Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 review

One-size-fits-all bridge cameras are often touted as DSLR alternatives, but they’ve always lacked great performance and image quality – until Sony’s Cyber-shot RX10 showed up, that is.
One-size-fits-all bridge cameras are often touted as DSLR alternatives, but they’ve always lacked great performance and image quality – until Sony’s Cyber-shot RX10 showed up, that is.
One-size-fits-all bridge cameras are often touted as DSLR alternatives, but they’ve always lacked great performance and image quality – until Sony’s Cyber-shot RX10 showed up, that is.

Highs

  • Excellent stills and videos
  • Great f/2.8 constant aperture
  • High-quality EVF

Lows

  • Expensive, heavy (for a bridge camera)
  • No touchscreen LCD
  • Would love a longer zoom

Interchangeable lens cameras are great, except for one nagging aspect: if you want a wide focal range you’re typically carrying a bag full of various glass. Needless to say, this isn’t much fun on vacation or even a simple day trip. Enter the long-zoom or “bridge” digicam, one of the few compact categories holding up against the smartphone tsunami. The new Sony Cyber-shot RX10 ($1,300) is one of the more exciting entries in this segment. Bridge cameras tend to be underpowered, but the RX10 is packed with performance and features. But will this one-size-fits-all camera get you to chuck out your old lenses and bodies?

Features and design

The RX10, running on a 20.2-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, looks like a DSLR; the size, weight, and dimensions are nearly similar to entry-level models like the Nikon D3300 and Canon EOS Rebel T5. It weighs a hefty 1.75-pounds with the battery and card, measuring 5.1 x 3.5 x 4.1. But there’s a big “but” here: the RX10 has a built-in 24-200mm, 8.3x zoom lens with an f/2.8 constant aperture. Constant aperture zooms are great since you can always shoot at f/2.8, even if you’re all the way out to 200mm. With traditional zooms, the maximum aperture changes as you adjust focal length. With the RX10’s constant aperture you can capture great blurred backgrounds throughout the range, playing with depth of field – something you can’t do with more traditional glass. By comparison constant f/2.8 aperture zooms from Canon or Nikon costs around $1,000-and-up. So, overall, the RX10 is a much smaller package than a DSLR fitted with that same type of glass. So that $1,300 initial price – while steep – is a relative bargain, especially since it’s also dust- and weather-resistant with a magnesium-alloy body, features found in enthusiast DSLRs.

Still and video quality is excellent while the Zeiss glass is outstanding.

In general, the knock we have against most long-zoom digicams is sensor size. Typically they are 1/1.7- or 1 /2.3-inches whereas the RX10 uses a 1-inch sensor (13.2 x 8.8mm) offering more than three times the surface area. By comparison, the $700 Olympus Stylus 1 with a 10.7x 28-300mm zoom has a 12.1MP 1/1.7-inch chip. As you well know, the more and larger pixels you have, the better the color accuracy and ability to take shots in low light with minimal digital noise. We’ve used one Sony camera with this bigger sensor – the RX100 Mark II – and the results were excellent, far better than competing compacts. Now Sony has put that sensor along with a more advanced BIONZ X processor in a long-zoom model, and it’s a key reason this camera and its lens are generating so much interest.

The all-black RX10 has a nicely textured surface and a deep grip. We found it comfortable but as in all cases you should do your own hands-on before buying. The front is dominated by the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens. It has one of our favorite features: an adjustable aperture ring with a range of f/2.8-16. With the supplied lens hood, the camera looks very professional. Also on the front are an AF Assist lamp and a dial to change focus mode (single, continuous, direct manual focus [DMF, a mode that lets you easily between manual and autofocus], and full manual).

Mimicking an enthusiast DSLR in construction, the RX10 also has a monochrome LCD on the top deck, which is something rarely found on long-zoom or compact cameras. A button nearby illuminates it when you’re in a dark spot. Also on top are a mode dial, hot shoe, pop-up flash, stereo mics, an exposure compensation dial (+/- 3 EV) and a “C” custom key. On the grip is a shutter button with a zoom toggle in front and on/off power in the back. The mode dial features Smart Auto, PASM, two user options, Movie, Sweep Panorama, and Scene (nine choices). It’s all pretty straightforward.

Sony DSC-RX10 review lens macro 2

On the back you’ll find two very nice features, an XGA OLED viewfinder and a 3-inch tilting LCD rated a fine 1,228K dots. The viewfinder is a beauty, and while not as good or bright as a DLSR’s optical VF it’s very clear. Since it’s electronic you can check how your adjustments impact the image in live view, a blessing for photographers of all levels. One negative is a bit of lag as you move quickly from one scene to another. Initially it’s a bit disconcerting since you expect the same experience as a DSLR because, in many ways, the RX10 looks and feels just like one. However, the benefit of seeing the results of your adjustments is worth it. The tilting LCD has excellent contrast and held up nicely in the Arizona sunshine. Nice icing on a tasty cake would have been a touchscreen, but as we always say, there’s no such thing as a perfect camera.

Controls on the back include Menu, a red-dot movie button, a small jog dial, AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) and FN (Function) keys, Playback, and Delete. A control ring with center OK concludes the button parade.

On the right side is a compartment for either Memory Stick or SD cards, as well as the NFC sensor. On the left are inputs for optional headphones and mics as well as HDMI and USB outs. On the bottom is a tripod mount and battery compartment.

What’s in the box

The package includes the camera, strap, lens cap, lens hood, AC adaptor, and lithium-ion battery (FW50) that’s good for 420 shots (per CIPA rating). The RX10 has in-camera charging so make sure you plug it in overnight before hitting the streets if you don’t plan on purchasing a spare. You also get a 38-page instruction manual that just covers the basics. The Sony site has an in-depth, downloadable guide that goes into the nuances of the camera. No CD is supplied so you’ll have to download PlayMemories Home and Image Data Converter software to handle images and develop RAW files. Since the camera has built-in Wi-Fi, you should also download PlayMemories Mobile (Android, iOS) to send photos to your phone, as well as to operate the camera remotely.

Performance and use

This is the second time we’ve had our hands on the RX10 – the first was in November with a preproduction model. And, seriously, it was kind of overshadowed since the full-frame mirrorless A7 and A7R were available to shoot at the same time; you can imagine which ones we wanted to play with the most! In this instance we had a full production model and could shoot in our usual test bed, the Southwest surroundings.

 With the RX10’s constant aperture you can capture great blurred backgrounds throughout the range.

We set the camera to maximum resolution (5472 x 3648 pixels) for stills and 1080/60p AVCHD Progressive for videos. As usual we started off in Smart Auto, then spun the mode dial to put the camera through its paces.

Before getting into the results we’ll state the RX10 is a very solid camera that’s a pleasure to use. It feels just like a compact DSLR but you immediately know it’s very different once you put your eye to the EVF. We’ve never had issues with electronic viewfinders but it’s definitely a different experience than the classic optical VF, so be prepared. Is this a deal-breaker? No, but we still want to put it out there.

The RX10 offers many tweaks once you go beyond Intelligent Auto. Just hit the FN key and you have access to contrast, saturation, and sharpness in a variety of Creative Styles (standard, vivid, and so on). There’s a built-in Neutral Density filter as well as a variety of Picture Effects and exposure bracketing. Having the exposure compensation dial on the top deck is a real bonus, as is the LCD readout. Critical shutterbugs will find very little missing with this camera – and they shouldn’t for $1,300! Actually, they will, but it might not be noticeable in real-world shooting since the top shutter speed is 1/3200 compared to 1/4000th of a second for even the cheapest DSLR. Focusing is quite fast, thanks to a 25-point AF system; during our sessions, we never had any issues with “hunting and grabbing.”

But the killer feature with the RX10 is the f/2.8 constant aperture, 8.3x Zeiss lens. Most of the time we lingered in Aperture Priority mode, just so we could capture sharp foreground images with nicely blurred backgrounds (see samples). As a nice touch, you can turn off the clicking sound on the aperture ring by pushing a handy toggle switch. We found the 24-200mm focal range to be satisfying but if we could get more zoom we wouldn’t complain, just as we’d love to have a touch-enabled LCD. Again, you know our mantra – there’ no such thing as a perfect camera. Still the RX10 is definitely a standout and the built-in SteadyShot optical image stabilization is quite good, even when handholding at full telephoto.

Like the 20.2MP RX100 Mark II, this newer Sony delivers very accurate colors in the default setting but you can make as many adjustments as you’d like. The RX10 handles noise very well with a range of 125-12,800 ISO; our test shots were taken without noise reduction. The results were solid until ISO 1,600, and dots became noticeable at 2,000 and above, with a drop off at ISO 2,500. Images were still decent until ISO 4,000 when color shifts became very noticeable. As you’d imagine at 6,400 and 12,800, images were poor but still useable at a small size. You will have little difficulty shooting in dim available light, especially with that wide-open aperture.

Sony remains a Wi-Fi implementation leader along with Samsung. Pairing our Droid 4 to the RX10 was fairly effortless. Onscreen prompts walk you through the few steps and the supplied in-camera password. Inputting the code would be that much easier with a touchscreen LCD but this is not astrophysics. Once completed, you can quickly upload images to your smartphone and start sharing. If you have NFC, the pairing is nearly effortless; our Droid 4 doesn’t support the technology so we can’t comment on that aspect of the camera, but we have successfully paired smartphones like the Sony Xperia Z1s and Samsung Galaxy S4 with other Sony NFC-enabled cameras.

Very few DSLRs support the AVCHD Progressive format found in this camera. Instead of 1080p at 30 fps, the RX10 captures 1080/60p. As an added plus, there are onboard stereo mics for more realistic soundtracks. Stereo is good but as with almost every camera mic, gentle breezes sound like hurricanes. Fortunately, there is very little noise as you zoom – something that’s hard to state with a DSLR – and focusing in fast and accurate as you travel the focal range. Just as important, colors really pop. If you’re serious about video, you can always use an optional mic for more accurate sound (Sony touts the RX10 as a filmmaker’s tool in its promotional materials). And for budding videographers, you not only can record in Program AE but aperture- and shutter-priority as well as full manual.

Conclusion

We began this review with the conundrum every DSLR owner confronts – dealing with myriad lenses and shoulder-breaking gear bags – and whether there is a high-quality, portable solution for these issues. The Sony Cyber-shot RX10 is it and it deserves our Editor’s Choice designation. Still and video quality is excellent while the Zeiss glass is outstanding. Granted it is expensive and there are a few negatives, but we’d be hard pressed to believe anyone would squawk about the tradeoffs. If you’re looking for a fine camera for your next vacation, this is it.

Highs

  • Excellent stills and videos
  • Great f/2.8 constant aperture
  • High-quality EVF

Lows

  • Expensive, heavy (for a bridge camera)
  • No touchscreen LCD
  • Would love a longer zoom
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