Scouting Report: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

[Every time a hot new gadget is announced, the buzz can reach a boiling point before anyone stops to think about what all the fuss is all about. In our Scouting Report series, we’ll cut through the marketing jargon and examine what makes a certain product special—or in some cases, simply overhyped.]

Earlier this week, Sony announced its first so-called “premium point-and-shoot” camera, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. It’s the new flagship model in Sony’s compact-camera lineup, and it’s a new breed among Sony’s camera offerings. The company has offered basic point-and-shoots, rugged cameras, pocket megazooms, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, and translucent-mirror DSLR-style cameras for years, but it hasn’t sold a high-end pocket camera until now.

The key word here is “pocketable.” This is a small camera. Usually, a compact camera like this presents compromises when it comes to image quality and performance, but the RX100 looks like it will excel in both those areas. Thanks to core specs that trump those of rivals such as the Canon PowerShot S100, Nikon Coolpix P310, Olympus XZ-1, Panasonic Lumix LX5, and Samsung TL500, Sony’s RX100 looks like a very big deal, with a very big price ($650) to match. Here’s why it may be worth that entry-level-DSLR price for anyone looking for a best-in-class pocket camera.

Sensor size: At 13.2mm by 8.8mm, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100’s 20-megapixel CMOS sensor isn’t as large as a DSLR sensor, but it’s quite a bit bigger than the ones found in other premium compact cameras. The RX100’s sensor is 2.7 times the size of the 7.6mm-by-5.7mm sensor found in its most-popular competitor, the Canon PowerShot S100, and it’s about 4 times the size of the sensors found in pocket megazooms and basic point-and-shoot cameras. There are a lot of variables that go into a camera’s image quality, but a bigger sensor is usually one of the most important factors. A larger-size sensor usually offers benefits such as better performance without the flash in low light, less noise at high ISO settings, and dramatically shallow depth-of-field effects at wide aperture settings.

About all those megapixels: Usually, packing a smaller sensor full of pixels will lead to lesser low-light performance, image noise, and generally less-impressive photos. However, the RX100’s sensor looks like it will be big enough to keep those problems to a minimum. According to my calculations, despite its higher megapixel count, the RX100’s sensor has a lower pixel density (174K pixels per square millimeter) than the one found in the S100’s 12-megapixel sensor (277K pixels per square millimeter).

The lens: The Cyber-shot RX100 has a very bright F1.8 aperture at its widest-angle focal length of 28mm. It’s not alone in the premium compact class in terms of an F1.8 lens; the Nikon Coolpix P310, Olympus XZ-1, and Samsung TL500 all have F1.8 lenses. However, due to the RX100’s larger sensor size, it should be a better performer in the dark and when creating shallow depth-of-field effects. And while the lens’s optical-zoom reach seems paltry at 3.6X (28mm to 100mm), the camera’s 20-megapixel sensor will allow plenty of resolution for shooters to crop and digitally enlarge portions of each image without much loss of detail. With that sensor size, the camera’s 20X digital zoom at 10-megapixel resolution might also produce very good results.

Video capabilities: Again, a lot of compact cameras now shoot 1080p video, but very few of them do it at 60 progressive frames per second, and even fewer of them allow you to use manual aperture, shutter, and focus controls as you’re recording video. The RX100 does all of those things, which is extremely rare. Sony’s cameras have always fared very well in PCWorld’s subjective tests for video quality, and the Cyber-shot RX100 looks like it has the best video capabilities of any Sony compact camera yet. It’s not all sunshine and daisies in video land, however: The RX100 doesn’t have a hot shoe or mic-in port for an external microphone, so audio capture through its top-mounted stereo mics better be excellent.

Intangibles: I’d argue that the hidden jewel in all of Sony’s recent CMOS-sensored cameras is the outstanding range of creative features and shooting modes. The company invented the motion-controlled Sweep Panorama mode now found in everything from competing cameras to mobile apps. Sony’s Handheld Twilight mode is another groundbreaking and often-mimicked feature, using automated exposure bracketing and image stacking to create well-exposed shots in low-light situations. Sony’s cameras always shoot fast, too; the RX100 has a 10fps burst mode and quick autofocus speeds. The most-recent in-camera innovation is an “Auto Portrait Framing” mode that analyzes headshots, runs them through a “rule-of-thirds” algorithm, and recrops them to optimize composition. For the past few years, Sony’s in-camera A.I. has been the best in the business, and the RX100 will provide a blend of manual and automated features that should make it easy for anyone to snap good shots.

The downsides: The Cyber-shot RX100 looks like the new pocket-camera king, but it’ll come at a very steep price. At $650, it’s at least $150 more expensive than any of its pocketable rivals; only the $800 Canon PowerShot G1 X, which has an even bigger sensor (and a much bigger body) than the RX100, has a higher price in the realm of enthusiast fixed-lens cameras. For the same price, you can get an entry-level DSLR with audio inputs and a hot shoe and a kit lens—but of course, that won’t fit in your pocket. The key draw with the RX100 is a massive amount of power for a very small camera.

Scouting Report verdict

This camera looks like it’s definitely worth the hype. Its sensor is bigger than those found in all pocketable competitors, its pixel density is sane, its F1.8 lens is bright and fast, it offers full manual controls for stills and video, and it will come filled with groundbreaking features. It’s pricey, but it might come as close to DSLR-level image quality as we’ve seen in a pocket camera.

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