Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III review

In the market for a great compact digital camera? Buy Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 III.
In the market for a great compact digital camera? Buy Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 III.
In the market for a great compact digital camera? Buy Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 III.

Highs

  • Excellent compact camera
  • Beautiful 20.1MP stills
  • Outstanding XAVC S videos
  • Breakthrough pop-up EVF

Lows

  • Expensive
  • No hot shoe
  • Limited focal range

They say that the third time’s always the charm. But Sony has been charming us with its Cyber-shot RX100 series since the first model. Now in its third iteration, it’s the rare camera that gets treated like a rock star – if one was to judge by the comments in online forums. And why shouldn’t it be treated like a Beyoncé-like diva? This digicam is based on the highly rated RX100 II and has some serious new features and technologies crammed into a compact body. Can the RX100 III uphold the accolades bestowed on its predecessors?

Features and design

At first glance, the 20.1-megapixel RX100 III ($800) looks similar to the original RX100 and DT Editors’ Choice, the RX100 II, but there are some major differences like a new lens, processor, and a pop-up electronic viewfinder (EVF), with the latter being the coolest of all new features. You’d be hard pressed finding another compact camera this small with a usable EVF. This is one of those amazing breakthroughs rarely seen in the sea of digital cameras that pass through our offices.

The all-black RX100 III measures 4 x 2.4 x 1.7 inches, and weighs a bit more than 10 ounces when fully loaded. Powered off, it’s easily slips into a pocket. Fired up in shooting position, it’s about 3 inches deep but overall it’s very small yet still has a substantial feel.

The viewfinder is a breakthrough and the quality is excellent.

Another major enhancement is a new Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens. Instead of a 28-100mm zoom on the earlier editions, the RX100 III is 24-70mm (2.9x). Although you’re giving up a lot on the telephoto end, it’s much brighter overall with an aperture range of f/1.8-2.8 versus f/1.8-4.9. Since it gathers in almost twice as much light at 70mm, you’ll have better opportunities for good images in dim settings. This shorter zoom may be a problem for some shutterbugs, so a test drive is important. There’s a control ring around the lens and its functions change when you switch modes. Also on the front of the camera is an AF Assist lamp to aid with focus.

At the far left of the top deck is the pop-up EVF. It’s a 0.39-inch SVGA OLED screen that’s rated 1,440K dots; Sony calls it Tru-Finder. You click a switch on the left side of the camera body and, like magic, it appears. You do have to pull it out toward you, about a half-inch, in order to use it; there’s a diopter switch to make adjustments for your eyesight. This is way cool, an honest-to-goodness breakthrough and the quality is excellent.

In order to accommodate the EVF, something had to give: the hot shoe. There’s a built-in flash, but you can’t add an external one. Next to the EVF is a pop-up flash, an on/off key, zoom toggle, and main mode dial.

The main feature on the back is a hinged 3-inch LCD that can be adjusted 180 degrees for selfie mode. The display is very good, rated at 1,229K dots and we had no issues shooting in bright sunshine once the Sunny Weather setting was engaged. To the right of the screen are a small thumb rest, red-dot video button, and keys for Function, Menu, Playback, and Custom. There’s also a jog wheel with center OK button. The four points give access to Flash, Exposure Compensation, Burst/Self-Timer, and Display.

On the right side are two small compartments for the USB and HDMI connections, and on the left are the aforementioned switch to raise the EVF and the NFC (Near Field Communication) tag for quick pairing with Android devices. On the bottom are the battery and card slots; it accepts SD and Memory Stick media. You’ll definitely want to purchase a very high-speed, high-capacity card, especially if you want to capture videos with the new XAVC S codec that records movies at 50 Mbps versus 28 Mbps of typical AVCHD clips. We found out the hard way when we loaded an 8GB SDHC (UHS-I) card and discovered it couldn’t record the new format. A Sony 64GB SDXC card did the trick (UHS-I compatible). These newer cards are more expensive at $1-plus per GB than standard SDHC media, so be prepared.

Like nearly all new Sony cameras, the RX100 III comes with Wi-Fi connectivity, which you can use with Android and iOS devices via Sony’s PlayMemories app. We’ve mentioned this in previous Sony reviews, but Sony has one of the better Wi-Fi implementations. You can use it to easily share and upload images with a smartphone or tablet, or use a smart device to remotely control the camera.

What’s in the box

When you buy the RX100 III, you’ll get the camera, battery, and AC adapter. The power pack is rated a good 320 shots and it’s charged in-camera via the supplied USB cable. Sony also supplies a wrist strap, a 39-page instruction manual, and two booklets; one on how to use the EVF and another for Wi-Fi/NFC connectivity. No CDs are supplied, so you have to download PlayMemories Home from Sony’s website to handle stills and videos and Image Data Converter for processing RAW files. Download PlayMemories Mobile (iOS/Android) for smartphone sharing via the respective app stores.

Warranty

Sony offers a limited one-year warranty, but the company also offers an extended service plan called Protection Plus. Considering how much this camera costs, getting extra protection may be a wise investment.

Performance and use

The RX100 III uses the same 1-inch, 20.1-megapixel Exmor R sensor as the RX100 II and the RX10 (5,472 x 3,456 pixels, JPEG/RAW maximum resolution). This sensor measures 13.3 x 8.8mm, smaller than Micro Four Thirds or the sensor used in the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II, but still much larger than enthusiast digicams like the Panasonic Lumix LX7, Fujifilm XQ1, or Canon PowerShot S120. The new model also has an improved Bionz X processor, currently used in the much more expensive Sony A7 series. What Bionz X does is to expand the ISO range, improve video/still quality, and generally enhances performance.

The Sony menu system is understandable and linear, so setting the camera up to your liking takes no time. Most often you’ll hit the FN (Function) key to access photo parameters such as exposure compensation, ISO, metering, ND filter level, white balance, and so on. Aperture and shutter speed are handled by the scroll wheel or via the lens, depending on the mode chosen and your preference. The onscreen graphics are very legible.

The mode dial has the usual collection of Sony options, including Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, PASM, Memory Recall (for your selected presets), Movie, Sweep Panorama, and Scene (13 options). If you want special effects, there are 13 choices available in the menu system.

We really liked the image quality of the Mark II and RX10, so we weren’t expecting any surprises here. Colors were outstanding, with a depth that was much appreciated on a 27-inch monitor. Our usual feline model sat still long enough, so we got some nice portraits using aperture priority to get a blurry background. This is the beauty of an f/1.8-2.8 lens: the RX100 III’s 70mm is not the classic 85mm of portrait lens glass but it’s close enough, so capturing human faces will be a pleasure. The cat looked pretty good too, especially enlarging her face for a more dramatic crop. This is just one of the reasons you want as large an image sensor as your budget allows.

You’re giving up some telephoto reach but you’re getting a wider lens.

We also took the RX100 III to some colorful Southwestern locales and just had fun shooting between a nice wide angle and the admittedly limited telephoto. This bothered us a bit when we luckily were in position to grab a wave of blowing sand as it came in from the desert – it would’ve been nice to zoom in a bit more.

Bottom line: Yes, you’re giving up some reach but you’re getting a wider lens in both angle of view and aperture. This is a trade-off we believe many photographers will happily make – especially when you consider the overall image quality and breakthrough EVF. We were almost giddy having such a high-quality viewfinder as an option.

Another real improvement is the XAVC S video format. Since it records motion at 50 Mbps rather than 24 or 28, quality is much more fluid and natural. Without a doubt, these were some of the best clips we’ve ever taken with a digital camera, let alone a compact model. We grabbed some clips of that dust storm moving through Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as a serious lightning display, and the RX100 III handled both very well. The camera has built-in optical stabilization that helps minimize blur for movies and stills.

On top of all this, the RX100 III is quite responsive. It focuses quickly and has a 10-frames-per-second burst mode. Since it doesn’t have the processing power of a DSLR, it only grabs around 12 frames before slowing down. Also, the top shutter speed is 1/2,000 versus 1/4,000 or more for DSLRs. In other words, given the limited telephoto range and other technical issues, this is not one for the sidelines of your favorite sporting events. Then again, if that’s your motivating factor, a super-zoom is the pick; for everyday shooting, however, the RX100 III definitely does the trick, and then some.

The RX100 III has extensive ISO options that include lows of 80 and 100, along with 25,600 on the top end; native range is 125-12,800. Given the wide aperture, as well the imager/processor combination, the RX100 III is an excellent performer in low light. In our tests, ISO held solid to ISO 2,000, then gently lost quality up to about 5,000 (from there, things went south with noticeable color shifts and smearing). You might get away with 8,000 for something really small but that would be a stretch; our advice would be to avoid it and stay below 4,000. Still, if you’re shooting at f/1.8 and ISO 2,000 you should get some nice images even if you’re really in very low light without the flash.

Sony RX100 III sample image iso 12800

Once you have all your photos, using your smartphone and the RX100 III is simple. You go into the camera’s wireless menu, select Send To Smartphone, enter the password shown on the camera, pick the images you want to share and off they go. Pairing was effortless, as it should be.

Conclusion

It’s really simple: If you have the money and are in the market for a great compact digital camera, go ahead and purchase the RX100 III for all the reasons detailed. As an all-around package, there’s really nothing quite like it; it beats out even the similarly priced Canon’s G1 X Mark II, another digicam we really like. Take note that it’s one expensive camera, and the zoom is limited, but in return you get great image and video quality. Now, realize this is the fast-moving camera market and there’s always the chance someone will come along and top the RX100 III, but in 2014 this is one rock star that deserves all the cheers.

Highs

  • Excellent compact camera
  • Beautiful 20.1MP stills
  • Outstanding XAVC S videos
  • Breakthrough pop-up EVF

Lows

  • Expensive
  • No hot shoe
  • Limited focal range

Update December 21, 2017: Sony has since released new versions of the RX100 camera, the RX100 Mark IV and RX100 Mark V. The Mark III remains on in the product lineup and is still available new. This review was originally published on August 1, 2014.

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