Experts overwhelmingly agree: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is the best pocket-sized camera you can buy. "The best pocket camera ever made," The New York Times' David Pogue declares it. Its secret? The biggest sensor of any pocket camera. While other compact cams emptily promise fine photo quality like a bulky digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, experts and owners say the Sony RX100 actually delivers in several key ways.
Geared toward experienced photographers. "It's fairly clear that this isn't a camera for novices," says Pogue at The New York Times. As much as they adore the Sony RX100, experts do point out a few usability quirks.
The Sony RX100's squared-off body fits into a jacket or pants pocket. Its smooth finish looks modern, but some experts and owners find it slippery to hold. "I'm constantly in fear of dropping it, and forced to grip it extra tightly, which can get really tiring if you shoot one-handed a lot," says Lori Grunin at CNET.
Like most pocket cameras, there's no viewfinder. You'll frame your shot on the 3-inch LCD screen, which gets mixed reviews: Some experts can see it easily even in direct sunlight, while others say it gets washed out in bright light.
With little space on its tiny body, the RX100 relies on just a few buttons to control everything. You can customize the menu to bring up your favorite functions first, but still, "novices will find it overwhelming," Pogue says, although "eventually it all makes sense."
You do get one physical control that most pocket cameras lack: a lens ring. You can twist it to focus, zoom and more, just like on a DSLR. Oddly, though, it doesn't click at each position when you're adjusting things like aperture. It just moves smoothly and continuously, which feels vague to testers.
For easy shooting, the RX100 does have three automatic modes -- too many, for Grunin's taste ("I always thought the whole point of automatic was to not have to make any choices"). If you do want to learn the manual controls, there's no printed user guide. You have to look online, which irks some owners.
Truly impressive photos -- better than any other pocket camera. "I'll skip to the punch line: No photos this good have ever come from a camera this small," says Pogue at The New York Times. Thank the Sony RX100's enormous (for a pocket cam) aperture and image sensor. They help deliver "that professional blurry background look," Pogue says, "insane amounts of detail and vivid, true colors ... and macro shots -- supercloseup -- that will curl whatever's left of your hair."
With 20 megapixels, images look incredibly sharp -- really DSLR-like, says Christopher Snow at DigitalCameraInfo.com. So sharp, Pogue says, "you can crop away a huge part of the photo and still have lots of megapixels left for big prints; in effect, you're amplifying the zoom."
Still, the little Sony's 3.6x zoom lens can't match the endless versatility of interchangeable lenses. The Sony can't match a big DSLR -- or even a compact interchangeable-lens camera -- in dim light, either, tests show (although the Sony does crank out a nice 8-by-10-inch print at a whopping ISO 6,400 at Imaging-Resource.com).
But among noninterchangeable-lens cameras, only the bulkier Canon PowerShot G1 X (*Est. $750) delivers better photos in tests, thanks to its even bigger sensor. However, the G1 X won't fit into a pocket, and it's slower than the Sony, which can rattle off 10 shots per second.
Video quality is "class-leading," DPReview.com says, although Pogue says the 1080p HD footage "isn't quite the same festival of crispness as the photos. But you can use all the photo effects while filming. And while recording, you can zoom, change focus and even take still photos."
Battery life is rated at 330 shots per charge, Imaging-Resource.com says, which is good for a camera this small.
Sturdy metal body, but some bits strike owners as flimsy. Experts at CNET and Imaging-Resource.com praise the Sony RX100's aluminum body. "Feels like a well-crafted and quality camera," agrees Tim Coleman at Amateur Photographer magazine. "This is a camera that should stand the test of time."
Most owners at Amazon.com like the build quality, but several note a few flimsy bits. First, the flash pops up on a stalk. One owner's flash "got stuck several times" during the first use, and another's popped open in his luggage and then wouldn't open or close anymore. Sony exchanged the camera, but the owner predicts that "even if you treat this like a precious jewel, the odds are 12-18 months from now you'll see many RX100 owners walking around with flashes they manually open and close."
Second -- and third -- are the USB door and battery/SD card door. "The build quality is shockingly bad" on these, one owner writes. "I constantly feel like unless I am really careful, I am going to break off something." Another says, "The almost-impossible-to-open flimsy teensy door which will be frequently used to charge the camera (and to upload photos to my computer) doesn't look like it will last more than a week."
Snow at DigitalCameraInfo.com agrees this door is "flimsy," and he also says the zoom lens "seems surprisingly loose and not sturdy."
Loaded with manual controls and useful features. Compared to interchangeable-lens cameras, the Sony RX100 lacks some important features. There's a pop-up flash, but no hot shoe for an external flash. No viewfinder. The LCD screen doesn't swivel, like some cameras'. And, of course, the 3.6x-zoom lens is fixed permanently to the camera.
But otherwise, "the RX100 is as customizable and manually controllable as an S.L.R.," Pogue writes at The New York Times. And it can shoot both JPEG and RAW files, for fine-toothed editing.
It packs a lot of extra features, too, such as Sweep Panorama, in which you hold down the shutter button while sweeping the RX100 across the scene, and it automatically knits the shots together into a panoramic photo. High Dynamic Range sets the camera to shoot several exposures and melds them together for greater depth than any single photo. Hand-held Twilight uses the same trick as High Dynamic Range, but to get a steady, decently lit shot at night without a tripod. And Picture Effects lets you add 13 different effects to your photo. Illustration turns it into a line drawing; miniature makes it look like a scale model, etc.
A USB port hooks the Sony RX100 to your computer, and an HDMI jack hooks it up to an HDTV.
Review Credibility: Excellent The Sony RX100 is "probably the most capable compact camera on the market today," but a few flaws -- like its odd-feeling lens dial -- knock it down to a Silver Award here. Richard Butler exhaustively tests every aspect of the RX100 in this multi-part review and compares it with a few rivals.
Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 In-depth Review, Richard Butler, August 2012
2. Amateur Photographer
Review Credibility: Excellent After thoroughly testing the Sony RX100, Tim Coleman says "it has made its way onto my Christmas list." With class-leading image quality, terrific handling and a pocketable body, it outscores all other compact cameras here.
Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 Review, Tim Coleman, July 14, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent In this exhaustive review, experts judge every aspect of the Sony RX100 and show side-by-side photo comparisons with a bunch of rivals, including both pocket-sized and bigger cameras. Although it's not quite as good as a DSLR -- or even a compact interchangeable-lens camera -- the RX100 does beat its pocket rivals.
Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich and Dave Etchells, June 6, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Editors here name the Sony RX100 the Best Pocket Camera of 2012 after in-depth testing. With incredibly sharp images that look like they came from a bulky DSLR camera, the Sony scores a perfect 10.
Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, Christopher Snow, Aug. 27, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good "One of the best compact cameras I've ever tested," Lori Grunin calls the Sony RX100, "and certainly the best under $700." Grunin closely critiques its image quality, speed, handling and features before awarding it the Editors' Choice tag.
Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 Review, Lori Grunin, Aug. 23, 2012
6. The New York Times
Review Credibility: Good David Pogue calls the Sony RX100 "the best pocket camera ever made." He explains the benefits of its relatively huge sensor and aperture. It "takes amazing photos" and offers impressive features, whether you like to control everything manually or let the camera do the work. Pogue does find a few drawbacks, including the shortage of physical buttons and the oddly free-spinning lens ring.
Review: Tiny Camera to Rival the Pros, David Pogue, June 27, 2012
Review Credibility: Fair Averaging 4.5 stars in more than 240 owner reviews, the Sony RX100 is one of the top-rated digital cameras here. The majority award it 4 or a perfect 5 stars, although they do mention drawbacks.
Review: Sony DSC-RX100 20.2 MP Exmor CMOS Sensor Digital Camera with 3.6x Zoom, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of February 2013