, it tweaks the shutter speed. And in Intelligent Auto, it's the zoom. This is brilliantly done and is similar to the i-Function system I've praised in the past on Samsung's compact system camera lenses, most recently on the NX210.
My only complaint is that the virtual gearing on the control ring is quite slow, which means you need to turn it a long way to make any significant change. Changing aperture from f/1.8 to f/11 required three turns of the ring. Going from 30 seconds to 1/2,000 second on shutter speed took 12 turns.
Any changes you make are previewed in real time. This is the case even if you have to perform a physical operation, such as firing the shutter, to implement the change, rather than just tweaking a variable, as when dialling down exposure compensation. In this instance, the on-screen preview is a calculated emulation, which should be a boon for less experienced users as they'll see right away what effect their changes will have, even if they don't understand why.
Maximum aperture is an impressive f/1.8 at wide angle and f/4.9 at full telephoto. At the wider end, that should immediately appeal to portrait photographers, who will find it easy to pull their subjects forward, out of the surrounding scene.
I found it to be extremely accurate and quick to focus in my tests. There was no evidence of colour fringing on hard contrasts, which can sometimes be detected in the corners and along the edges of shots from other cameras. This indicates that the DSC-RX100 accurately focused the incoming light in sync across the whole frame.
The DSC-RX100 looks great, with a highly retro aesthetic. It's housed in a metal case with a pop-up flash, a proper rotary mode selector on top and a thumb wheel at the back for dialling in changes. It takes around a second to start up, and when shooting JPEGs, it's ready to fire a second frame around half a second after shooting the first.
If you need to shoot any faster than this, burst mode hikes the speed to 10 frames per second. I tested this using a Class 4 SDHC media card and it kept up this rate for the first 12 frames, after which it had to slow down to clear the buffer.
Sadly, there's no bundled charger -- just an adaptor that plugs into the camera and charges the battery in situ. This means you can't charge a spare while using the one that comes with it.
The screen is a 3-inch LCD with various overlay options, including a digital level that's rendered green when you're holding the camera level. It also indicates whether you're tilting the lens forwards or backwards. I found it easy to view in bright sunlight.
The DSC-RX100 shoots Full HD video at 1,920x1,080p resolution, at 50fps. There's a dedicated movie stop on the mode selector wheel through which you can select bespoke aperture and shutter settings. A separate record button is situated on the rear of the case if you want to quickly capture footage while in stills mode.
The results are impressive. Moving pictures demonstrate comparable detail and colour fidelity to the DSC-RX100's stills, and it reacts speedily and smoothly to changes in the level of available light. It's also quick to switch from stills to video when using the rear button.
The audio track is very cleanly recorded if you keep it sheltered from the passing wind. If you don't, it's still possible to hear it even with wind noise reduction active. On a more positive note, the mechanics of the optical zoom aren't audible if you use it while filming.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is a professional's pocket camera that boasts a very impressive resolution for so neat and compact a device. The brand new larger sensor accommodates this while avoiding common downsides of high resolutions, including noise and clipping. Indeed, noise is close to non-existent as far as ISO 800, and even beyond that, it's very well controlled. Colours are bright and the level of detail in images is impressive, courtesy of the sharp, bright lens.
Its performance is reflected in the price, which at £500 is far beyond what you'd expect to pay for a compact. It exceeds the price of Sony's excellent Alpha A37 by a hefty 25 per cent. But if you can afford it, you won't be disappointed. This is the best compact you can buy right now.