Sony RX100 V Field Test
Sony RX100 V Field Test
A pocket-friendly powerhouse: This unassuming little compact offers unbelievable performance
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 12/18/2016
Four years ago, Sony reinvented the compact camera with the RX100, a pocket-friendly beauty with a sensor far larger than those typical of its rivals. Although it wasn't perfect -- no camera ever is -- I fell in love with the RX100 almost instantly, and quickly bought one with my own hard-earned money just as soon as we'd completed our review.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the compact camera series that changed everything has now reached its fifth-generation, courtesy of the Sony RX100 V. Interestingly, Sony still continues to sell all four previous RX100-series models, allowing users to pick and choose the camera which best fits their needs and budget.
What separates the Sony RX100 V from the crowd?
So what separates the Sony RX100 V from its siblings? Take a look at the Sony RX100 IV and V side by side, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Both cameras share the exact same body and control layout. They also share the same sensor size and resolution, and use the same lens, display and popup electronic viewfinder.
The differences are all to be found under the hood, where it really counts. The RX100 IV was no slouch on the performance front, but the Sony RX100 V is simply in a class of its own. Sony rates the RX100 V as capable of 24 full-res frames per second capture for as long as 2.5 to 6.3 seconds per burst, depending on your chosen filetype(s). And that speed is available even with continuous autofocus adjustments between frames.
That kind of full-resolution performance would be impressive even from a DSLR or mirrorless camera; it's simply unheard of in a pocket-friendly compact camera. To say that I was keen to get my hands on the Sony RX100 V so I could experience it for myself would be the understatement of the century.
As I just noted, externally the Sony RX100 V is almost identical to its immediate predecessor, the RX100 IV. The same body is also shared with the RX100 III, and even if you go all the way back to the original RX100 and RX100 II, the basic control layout was essentially the same, although those models were just a touch slimmer and lacked the built-in electronic viewfinder of later models. (The RX100 II also sported a flash hot shoe, something not found on other RX100-series models since then.)
Just as with its predecessors, the Sony RX100 V is fairly comfortable in-hand, but lacks any form of handgrip on its front surface. I'm personally fine with this -- I've never dropped an RX100-series camera, or even come close to doing so really -- but I know some RX100-series shooters prefer to add an accessory handgrip of some kind for a little extra purchase, since the body has quite a smooth, slippery finish.
The good news is that since the body design is unchanged, any grip that fits the RX100 III or IV should also work with the Sony RX100 V. There are at least a couple to choose from, including Sony's own polycarbonate AG-R2 grip and Richard Franiec's popular precision-machined aluminum grips. At one point, Fotodiox even made a chunky cherry wood grip, although I believe this has since been discontinued. And there are probably some more I'm not personally aware of from the likes of eBay et al.
In most respects, I'm vey happy with the Sony RX100 V retaining its predecessor's physical design and interface almost unchanged. There's one feature I really miss compared to some of its rivals, though.
The LCD monitor is crisp and colorful, and has fairly good daylight visibility as well. I also appreciate its tilting articulation mechanism, which can be flipped up 180 degrees for selfies, and is also great for shooting from the hip or over your head. (Although I'd definitely prefer a side-mounted tilt/swivel mechanism, which would be even more versatile.)
But what the Sony RX100 V lacks, just as did all of its predecessors, is a touch-screen overlay on the monitor. Quite frequently, I found myself attempting to set the focus point with a tap on the screen, before catching myself and remembering that I had to use the four-way controller to adjust the focus point location. Here's hoping this friendly, intuitive feature arrives in a future model soon!
Although its body design is unchanged, here and there you will find the occasional tweak to the Sony RX100 V's user interface. One of these, in particular, quickly caught my attention straight away, after trying just one or two burst of high-speed capture.
There's now a small countdown displayed at top left of the live view feed, whether you're framing shots through the viewfinder or on the rear-panel LCD monitor. This lets you see exactly how many shots have been captured, but are still waiting to be transferred from the camera's buffer memory to the flash card.
It's a small change, but one that I really appreciate. Doubly so because while the Sony RX100 V's performance is epic in most respects, its card write speeds are still rather on the slow side. Coupled with the extremely high burst speed and depth, it's possible to find yourself waiting for quite a while for the buffer to clear. (Even with one of Sony's own high-speed 95MB/second SD cards which meets UHS Speed Class 3 standards, I found it could take as long as 70 seconds to write the buffer to the flash card.)
That can be frustrating if, say, you want to dive into the menu system quickly to tweak a setting before shooting some more, as although you can shoot more frames, review those which have already been written to storage, or access the function menu while the buffer is partially filled, you can't access the main menu system at all. At least you now have an idea of how long you'll have to wait, though.
Just remember not to switch the camera off or retract the viewfinder while the countdown is underway: I did this once or twice without thinking about it, and then found myself instantly regretting my decision since the camera then can't be powered back on until the buffer has been completely cleared
Reflexes, schmeflexes: The Sony RX100 V's stunning performance can take timing out of the equation
When you stop to think about it for a moment, the amazing performance on offer in the Sony RX100 V might initially seem like overkill. This is a pocket-friendly camera with a short 24-70mm equivalent zoom lens, and with no way to change it for another optic. Even if you crank the zoom to the 70mm telephoto end, you'll need to be pretty close to your subject to get a tightly-framed shot. That's going to rule the RX100 V out for a lot of sports shooting: You can't just run onto the field of play to get a tighter-framed shot of the action, after all.
But to my mind, sports shooting isn't what this camera is aimed at, despite its stunning performance. Sony didn't give you 24 frames-per-second full-res capture so you could get the perfect shot of Roger Federer's tennis backhand or a LeBron James slam-dunk. The Sony RX100 V is more about keeping up with your kids, pets and fast-paced daily life than it is about sports, per se.
Here, telephoto reach is less of an issue, and that incredibly high-speed capture will alow you to place less of an emphasis on your timing and reflexes. With 24 frames per second, you'll be able to step through your shots to find the perfectly-timed frame, and then throw the others away.
Pros don't usually shoot this way not only because their reflexes are well-honed in their day job, but also because it would take far too long to sort through the many thousands of images that a spray-and-pray approach would capture within just a single sports event. But sorting through 20 or 30 shots to find the perfectly-timed capture of your child breaking through the finish line on their school sports day or your pet dog leaping skywards to catch a frisbee... Well, that's a much less daunting proposition, and a much better argument for such spectacular performance in a pocket-sized camera.
One of the things which really grabbed my attention when the Sony RX100 V was first announced was that it was able to provide continuous autofocus adjustments between exposures, even when shooting at its maximum rate of 24 frames per second. For a compact camera, I found this simply astounding. Now I've shot with the RX100 V in the real world, I better understand how it's all possible.
Of course, a big part of the equation was obvious from the get-go: The Sony RX100 V packs in a speedy new hybrid autofocus system, which pairs both contrast-detection as in past RX100-series models with new on-chip phase-detection autofocus pixels. The extra information from the phase-detect pixels lets the RX100 V determine both the approximate distance and direction in which focus must be adjusted before it even starts to move the focus elements in the lens. Contrast-detection only kicks in at the end of the autofocus cycle, fine-tuning the initial adjustment that was triggered by the phase-detection pixels.
The GIF is set to play back at approximately 1/4 of real-time, so in real life this was about a 2.3-second burst. Note that since heavy dithering and quality reduction was required for a web-friendly filesize, this should not be used to judge image quality or noise levels, just to get an idea of the burst speed and autofocus performance. You can click the image to see a full-res, full-speed version of the same file in a new window.
The result is a focus system that's exceptionally swift by compact camera standards, but as it turns out, there's also a little more to the story, although it didn't occur to me until I headed up to nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee for some go-kart action shots.
Although its sensor is far larger than those of bargain-basement compacts, it's still a good bit smaller than those in even sub-frame DSLRs and most mirrorless cameras. With all else being equal, a smaller sensor size means a more generous depth of field, something you may well have noticed when shooting photos with your smartphone. (These have absolutely tiny sensors, and can render fairly close and distant subjects sharply at the same time.) And that same effect is in play with the RX100 V, as well, just not to quite the same extent.
Its more generous depth of field at any given focal length and aperture means that it doesn't necessarily have to be quite so precise as a DSLR or mirrorless camera would have to be in the first place. Stepping through a lengthy burst series and paying attention to the background instead of my subject, I could see that the RX100 V wasn't tracking my subjects quite as accurately as an enthusiast DSLR would.
As the go-kart consistently came towards me, the fencing in the background would occasionally become sharper, not more blurred as it should if it was tracking the kart perfectly from one frame to the next. But because its sensor was smaller, the go-kart always remained well within the available depth of field at all times.
The combination of the hybrid AF system and this happy side-effect of the 1-inch sensor size meant that I found the RX100 V easily up to the task of keeping the go-karts well focused from start to finish of a multi-second burst, even as they were racing directly towards me at ~30 miles per hour.
Of course, you'll still want to shoot short bursts where possible, anticipating the action as much as you can -- and not just because you'll need to sort through all of those images later. (Choosing the best from a short burst of images is pretty quick; choosing the best from dozens of bursts, especially for longer bursts, can get pretty tedious.)
Perhaps an even bigger reason, though, is that the Sony RX100 V can tear through battery life surprisingly quickly if you're shooting lots of high-speed bursts and 4K video. My go-kart shoot nicely illustrated this. In all, I shot for perhaps 90 minutes before the camera first showed a critically low battery warning -- and this after having fully charged it the night before.
That might seem an exceptionally short battery life, and I must admit it surprised me too -- until I paused to consider just how many shots I'd taken in such a short space of time. In all, I grabbed about 35 bursts of the go-karts, most with somewhere from 10-20 frames apiece; some of them with many more. And I also shot a couple of dozen 4K or high-frame rate movies.
The realization that I'd shot close to 1,000 full-res still frames and close to three gigabytes of video in just 90 minutes, and with such a compact camera, simply floored me. Given its trim body and small battery size, it's hardly surprising that the battery can be drained so quickly when you use the RX100 V to its maximum.
In fact, what I'd shot was far, far in excess of Sony's own 210-220 shot rated battery life. But then that's measured to CIPA testing standards, which require that manufacturers regularly rack the zoom between shots and fire the flash on every second shot, none of which I was doing. My minimal zoom use and total lack of flash usage offset the much greater number of shots I was capturing.
And I will say that battery life was perfectly sufficient for a day's shooting, so long as I wasn't capturing much video or a lot of lengthy bursts. Bring a spare battery or two -- they're tiny, so it's easy to slip a couple of spares in your pocket -- and I doubt you'll have any battery life concerns.
The Sony RX100 V offers great still image quality, just like its predecessors
Great image quality from a pocket-friendly camera has long been the hallmark of the RX100 series, and the Sony RX100 V is no different in this respect.
Photos taken in daylight are packed with fine detail, and while the greater depth of field provided by the 1-inch sensor size means that it's harder to blur backgrounds than it would be with a larger-sensored DSLR or mirrorless camera, it's also significantly easier than it would be with a smartphone or small-sensored compact camera.
Colors are attractive and pretty lifelike, and automatic white balance does a great job with most subjects. I did notice a tendency to overexpose just a little for my tastes, but one or two clicks of negative exposure compensation -- or just shooting in raw format -- is enough to resolve this. And unlike many compact cameras, which typically have limited burst speed and depth in raw format, if they even provide the option at all, the Sony RX100 V shoots just as swiftly with raw capture enabled as without. It also provides very generous raw file burst depths.
Once the sun goes down, the RX100 V is also an uncommonly good available light shooter for such a compact camera. I felt noise levels were acceptable at sensitivities up to ISO 3200-equivalent pretty much all of the time, and even at ISO 6400 unless my subject was packed with lots of really fine, subtle detail like hair or grass. ISO 12,800-equivalent was a step too far for my tastes, but usable in a pinch -- just be aware that color tends to get a bit muted by this point, and much of the finer detail will be lost to noise reduction.
Switching to video, I shot with the Sony RX100 V at a variety of resolution and frame-rate choices. At the maximum 4K resolution, quality is superb, but you'll need a big screen, a fairly close viewing position or both to make the best of it.
I've got a 55-inch Sony 4K TV myself, and according to the viewing distance calculator over at Reference Home Theater, someone with 20/20 vision would want to be seated about four feet from the screen to be able to resolve its full detail. That's clearly not a realistic position, and in fact my sofa's about 12 feet from the screen. At that distance and with my eyesight, I can certainly see more detail than with a Full HD video. If I get up and walk closer to the screen, though, it's obvious I'm still missing out, and I'll probably rearrange my living room soon to make better use of the 4K resolution.
From about six or eight feet, which seems more reasonable to me, the Sony RX100 V's 4K output is incredibly lifelike. Textures that are lost to Full HD are crisp and convincing in 4K. You almost get the feeling you're looking out of the window, rather than at a screen -- at least, so long as the scene doesn't have too much contrast between highlights and shadows, as my TV isn't a true HDR unit.
Dropping down to Full HD, image quality is still very good. Here, the Sony RX100 V is capable not just of 60 frames per second capture, as is pretty common these days, but also of 120 fps capture. That gives you a couple of choices: You can either drop the frame-rate in post processing for a slow-motion effect without sacrificing on resolution (with a 24p playback rate, you'd have a 5x slow-motion effect), or you can play at the native frame-rate for smoother motion.
As it happens, my TV has a native 120Hz refresh rate, so I went the latter route -- and I have to say that while I couldn't see a big difference between 60p and 120p video, the latter did seem a little smoother. And even if I halved the frame-rate to 60p for a 2x slow-motion effect, the RX100 V's output at 1080p was still stutter-free. Nice!
Of course, if you've read our review of the Sony RX100 IV, you'll know that camera introduced a High Frame-Rate video mode which allowed capture at much, much higher frame-rates, all the way up to a staggering 1,000 frames per second maximum. This feature remains in the Sony RX100 V, but with one important change: The newer model can record for twice as long per clip.
By default, the RX100 IV allowed capture of two seconds per clip, or four seconds if the quality was reduced. In the Sony RX100 V, you can now record four seconds per clip by default, or eight seconds with the quality reduced. That's potentially a very useful change, although not in the way you might expect.
In my review of the Sony RX10 II, which sports the same high frame-rate capabilities as the RX100 IV, I noted that the short clip length limits weren't a concern. That was because once slowed down, even such short clips could have very long run times: A two-second real-world clip would be 20 seconds long after a 10x slow-motion effect. With the maximum four second clip-length and a 40x slow-mo effect, you could be looking at close to a three-minute video. That's unlikely to hold anybody's attention no matter the subject, and yet now the RX100 V doubles those limits.
But where that extra clip length comes in handy is that it saves you having to time your shots so carefully. With a longer clip length, you can start a little early in anticipation of the action, yet still have plenty of time to record it all before the moment is gone. Then you simply cut the boring bits in post-processing, and keep the shorter, interesting portion of the video.
As in the RX100 IV, the Sony RX100 V offers great image quality at its slowest HFR capture rate of 240 fps, which yields anything from a 4x to a 10x slow-motion effect, depending upon your output frame-rate. That's because it's actually recording at 1,824 x 1,026 pixels, pretty close to a standard Full HD feed.
If you increase the capture frame-rate to 480 fps, the quality degrades significantly thanks to a 1,676 x 566 pixel capture resolution, though. And at the maximum 960 fps rate, this falls all the way to 1,136 x 384 pixels, for a rather low-res (if still usable) image. And if you opt for clip length over image quality, the resolution drops still further.
Oh, and at all of these resolutions, one frustration from the Sony RX100 IV remains. Regardless of the capture resolution, your output files are rendered at Full HD resolution. That's achieved courtesy of an upsampling step performed once capture is completed, and there's no way around this step. Unfortunately, it takes quite a while to render each clip, potentially causing you to miss more action while you're waiting for the previous clip to render.
You *can* cancel this step part-way, but if you do so you'll lose whatever portion of your video hadn't already been rendered. I'd really like to see Sony make this optional, and allow users to do the upsampling themselves in post-processing, if they want to. Upsampling in-camera wastes possible shooting time, battery life and storage space, and I can't think of a good reason not to let the user simply save each clip at its real capture resolution, avoiding these problems.
But even with that said, this is a really fun feature, and with its new, greater clip length, now even more so than ever!
Like its predecessors since the RX100 II, the Sony RX100 V includes both Wi-Fi and Near-Field Communications radios, allowing for wireless remote control and image transfer with a minimum of fuss. I've tried most of the Wi-Fi implementations out there, and in my opinion Sony's is among the best, especially if you're an Android user.
At its most basic, the Sony RX100 V's Wi-Fi setup really couldn't be any simpler if you're an Android user. To transfer a single image, you simply review it in Playback mode on the camera, and then bump your phone's NFC antenna logo against that on the left side of the RX100 V's body. The camera and phone will automatically connect to each other via Wi-Fi, transfer that single image, and then disconnect again, all without you needing to touch a single control or acknowledge a single prompt.
Transferring multiple images -- or single images, if you're an iPhone user -- takes a little more effort, but it's still pretty straightforward. First, you pair your phone and camera, either automatically with the same NFC antenna bump for Android devices, or by briefly scanning a QR code shown on the RX100 V's display using the built-in camera on your iPhone. Then you select the Send to Smartphone menu item in the RX100 V's Wi-Fi menu, choose whether to select which images to transfer from the camera itself or from the smartphone, choose your images, and start the transfer. Again, pretty easy.
Finally, you can control the camera remotely. Out of the box, the Sony RX100 V's Smart Remote Embedded app will let you control the camera's optical zoom and exposure compensation, and then trip the shutter remotely. While the remote live view feed is active, you can also switch between single-shot or self-timer drive modes, and adjust settings like ISO sensitivity, autofocus, metering, white balance, flash and more from the camera's menu system, but not from your phone. Nor can you touch the live view feed on your phone to focus or trip the shutter.
You can, however, replace the Smart Remote Embedded app with a much more capable, newer version called Smart Remote Control. This upgrade is free of charge, and while I'd like to see Sony simply install it right out of the box, it's not that much hassle to upgrade it yourself. You will need to create a Sony Entertainment Network account first, and then you'll want to pair the camera to an Internet-connected Wi-Fi network. (If your router has a WPS button, this couldn't be much easier: Simply tell the camera to pair via WPS, then press the button on your router and wait a few seconds.)
Once the camera is online, you can then log into your Sony Entertainment Network account, which is rather tedious to do with its clumsy on-screen keyboard, but which only has to be done once if you remember to tell the camera to save your login for future use. You're then shown a list of featured PlayMemories camera apps, and courtesy of tabs at screen left, can switch to view all apps.
Here, you're given the chance to upgrade the Smart Remote app to its newer version, as well as to install a couple of dozen more apps, including several foreign-language keyboards. Upgrade the Smart Remote app and you'll be able to control all of the main exposure variables remotely, touch to focus or trip the shutter, and change the white balance, drive mode (including continuous burst shooting), the focus mode, and clear image / digital zoom, all remotely from your phone screen.
You can only change exposure modes from the camera body, but once changed the relevant exposure variables are available to change from the phone, too. You can even decide whether to prioritize live view feed quality or speed. This upgraded Smart Remote app is far more powerful, and I recommend upgrading to it as soon as you get your camera and phone paired.
As for the remaining apps, some (such as photo retouching, picture effects and a beta of an app which lets you trip the shutter with a hand gesture) can be downloaded free of charge. Almost half of the available apps, including time lapse, multiple exposure, light painting and more are paid apps, though, with fairly steep pricetags of US$5-10 apiece, far more than you'd pay for similar single-function apps on your smartphone. If you decide to purchase all of the paid apps, you'll need to spend another US$85 over the purchase price of your camera, based on current pricing and availability.
With that said, though, you don't need to buy all of them by any means, and it does let you extend the functionality of your camera to fit your own needs, paying only for the apps which interest you personally. Really, I think the biggest drawback of these apps is that they have a completely separate, siloed menu system. (And that's true of the Smart Remote app too, unfortunately.)
What do I mean by that? Well, as an example, consider this: You might have been shooting in raw format all day with your camera. If you then fire up the Smart Remote app, you might expect that you'll continue to shoot in raw format -- that's how the camera was last set up, after all. But no: The file format in the Smart Remote app is set in its own separate menu, and doesn't in any way relate to that set in other operating modes.
In fact, raw-only shooting isn't even available with Smart Remote. Instead, you have a choice of JPEG or raw+JPEG shooting, and once you finish using Smart Remote, you'll be back to whichever file format you'd been shooting in originally, once more.
The other reason I find these siloed menus unintuitive is that it can be confusing to remember how to access a given app's functionality, if you don't use it frequently. For example, with my own Sony RX10 II which I picked up a couple of years ago, I've found myself hunting through the menu system for ages trying to remember how to shoot a time-lapse, and knowing I'd done so before, so it must be possible. But because I had to actually fire up the time-lapse app and then use its own siloed menu to configure it, I couldn't see any references to time-lapse photography elsewhere in the menu system.
Thankfully I realized my mistake eventually, but as I've said before, I'll say again: Sony really needs to rethink these siloed app menus and simply combine the app functionality with the standard menu system once a given app is installed.
And so as I close out my field test, I come to perhaps the most contentious point of all: The pricetag. And make no bones about it, by compact camera standards, the Sony RX100 V is an expensive camera at around US$1,000 list. The real question is whether it can justify that pricetag.
For my money, the answer to that would be an unqualified yes. As I've said more than once in this field test, the Sony RX100 V is simply unrivaled. There is no other camera out there which will give you the same combination of image quality and performance, and yet which will slip into a pants pocket and remain there, almost forgotten, until the moment you need it most.
And it also bears repeating that where most camera manufacturers tend to see each new camera release as an opportunity to phase out an older model, the entire Sony RX100 lineup remains available at retail today. If the RX100 V's pricetag is beyond what you can personally justify, there's likely a model which does meet your needs at a lower cost.
But for those of us who want the most camera in the smallest possible space, right now, well... that would be the Sony RX100 V, and its spectacular capabilities more than justify the pricetag!
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