27/08/2013 15:45 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review

Pure power but a little dour

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What is it?
The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II is the second coming of the high-end power compact that’s aimed as the carry-around camera of the enthusiast photographer.  

What’s great?
Superb image quality, great for video and very nice camera to carry around. 

What’s not?
The buttons are a bit fiddly and the settings sometimes hard to access. It can be difficult to use and there’s little good creative fun available  

The bottom line:
It’s a definite hit for the purist photographer but it won’t be the whole family’s cup of tea because it's not a lot of fun. Sometimes enthusiasts need a little enthusing too.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II (© Sony)

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: Review

The original Sony Cyber-shot RX100 has been a massive hit. It’s a powerful pocket camera with both portability and image quality as the two standout considerations. So, why make a second version? Well, with the RX100 II comes a bigger image sensor, which means better results in low light conditions; the addition of Wi-Fi; a new hot shoe for plugging in accessories; and the 3-inch screen on the back is now mounted on a flip-out bracket for more possibilities to shoot from the hip.

While that all sounds well and good, is it really worth the extra £100 onto the price, and does it ultimately make this high-end compact any better to use? As ever, MSN Tech spent some time getting to the heart of the matter.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: That new screen

The RX100 II is not the super-slim-Jim of a high-end compact that we’re generally used to. It’s similar in width and height to the Panasonic LF1, Nikon P3100 and Canon PowerShot S110 but virtually double the depth now that the 3-inch screen on the back has been given the tilt treatment. It’s a bit of a bummer for pocketability - you can really feel it in your jeans and it’ll leave no room for your wallet or keys - but that’s not to say that the build is in anyway unpleasant.

It’s reassuringly weighty at 281g, thanks to its metal chassis, and, although something of a mini brick in the hand, it feels undeniably good, proper and, well, authentic. It gives you the air of a genuine street photographer as you hop around looking for your next subject. It's also still discreet enough for you to nip in and out getting the shots you need without shoving an obtrusive giant zoom lens in someone’s face.

The new screen itself adds a touch more depth but it’s a handy addition from time to time when you want to grab a pic up high or low to the ground. The control ring at the front of the camera is also lovely and smooth and, as we’ve seen in other compacts, it’s a really great way to cycle through your options and settings. Full marks in this department.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II (© Dan Sung)

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: Picture quality  

Sure, the RX100 II is nice to look at and to hold but the real joy of this camera is in the picture quality. If this is all that’s important to you in a high-end compact, then stop reading now and just go and buy it. The new, 1-inch CMOS sensor from Sony is bigger than just about all cameras in this class and it packs a whopping 20MP of resolution onto its surface. In real terms, it gives the camera the best chance possible of capturing all the available light and means that you can crop the resulting shots very tight indeed without losing the clarity of the image. What’s more, Sony’s noise-reduction technology means you can push the ISO setting up to well beyond the mid range (ISO 400-1600) before picture quality and colour accuracy start to suffer.

On the front of all that, the RX100 II has the same Carl Zeiss T-lens which opens up to a wide aperture setting of f/1.8. Again, it’s great for low light conditions and even offers narrow depth of field shooting where your subject is nicely in focus but with an arty looking blur in the background known as bokeh. Do beware though that as soon as you start zooming with this lens (up to 3.6x zoom, as it goes) that wide aperture becomes unavailable.

Just like its predecessor, the RX100 II is fully manual if you want it to be. You can set the control ring at the front for just about anything you can think of. Switching off the automatic mode and trusting what you see composed on the display with your eye rather than paying attention to the on-screen meters feels a bit like using the Force instead of an X-Wing targeting computer but, once you trust it, it’s an excellent way to use this camera. With the combination of the lens and the sensor, backed up by Sony’s excellent Bionz processor family, you can ensure you get pin sharp, beautifully exposed pictures every time. The Intelligent Automatic+ mode leaves something to be desired but, however you look at it, this is a super camera for pure photography.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: No fun to use

But pure photography isn’t everything. Getting the right photographs with the RX100 II takes a bit of time. There’s plenty of point and press value - certainly with the excellent Intelligent Auto mode, if not the IA+ mode which tended towards HDR and other heavy processing methods a little too often - but it’s a shame to ignore the manual side of things when there’s so many tools at your disposal.

Unfortunately, going manual makes things rather time consuming, as indeed can even be going semi-manual when using any of the P, S or A modes too. That’s ok if you’re an enthusiast but sometimes even enthusiasts have to take pictures while other people wait for them; people that tend to get a bit tired as you stop for three minutes for the third time in 100m and fiddle with the control ring and then some other selector dial to get your shutter speed and ISO just right.

That would be ok because one gets used to the workings of most cameras but there’s something fundamentally difficult about the system on the RX100 II.

The menu system itself and the GUI (how you see the options displayed on the screen) are perfectly good, but a lot of the more creative options always seem to be one too many button presses away. It’s largely down to a combination of fiddly buttons on the back and a missing touchscreen which would at least give you some kind of fall back way of getting straight to the point of what you’re trying to do. Ultimately, it takes too much thought to operate the camera as you wish. We invested plenty of time into it during our review but still never reached that moment where it all made sense.

It’s hard enough to think in terms of the settings you need to change but when there’s a layer thrown in of working out how to change them too it can become something of a battle. It’s not an impossible battle but the difference was all too clear when we switched to a new high-end camera from a different manufacturer where ease of use was more apparent. It was like having a weight lifted from our shoulders.

On top of all this, there seems to be just a little too much focus on imaging along with this camera. The art filters and creative modes are nothing compared to those found on Panasonic, Olympus and just about any other camera brand out there. All in all, it makes shooting with the RX100 II something of a dour affair. It’s hugely effective and very accurate but, if you’re not really enjoying yourself while you do it, then, well, what’s the point?

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II (© Dan Sung)

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: Connectivity  

The added connectivity to the RX100 II is probably the least important of the improvements from a photographic standpoint but the fact that it actually works very well is a pleasure to report. It would be nice if somewhere on the machine you were encouraged to install the Sony PlayMemories app on your smartphone which makes the process of getting the camera to talk to your mobile a whole lot easier.

The app allows you to make a connection using a Wi-Fi network that the RX100 II outputs and then both copy the images to your handset or, indeed, to share them on from there using your mobile broadband connection. In other words, you can post straight to Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox or wherever you like no matter where you are. That certainly beats having to take care of all of that in-camera. There’s also the opportunity to beam photographs to television sets and computers, if you desire, direct from the RX100 II.

Last of all, there’s the hard ports. Sony once again shows that it’s got it right in this department with an HDMI-out and a microUSB at your disposal. That means no proprietary cables and all the options you need. And, of course, there’s the new hot shoe. We didn’t have any Cyber-shot accessories to test but there is access to a viewfinder, external flash and stereo microphone too.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: Verdict

There’s no doubt that this is a precision machine that delivers excellent photographic performance. Whether you want to use it as a point and press, go fully manual or accessorise it to the hilt with an external mic and use if for videography; there’s simply no doubt that you will get bang on pictures with accurate colours and really smooth videos even in relatively poor light conditions. The problem that we have with the RX100 II is that is that those results are not always physically easy to achieve.

The camera itself has no problem but using the right buttons and controls to speak its language keeps you at arms’ length from that real sense of enjoyment. There’s also little in the way of effective creative control fun to fall in love with. It’s definitely a good camera and the price is actually quite fair but the bottom line is that, despite all this, we’d rather use something else.

4 stars

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II: Available now from £649 - check the latest prices with Bing  

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