Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 review

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 is a bridge-style camera that gets just about everything right, and its steep asking price reflects its impeccable quality.
Photo of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 ($1,299.99 direct) is not the type of camera that would typically excite this reviewer.  The full-frame mirrorless Alpha 7 and 7R, which were announced on the same day held more interest for me. They took some of the spotlight away from this fixed-lens camera with a comparitively modest 1-inch sensor, but the RX10 may have been the hidden star. It uses the same 20-megapixel image sensor as the excellent RX100 II, our favorite premium compact camera, and its 24-200mm lens maintains an f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. Image quality is phenomenal throughout its very useful zoom range, and the focus system is impressively quick. It doesn’t quite have the telephoto reach as previous Editors’ Choice award winners in this category, including the Olympus Stylus 1 (28-300mm) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 (25-600mm), but the RX10′s versatility impresses us enough to earn it a perfect score, and our Editors’ Choice award for bridge-style long-zoom cameras.

Design and Features
The RX10 looks like a scaled-down D-SLR, but don’t try and remove its lens—it’s permanently fixed to the camera. Even though the RX10 is a bit bulky at 3.5 by 5.1 by 4.1 inches (HWD) and heavy at 1.8 pounds, it’s not that far off in size from the FZ200 (3.4 by 4.9 by 4.3 inches, 1.2 pounds), which features a more standard 1/2.3-inch image sensor and a 25-600mm f/2.8 lens. Sony sacrificed some telephoto reach in favor of a larger, higher-resolution image sensor; you can make up for some lost reach by cropping the 20-megapixel image. If you shoot JPG, Sony’s Clear Image Zoom is available to extend the reach of the lens to 400mm via in-camera cropping.

Most compact cameras use small image sensors in order to keep size and weight at a minimum, while at the same time maximizing the zoom range. A bigger sensor requires a bigger lens that covers a larger surface area with light. The RX10′s 1-inch sensor is the same size that’s used in the Nikon 1 J3 mirrorless camera; to this point, Sony is the only company using it in fixed-lens designs. To put it in perspective, the RX10′s image sensor covers about 2.7 times the surface area as the 1/1.7-inch imagers found in enthusiast compacts (including the long-zoom Olympus Stylus 1) and 4 times the area of the 1/2.3-inch chips in standard compacts, including the Panasonic FZ200. The sensor has a native aspect ratio of 3:2, which is the same as you’ll find in an SLR; most compact cameras have 4:3 ratio sensors.

The 24-200mm lens is a modest, for its class, 8.3x zoom ratio. But the fixed f/2.8 aperture, large image sensor, and impressive minimum focus distance (3cm at its widest angle and 30cm when zoomed all the way in) combine to make a shallow depth of field possible in many shots. There’s no need to switch to a dedicated macro focus mode to lock on at close distances, and the camera’s focus speed doesn’t suffer from a lack of a dedicated macro range. The camera sports an in-lens leaf shutter, so flash sync is possible even at the shortest 1/3,200-second setting. You’ll be limited to shooting at f/8 at that speed, however; the fastest the camera can shoot at f/2.8 is 1/1,600-second. If you’re shooting at wider than 70mm the lens hood casts a shadow when using the pop-up flash; you can remove it if you’d like to use the flash at wider angles.

There’s a big control ring around the lens (when the camera is set to autofocus it adjusts zoom, but becomes a focus control in manual focus mode), and behind it is an aperture ring that offers third-stop clicks from f/2.8 down to f/16. The zoom ring can be set to a step zoom mode, which adjusts the lens to classic focal lengths (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 135mm, 200mm), or as standard control that allows you to set the lens to intermediary lengths; even when step zoom is enabled, the zoom rocker switch can be used for fine adjustments. It’s a power zoom design; the Fujifilm X-S1 is one of the few cameras of this type to include a lens that is adjusted manually.

A switch on the bottom of the barrel changes the control to clickless operation, which is ideally suited for recording video. The switch to toggle the focus mode is on the front of the camera, and has options for AF-S, AF-C, DMF, and MF. Single (which locks focus once it’s acquired) and continuous (which adjusts focus until the moment of capture) are familiar to SLR shooters, but the DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode is one that’s uniquely Sony. It allows you to adjust the focus manually once the autofocus system has locked onto a target. Focus peaking and frame magnification are available as focus aids in DMF or MF mode.

The thick body leaves a lot of room for controls on the top plate. There’s a mode dial on the left, and a hot shoe and pop-up flash in the middle. On the far right there’s the standard zoom rocker, power switch, and shutter control, all packed into one tight space, a C (for customizable) button, and an EV compensation dial that goes from -3 to +3 EV in third-stop increments. There’s also a monochrome information LCD (with backlight) on the top, a feature that’s usually only seen in D-SLRs.

Rear controls include the standard Menu button (to the left of the EVF), and on the right side a record button for quick video recording, and a control dial. Below those, to the right of the hinged LCD, is the autoexposure lock (AEL) control, an Fn button, a control wheel with a center button and four directional control points, and the standard playback buttons. Controls are very customizable; most buttons can be reconfigured to suit your needs via the menu system.

The Fn button brings up an overlay menu of shooting options. There are twelve boxes, all of which can be configured to your liking. Most shooting settings are available and can be placed in this menu, but non-shooting settings, such as configuring the way the Live View displays a scene or formatting a memory card, still require you to enter the menu to access.

The menu system is typically Sony, and if you’ve used an SLR like the Alpha 99 or top-end compact like the full-frame RX1 the black and white motif with orange hightlights will look familiar. It’s broken up into five main tabs (Picture, Settings, Wi-Fi, Playback, Settings). There are 21 pages spread among these sections, and if you use a certain function frequently you’ll get to know where it is. For the most part you’ll be able to avoid spending too much time in it—but if you want to format the memory card or access the Wi-Fi settings, to the menu you go.

The 3-inch rear display is hinged so that it tilts up or down. It’s similar to the Fujifilm X-S1 in this regard; if you want a vari-angle display that can swing out from the body you should look to the Panasonic FZ200. The display itself is impressively sharp thanks to a 1,228k-dot resolution; the extra resolution comes from a white subpixel, which increase brightness so that the screen is visible even on very bright days. There’s also an eye-level EVF; it’s an OLED design, and its 1,440k-dot resolution is one of the best you’ll find in this class of camera. Even though it doesn’t pack as many pixels as the 2,359k-dot EVF in the top-end Sony Alpha 7 and 7R, it’s still quite sharp to my eye.

Wi-Fi is built in. The RX10 works with the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app (free for Android and iOS) to quickly transfer images and video from the camera to your phone or tablet. Even if you’re shooting Raw only, a downsized JPG of the Raw image can be sent over to your phone, but you’ll need to record in the MP4 video format for that convenience to extend to moving pictures; AVCHD must be offloaded to a computer using a cable or card reader. It’s also possible to send images and video directly to a PC over Wi-Fi, or view images wirelessly on a compatible TV.

In most cases you’ll use the camera as an access point, and connect your phone or tablet to it (either via a password or via NFC). This allows for easy transfer to your connected device when out and about, away from your home network. But the RX10 can also connect to an existing network and transfer files to another device on the same network.

Remote control via your handheld device is also supported via the PlayMemories app. A Live View feed streams to its screen, and you can adjust the focal length of the lens, set the self-timer, adjust the flash output, and fire the shutter. There’s no way to adjust the focus point or control more advanced parameters via your phone.

Performance and Conclusions
The RX10 is an impressively quick camera. It starts and shoots in 1.7 seconds, which isn’t as fast as an SLR but is impressive when you consider that its power zoom lens must extend before capturing a photo. The shutter lag is close to zero at the wide angle, and focus locks in less than half a second at the 200mm setting. There’s a Speed Priority mode in which it can rattle off 22 JPG images at 10fps before slowing. If you shoot in Raw or Raw+JPG you’ll be limited to a burst of 9 photos at 6.3fps. The Olympus Stylus 1 is a little quicker to start and shoot (1.3 seconds), and just a beat slower to focus and fire a shot (0.1-second at its wide angle, 0.6-second at its maximum telephoto setting), and it tops out at a more pedestrian 5.5fps.

I used Imatest to see just how well the Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-200mm f/2.8 lens performs when shooting a standard SFRPlus test chart. At 24mm f/2.8 it’s already an impressive performer, scoring much higher than the 1,800 lines per picture height that we use as a cutoff for a sharp image. That figure is based on a center-weighted score (the RX10 manages 2,691 lines via that methodology), but even the edges of frame approach 2,000 lines. Stopping down to f/4 offers very marginal improvement, the edges are a little sharper, and at f/5.6 there is a slight drop as diffraction starts to harm image detail. But even at f/8 the RX10 manages 2,400 lines. Distortion is a nonissue for shooting JPG or working with Raw images in Lightroom, but if you opt for Raw conversion software that doesn’t respect Sony’s in-camera distortion adjustments (such as Imatest itself), you’ll see that there’s an incredible amount of barrel distortion—10.2 percent. It’s obvious that software is doing its part here, but it does so without sacrificing image quality and without requiring any heavy lifting in post-processing that it’s inconsequential in practical terms.

At 50mm f/2.8 the RX10 notches 2,401 lines, with edges that once again approach 2,000 lines. Stopping down to f/4 does show some noticeable improvement; the center-weighted score increases to 2,600 lines, with edges that hover around 2,450 lines. Again, distortion is a nonissue for most shooters, but if you do look at a completely uncorrected file there is 3.1 percent pincushion distortion in images. At 100mm the story remains the same, with the camera hitting 2,255 lines at f/2.8 and increasing marginally, as you stop down a bit. And at 200mm f/2.8 it records 2,443 lines (with edges around 1,850 lines), increasing to 2,683 lines at f/4 (with edges that near 2,400 lines.

Maintaining this level of sharpness is impressive. You can confidently shoot at f/2.8, and even at f/8 the lens is impressive. Macro photographers can feel confident working at a narrow aperture like f/8. If you’re going for a long exposure on a bright day you can take advantage of the built-in Neutral Density filter (it cuts out 3 stops of light), or you can opt for a stronger 62mm glass filter if you need to cut out more light. The Olympus Stylus 1 struggles a bit in comparison; it manages just 1,782 lines at its 28mm f/2.8 setting, but improves at f/4, and is a better performer at f/2.8 when zoomed in. The Stylus 1 shows some modest distortion in its JPG and Raw output, but is also prone to chromatic aberration in photos. I saw no evidence of chromatic aberration when shooting with the RX10, even in high contrast scenes. That’s a testament to its lens design, image processing engine, or both.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which often curbs image quality when shooting at the higher ISO settings associated with capturing images in dim light. The camera can be set as low as ISO 50 (but ISO 125 is its native setting), and as high as ISO 12800. Using the standard noise reduction setting, the RX10 keeps JPG noise under control through that top ISO, but there is noticeable loss of detail at ISO 12800 when viewing images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display.

The RX10 uses the same image sensor as the compact RX100 II, so it’s no surprise that the JPG and Raw output is similar. If you’re shooting in JPG with standard noise reduction, image quality holds up well through ISO 3200. If you’d like to trade a bit of detail for noise, you can set the camera for low noise reduction, or turn it off completely. If you opt to shoot in Raw, the results at ISO 6400 are impressively detailed, if a bit on the grainy side. Try and avoid ISO 12800 if you can, although if you have to go that high, shooting in Raw mode is your best option as the JPG output is a smudgy mess at default noise reduction settings, a shows noticeable color noise (which Lightroom makes short work of in Raw images) with noise reduction disabled for JPG images.The RX10 does a bit better at higher ISOs than the Panasonic FZ200, which only controls noise through ISO 800.

The RX10 records AVCHD video in up to 1080p60 quality (60i and 24p are supported). You’ve got numerous bitrates to choose from, ranging from 17Mbps all the way up to 28Mbps. You can also record in MP4 format, but the quality is limited to 1080p30 at 12Mbps or 480p30 at 3Mbps. Even though the RX10 uses the same sensor as the RX100 II, video is handled by its processor differently. There’s no line skipping, and in side-by-side footage the RX10′s  shows more detail, especially in shadows.

The video quality is impressive; motion is smooth, colors are accurate, the footage is crisp with details, and you have the same focus speed and depth of field control that available as you do when capturing still images. The optical stabilization system does a great job keeping footage steady, even when zoomed all the way to 200mm. There’s a built-in stereo mic, and the sound of the lens zooming is relatively quiet. You’ll have the option of outputting to an HDTV via micro HDMI to review footage, and you can get more serious about audio capture thanks to a mic input, headphone jack, and level controls. If you’re really serious about turning the RX10 into a video camera, you can add balanced XLR input via the Multi Interface hot shoe, but that’s a pricey addition at $799.99.

There’s a micro USB port to connect to a PC; it doubles as a power input port for the included AC adapter. There’s no external battery charger included with the RX10, which is something that should be included in the box for a $1,300 camera; doubly so for one as well-suited for travel photography as the RX10. It uses the same battery as Sony’s mirrorless camera lineup, so if you already have one of those you can share batteries and the charger, but if not an extra battery is priced at $40 and a dedicated wall charger is $50. The RX10 is a Sony camera, so it supports Memory Stick PRO Duo memory in addition to more common SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 is an impressive, versatile camera. It won’t replace an SLR for pro shooters, but it’s a fine option for those times when you don’t want to drag around a bigger camera, and may well be a better choice for the many casual shooters who buy SLRs for image quality but never move beyond kit lenses. The 24-200mm zoom range covers most subject matter with ease, its close focus capability is impressive, its lens is tack sharp, the focus system snappy, and image quality holds up as long as you don’t push its ISO sensitivity to its extreme limits. The RX10 is a strong performer without any real weaknesses. I’ll continue to criticize Sony’s decision to cut costs by not including a wall charger in the box, but that’s par for the course with the company, even with the $2,800 compact full-frame RX1.

If you really need a camera that can zoom to capture a tighter field of view, the Panasonic FZ200 remains a solid choice, and is a relative bargain at this point in its life cycle. If you can’t stomach the RX10′s price tag, but are still after a long zoom camera with a larger-than-average image sensor, the Olympus Stylus 1 is also a solid performer, but it does have a few issues that prevent it from netting our highest rating. The RX10 avoids those pitfalls, which is especially impressive given that it’s Sony’s first crack at a camera of this type in some time. It earns a rare 5-star rating and our Editors’ Choice award; if it’s in your budget, it’s the bridge-style camera to get.

Specifications
Dimensions 3.5 x 5.1 x 4.1 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, micro HDMI, Mic, Headphone
GPS No
Megapixels 20 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.1 seconds
LCD dots 1,228,000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Superzoom
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 8.3 x
Boot time 1.7 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 24 mm
Weight 1.8 lb
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p, 480p
Lines Per Picture Height 2691
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 200 mm
Shutter Lag 0 seconds
Sensor Size 1" (13.2 x 8.8mm) mm
EVF Resolution 1,440,000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 is a bridge-style camera that gets just about everything right, and its steep asking price reflects its impeccable quality.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc