Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II
It's clear we have entered a terminal phase where a fair chunk of consumers will inevitably ditch their cameras permanently in favor of their smartphone – maybe call it the Selfie Era. Yet there's still plenty of us out there who prefer the level of quality and control that you simply can't get from a device with a sensor and lens the diameter of a pencil eraser. That doesn't mean we don't appreciate convenience, though, and the Sony RX100 II is nearly the perfect compromise between the power and performance you get from a bulky DSLR and the convenience and portability of a smartphone. It's also just terrific fun to use.
The marquee feature of this pocket-friendly point-and-shoot is its relatively super-size image sensor, a one-inch Exmor CMOS that is many times larger – and so, effectively, higher quality – than what you'll find in competing compacts, much less smartphones. That also allows for a lens with a far wider aperture, in this case a 28mm-100mm Vario-Sonnar T* f/1.8 with a modest 3.6x zoom. Such a large aperture enables capturing shots with extremely shallow depth of field (a small area of focus with fuzziness behind and/or in front), which is a much desired feature for hobbyist photogs.
Sony also included a novel (if only occasionally practically useful) control ring around the lens barrel, which lets you adjust settings on the fly, depending on what mode you're in (aperture in A mode; shutter speed in S mode, etc). Notably, all this fits into a trim and tidy 9.9 ounce and four-inch by two-inch by 1.5-inch frame that sits easily in a pocket.
The 3-inch display on the rear rivals a smartphone display for crispness and bright, rich colors, and has a hinge that allows you to tilt it up or down. On top is a hot shoe that can support an electronic viewfinder, which, at $450 extra, is a luxury we'd love but have to pass on, on principle alone. The main controls include a mechanical mode knob on top and a combo d-pad with scroll wheel for navigating through an exhaustive and comprehensive set of functions. And that's where the RX100 II does a fair job of being nearly everything for everyone.
The casual user can switch on the camera and be comfortable and successful using nothing but Intelligent Auto, or even swapping between scene modes, and never failing to snag incredible shots. A prosumer will go crazy digging into the extensive manual options and other various settings, as well as recording 1080p HD in 24 or 60p. And tech buffs will love the ability to connect the camera to Android smartphones via NFC and remotely control it, WiFi uploading, as well as the ability to fiddle Instagram-style with images afterwards. Smartphones have made many of us dumb photographers. For us, the RX100 II has helped us reengage in the process of composing a shot and to be thoughtful of how (and why) we're shooting. (And it doesn't hurt that it makes us look like great photographers to boot.) [$750; sony.com]