The RX1 truly opens up a new category of camera for Sony, debuting in black for an MSRP of $2799.99. This make it among the cheaper options for a full frame camera, though also far more expensive than other fixed lens compact cameras. We were able to spend some time shooting with the RX1, putting it through its paces, and came away impressed. We'll have a real performance breakdown once we get a production-level sample into our labs, but read on for our impression of shooting with the first compact full-frame digital camera.
The full-frame Sony DSC-RX1's design is quite astounding. It is not the smallest camera on the market, but sitting next to Sony's new full-frame DSLR, the A99, the RX1 looks positively petite. That the RX1 bears the same process and image sensor as the A99—which is already relatively lightweight and compact compared to other full frame cameras on the market—is simply astonishing. It opens up a new niche in the market for Sony, as they are the first company to place a full-frame digital sensor in such a small camera body.
The camera itself is designed as a second camera for professional photographers and the upper echelon of hobbyist shooters. The camera features a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.0 lens—no interchangeable lens mount here—with a 49mm diameter filter mount. Similar lenses from Carl Zeiss can cost anywhere from $1100-2000 for a full frame DSLR, though the fixed lens on the RX1 has some extra tricks up its sleeve due to its unique design.
The RX1's magnesium alloy body houses the kind of manual control you'd expect from a full-frame body. It has a manual exposure compensation, dual control dials, and a host of customizable options. The camera doesn't have a viewfinder of any kind, but it features a multi-accessory shoe on the top that can work with optional optical or electronic viewfinders, as well as certain flash guns. Without one of the optional finders, framing on the RX1 is left to the camera's 3-inch, 1.229M dot rear display.
The overall feel of the design is simple, going away from the trend of retro cameras we've seen on the market lately. The Sony DSC-RX1 seems very utilitarian at first glance, without the retro flourishes or homages to elder cameras that we've seen on other premium fixed lens cameras. While that's not going to win any beauty contests for the RX1, its combination of body size, sensor size, shooting speed, and quiet operation could make it one of the better street shooting cameras available.
The menu on the RX1 is designed just like a Sony Alpha DSLR, with pages of options separated into tabs that are organized horizontally along the top of the screen. This is in stark contrast to the more grid-based menu system of Sony's NEX system cameras, or their lower end point-and-shoots. The choice of menu design is a good one here, as this design is ideal for finding your way through loads of options quickly and easily. It also ensures that professionals or hobbyists used to shooting with Sony's Alpha DSLRs will feel right at home, without the need to adjust to a new menu system.
The Sony RX1, as you'd expect from a $2800 camera aimed at the high end of the market, features loads of control. It is designed for the high-end hobbyist or professional shooter, and doesn't cater much to the entry-level crowd. For those who know their way around a camera, the RX1 is quite customizable, letting you quickly adjust settings on the fly without having to dig into too many menus.
For those who are less comfortable around modern digital cameras, you may find the RX1's glut of options to be paralyzing. For these shooters, the RX1 also come with fully automatic and scene modes, as well as some of Sony's other beginner-friendly options such as auto portrait framing. There are easier options for beginners to get their hands on, though if you're in the "price is no object" crowd, the RX1 can still function like a basic point-and-shoot.
The Sony DSC-RX1 is quite small, coming in at 113.3mm wide, 64.5mm tall, and 69.7mm thick with lens included. That gives it a footprint of around 4.5 inches wide, with a width and height of approximately 2.5 inches. It'll fit into the pocket of a jacket or small purse, and certainly is more palatable for carrying around than a normal full frame DSLR.
The RX1 is partially wrapped in a slice of rubber that forms a decent grip for handling the camera. While slightly larger, it's otherwise quite similar to the recently announced RX100. It's not obnoxious to shoot with, though its grip is hardly what you'd call plush. The grip could probably protrude a little more to aid handling, though that would have to come at the cost of increased thickness. If you find the camera just too slick to hold on its own then there is an (expensive) optional thumb grip that slots into the camera's accessory shoe, affording a little better hold.
The dials themselves are fairly responsive, with three rings around the lens aiding control. The lens has a physical aperture ring, a macro switching ring, as well as a front focusing ring. This is in addition to the two control dials on the top of the camera (one dedicated for exposure compensation) and the rear control dial on the back of the camera.
The Sony RX1 goes with a physical mode dial, eschewing the in-camera mode menus that have been commonplace on the Sony NEX line. The mode dial allows easy and instant access to most of the camera's various modes, including the full suite of PASM modes, scene modes, a full automatic mode, and three user-savable custom settings. Also included on the dial are Sony's ubiquitous sweep panorama as well as a video mode.
The automatic mode on the Sony RX1 allows you to let the camera pretty much take over and do all the work for you. The camera features both a program automatic mode and a full smart auto mode. The program auto mode allows you to let the camera do most of the heavy lifting, while making adjustments to things like exposure control, ISO, and color filters.
The video mode on the RX1 makes use of the new AVCHD 2.0 standard, allowing for up to 1080/60p (28 Mbps) video recording with a full-frame sensor. It can also bump that down to 1080/24p (24Mbps), recorded to AVCHD H.264. You can also shoot in the awkward widescreen 1440x1080/30p or 1280x720/30pp at approximately 12Mbps in MP4. Standard definition 480/30p is also available, but at just 3Mbps.
When shooting video, users can select from any of the four PASM modes. This will allow you to adjust exposure settings on the fly while recording. We found that we were able to adjust shutter speed and ISO while recording, but not aperture. The firmware we used with the camera was still pre-production, so this may change in the final version of the RX1. The RX1 also included a mic input and HDMI output, though we didn't have the accessories on hand to take advantage or test these features out.
One area where the Sony RX1 lags behind the A99 is in terms of burst speed. The RX1 is only capable of shooting at roughly 5 frames per second, according to Sony's numbers, compared to 10fps on most of their interchangeable lens lineup. That still puts the RX1 on par with what the Nikon D800 can do with its higher resolution sensor, and is slightly behind the Canon 5D Mark III.
The Sony RX1 features a standard playback mode, activated by the "play" button on the back of the camera. The RX1 features just basic slideshow options in playback, with the ability to zoom in or out to check focus on photos you've captured.
The Sony RX1 uses the same image sensor and processor as the Sony A99, allowing it to capture 14-bit RAW files, as well as JPEG and RAW+JPEG images with a single shot. The camera's maximum resolution is 24.3 megapixels, which equates to a file size of 6000x4000 pixels.
The Sony RX1 uses contrast-detection autofocus utilizing the image sensor. Users can select from up to 25 zones within the sensor's frame to focus on, with options for single autofocus, continuous autofocus, and manual focus. There is a focus mode dial on the front of the camera that allows users to switch between these focus modes.
The 35mm lens has a normal close focus distance of 35cm from the lens to subject. This can be adjusted, however, using the camera's macro ring, which is built into the lens assembly. The macro ring actually alters the focus assembly physically to allow the camera to focus as close as 20cm, offering a higher degree of magnification than shooting normally.
In addition, the camera includes a focus peaking mode, which allows you to highlight in-focus areas in a bright color to ensure proper focus acquisition when manually focusing.
The RX1 uses the same 1200-zone metering system found on the rest of Sony's DSLR lineup. It has standard options for selecting center-weighted, spot, and evaluative metering. The RX1 has built-in HDR modes as well, for those looking to capture a wider dynamic range than the full-frame sensor will allow.
The Sony RX1 will include a native ISO range of 100-25600, though this is expandable to both ISO 50 and ISO 51200 in single shot modes. Through the use of the camera's multi-shot noise reduction, sensitivity up to ISO 102400 can also be achieved. This is slightly larger than the A99's range, which tops out at ISO 12800 normally, expandable to 25600 with the multi-shot NR mode (likely due to the translucent mirror blocking a percentage of the lens).
The Sony RX1 makes use of a 24.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS full-frame image sensor, the same as found in their new professional body, the A99. For those who maybe aren't aware, a full-frame image sensor is much larger than the APS-C image sensors that are seen in most non-professional DSLRs. This gives the RX1 the capability of capturing images on par with cameras such as the A99, Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark III, and others.
To put the sensor size in perspective, take Sony's recently announced compact camera, the RX100. The RX100 features a one-inch sensor (13.2x8.8mm), much larger than those found in most compact cameras. The RX1's full-frame sensor has an imaging area approximately seven times larger than the RX100 (116.16mm2 vs. 855.62mm2).
That's why the RX1 is so much more expensive than other compact cameras—producing full-frame image sensors is expensive and less efficient than producing APS-C sensors, hence the cameras are more expensive. The RX1 is also much smaller than all those other full-frame bodies, owing to its fixed 35mm f/2.0 lens, smaller battery, and lack of an optical viewfinder. The lens is not interchangeable, so RX1 shooters will only be able to shoot at the 35mm focal length unless they want to use digital zoom features built into the camera.
The only way to frame on the RX1 by default is with the 3-inch rear LCD. The monitor has a resolution of 1229k dots, though with just a VGA resolution. The screen truthfully looks much better than that, owing to Sony's "white magic" technology. White magic just means that each pixel can show red, greed, blue, as well as white, so it can produce better contrast.
The Sony RX1 does not feature a viewfinder of any kind—something that may put off some professional and hobbyist shooters whom the camera is intended for. Sony has produced two optional solutions, though, in the form of the FDA-V1K optical viewfinder (which matches the 35mm fixed focal length) and the FDA-EV1MK electronic viewfinder.
The RX1 features a small built-in flash that pops up from the top plate of the camera, similar to the flashes found on the Sony NEX-7. It's a mechanical release, meaning it can pop up at any time, without power to the camera. The flash has a guide number of 6, similar to flashes found on compact cameras.
The Sony RX1 keeps all of its various input/output ports on the left side of the camera behind plastic flaps. The camera has a 3.5mm mic input, HDMI output, as well as a standard micro USB port. The mic input and HDMI output are the most interesting, as the full-frame sensor and 1080/60p recording ability are sure to make a few video-centric shooters sit up and pay attention. We weren't able to see the video functionality in use during our short time with the camera, but we'll be sure to report on its capabilities when we have a production-level body in our hands.
The RX1 makes use of the NP-BX1 battery, the same that is used with the Sony RX100. The battery has a capacity of 1240mAh, which Sony states is capable of just 200 shots on a single charge. That's a massive trade-off, so you may want to pick up a second battery in order to make up the difference.
The Sony RX1 features a single memory slot, with the ability to record images to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, as well as Sony's proprietary MemoryStick PRODuo format. Our advice, as always, is stick with the standard SD format as much as possible.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is an exercise in contradiction: it's a compact camera with a massive full-frame image sensor, a fixed lens camera designed for professionals, a $2800 camera that might actually be a bargain.
At the heart of all this is the Sony RX1's image sensor: the same massive 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor found in their newly announced professional DSLR, the A99. It's the same size and quality of sensor as you'd find in cameras like the Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark III, more than twice as large as the APS-C image sensors found in most DSLRs.
It's that feature alone that sets the RX1 apart from all previous compact digital cameras. Paired with the camera's high-quality Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 Sonnar T* lens, the RX1's image quality could very well be on par most professional cameras. The price is in an entirely different stratosphere compared to other fixed lens compact cameras, but $3000 isn't bad for a full-frame body, even if you can't swap the lens.
The difference is that while you can pay $3000 for a Nikon D800 (or $3500 for a similar Canon 5D Mark III), that's a body-only price; you still have to buy high-quality optics to match. The fixed-lens nature of the RX1 is both its biggest advantage and its biggest flaw, depending on your perspective. On the one hand you get a high-quality lens and a compact body for the body-only price of other full-frame models. On the other, the RX1's inability to specialize may keep it a luxury that few photographers can justify purchasing.
In the end there's no getting around the RX1's massive price tag. In our minds there are two kinds of high-priced cameras: those that offer what cheaper cameras don't and those that are priced high simply because of the brand. The cameras that are worth it combine high-end hardware, features that can't be gotten at a lower price, and a user experience that aids the experienced shooter in producing great images.
It remains to be seen if Sony's gamble pays off, but we're eager to see if the RX1 can deliver on its promise of full-frame DSLR quality in a compact body. Either way, it's clear that Sony has pushed the boundaries of compact camera design to deliver something truly unique.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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