Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II review

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II compact camera offers a few worthwhile upgrades when compared with the original RX100, but comes in at a higher asking price.
Photo of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II

In the year since its release, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 has stood alone in the compact market as the only model with a 1-inch image sensor. The RX100 II ($749.99 direct) joins it; it’s priced $100 higher, but offers some upgrades. The image sensor is now a backside-illuminated CMOS design, which gives it a one-stop advantage in noise control, and there’s built-in Wi-Fi, a tilting rear screen, and support for Sony’s add-on EVF. It’s up to you to decide if the upgrades are worth the extra money. Both cameras are worth their price, and as the RX100 before it, the RX100 II receives our Editors’ Choice award. If you’re an RX100 owner that’s happy with the camera’s performance, there isn’t enough here to justify an upgrade; but if you’re in the market for a compact with best-in-class image quality, the premium that the RX100 II commands is worth it. If you’re already considering the RX100, there’s little reason not to take a close look at the RX100 II; in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

Design and Features
Despite housing a sensor that’s the same size as the one in the Nikon 1 J3 mirrorless camera, the RX100 II measures just 2.3 by 4 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and weighs a mere 9.9 ounces. The J3 is 2.4 by 4 by 2.8 inches and weighs about 11.2 ounces with its lens attached; the lens doesn’t offer as ambitious a zoom ratio as that of the RX100 II, and it doesn’t capture as much light at comparable focal lengths. Like its predecessor, the RX100 II is able to slide into your jeans pocket. You’ll be hard pressed to find a camera with a similar feature set and a larger image sensor that does so. The closest you’ll get is the Ricoh GR, which packs an SLR-sized APS-C image sensor, but that camera’s lens is a non-zooming 28mm wide-angle design. While it’s excellent for what it is, the non-zooming design puts it in a different class of cameras in our book.

The lens is identical to that in the RX100. It’s a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* design that covers a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 28-100mm (3.6x zoom). At its widest angle the aperture opens to f/1.8, but it does narrow all the way to f/4.9 as you zoom. The 1-inch sensor is big for a compact, but it’s relatively tiny compared to an SLR. So you won’t always get the blurry background bokeh that you’re used to seeing from larger cameras with f/1.8 lenses. The effect is most noticeable when shooting at close focus distances; at 28mm the lens can focus as close as 2 inches, and the effect is quite pronounced there when shooting at f/1.8. At the 100mm setting the minimum focus distance stretches to 1.8 feet, but even at f/4.9 you’ll see some background blur when working with a subject that close.

I was pretty happy with the control over depth of field that the camera was able to muster. There are few compacts that are able to accomplish this, without resorting to some serious macro shooting. Photographers considering a camera in this price range have undoubtedly come across another one of them, the Fujifilm X20. The X20 has a smaller 2/3-inch sensor that is roughly half the size in terms of surface area. The X20 has a lens with a slightly longer zoom range, 28-112mm, and an f/2-2.8 design. It won’t project quite as much light on the image sensor at its widest angle, but you’ll be able to shoot at lower ISO settings thanks to the wider aperture at the telephoto end of its range. The X20 is a bit bigger thanks to a manual zoom lens design and a large, built-in optical viewfinder.

The RX100 II doesn’t have a viewfinder built-in, but unlike its predecessor you can opt to add one. It supports the same EVF as the RX1 and HX50V. It’s an expensive ($450) accessory, but it’s an excellent EVF that serious shooters will want to consider as an add-on. The 3-inch rear LCD is hinged so that you can view it from above or below, and its 1,229k-dot resolution trumps even the 921k-dot display found on the Nikon Coolpix P7700. The extra dots on the Sony represent a layer of white pixels that combat glare from the sun, but sometimes there’s no substitute for putting a viewfinder up to your eye.

Controls and Wi-Fi
The control layout is designed to satisfy the demands of serious shooters, but isn’t completely perfect. Save for the shutter release, zoom rocker, mode dial, menu, playback, on/off, display, EV compensation, and help buttons, the RX100 II’s physical controls are largely customizable via its software menu. You can choose up to seven items that can be adjusted via the Function button, and the ring around the lens, the self-timer/drive mode button, the flash button, and the rear center button can be configured to your liking, with some limitations.

The front control ring around the lens can change behavior based on your shooting mode, or you can set it to act the same at all times. I’m generally an aperture priority or shutter priority shooter—it’s rare that I venture into full manual mode—so I programmed it to act as the EV compensation control. This makes the ring useless in manual mode, so during testing, I’d have to remember to change it back to standard before setting up a manual exposure. If I didn’t, I was left with the rather awkward proposition of using the rear control wheel to adjust both aperture and shutter speed. When you’re shooting in manual the front ring controls aperture and the rear dial controls the shutter speed, assuming you don’t go and fiddle with settings.

A function new to the RX100 II is the ability to set the front control ring as a step zoom control. When this is enabled the ring moves the lens in and out, but it does so at five set points. There are step settings for the most common 35mm-equivalent prime focal lengths—28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, and 100mm.

The button with the lowest level of programmability is the rear center button. By default it adjusts your focus point. If you use the multi or center focus area this means it enables or disables object tracking, but if you opt for a flexible focus point, tapping the center button allows you to move that point around the frame via the rear directional pad. The center button can be reprogrammed if you desire; it can be set to engage auto exposure lock, toggle between manual and autofocus, or to magnify the image when the camera is set to manual focus mode.

The RX100 II inherits one of its predecessor’s quirks that I could never wrap my brain around, but won’t be bothersome to everybody. When you’re adjusting certain settings via the front or rear control wheel, the directional behavior of the dials change based on the way they are presented on the screen. Some settings, including EV compensation and flash compensation, show up as a finite arc on your screen with a cursor to indicate the current value—moving the wheel to the left moves the value to the left.

Others show up as an undefined arc with transparent edges that fade into your live view screen. Instead of a cursor indicator, the selected setting is itself highlighted in orange. For these, moving the wheel to the left selects the value to the right of the one that is currently highlighted. This can take a little getting used to, and isn’t really a problem except in one case—ISO. For shutter speed and aperture, Sony smartly starts the scale on the far right, so the behavior of the wheel is intuitive—moving to the left gives you a smaller number, to the right a bigger one. With ISO, you need to move the wheel to the left to increase the sensitivity, and to the right to reduce it. It stands out as one aspect that doesn’t make sense in a camera with an otherwise well-designed control system.

The camera’s flash hides inside the body when not in use, popping up at the half press of the shutter button once it’s been enabled. It sits on a hinged neck, which makes it possible to tilt it back with your left index finger and to bounce light off of a ceiling. It’s not powerful enough to act in this capacity in, say, a ballroom, but for snaps around the house using this method will help to soften the light. Of course, there’s also Flash Compensation available, so you can reduce the power output to provide just a little bit of fill when you’re not using it as a bounce flash.

Wi-Fi is a new addition to the RX100 II. You’ll be able transfer photos directly from the camera to your iOS or Android device using the free Sony PlayMemories Mobile app. Raw transfer is supported—the RX100 converts the image to JPG at full resolution on the fly and sends it over without issue. Video transfer is only supported if you shoot in the MP4 format. If you record 1080p footage using the AVCHD coded you won’t be able to copy it over to your phone. In addition to copying files, you can use your phone or tablet as a remote viewfinder and control. The live view feed from the lens shows up on your phone’s screen, but controls are limited. You can choose from still or video capture, fire the shutter, adjust the zoom, activate the self-timer, and adjust flash settings. A sized-down version of the image (1.7 megapixels) is automatically saved to your phone’s camera roll and a full-size version is saved to the memory card.

Performance and Conclusions
Like the RX100 before it, the RX100 II is a bit on the slow side when it comes to starting up and capturing a photo. The 2.1-second startup time isn’t that bad for cameras of similar size, but you can purchase a fast-shooting D-SLR for the same amount of money; you just can’t slide it into your pocket. Burst shooting speed varies upon file format, but you can rattle off 9 JPGs at 10fps in the special Speed Priority mode. Raw bursts of 9 shots are also possible, but only at 5fps. There is a delay as all of the images are written to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card; a full JPG burst requires 5.8 seconds, a Raw burst about 9.3 seconds.

The shutter lag is almost zero; we clocked it at 0.05-second, and low light focus is pretty quick at just about 1 second. Compare this to the similarly-sized Canon PowerShot S110. Its sensor size is smaller at 1/1.7-inches, but its 24-120mm zoom lens only manages a f/2-5.9 aperture. The S110 requires 2.2 seconds to start and shoot, is limited to 2fps continuous shooting, and records a 0.2-second shutter lag.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the RX100 II’s Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens. It’s the same lens as the RX100, and results were similar. At 28mm f/1.8 it manages an impressive 2,048 lines per picture height, a bit better than the 1,800 lines we require to call a photo sharp. Edges are a little bit soft here, 1,447 lines, but stopping down to f/2.8 improves the overall score to 2,277 lines with edges that approach 1,900. Resolution is best at f/4 and f/5.6 where it hovers around 2,440 lines. Stopping down any further isn’t advised, as image quality starts to degrade due to diffraction through the minimum aperture of f/11.

Zooming to 50mm narrows the maximum aperture to f/3.2, but the lens is still impressively sharp. It manages 2,053 lines here, and again does its best work when stopped down a bit. At f/4 the resolution improves to 2,278 lines, and it peaks at f/5.6 at 2,368 lines. At the maximum 100mm zoom the maximum aperture is f/4.9. Sharpness is still impressive at 2,269 lines, just about the same as it is at the f/5.6 setting. The RX100 II isn’t the only sharp pocket shooter on the block; the Canon PowerShot G15, which is a little larger thanks in part to its optical viewfinder, records 1,918 lines of resolution. Its lens is an f/1.8-2.8 design, but don’t expect the same level of bokeh out of its 1/1.7-inch image sensor as you can get from the RX100 II.

Imatest also checks for distortion. Out-of-camera JPG images are basically distortion free, as are Raw images when viewed in Lightroom. There’s definitely some automatic correction being applied. If you use a Raw converter that doesn’t support this correction you’ll be greeted with some near-fisheye images at the widest angle (11.6 percent barrel distortion), but it’s a nonissue for the vast majority.

Imatest also checks for noise, which can rob images of detail as you increase a camera’s sensitivity to light, numerically represented as ISO. The RX100 II keeps noise under 1.5 percent through its top ISO setting of 12800, but JPG detail at that setting is downright muddy. Images look a lot better at ISO 6400, though they’re nowhere near as defined as they are at lower ISOs. Overall the RX100 II provides a 1-stop advantage in image quality over the RX100, as Sony advertises. JPG images are quite impressive through ISO 1600, and shooting JPG at 3200 is fine if you aren’t looking to make a huge print. You can eke a bit more detail out of photos by opting to shoot in Raw. I would not hesitate to do so at up to ISO 6400; just be prepared for an image that has a grainy look. All images were reviewed on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display.

Video is recorded in up to 1080p60 quality in the AVCHD format; 1080i60 and 1080p24 are also supported, and you have the option of recording in MP4 format, which is a requirement if you want to transfer videos to your phone via Wi-Fi. The quality is generally very good; colors are accurate and details are crisp. The lens zooms in and out when recording, but doesn’t add a lot of noise to the soundtrack. There’s a digital zoom available to extend the camera’s reach, but using it does detract from quality. The micro USB port doubles as a charging mechanism for the battery—there’s no external charger included with the camera—and there’s also a micro HDMI port to connect to an HDTV. In addition to standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, Sony also supports its proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo and Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo formats.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II is expensive. At $750 it’s priced above many entry-level mirrorless cameras and D-SLRs. And while the RX100 II can’t keep up with an SLR in terms of pure image quality or versatility, it does fit in your shirt pocket—that’s the real reason to get it. Wi-Fi makes it possible to share images while on the go, and the tilting LCD and support for Sony’s add-on OLED EVF go further to differentiate it from its predecessor. If you can’t afford it, the original RX100 is available for less, but is still pricey. Another impressive camera in this class is the Fujifilm X20 ($600), which has an excellent integrated optical viewfinder and produces impressive images through ISO 800. And there are some more affordable options out there if you can live with less image quality or less portability. The Canon PowerShot G15 ($500) delivers excellent images, as does the Fujifilm XF1. But if you’re the type of photographer who doesn’t want to settle for second best, and you’re in the market for a pocketable camera with a zooming lens, the RX100 II is sure to tickle your fancy. 

Specifications
Dimensions 2.3 x 4 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, micro HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 20 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.1 seconds
LCD dots 1229000
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 Compact
GPS No
Optical Zoom 3.6 x
Boot time 2.1 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 9.9 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 2048
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 100 mm
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 12.8 x 9.6 (1") mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II compact camera offers a few worthwhile upgrades when compared with the original RX100, but comes in at a higher asking price.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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