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Sony’s New Pocket Cam Is Great — But Is It Worth $1,000?

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

You know why I love reviewing the Sony RX100 camera?

Because of reflected glory. When I recommend this camera, readers send me love letters. They actually thank me for “finding” this camera.

The RX100 is a very expensive ($800+), very amazing pocket camera. Many critics call it the best pocket camera ever made. Thanks to a huge light sensor and an incredible f/1.8 lens, it offers most of the control and quality of a bigger and heavier SLR camera — and yet it fits in your pocket or purse.

Photo above courtesy of Sony; the rest were taken by David Pogue with the RX100.

Here are some sample shots, so you know what kind of quality we’re talking about:

(To view a slideshow of the full-resolution originals with explanatory captions, click through to my Flickr set. You’ll quickly understand why a phone camera could never do what this camera does.)

Sony introduced the RX100 in 2012 and has updated it each year. The second edition, the Mark 2 (2013), added the ability to tilt the screen and the option to send pictures to your smartphone wirelessly. The Mark 3 (2014) added a pop-up eyepiece viewfinder, which is incredibly useful (and the only one on the market). And now, this week, Sony brings us the RX100 Mark 4.

The things that make the RX100 truly amazing haven’t changed in the Mark 4. It’s still a professional-quality camera packed into an unbelievably small package — one you can put into a pants pocket. You can read my review here to see why a big sensor, pop-up viewfinder, and f/1.8 lens are such a big deal — and to read about Canon’s rival, the G7X. (Short version: The Canon offers the same amazing lens and sensor — with a better zoom and lower price. But the Canon suffers from lower battery life, lacks a panorama mode, and has no optical viewfinder. The Sony’s panorama mode is phenomenal.)

The leading disappointment of the previous model hasn’t changed, either: The Sony has a wonderful wide angle, but the maximum zoom is only 2.9X. 

The big news in the new Sony isn’t something immediately visible, like the tilting screen or pop-up viewfinder; in fact, upon physical inspection, the Mark 4 appears to be identical to the Mark 3.

What’s new is the sensor inside. It is, Sony says, a “stacked CMOS” sensor of the type that has been used only in tiny phone cameras until now, because it’s very expensive to build. It’s a three-layer sandwich: a light-sensitive layer in front, processing circuitry in the back, and now, in between, a layer of memory circuitry.

“We put in signal processing, too,” a rep told me. “So we don’t have to take the data off the imager and then process it elsewhere in the camera.”

The beauty of this design, Sony says, is speed. Absolutely insane speed. Speed that is supposed to give you features like instantaneous autofocus, 4K video recording, ridiculously fast shutter speeds, crazy-high burst mode rates, the ability to snap stills while recording video, and — here’s the killer app — slow-motion video recording at 960 frames a second. That’s slowing down reality by 40 times. That’s stretching out two seconds of real time to about 1.5 minutes.

The good news: All of that is true, to a point. The bad news? There are many caveats and some poor execution — the first real stumbles in the RX100’s four-generation history. And the camera’s price goes up $200 to accommodate it all, to a swallow-hard $1,000.

Autofocus, shutter speed, burst mode

It’s true. The new RX100 snaps into focus almost instantly when you half-press the shutter button. There’s no “hunting” — where the lens takes a second to find focus, overshooting and then retreating a couple of times — which is especially nice when you’re shooting video.

The promised crazy-fast electronic shutter is real, too. This baby can take stills in as little as 1/32,000th of a second. You can have the aperture open wide even on blazing-bright sunny days and still get perfect focus and exposure. 

(“To get this effect on a traditional camera, you’d need an ISO [light-sensitivity] setting of, like, 1. Or a whole stack of neutral-density filters,” a Sony rep told me, referring to two drastic light-reducing tactics of experienced photographers.) 

Or you can freeze action that’s over in a microsecond, like a sneeze, a balloon bursting, or a typical Kardashian marriage.

And yes, in burst mode, this Sony really does snap 16 shots a second, at full 20-megapixel resolution. Burst mode is great for capturing sports action, of course, but also for finding the precisely perfect instant in a growing smile. Man, if you can’t find just the right moment of that baseball swing, it wasn’t there.

(Note that you get the 16 frames per second only if the subject’s focus and exposure don’t change between shots. If you want the camera to refocus between shots, 5.5 frames a second is the maximum burst mode.)

4K video

According to Sony, the RX100 M4 is the smallest 4K real video camera in the world — not counting phones and GoPro-style recorders, which lack zoom lenses, image stabilization, photographic manual control, and so on.

4K, of course, is video with four times the clarity of high definition. You see the difference only when you play it on a 4K television, which isn’t exactly here yet. (Read more about it here.)

Here’s what the Sony’s 4K footage looks like on YouTube:

The RX100 M4 offers a dizzying number of different video formats, qualities, and frame rates:

Unfortunately, the most 4K video this camera can record is five minutes at a time. You can’t film the school play or the kids’ championship soccer game with it, which is kind of a bummer.

No matter what kind of video you capture, though, here’s a beautiful bonus of that crazy new sensor: The “rolling shutter” effect is gone. (That’s a weird visual side effect that pops up when you film things like airplane propellers or golf swings. It makes your subjects look like they’re wiggling like Jell-O. Here’s an example from YouTube.)

Stills during video

I’ve actually had this conversation with my wife when we show up at important events with our respective cameras: “Do you want to take the stills or videos?”

With this camera, you don’t have to ask anymore. Whether it’s whale watching, a kid getting an award onstage, or an important baseball at-bat, you no longer have to choose. You can be shooting video and press the shutter button to capture 17-megapixel stills, without any sound or break in the video.

It took me awhile to get this to work, though. It’s available only when you dive into the camera’s settings and switch to AVCHD or MP4 as the recording format.

Super-high-frame-rate slow motion

You may be pleased with your smartphone’s slow-motion feature; the iPhone, for example, can shoot 240 frames per second (fps), which slows down reality by eight times. (Normal motion-picture video is recorded and played back at about 24 frames per second.)

There are times, though, when you need much slower slow motion. Slowing down high-speed events is a mind-blowing window into the invisible. Scientists rent special pro cameras for this. So do sports coaches, naturalists, and Hollywood cinematographers.

At 960 fps, this Sony strikes a very cool new spot on the spectrum between phone slo-mo and the 20,000 fps of specialized video equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars. Splashes, explosions, impacts of any kind — all of them look amazing when shot with this camera. Here are a few I made at home:

And here’s some of Sony’s own RX100 footage.

There are lots of caveats here, though.

  • None of the slo-mo modes record sound.
  • The clip lengths are extremely limited. The longest you can record at 960 fps is two or four seconds of real time. Then again, that’s plenty for most purposes — that four-second clip will take 2.7 minutes to play back! 
  • You can also choose 480 or 240 fps instead. The higher the frame rate you choose, the more light you need.
  • The clip length you choose affects the resolution of the video. At two seconds, the frame is 1920 by 1080 pixels (aka high definition). At four seconds, it’s slightly smaller (1676 by 840 pixels).

The setup and operation of high definition is confusing. You turn the mode dial on top to say HFR (high frame rate). Then you press the center button on the five-way controller (not the MOVIE button and not the shutter button) and wait while the screen says “Preparing.”

Once the screen says “STBY,” you can’t make any more adjustments. (You can’t zoom, for example.) You can now start capture by pressing the MOVIE button.  

For maybe a couple of minutes, you see a progress bar and the word “Recording,” which seems to mean both “capturing footage” and “saving it.” You can’t control the length of the clip — if you try pressing MOVIE again, nothing happens. 

Both the user manual and the onscreen information is, as a Sony rep confessed, written very poorly and needs to be fixed.

The saving grace of the HFR feature is the End Trigger, an option that lets you press the MOVIE button to start recording after the event has already happened. 

How does the RX100 manage to go backward in time? Simple: Once you press that center button to enter STBY, the camera is constantly recording and discarding HFR video. When you finally press MOVIE, you’re saying, “Preserve the last couple of seconds I shot, and then quit recording.” It works really well — after you get used to the peculiar feeling of hitting the MOVIE button after the action is over.

With such a short filming window (two or four seconds), that may be your only hope of catching things that happen suddenly in real life. 

High price, high frame rate

If you won a lottery and could choose between the Sony RX100 Mark 3 and the new Mark 4, of course you’d want the new one. It sacrifices none of the Mark 3’s miracles and adds those useful speed features.

I dearly wish you that kind of luck.

But if you’re spending your own money — well, you’re paying $200 more for a bunch of features that you’ll probably use only in edge cases. How often, exactly, do you need 1/32,000 shutter speed, or short 4K video clips, or ridiculously slow motion? For most people, those would be nice to have, but are rarely needed. (I should also mention that the RX100′s already short battery life is even shorter now: 280 shots on a charge. I lost a great piece of whale-watching footage when my loaner camera died partway through the afternoon.)

I maintain, and have always maintained, that if you care about photography but don’t want to haul around an additional piece of luggage, you should buy a Sony RX100.

But this year, the upgrade isn’t automatically worth it. Last year’s model, the RX100 Mark 3, remains on the market. For most people, it offers the miracle of the modern Sony RX100 — and leaves $200 in your pocket.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the comments below.