Sony’s Pocketable Miracle – RX100

Its an innocent enough question frequently encountered.. what is the best camera to buy? And truth be said, funnily enough, the answer to that is the tired old cliche that the best camera money can buy is the one you have with you. Based on that premise alone coupled with the fact that Sony’s big little marvel will fit in your trouser pocket, makes the DSC-RX100 the best camera on the planet bar none.

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Its not any wonder that Time magazine named it as the best invention of 2012. Sony did not just raise the bar, it set stratospheric new heights, wounding several Eagles on the way up, for what a compact camera can, and in all honesty should do. It is just simply that good. Its hilarious to see it clumped together with the likes of Olympus zx2, Panasonic LX7, Canon g15 ect in compact camera shootouts.. its totally unfair to the rest of them, There are compact camera shootouts where they scrap it out for seconds, and there is the RX100.

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While the others are compromises of one thing or another, the RX100 is as close as it gets to getting it perfect. Sony should be lauded for the engineering feat the RX100 is, of getting so much out of the 1 inch sensor it squeezed into such a svelte pocketably compact body. It merits a class of its own, – The Ultimate Pocket Camera…. for 2012 anyway. The other bad boys that are used to ruling the camera roost will no doubt be screeching at the R&D departments for not gazing hard enough into thier crystal balls to have not seen this coming. Heads will roll and digits will be lost, and no doubt after the corporate samurai swords have been put away, i can only imagine the offerings they will present to the worlds stage to reclaim lost pride from the shadow cast by Sony and the mighty RX100. This is going to get good, and i for one cant wait.

The thing about cameras with large sensors and interchangeable lenses which has been all the rage recently is that its supposed to be the correct tool for any job with the appropriate lens attached. Sort of like a jack of all trades and a master of some provide its not the kit lens thats being used. This has irked me from day one. My DSLRs are only good because i use the best lenses Nikon has to offer. Most folks go out to best buy or what have you and walk out with a kit d5000 or T3i and think oh boy! this is going to be great. Well its not. Its going to be better than the hundred dollar compact camera you got last Christmas for sure, definitely,.. but its not going to be as good as the DSLR body can be, not with that kit lens attached. Although mind you, Nikons bundled 18-55mm kits lens is pretty good as far as kit lenses go. In that sense the Olympus zx2, Panasonic LX7 Canons G15, Fuji X100.. are all very good cameras that come with very good lenses that are only let down most usually by a lack luster speed of operation and a lesser sensor. The Micro Four Thirds system just now finally matured into something that is usable but even it cannot compare to what Sony pulled off with the Sony RX100. The M43rd offerings with kit lens attached can match and with the new ones, surpass the performance and image quality of the RX100,… but it wont fit in your trouser pocket.

Sony managed to get more out of a 1 inch sensor than Nikon did with their 1 series cameras, and Sony put it in an impossibly small body with a fast F1.8 lens in front of it and glued it all together with electronics that make it all simply work. Theres a lot of processing going on in the background, from distortion correction, uncanny HDR effect in auto mode to its blazingly fast auto focus. You can feel the lens torque in your hand when it focuses. There are no shortage of bells and whistles. This is the GT-R of compact cameras that trounces the field and nips at the heels of the big boys out on M43rds and  DSLR land.

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It all looks very inconspicuous which is a good thing. The RX100 will fit in anywhere.  A shirt pocket from behind a suit, jeans pocket, golfer shorts,.. it will look right at home. Its all metal body is dressed in austere black and does not call attention to itself. The design is simple enough and rather elegant in my opinion. Sony has adopted the ring around the lens control dial that was made popular by Canon is their S series of compact cameras with the only difference is that it doesnt have indents when turned. The back is adorned by a beautiful large screen with buttons running down the right hand side. A small bit of rubber for the thumb provides what ever little grip there is. This is a slippery little bugger. Its small, but it has heft. And the small size doesn’t help in managing the weight. The wrist strap here is not just a optional accessory but a much needed necessity. The supplied strap doesnt come with a sliding lock and something as simple as a Nintendo Wii remote strap will prove more useful in preventing an accidental drop. In fact, for its weight, i occasionally find it too small. But i can live with that.

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Power the RX100 on and from somewhere within its recesses, its lens unfolds… almost impossibly. While the lens is bright wide open, it is more pedestrian 4.9 at its long end. And as you zoom in, its macro distance takes quite a thrashing rendering it near pointless. The lens isn’t stellar wide open at f1.8 but gets its act together by f2.0. Cant really hold that against it as no zoom lenses are anywhere near perfect wide open. Overall, the lens performs admirably given its constraints and is not going to be left wanting in most any situation its used in. Theres a plethora of shooting modes to shoot with. From full manual to auto everything….,  I am thoroughly impressed with its superior auto mode which takes a series of shots and saves the best without using the flash capturing the ambient light of a low lit scene quite beautifully. It captures this sort of scene much better and where compacts are used most, indoors and in poorer light. And it impresses mightily, getting it right more often than not.

Theres a lot of processing power going on in the background in this pocket power house. Operation is very snappy, and all functions and features respond very quickly. The RX100 is very quick to acquire focus, so much so that you can feel the lens torque in your hand. Focus accuracy is very good, and multi face detect works remarkably well instantly detecting faces in a crowd as they face toward and away from the camera. Sony has made focus tracking a prominent feature with easy access with only two clicks of a button and works very well with the focus target flitting around the screen chasing the selected target. This feature works wonders when shooting my kids, who like most kids, simply wont sit still.

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Theres a dearth of buttons on the back due to its diminutive size and obvious lack of space. But Sony has  done a remarkable job in making use of whats there and appointing controls in a intuitive manner making the important controls easy to access. The buttons are tiny and may be a little frustrating for large hands, but will work just fine for most folks. The tiny thumb grip provides very little assurance as while the RX100 is small, it is one solid piece of engineering that is pretty hefty. As i mentioned before, the wrist strap is mandatory. The screen, sporting Sonys white magic technology  is gorgeous and works just fine indoors and out. The screen stays bright and colors are vibrant. The RX100s image quality is a breath of fresh air for a camera this small. Its not quite DSLR but it is just so acceptable.. so much so there’s hardly ever a complaint with image quality. My other cameras, Fuji X100 and Nikon D7000 which i use on a regular basis will out perform the RX100 image quality wise and the D7000 is as responsive, but neither are as fun to use. Yes, the RX100 is not capable of providing a shallow depth of field as lets say a f2.8 lens on a d7000 DSLR or the lens on the Fuji X100, but its enough.. thats where the beauty of the RX100 lies.. It is just good enough in about everything it does.

Its just small enough using a sensor that’s just big enough providing image quality that just good enough.

The RX100’s battery life is not stellar, average at best. To Sony’s credit, the RX100 charges using a micro USB cable and can be charged from any USB output be it your laptop, PC or mobile phone charger. Thats just one less charger to carry along. While a USB connector is ubiquitous in this day and age, its disappointing to see that Sony did not at least bundle an external charger for charging multiple batteries. In fact, a charger of any sort is conspicuously missing from the box. It’s a minor gripe. I’ll bet the icrowd are real upset that Sony did not use a lightning connector instead.

In fact, it would be easier just to list what complaints i have of the RX100 which in normal daily use i can only count using one hand.

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Sony RX100 @ F1.8, 1/30s, ISO400

First, the flash, which works admirably well in providing fill flash and has the uncanny ability to be tilted back to bounce, has a really annoyingly slow recycle time after a full power discharge. The positive is that the RX100 works so well to capture ambient light that i more often prefer not to use fill flash. The ability to bounce is great but its a one shot deal and then the scene is lost while waiting for it to recharge. I’l admit the flash was never made to preform this way (i suppose) but its just so darned useful to bounce for beautiful output.

Secondly, what ever compromises were made to mate the lens to the 1 inch sensor in such a small package has left it with a pedestrian f4.9 at the long end which is only useful outside in bright light. It also stunts the close focusing distance as the lens is zoomed in.

And that would be about it… the two complaints i have in using in for over six months. That’s  just how good the RX100 is. It reminds me so much of Sony’s cassette walkmans from back in the day. Sony pushed the boundaries then, in miniaturization and the technology of what was possible including making one model in particular that was physically smaller than the cassette itself. This in my mind is Sony’s return to that sort of glory which made it very simply the king of the hill.

Samples, all direct out of camera.

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For its size, a full featured camera sporting a large 1 inch sensor and decent lens that is truly pocketable, the Sony RX100 can do no wrong. The RX100 could be, in my mind be the only one camera i would ever need if  it came to it. I expect it to be trounced soon enough by one of the other big names if not by Sony itself. I like where this is going,..  there are no losers here. But for now, the RX100 is the king of the compact hill!

– asmd.

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