Buying a digital camera these days presents several quality/value/size conundrums.
First, since your smartphone can take 5 or 8 MP candids, do you need a cheap point-and-shoot for casual shots and spur-of-the-moment videos (but not like this)? Probably not.
For vacations and special events you want a higher-quality camera, which likely means a D-SLR. But have you ever schlepped around a D-SLR while site-seeing? No matter where you hang it, around your neck or on a shoulder, after an hour or so it starts to feel as if you're lugging a rock and will either throw your spine out of alignment or turn you into a hunchback.
And this hauling doesn't take into account the extra lens or lenses you'll feel technically obliged to tote along. (What's the point of dragging around a D-SLR unless you exploit the whole interchangeable lens option, right?)
Several camera makers such as Panasonic, Nikon, Samsung, Olympus and Pentax have created a middle option, so called "mirrorless" or "compact system" cameras (CSC), which include those adhering to the Micro Four Thirds format, that deliver D-SLR-like quality and D-SLR-like interchangeable lens flexibility but without the scoliosis-inducing bulk of a D-SLR.
But Sony feels even these compact system cameras don't quite fit the bill of our mobile picture-taking lifestyle.
At the end of July, the company will start selling the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 ($650), a pocket-sized digital camera with a fixed lens just like a point-and-shoot camera, but with D-SLR-quality aspirations. Sony has dubbed the RX100 the "professional's compact camera."
It's all about the sensor
At the heart of the RX100 is its imaging sensor. Without getting too technical, its proprietary 1-inch CMOS chip, the largest sensor ever in such a small camera.
The larger the sensor, the better the low-light performance. (By comparison, my own Canon G12, pictured side-by-side with the RX100, employs a 1.5-inch image sensor chip.)
Sony admits its 1-inch chip won't necessarily out-perform cameras with larger chips. But it says the resulting photos come real close thanks to its home-grown processor and lens technology.
And no other CSC camera fits in your pocket like the RX100, which is the whole point.
Spec-wise, here's the basics of what the RX100 offers:
- 20.2 megapixels
- 3-inch LCD screen
- 3.6 optical zoom (F1.8/11, F4.9/11 zoom aperture, 28-100mm lens)
- 1920 x 1080p full HD video
- 330-shot battery with USB charging (rather than a separate battery charger)
- 10 frame-per-second burst mode
- optical image stabilization
- full manual and programmable modes
How will the RX100 live up to Sony's hype, both in terms of quality and ergonomics? While the company showed impressive sample shots and let us handle samples for a bit, only real-world usage will tell. We'll have to let you know.