Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review

Don’t let its small size fool you. The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II is capable of capturing beautiful photos and movies. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best compact camera you can buy if image quality is your main concern.
Don’t let its small size fool you. The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II is capable of capturing beautiful photos and movies. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best compact camera you can buy if image quality is your main concern.
Don’t let its small size fool you. The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II is capable of capturing beautiful photos and movies. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best compact camera you can buy if image quality is your main concern.

Highs

  • Beautiful photos and movies
  • f/1.8 3.6x zoom
  • Tilting 3-inch LCD screen
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

Lows

  • 100mm on tele-end a bit limited
  • Full aperture range only at wide-angle
  • Slow shutter speed
  • Poorly placed red-dot video button

If you look at sticker price alone, Sony’s updated high-end compact, the Cyber-shot RX100 II ($750), costs a lot. An update to the critically praised RX100, this updated model features an improved back-illuminated sensor and Wi-Fi with near-field communication (NFC).

The RX100 II (also referred to as the RX100M2) arrived at our office during an interesting time. We’ve been reviewing a bunch of compact cameras with very large sensors and fixed prime lenses lately, like the Fujifilm X100S. So, you’d think that the smaller-sensor in the RX100 II would be no match against the more expensive cameras, but you’d be surprised at how well this little camera actually performs. In many ways it really is a good deal considering the excellent results you get.

Features and design

The RX100 II is an extremely compact point-and-shoot camera, measuring 4 x 2. 3 x 1.5 inches and weighing 9.9 ounces with battery and card. It’s small enough to carry around all day, even as a companion to your smartphone. Its size puts it in the class of the less expensive Canon PowerShot S-series. But the S-series, like the $350 S110, pales in comparison to the Sony’s specs and quality.

Although the new RX100 II looks like a basic compact digicam, its “heart” is much bigger since it’s a 20.2-megapixel Back-Illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor. Although it’s the same pixel count as the RX100, Sony claims the new BSI technology offers improved noise handling in low-light shooting. The sensor also features a much larger surface area than typical compacts. Here it’s 13.2 x 8.8mm versus the 7.6 x 5.7mm of competitors like the Canon PowerShot S110. In theory the larger the sensor, the better the image quality. Granted, even this “large” chip is much smaller than APS-C sensors in DSLRs, CSCs, and advanced cameras like the Fujifilm X100S and Nikon Coolpix A. Yet, cameras are a lot more than sensors alone, so we were anxious to put it to a real world test. The all-black camera feels sturdy, has nicely rounded edges, and a minimal amount of logos and labels festooned on the body. The key feature on the front is the 3.6x f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* zoom lens with a range of 28-100mm. It’s not a mega-zoom but any longer and it would compromise the body size.

The extremely wide-open aperture is great for bokeh – blurred background effects. You can quickly move through the entire focal range with a quick flick of the zoom toggle. The lens also has a control ring for making various adjustments such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, picture effects, and so on, depending on your mode dial setting. You’ll also find an AF Assist lamp on the front.

Sony Cyber shot RX100 II hot shoeThe top deck is home to the auto pop-up flash, hot shoe, two pinhole stereo mics, power button, zoom toggle, and mode dial. One of the key improvements to the RX100 II versus the older RX100 is the addition of a hot shoe that lets you add an optional electronic viewfinder (EVF), flash, or stereo mic. The EVF is helpful if you’d like to hold the camera to your eye rather than at arm’s length’s using the LCD screen, but we had no issues using it without, thanks to the built-in optical image stabilization (OIS) and high-quality display. In fact, it really doesn’t make sense spending another $450 for this particular add-on but we know there are people who prefer using an EVF; we really liked using it with the Sony RX1 but that camera is in a world of its own ($3,000 plus) and it’s targeted toward a different buyer. The RX100 II mode dial has all the settings you want ranging from Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, aperture/shutter priority, manual, MR (Memory Recall for user-defined settings), movie, Sweep Panorama, and Scene (13 options including Handheld Twilight). Given all the options the camera is targeted to everyone from aim-and-forget shooters to advanced shutterbugs who want a quality, lightweight, easily-carried digicam rather than a DSLR or mirrorless model.

For those who are concerned about having to carry around two devices – camera and smartphone – the compact RX100 II isn’t a bother.

The rear of the RX100 II features another major improvement over the original – it has a tilting 3-inch LCD screen rather than a fixed-mount display. We always prefer this option since it lets you hold the camera over your head or down low for more creative perspectives. It doesn’t tilt 180 degrees, however, so no selfies. The screen is rated 1,229k dots and has Sony’s “White Magic” technology that helps visibility in bright sunshine, something of a prerequisite during blazing Arizona summers (our prime shooting locale). Verdict: It works just fine.

To the right of the screen is a slightly raised thumb rest. It feels all right but it’s directly adjacent to the red-dot movie button, which we accidentally hit a number of times during our review sessions. It was annoying but not a fatal flaw. We suggest Sony move this for the next generation. Other buttons on the back are Function, Menu, Playback, and Help. There’s also a jog dial with center OK button; the four points on the dial give access to the flash, exposure compensation, drive mode, and display. Display gives access to a digital level and grid lines – excellent features for keeping your horizons straight.

Sony Cyber shot RX100 II screen angleOn the right side are compartments for the micro HDMI-out and multi USB connector to attach the AC adaptor for charging. The left has the Wi-Fi sensor for NFC hookups, and the bottom has a tripod mount and compartment for battery and memory card.

What’s in the box

If you purchase the RX100 II you’ll get the camera, battery, AC adapter, USB cable, and multi-language instruction manual. There’s also a cheat sheet for Wi-Fi and NFC connections. The battery is rated a solid 350 shots, so you should have no problems getting through the day. Unfortunately, Sony does not supply a wall charger for a spare battery, so make sure you charge the included battery in-camera overnight. No software is supplied, so you’ll have to download PlayMemories Home for your PC to handle files and transfer images. To use the onboard Wi-Fi with your smartphone or tablet, there’s PlayMemories Mobile for iOS and Android devices from the App Store and Google play, respectively.

Performance and use

We used the camera over the course of several weeks and had a ball. Since it’s so small, there were hardly any issues taking it anywhere – other than into the pool. For those who are concerned about having to carry around two devices – camera and smartphone – the RX100 II is so compact, it didn’t bother us having a cell in one pocket and the camera in another.

We’ve tested many compacts over the years and this Sony blows the competitors out of the water.

We started our testing at maximum still resolution (5472 x 3648 pixels), moving through the mode dial as situations warranted. Video was set to 1080/60p AVCHD Progressive, the best you can get in a consumer camera.

We did a lot a traveling, taking the camera to various locales, shooting quite a bit. We even did some side-by-sides using the Fujifilm X100S to see how $1,299 and $749 cameras compared. Even though it’s only 16.3 megapixels, the X100S has a much larger APS-C sensor and body, and its image quality is better with depth and detail no small sensor can match. It’s also a reason it costs $450 more. We compared shots and were amazed at the X100S’ fine detail at extreme blowups, but by no means are we knocking on the RX100 II. Despite the specs differences, the RX100 II takes beautiful photos that hold up very nicely, even with 100-percent enlargements on a 27-inch monitor. Colors were extremely accurate with very rich reds and a nice representation of other colors as well (see samples). We’ve tested many compacts over the years and this Sony blows the competitors out of the water. Enthusiast digicams with smaller sensors simply can’t match this one. With an f/1.8 3.6x zoom with AVCHD Progressive video recording, the RX100 II is a comparative deal versus a Panasonic LX7, Canon G16, or Olympus XZ-2.

The lens has a solid range but it would be nicer if it had a little extra oomph, say 120mm. Most photographers will be satisfied with 100mm, especially with the f/1.8 aperture at wide angle. Nothing beats a nice close-up with a blurred background – and the Sony delivers on that score.

Sony Cyber shot RX100 II front zoom angleAll is not perfect here. As noted earlier we’ve recently tested a number of compact cameras with prime lenses. One of the things we especially liked about those fixed 28mm or 35mm lenses was having a full range of apertures. With this zoom lens, as you expand your tele reach, your aperture options go down – in this case f/4.9 rather than the f/1.8 of full wide angle. In other words, blurring backgrounds is more difficult as is shooting in low light with minimal noise, but all settings are available at wide angle (f/1.8-f/22). Also note the top shutter speed is 1/2,000th of a second, versus 1/4,000th for the best cameras. We tried shooting some ball players at Chase Field in Phoenix and got mostly blurs rather than crisp action shots. If heavy-duty sports are your main subject matter, this camera might not be for you even with the stated 10 fps burst mode.

Like most high-quality cameras, the Sony has a wide ISO range, in this case 100-12,800. Although color shifts kicked in at high levels (3,200+), there was very little noise even at 12,800. We had to dramatically enlarge files to see digital artifacts – and this was with Multiframe NR turned off. Given the f/1.8 lens, OIS, and excellent ISO capability, the low-light capability is excellent. The AF system is also quite good, with few instances of struggling to focus.

Sony Cyber shot RX100 II sample 2

Sony’s NEX-series onscreen menus get some well-deserved criticisms for being less than intuitive. In the case of the RX100 II, however, we found them to be drop-dead simple to use. We especially liked the onscreen display for adjusting aperture and shutter speed using the lens control dial and jog wheel (available in non-auto modes). Although touchscreens can be useful, it wasn’t really missed here.

Wi-Fi is a new feature for this updated model. As far as we’re concerned Samsung is the gold standard for Wi-Fi implementation. That said Sony has made a massive leap with its PlayMemories Mobile software. Linking the camera and smartphone is surprisingly simple – we didn’t even have to enter an SSID number. If you have an NFC-capable smartphone, pairing is even simpler. Once connected you can transfer images to your phone and even use the smartphone as a remote control. It’s a very impressive improvement and shows some in the camera industry are finally waking up to the “connected” imaging revolution, albeit five years late.

The videos captured by this camera are also top-notch. We took many clips at 1080/60p and the results had very little rolling shutter or moiré – they’re almost camcorder-like with very accurate colors. We shot a large, flowing fountain and could practically count the drops of water. If you’re into videos you won’t be disappointed with the RX100 II.

Conclusion

Hallelujahs and cheers greeted the original RX100, with one critic going so far as to claim it was the best compact ever. (The RX100, by the way, is still available, now for $150 less.) The RX100 II keeps the momentum going, and offers the best image quality you can get out of a compact. If you want any better, you’ll have to move up to even more expensive models like Sony’s Cyber-shot RX1 or Fujifilm’s X100S. Yes, the RX100 II is expensive, but when you compare it against more powerful variants as well as competing models in its class, you can see why the $750 could be considered a good deal for what you get.

Highs

  • Beautiful photos and movies
  • f/1.8 3.6x zoom
  • Tilting 3-inch LCD screen
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

Lows

  • 100mm on tele-end a bit limited
  • Full aperture range only at wide-angle
  • Slow shutter speed
  • Poorly placed red-dot video button
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