Sony Cyber-shot RX100 V review

Sony’s RX100 Mark V continues to stand at the top of a lonely perch

If there’s ever been a point-and-shoot that deserves a high price tag, it’s Sony’s RX100 Mark V.
If there’s ever been a point-and-shoot that deserves a high price tag, it’s Sony’s RX100 Mark V.
If there’s ever been a point-and-shoot that deserves a high price tag, it’s Sony’s RX100 Mark V.

Highs

  • 24 fps continuous shooting
  • Improved 20.1MP 1-inch-type stacked sensor
  • 4K video
  • Compact, portable design
  • Nifty super-slow-motion mode

Lows

  • High price for a point-and-shoot
  • Poor battery life
  • Focal length could be longer

Inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras are going the way of landlines – they’re being replaced by smartphones. Yet, there’s still demand for small cameras designed for serious shutterbugs, or people looking to populate their Instagram feeds with something better than pictures taken on their phones. Enter the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 V and a raft of pricey pocket cameras from Canon and Panasonic that cost anywhere from $500-$999. The Mark V is on the high end of that spectrum. Given the sticker shock, is it worth the money? Furthermore, is this fifth-generation model really that much better than its predecessors?

Design and usability

We have used every RX100-series model since the introduction in 2012, so we’re very familiar with the cameras’ pluses and minuses. It remains a big hit with enthusiasts and pros who want a quality camera when they don’t need to lug around umpteen pounds of DSLR gear.

From the outside, the Mark V looks basically the same as the Mark IV. It’s an incredibly compact camera with an f/1.8-2.8, 24-70mm (2.9x) Zeiss lens. It has a matte black flash with a minimal number of buttons. It’s really small at just 4 x 2.3 x 1.6 inches, and tips the scales at slightly less than 11 ounces.

For this review, we easily kept it in a pocket or in hand. It’s a great travel camera for walking around the streets of a city, allowing you to discreetly shoot high-quality photos without the inconvenience of a larger camera. Physically, the camera has a very comfortable feel, with the zoom toggle nicely positioned near the shutter.

The key feature of this camera’s exterior, like the Mark IV, is the 2.9x zoom lens with a control ring at its base. If you’re in aperture-priority mode, the ring changes your f-stop; in shutter priority, shutter speed. It’s handy, and encourages a two-handed grip on the camera for extra stability.

The top is relatively clean, but it holds a lot of goodies, like the power and shutter buttons, zoom toggle, pop-up flash, and – a triumph in camera engineering – the pop-up electronic viewfinder (EVF), which was introduced in the Mark III. The EVF is useful when the LCD isn’t viewable, like in extremely bright sunshine, thanks to an XVGA OLED screen with 2.35-million-dot resolution. After it pops up, you have to extend it by pulling it toward you in order for it to work and to access the diopter control. It’s a nice feature, and it’s a rarity in point-and-shoot cameras.

A new 315-point phase-detection autofocus system covers 65 percent of the frame.

The back is dominated by a 3-inch, 1.2-million dot LCD that tilts up 180 degrees (for selfies), or angled for above or below shots. To the right are the movie, function, menu, delete, and playback buttons. There’s a small jog wheel with center OK key. The four points surrounding it give access to flash, exposure compensation, burst mode, and screen display options.

Behind tiny doors on the right side are Micro USB and HDMI inputs. The left has the NFC tag for wirelessly connecting compatible Android devices. On the bottom is the battery/card compartment. Here you’ll find one of the biggest weaknesses of the Mark V: a battery that’s only good for 220 shots/110 minutes of video, or 210 shots/105 minutes of video if you use the EVF.

Battery life is an issue with compact cameras, and the RX100-series is no exception. But the rating is a significant drop from the Mark IV’s. We had the camera out for the day and it survived the journey, but we plugged it in whenever an outlet was available. (More on this later.)

Overall, the Mark V is a nicely designed compact you can carry around without breaking a sweat – just make sure you pack a spare battery or make sure there’s a place to recharge.

What’s in the box

In addition to the camera, you’ll find a battery, plug-in charger, strap, and Micro USB cable. Although desktop software isn’t included, you can download them from Sony’s website. The PlayMemories Mobile app is available from the App Store (iOS) and Google Play Store (Android).

Performance

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that the Mark V has capabilities that surpass what smartphone cameras can do. We had the opportunity for a hands-on experience with it shortly after the announcement, and then later received a final production sample for a full review. We were equally impressed both times.

The highlight features of the advanced compact include a fast 24 frames-per-second (fps) burst rate (versus the Mark IV’s 16 fps) for up to 150 consecutive shots. It is built around an updated version of the 1-inch-type, 20.1-megapixel stacked Exmor RS CMOS sensor introduced in the RX100 Mark IV. The “stacked” design allows for dramatic improvements in read-out speed. In conjunction with a beefed-up Bionz X image processor, this is how the Mark V achieves such a fast burst rate.

New to the sensor is the 315-point phase-detection autofocus system that covers 65 percent of the frame. Sony claims it is now the world’s fastest autofocusing system (0.05 seconds). Carried over from the Mark IV are 4K and super-slow-motion video capture, and an electronic shutter for shutter speeds up to 1/32,000 of a second (the mechanical shutter is limited to 1/2,000).

The mode dial offers Intelligent Auto, PASM, MR (Memory Recall, or Custom), Movie, HFR (High Frame Rate), Sweep Panorama, and Scene (13 options).

During our initial hands-on, most of our photo subjects were fast moving, so we used shutter priority mode and cranked up the ISO to capture the action. The ISO maxes out at 12,800 – not bad at all for such a compact camera. We also set burst mode to the maximum 24 fps, but it can be ratcheted down to 11 or 3.5, depending on your needs – and how much data you want to deal with. We used a fast, 128GB SD card, so we fired away at will.

For the full review period, we again had some fast-moving targets, but also captured plenty of static subjects, such as cityscapes and the 9/11 Museum in New York City (see samples).

When it comes to shooting action, the 24 fps setting is simply amazing. It really can rip off 150 shots before slowing down. None of our shots truly required the use of the feature, but we did it just for kicks anyway. With the new processor, there was very little blackout when shooting, and although there was some delay as the camera writes the 20.1MP files to the card, it performed much faster than earlier RX100s.

The RX100 V has capabilities that are far beyond any smartphone camera.

At 24 fps, the Mark V is even faster than Sony’s recently announced, full-frame A9. Of course, these two cameras can’t really be compared, but it just goes to show how impressive the Mark V’s speed really is.

With the relatively large one-inch sensor, we had no issues with noise until ISO 2,500, but you can push beyond that without too much difficulty. Combined with the nice f/1.8 aperture, the Mark V makes for a decent low-light camera without resorting to a flash. Above ISO 4,000 we did notice distinct color shifts, so avoid pushing that high unless absolutely necessary.

As we alluded, one negative that hasn’t changed for the RX100-series is the battery life, which is still weak (it’s a physics issue – the smaller the battery, the less juice you’re going to get). We wore ours out during the hands-on session and had to pop in a spare. Since we were shooting bursts and video, this was understandable, but still annoying. Walking around the streets of New York – and not blazing away at 24 fps – we made it through the day. That said, if you purchase this camera, a spare battery is an absolute must-have accessory.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 V
David Elrich/Digital Trends
David Elrich/Digital Trends

We love the results from the 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 Zeiss lens, but, as we’ve said about previous models, we do wish for more telephoto reach. This is the same lens Sony has used since the RX100 III, when it replaced the longer, but slower, 24-100mm f/1.8-4.9. We know this is a major technological challenge but hopefully Sony’s engineers tackle the task in the future, as we’d love to see greater telephoto performance without sacrificing light-gathering ability. (For comparison, Canon’s G7 X Mark II, which is also built around a 1-inch sensor, features a 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 zoom lens.)

Another great feature of the RX100 V is the 4K video mode. The small red-dot record button is still in an awkward place, but you can customize a key to make it more accessible. The camera records 3,840 x 2,160 Ultra HD movies using the XAVC-S codec, producing fluid motion and accurate colors. What’s more, 4K is oversampled from 5K, giving the Mark V a sharpness edge over its predecessor. We’ve seen YouTubers use the RX100-series as a B-roll camera, to give you an idea of its movie prowess.

Other advanced video features return, like S-Log gamma and super-slow-motion (also known as High Frame Rate mode), which was especially fun with the subjects Sony provided for the hands-on, which included boxers and gymnasts. We shot at 240 fps, which is the best quality setting in HFR mode, but you can go up to 960 fps for even greater slow motion if you’re okay with losing some resolution.

We still must take Sony to task for making the HFR menu difficult to access and navigate. Even after using this feature many times, we still needed a refresher course. The results are worth the trouble, but Sony’s user interface continues to be a pain point in its cameras. Furthermore, 4K video is also still limited to five-minute clips in order to prevent the camera from overheating, and there’s still no microphone jack – too bad, as it would make a good camera for vlogging.

Warranty

The warranty is good for one-year against defects in material and/or workmanship.

Our Take

We had no doubt the RX100 V would be a hit, and the popularity of the series has proven us right. The Mark V is a compact that’s pretty close to the ultimate walking-around camera, with the few caveats – we’d love more focal range and battery life, but inevitably that would come with the tradeoff of a slower or softer lens, and a larger-sized camera. The Mark V gets close to being the perfect pocket camera, and its high price of $1,000 certainly reflects that. It moves even further toward the realm of professional photographers.

With many entry-level mirrorless and DSLR cameras costing less money, it won’t be an easy sell for everyone, but it’s a great choice for anyone looking for the best image quality and performance in the smallest possible package.

Are there better alternatives?

There are several enthusiast, advanced compacts with one-inch sensors on the market, such as the Canon G9 X Mark II ($529). It has a similar lens and grabs 8.2 fps, not the 24 of the Sony – good enough for the average user. It doesn’t have an EVF and it only shoots 1080/60p videos compared to the 4K of the RX100. Panasonic’s Lumix LX10 ($699) is another contender, which features a 3x Leica lens and 4K video, but no EVF and the burst rate tops out at just 10 fps. These are not bad alternatives if $1,000 for the Mark V is too steep.

However, if the RX100-series sounds too appealing, consider the earlier models. The original RX100, believe or not, is still available for sale. Although it lacks the latest sensor technology and features, it’s still a capable, one-inch sensor compact for photography. And, it has a easier-to-swallow price of $450. The RX100 Mark III ($700) offers a nice balance of price, tech, and features, while the Mark IV ($850) is the closest to the Mark V in performance (if you’re going to spend $850, you may as well try to save up for the Mark V).

How long will it last?

Sony typically updates the RX100 series every year so expect a Mark VI later this year or early in 2018. However, even the original RX100 can hold its own today (and is still available new), so the Mark V should easily provide years of great photos and videos.

Should you buy it?

Asking for nearly $1,000 for a point-and-shoot is tough, but if there’s ever been one to deserve that price tag, it’s the RX100 Mark V. For current Mark IV owners, the biggest improvement of the Mark V is the higher burst rate and improved autofocus system, which may not be enough to warrant the upgrade. For anyone else, however, if you can afford it, go for it. Just be sure to also buy that extra battery before you take it on your next vacation.

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