Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sony DSC-RX100 II First Impressions

Leaked copy of Japanese language manual. SonyAlpha Rumors

Sony just announced an upgrade to their acclaimed DSC-RX100 advanced compact. As per the rumors, the new model adds a tilt screen... and as a bit of an unanticipated surprise, a new back-side illuminated sensor (BSI) that purports to have 40%  improved light gathering efficiency. Best compact ever all over again, right?

via SonyAlpha Rumors
Many people would have been happy with just the addition of the tilt screen, considering the image quality that the RX-100 was capable of. The claimed increase of 40% light gathering sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that this correlates to just under 1/2 stop's worth of ISO power. For any sensor less than m4/3 size, this is more or less a generation's jump in image quality, so if the claims hold true, this isn't just a casual upgrade. Just as a reminder, BSI means that the sensor is constructed with the wiring interconnects below the light gathering substrate (convention is with the wiring above the substrate). Though there are some design implications, BSI generally allows for a clearer path from the microlenses into the photodiode, meaning more light is gathered, and from a greater angle as well. BSI offers the biggest improvements with small, tightly packed sensors where the wiring interconnects take up proportionally more of the sensor's surface area. At 20mp on a 1" sensor, the RX100 ii has photosites at 2.4µm. This is extremely small; by comparison, the photosites in an iPhone are 1.4 µm.

My comfort level with the RX-100 was to take it to about ISO 800 with the in-camera JPEG engine. Actually, it will produce smooth looking images to ISO 1600, but the noise suppression is a bit much for my personal taste. An extra 1/2 stop would probably not make for a dramatic improvement, but it would make the climb up the ISO range more tolerable. However, even as good as the RX-100 was over the rest of the compact field, it still won't produce images as crisp as the Sony 16mp m4/3 sensor used in the OM-D E-M5 and its sibling.

One area where they haven't been able to improve the camera is with the lens. At f/1.8-4.9, it's merely pedestrian by today's standards, as all of the competitors in the compact class have moved to brighter lenses. Like its predecessor, the RX-100 ii's large 1" sensor is the limiting factor. If you want to to get a lens that's faster at the long end, not only would the lens barrel have to fatten up, but the overall height of the camera body would have to increase with the increased barrel diameter.

Ordinarily, my value-oriented advice would be to go for a discounted version of the first RX-100, but Sony has been slow to drop the price on that camera, and has been the trend lately in the industry, is keeping it within the their camera line-up. The RX-100 currently goes for around $650 USD; the RX-100 ii will sell for $750. No doubt this will be a desirable camera, but once again, the price makes you think twice about else you could get for the same amount of money. For just a bit more, you could have the Fujifilm X-M1, which was just announced a couple of days before the RX-100ii. As before, Sony is charging a premium for having this much quality packed in such a tiny body.

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