Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 Review

Design & Features

The Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is a stylish and compact camera with a premium feel. The body is made entirely of metal, giving it a very solid feel (as it should for $650). Ergonomics aren't quite as nice. There's no grip on the front of the camera, which would've made holding this slippery camera a lot more comfortable. The customizable ring around the lens doesn't protrude very far from the camera, which makes it hard to get ahold of. Finally, the buttons on the back of the camera are small and a bit cramped.

As you can see from the photo above, the RX100 is quite small, especially when you factor in the large sensor and fast lens. Here's how it compares against other premium compacts:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S100 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.1 in. 9.9 cu in. 173 g
Fujifilm X10 4.6 x 2.7 x 2.2 in. 27.3 cu in. 330 g
Nikon Coolpix P310 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 194 g
Olympus XZ-1 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19.4 cu in. 244 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.8 in. 20.6 cu in. 269 g
Samsung EX2F 4.4 x 2.5 x 1.1 in. 12.1 cu in. 286 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.4 cu in. 213 g

The RX100 is one of the smaller and lighter cameras in the group. It should fit into most of your pockets with relative ease.

Let's tour the RX100 now, using our tabbed interface:

Front of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

While most of the attention that RX100 has been getting has been about its sensor (which I'll touch on in a moment), let's not overlook its lens, either. This 3.6X optical zoom Carl Zeiss T* lens has a maximum aperture range of F1.8 - F4.9. That's quite "fast" at the wide-angle end, and about average at full telephoto. A fast lens lens in more light and offers better background blurring than typical lenses. The focal range of the lens is 10.4 - 37.1 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 100 mm. The lens is not threaded, so conversion lenses and filters are not supported.

As you'd expect from a camera in this category, the RX100 has an optical image stabilization system, which Sony calls SteadyShot. This reduces the risk of blurry photos, and will smooth out your movies, as well. Speaking of movies, there's a special "active" mode that provides additional shake reduction when recording videos.

Behind the lens is the RX100's now famous 1-inch, 20.2 effective Megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. The only fixed-lens camera with larger sensor is the Canon PowerShot G1X, which definitely won't fit in your pocket.

At the upper-right of the photo is the camera's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. Despite its small size, the working range of the flash is very high: 0.3 - 17.1 m at wide-angle, and 0.6 - 6.3 m at telephoto. If you're clever you can tilt the flash back with your finger and bounce it off of the ceiling, which gives you more pleasant results in most cases. The RX100 does not support an external flash.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp. In addition to serving as a focusing aid in low light, this lamp also illuminates when the self-timer and Smile Shutter features are being used.

Back of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

The DSC-RX100 has one of the nicest LCDs that you'll find on a compact camera. This 3-inch display packs 1.23 million pixels, so everything is incredibly sharp. It actually has the same number of red, green, and blue pixels (921k) as your typical high res LCD, but its "WhiteMagic" technology throws in additional white pixels as well. This technology allows for either a 50% increase in brightness, or a 50% reduction in battery consumption (you can choose between the two in the setup menu). I found both outdoor and low light visibility to be very good.

Unlike the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 or the Olympus XZ-1, the RX100 does not support an electronic viewfinder.

Moving onto buttons now, you'll find the dedicated movie recording button at the upper-right of the photo. Below that we have the Function button, to which you can assign up to seven camera settings, and the menu button.

Below those is the combination four-way controller / scroll dial. The dial is used for menu navigation, adjusting the exposure, and replaying photos. The four-way controller does many of the same things, plus offers direct access to the drive, flash, exposure compensation, and Photo Creativity options. Pressing "up" on the controller toggles the information shown on the LCD. If you want the directional buttons to do something else, you can redefine their function in the custom settings menu.

The final two buttons are for entering playback mode, viewing the in-camera guide (more on that later), and deleting a photo.

Top of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

I want to begin our discussion of the items on the top of the RX100 with the "control ring" around the lens barrel. The function of the ring varies depending on the shooting mode: it adjusts the zoom in the auto modes, Program Shift in "P" mode, and the aperture and/or shutter speeds in their respective manual modes. You can also redefine its function, to instead handle things like exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, Creative Style, or Picture Effect.

Moving back to the camera body, you'll find the flash (closed here) on the left, with the stereo microphones in the middle of the photo (no hot shoe here).The power button sits just to the right of the microphone.

Next up we have the usual shutter release button / zoom controller combination. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.6 seconds. I counted at least seventeen steps in the camera's 3.6X zoom range.

That leaves us with the mode dial, whose options I'll tell you about following this tour.

Left side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

There's nothing to see on this side of the RX100. The lens is at wide-angle position here.

Right side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

On the right side of the camera, under a plastic cover, is the camera's micro USB port. If you're wondering where the HDMI port is, hit the next tab.

The lens is at full telephoto here.

Bottom of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

On the bottom of the RX100 you'll find its HDMI port (why they couldn't put it on the side of the camera is beyond me), metal tripod mount (hidden from view here), and the memory card/battery compartment.

The door over the memory/battery compartment is fairly sturdy. Due to the proximity of the tripod mount, you won't be able to open this compartment while you're using a tripod.

The included NP-BX1 lithium-ion battery can be see at right.

The view on the LCD can be pretty crowded; an electronic level and live histogram are also available

Let's continue now with a look at camera functions that are controlled by buttons or dials. I already mentioned the control dial around the lens, which can be used to adjust a variety of things. I just wish it was a bit easier to grab ahold of.

The function menu in action

The Function button opens up the RX100's shortcut menu, and you can put up to seven camera settings into it, with plenty of options to choose from. When the menu is opened, you use the left/right directions of the four-way controller to move through your chosen functions, and either of the dials on the camera will select the setting you want.

Now let's talk about the items you'll find on the RX100's mode dial. There are plenty of options to choose from, so grab that cup of coffee!

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection and Photo Creativity controls. Some menu options are locked up.
Superior Auto mode Just like Intelligent Auto mode, but with the ability to use multi-shot modes like HDR, Anti Motion Blur, and Handheld Night Scene.
Program mode Still automatic, but with all menu options unlocked. You can use the control ring to move through various aperture/shutter speed combos (Program Shift).
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range if F1.8 - F11.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the proper aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/2000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed, with the same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, in which the shutter is kept open for as long as release button is held down.
Memory Recall mode Store up to three sets of camera settings to this spot on the mode dial.
Sweep panorama Sweep the camera from side-to-side and a single panoramic image is created. See example below.
Scene Selection mode You pick the scenario and the camera will use the proper settings. Choose from portrait, anti-motion blur, sports action, pet, gourmet, macro, landscape, sunset, night scene, handheld night scene, night portrait, fireworks, and high sensitivity.

If you want a "set it and forget it" experience, then set the virtual mode dial to the Intelligent or Superior Auto positions. There, the camera will pick one of eleven scene modes automatically. It can even tell when you're using a tripod, and will use lower sensitivities to keep noise levels down. If you're using Superior Auto mode, the camera will use multi-shot modes like Anti Motion Blur and Backlight HDR to improve photo quality.

Background defocus is just one of the things you can adjust in Photo Creativity mode

Both Auto modes offer Sony's Photo Creativity Mode, which lets you easily adjust background defocus (aperture), brightness (exposure compensation), color (white balance), and vividness (saturation), without having to know any technical jargon. Another part of the Photo Creativity Mode are Picture Effects, which include toy camera, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast mono, miniature, and more. Picture Effects can be used in the manual shooting modes and while recording movies.

Something else that you'll find in Intelligent and Superior Auto mode are context-sensitive shooting tips, which you can see by pressing the button with the question mark on the back of the camera. An example is that if the camera has decided that you're taking a macro shot, all of the shooting tips will be about taking close-up photos. In other shooting modes you'll be able to browse through a larger list of tips, and if you want to see all of available tips, you'll find them in the menu.

A sweep panorama of Tahoe Meadows above Incline Village, NV

One of my favorite features on Sony cameras is Sweep Panorama, which you'll find right on the mode dial. This lets you "sweep" the camera from one side to the other, with a huge image produced almost instantly. You can choose from normal or wide sizes (no high res option here), and the results look great, as you can see above. Unlike most other Sony cameras, the RX100 does not produce 3D panoramas (or 3D images in general, for that matter).

Taken with Handheld Night Scene, ISO 3200

The other feature I want to mention doesn't have its own spot on the mode dial like on most Sony cameras. Instead, you'll find Anti Motion Blur (and its cousin, Handheld Night Scene) in the scene mode menu. This feature takes six exposures in less than a second, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image is generally sharp and blur-free, with less noise than if you just took the shot at a high ISO. That said, don't be surprised if you see a lot of noise when viewing photos at 100% on your computer, especially if they're low light shots like the sample above.

I'll tell you about another favorite feature of mine -- HDR -- in just a moment.

Naturally, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 also has full manual exposure controls, plus numerous custom white balance options, bracketing for WB and exposure, and support for the RAW image format. Fans of manual focus will also enjoy the handy focus peaking feature, which helps ensure that your subject is sharp. And don't forget about the customizable Function button and the Memory Recall spot on the mode dial, either!

The RX100's menus look great on the super-high resolution LCD A description for each menu option is available

The DSC-RX100 has a traditional menu system, rather than the more clunky system found on Sony's NEX models. The menus look great on the RX100's super sharp screen, and navigation is easy. The only complaint I have is that some menu items will through you out of the menu system after you've made a selection, rather than returning you to where you were. If you have a question about any of the menu options, just press the question mark button, and a help screen will appear.

Here are the most interesting options in the menu related to still shooting:

  • Image quality: choose from standard or fine JPEGs, RAW, or RAW + JPEG; a fine quality JPEG will run you about 11.8 MB, while a RAW image weighs in at a healthy 22.7 MB
  • Drive mode: here's where you access the burst modes, self-timer, and bracketing options; self-timer modes include a handy one or two person self-portrait option; I'll have more on the burst modes later
  • Focus mode: choose from single, continuous, direct manual (AF+MF), or full manual focus
  • Autofocus area: choose from 25-point auto, center, or flexible spot; the last option lets you select any area in the frame on which to focus; the RX100 also features an object tracking mode which you activate by pressing the center button of the four-way controller
  • Face detection/registration: not only can the RX100 detect faces (up to eight in a scene), it can register specific ones; when those people show up in the frame, they will be given focus priority
  • Smile Shutter: taken from Sony's point-and-shoot cameras, this feature will have the RX100 wait until someone in the frame is smiling before taking a photo; the sensitivity is adjustable, so you can really make people smile for the camera
  • Auto Portrait Framing: analyzes a photo with a person in it and saves an additional image with more appealing composition; do note that the camera is interpolating the images back up to 20 Megapixel after they're cropped, which may reducing image quality
  • ISO sensitivity: select from Auto ISO (you can set the min/max values used), manual (80 - 6400), or multi-frame noise reduction, which combines six exposures into one to reduce noise (choose from Auto or ISO 80 - 25600 here); do note that the default ISO is 125, and that using the lower values may result in highlight clipping
  • White balance: choose from numerous presets, set the color temperature, or use a white or gray card in custom mode; all of these settings can be fine-tuned to your liking, and a bracketing function is also available
  • DRO/Auto HDR: improves image contrast in two different ways. DRO breaks the scene into smaller areas and adjusts the contrast for each of them separately; HDR combines three exposures into a single photo; more below
  • Creative Style: a "style" contains image parameters for contrast, saturation, and sharpness; there are six presets on the RX100 (standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black & white), all of which can be fine-tuned to your heart's content
  • Clear Image Zoom: boosts the focal range by up to 2X (at full resolution), with a minimal decrease in image quality (see example below); if you reduce the image size, more zoom power can be used
  • Shooting Tip list: view all of the RX100's tips here
  • Redeye reduction: turns on the pre-flash redeye reduction system
  • Peaking level/color: when manually focusing, this feature sharpens the edges of in-focus areas of a photo; choose the intensity and color used here
  • Control Ring: choose what the ring around the lens does; there's the default options, choices like exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, and zoom, or you can turn the whole thing
  • Function button: choose which menu items you want in your shortcut menu
  • Function of center button: choose from standard (depends on AF area setting), AE Lock toggle, AF/MF toggle, and focus magnifier
  • Function of left/right buttons: nearly any menu option can be assigned to the left and right directions on the four-way controller
  • MF assist: whether the frame is enlarged when manually focusing

I want to talk about a couple of those features, and I'm going to begin with the D-Range (dynamic range) Optimizer, or DRO. This feature breaks the scene into smaller areas, and adjusts the contrast in each of them individually. The goal is better overall contrast, and the example below shows you how well the feature works. You can choose from Auto DRO, or you can adjust the intensity manually from level 1 to 6.

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DRO Auto
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DRO Lv 1
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DRO Lv 2
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DRO Lv 3
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DRO Lv 4
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DRO Lv 5
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As you can see, the D-Range Optimizer brightens up shadows quite nicely, though it doesn't do anything for highlight clipping. For most purposes, using the Auto setting is just fine.

Attached to the DRO option is one of my favorite features -- HDR (high dynamic range). In this mode, the camera takes three photos in rapid succession -- each with a different exposure value -- and then combines them into a single image with dramatically improved contrast. You can let the camera automatically choose the exposure interval (which is the default setting), or you can adjust it yourself, from 1EV to 6EV. The camera shoots so quickly that no tripod is needed in most cases. The example below shows you a scene taken with and without HDR:

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That strongly backlit photo looks a lot better when HDR is used, doesn't it? The only problem here is that people appear more than once (it's three exposures, remember), but it's a small price to pay for a real improvement in image quality.

The last feature from the menus that I want to mention is Clear Image Zoom. This boosts the focal range of your attached lens by up to 2 times with less image degradation than regular digital zoom. The example below shows how much zoom you get from this feature, and if you view the full size photos, you can see what happens to the image quality.

Full telephoto (100 mm)
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Full telephoto + 2X Clear Image Zoom (200 mm)
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While there's no doubt that you get a noticeable increase in zoom power using Clear Image Zoom, the drop in image quality is quite evident when you view the images at 100%. This feature is best suited for small and mid-sized prints, and at the lower end of the ISO range.

Let's "move" on to the RX100's movie recording talents now. The RX100 records Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 / 60 frames/second (60p) with stereo sound, at a bit rate of 28 MBps. You can keep recording for up to 29 minutes, for which you'll need an 8GB memory card. If, for some reason, you want interlaced video, a 1080/60i setting is also available, with bit rates of 17 and 24 MBps.

While AVCHD movies look great on your HDTV, editing and sharing them isn't so easy. Heck, just finding them on your memory card is a pain. Thankfully, Sony also supports the MPEG-4 codec, which is much easier to work with. The bad news is that there are two resolutions available with MP4: 1440 x 1080 and 640 x 480 (both at 30 fps), and recording ends when the file size reaches 2GB.

As you'd expect from this high end camera, you can use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. Continuous autofocus will keep everything in focus as you adjust the zoom, or if your subject is moving around. The image stabilizer is also available to keep things looking smooth.

The RX100 offers full manual controls in movie mode, and you'll need to switch to the movie spot on the mode dial to get to them. There you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. A wind filter is also available. If you want to apply a Picture Effect to a movie you're recording, you can do that too.

One other thing the DSC-RX100 allows it for still shooting while a movie is being recorded, though only at 1080/60i or below. The resolution of the images can be up to 17 Megapixel.

Below is a not-very-exciting sample movie taken at the local train station. I converted the video below from AVCHD to QuickTime format using Final Cut Pro. If you'd like to download the original MTS file, it's available as well.

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 60 fps, 50.9 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original MTS file (42.9 MB)

Maybe it's just me, but the video looks a little on the soft side.

The RX100 has an unremarkable playback mode, with no editing features to speak of, for either stills or videos. An annoyance that's been inherited from Sony's NEX models it that the camera separates stills and movies (even down to the codec level). What that means is that you can't flip through photos and videos at the same time. You have to either go to the playback menu or to the thumbnail screen (and the bar on the left) to switch between stills, AVCHD movies, and MP4 movies.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over/underexposed areas of your photo.

There's no delay when moving between photos on the RX100. You can use the four-way controller or the scroll wheel to flip through them. If you've enlarged an image, you can use the rear dial to switch photos while maintaining the same zoom/location settings.