With the advent of smartphones the compact camera has become about as contemporary as a Walkman. The next step? Being relegated to Urban Outfitters as a hipster’s novelty purchase. Major brands are abandoning the segment faster than dubstep and everyone seems to think that an Instagram filter (#nofilter, please) is what most people will ever need in portable image making. That’s good and fine, but we’d like to introduce you to an alternative.

Meet the anti-hipster camera, the new Sony RX100. It’s expensive, it’s the best at what it does, it’s sexy and modern, and it has no daddy issues. Similar to the USS Defiant of DS9 fame [/nerd], it wasn’t thought possible until now to load such an excessive amount of firepower into a body so sleek and agile. In skilled hands this is a camera that will not leave a capable photog feeling underequipped or outgunned. Best of all, it slips easily into your back pocket.

Here’s our take after a weekend with the RX100.

Sensor

Firing over 20 megapixels in each salvo, the RX100 resolves detail that can exceed that of a full size DSLR camera. Even with a frivolous amount of pixels packed on its 1-inch sensor, dynamic range and tonal response are clearly competitive with much large sensor full sized cameras. There hasn’t been a scene that we’ve run into where the sensor has left us wanting. Will it replace an entire system with interchangeable primes and a hot shoe? No, probably not for most professionals or enthusiasts but never has a camera so small been capable of achieving so much.

Lens

In the image quality equation, your photo will only be as strong as the weakest link of the imaging chain. In digital cameras, the sensor is only one component of that equation. The laser precise molded optics in front of the sensor that shapes the light that forms the photo is perhaps even more important.

Located now in the snowy German valley town of Oberkochen, Carl Zeiss AG engineers have designed the future of optics for over 150 years. On the other side of the world, the company that started as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo and now known as Sony, formed a partnership with this renowned optics company in 1996. The optics inside the Sony RX100 are easily the most successful collaboration between these two storied companies.

The lens in the RX100 starts at a wide 28mm and ends at 100mm. It is not an assuredly compromised super zoom design — you don’t really want that in a high quality optic anyway. With an impressively large F1.8 aperture on the wide end, it is prime-lens like in its ability to gather light. A characteristic of this Vario-Sonnar is that there are some spherical aberrations that occur if you use it wide open with a near subject. That means at F1.8, your close subjects will exhibit a pleasing effect somewhat similar to a “soft focus” digital filter but much nicer. Once the subject is a few feet away from the lens, even at its maximum F1.8 aperture the resolved detail is biting sharp.

Stopped down one stop from max, there are no faults with this lens. The longer telephoto end is a bit slower at F4.9 but its sharp even on the long end. Having personally owned and used more than a dozen lenses badged with the Zeiss logo, I can say that this lens produces photos that are very familiar to me, which means they which means they have that X (or Z) factor people seek out in Zeiss glass: healthy levels of micro contrast accompanied by high-overall contrast.

Interface & Usability

Thankfully, the RX100 has not inherited the slightly terrible menu interface from the NEX line. The menus are inspired from the Alpha DSLR line, a good thing. Unfortunately, from the glass-half-empty perspective, Sony has adopted the lens wheel design popularized by the Canon S90 but without the most important part.

If you use the camera on default settings, the front wheel is tied to the aperture in most of the modes. This is great except for the fact that Sony has not imbued the wheel with tactile clicks. I found myself just spinning the wheel like the Price is Right, and hoping that I land on the right apertures setting. Without the clicks and with a slight delay in the interface, it’s difficult to get the aperture where you want it if you use the front control wheel. If you’re a regular shooter, you probably already have your aperture clicks in muscle memory, but that’s not possible with the RX100.

With its larger sensor, you will occasionally see dust marks in some of your photos if there is a lot of sky and a shrunk aperture. Unfortunately, this is impossible to avoid, and no way to clean up except in post. The retracting lens designs along with a lens group that “breathes” means that the RX100 is pumping air so internal dust is something to take into consideration.

Another unavoidable shortcoming is that the screen is not touch sensitive and does not pivot. Since it boasts Sony’s latest White Lantern super (duper) LCD technology though, it’s easily viewable in direct sunlight — something you won’t really appreciate until you’ve tried shooting with it at 1pm in the middle of July. Sony hasn’t figured out a way to adapt this to use capacitive touch technology, but this isn’t a bad compromise — just don’t forget that shooting at waist level provides a more interesting perspective than eye or shoulder level shooting. We haven’t tested it yet, but Flipbac offers a quasi-mirror solution as well.

Tips

Control Wheel: The lens mounted control wheel is configurable and we’ve found it works best in controlling the zoom. If you set the rear control wheel (which has tactile clicks) to control the aperture, manual control of the camera is much improved. It just feels more natural to have it control the focal length.

Optimal Aperture: Because of diffraction, the optimal aperture for this lens is around F4 and it should be enough depth of field for landscapes.

Depth of Field: If you want to create a shallow depth of field look (yes, you bloggers), your best bet is to get as close to the subject as you can.

Flash: While the flash is weak at least it can be tilted just like the Sony NEX-7. Indoors if you have ceilings, bump up the ISO a bit to 400 or 800, tilt the flash up and you’ll have much cleaner looking results.

GPS: Unlike the Olympus TG-1 or Canon S100, Sony did not fit GPS into the camera. You can however get some automated geo-tagging done by using an Eye-Fi card. It will only work in areas where there is wifi as it uses A-GPS to do it’s locating sensing.

Charging & Loading: You just need a single Micro-USB cable to charge the camera. This is often the same cable you find that charges your android phone or tablet. If you use one of these cables, you might be able to just get away with a single cable for all your devices.

Conclusion

The conclusion here is simple. The RX100 is a game-changer. Utilizing an oversized Exmor one inch sensor and a contrasty Zeiss designed lens, it will handily beat all comers in its class. The RX100 punches above its weight and can take on more expensive and larger cameras without breaking a sweat. If I were on a trip, junket, or at the ends of the earth, I wouldn’t miss my NEX, Micro Four Third or Full frame system in most situations. It’s that good.

Cameras have always been all about compromises and its rare that a new product comes forward and pushes the envelope of compromise up a notch. This is the first pocket camera that I’ve used that I would have no qualms about printing poster sized productions. Its files are clean on the ISOs that are worth using, the lens is sharp and full of character, and the tonality of the results are rich.

Can the RX100 produce commercial print worthy photos? With the right operator, yes. There are a few drawbacks like the lack of a tilt-screen, an electronic viewfinder or a hotshoe, but who cares. The camera you have with you is better than no camera at all — or instagram — and at the end of the day, you’ll end up using the RX100, over and over again.

Buy Now: $649

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