What It Is: The most feature-packed compact camera to date, delivering crisp 20-megapixel stills, as well as ultra-smooth slow-motion and 4K video.
Why We Like It: We’ve been singing the praises of Sony’s line of RX100 compact cameras since their debut back in 2012. With its sleek, minimalist design and huge (for a compact) sensor, that first-generation model redefined what’s expected from a pocket-size shooter. It also became the camera we used more than any other, including larger mirrorless and DSLR models. It was easily the best compact available, and maybe the best pound-for-pound camera in any category.
When Sony followed up with the RX100 II and III, the company added features, including a swiveling screen and a pop-up electronic viewfinder. It became a more useful camera that could be held over a crowd at a concert, or used on a cloudless day at the beach, where direct sunlight would turn a standard rear viewfinder into a blank slate. The core image quality, however, remained largely the same. And yet, the RX100 had such a lead on its rivals, that no genuinely small compact has come close to beating its low-light performance and overall clarity.
So we weren’t surprised when the RX100 IV’s stills wound up looking crisp but not much better than previous versions. That’s not intended as faint praise — this camera takes beautiful pictures. Our shots of moving subjects were sharp, and the image processor reproduced colors with such accuracy that they might seem overly cool or muted to anyone spoiled by the oversaturated look of many smartphone photos. Lawns were green without looking neon, and flesh tones were spot-on. It still handles indoor shots with limited image noise, much like its predecessors. Sony clears the high bar that it set, even if it doesn’t noticeably raise it.
However, the RX100 IV isn’t just this year’s RX100. Though the series has always been expensive, the new model costs $1,000, which is $200 more than the last generation’s. One major upgrade over the last version is 4K video. Even if you don’t have a 4K TV or computer monitor to play them on, 4K clips are a clear step up from standard 1080p HD. Sony’s more convincing excuse for the price bump, however, is a new, stacked sensor architecture, which processes images faster than traditional configurations. This allows for a couple of cool tricks.
The one most heavily promoted by Sony is high-frame rate (HFR) video capture, a fancy, brand-specific term for superslow motion. This is not to be confused with the slo-mo mode on the iPhone 6, for example, which can record at up to 240 frames per second (fps). The maximum frame rate for the RX100 IV is 960 fps. Timing these clips is tricky because you can only shoot in two- or four-second chunks (meaning you can’t just shoot a bunch of video and slow down select parts after the fact). Once you get the hang of it, though, HFR footage can be mesmerizing. A cannonball into a pool is not only achingly slow, but crystal clear, with individual drops of water seeming to wobble in midair. Even something as routine as a preschooler running down a sidewalk is wonderfully epic, and kind of eerie, when slowed to an ultra-smooth crawl.
The other features enabled by the stacked sensor are more subtle, and range from slightly faster autofocus performance to faster overall shooting speed. The RX100 IV can take five photos per second, in a continuous stream, without locking focus (so the autofocus sensors are still finding and focusing on subjects). That’s no great shakes compared to some DSLRs, but outstanding for a compact. In fact, the ability to focus quickly, and keep focusing while capturing a rapid-fire burst of photos, is the sort of advantage normally associated with larger cameras.
And that, ultimately, is what the RX100 IV offers. It’s a small camera that behaves like a much bigger one. At its undeniably steep price point, this is not a compact that’s really suitable for beginners or casual shooters. That was true of earlier RX100s, too. Those were compacts for photographers who understand the value of a camera that fits in a pocket and yet takes shots that outclass any cellphone snap. The new model is for photographers who also consider themselves videographers. Fussy as they were to capture, we fell in love with HFR clips. And anyone recording home movies needs to make the leap to 4K, or else doom future generations of viewers to watching muddy, pixelated versions of themselves.
Nitpick: If you have no interest in video, or some of the more advanced features in the RX100 IV (such as a silent electronic shutter, for more candid snapshots), this camera is officially overpriced. Its biggest competition is its predecessor, the RX100 III. There’s nothing obsolete about that camera, and it costs $200 less.