Battle of the big-sensor compacts
The era of the big-sensor compact is here. If you thought your phone was as good as a compact camera, you need to see what these are capable of.
We’ve been spending some time with these cameras to find out.
Design and Basic Handling
These are all compact cameras. They don’t have removable lenses or giant sensors, and it helps keep the lot of them a good deal more portable than compact system cameras. That’s the whole point of this relatively new ‘large sensor, small body’ class.
However, among these three, there’s a clear distinction between the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7 X in one group, and the Panasonic Lumix LX100 in another.
Canon has designed the G7 X to mimic the dimensions and shape of the Sony RX100 range, which has maintained similar dimensions since the series began in 2012. The Panasonic Lumix LX100 takes a different approach. It’s significantly larger, both in terms of its body footprint and how far the lens sticks out from the body. Here are the dimensions for a direct comparison...
Sony RX100 III: 101.6 x 58.1 x 41.0mm
Canon G7 X: 103 x 60 x 40 mm
Panasonic Lumix LX100: 114.8 x 66.2 x 61.1 mm
The LX100 feels much less like an ordinary compact that the others, but this is something Panasonic has embraced. For example, it’s the only one of the three not to offer a motorised lens cover, meaning you need to keep an eye on where you put the lens cap, just like you do with an interchangeable-lens camera.
Those after a tiny partner to a DSLR or high-end CSC may appreciate that the Canon G7 X and Sony RX100 III will slip into a pocket, where doing so with an LX100 feels like trying to fit a rubber glove over your head — you can do it with some effort, but it’s just not right.
However, this is far from an all-out fail for the Panasonic. It’s merely a case of these cameras having different priorities, with the LX100 sensibly separating itself from the incredibly popular RX100 line. It offers something altogether different.
For example, it’s the only one of the three to offer a proper handgrip. It’s small, but rubberised and well designed. It gives the Panasonic LX100 a surer grip and a sense of being a more substantial camera than the other two. It feels similar to Fujifilm X-series cameras such as the X100T and X30: compact, but with a reassuring side of old-school flavour.
The most slippery of the lot is the Sony RX100 III, which has a very smart-looking lightly textured metal finish. The Canon G7 X inhabits a middle ground. It has no hand grip, but offers a more pronounced ‘paint fleck’ texture that offers more resistance.
However, the Canon G7 X is probably the least ergonomically pleasing of the lot. Its two-tiered mode dial is an attraction, but detracts from comfort when you have a finger perched over the shutter button.
The Sony and Panasonic are the handling winners, depending on whether portability or a rugged feel is more important to you.
Construction and Build Quality
Surprisingly enough, given that it’s the cheapest of the three, it’s the Canon G7 X that actually has the most metal on show. Aside from the flaps that cover the ports on its sides and bottom, all of its main panels are metal. The underside of the display is the only large part that’s plastic.
The Panasonic LX100 and Sony RX100 III are mostly metal, but both make greater use of plastic.
If we’re to dub the use of plastic a crime, the Sony RX100 III is the worst offender. Its front panel, which curves around to form the top plate, is metal, but the whole back is plastic. Of course, the effects in use are very, very minor.
Most of the RX100 III’s back is taken up by the glass-covered display, and where you rest your thumb on the back is covered by a rubberised grip anyway.
The Lumix LX100 uses a bit of plastic to cover its left side, but the majority of this construction is metal, much like the G7 X. However, of the three it offers the least actual contact with the hard, cold stuff thanks to its use of rubberised grips on the front and back.
All three are extremely well made, with the Sony RX100 III having the most dense, tight feel of the lot. Of course, this may be in part due to the smooth finish it uses.
The one build disappointment I registered was the Canon G7 X’s manual control ring. All three cameras offer some form of control ring around the lens, but the action of the Canon’s clicky dial is overly noisy and feels cheap next to the LX100’s one.
On that point, which offers the greatest manual control?
Panasonic LX100 manual control
This is the area where we really understand why the Panasonic Lumix LX100 benefits from being larger than the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7 X. There’s much more to it than the handgrip.
The Panasonic LX100 offers manual control far in excess of the other cameras — or most cameras on the market, in fact, including the majority of CSCs and lower-end DSLRs. If you want to deep dive into manual photography, where you select the aperture and shutter speed independently with every shot, this is one of the best places to start.
On the lens you get a dedicated metal aperture dial, which offers nice clicky increments. Next to it is a smooth focus ring, but it can also be set to alter zoom and ISO (and filters, but that’s not the kind of manual control we’re talking about here).
On the top plate are shutter speed and exposure compensation dials, again with a definite, clicky action. Despite the camera’s relatively small size, none of these elements feel cramped. Sensor size and lens optics are one reason for the Panasonic LX100’s size, but it sits perfectly with the kind of manual control here. This numer of control dials probably wouldn’t work with the smaller two, especially not the dual lens rings.
If you want manual control, there’s no contest. The LX100 wins.
There’s also a third lens control that lets you select the aspect ratio of your shots.
Canon G7 X manual control
The Canon G7 X offers decent control, but it’s nowhere near what’s on offer in the LX100. You get a context-sensitive lens control ring that, as already mentioned, is a bit too loud in operation and feels a little stiff and cheap. Definite clicks are good, but the action almost makes it feel like a plastic ring, even though it is — like just about everything else in the G7 X — metal.
The top-most control ring on the top plate is the mode dial, giving you access to the usual aperture priority and shutter priority modes. In these, the lens ring can be used to select the key parameter, while in full manual the lens ring is used to select aperture and the little rotary dial that sits around the rear control pads sets shutter speed.
The combo of small real dial and stiff control lens wheel makes manual operation feel a bit unnatural, but we’re sure Canon G7 X buyers would get used to it after a while.
What the G7 X offers over the RX100 III is a separate exposure compensation dial that sits under the main mode dial. Sat in this position you need to keep an eye on it as it may be prone to knocks despite being, quite sensibly, fairly stiff. It also reduces the comfort of general shooting, the raised mode dial feeling as though it’s in the way at times.
We like what the Canon G7 X sets out to do in terms of manual control, but it feels as though it’s an annual refresh away from perfection. The controls are there, but their feel is a little off.
Sony RX100 III manual control
The RX100 III can seem like the most ‘point and shoot’ of all three cameras, but it too offers reasonable manual controls. Like the previous RX100 cameras, you get a lens ring and a rotary dial that sits around the main nav control on the back.
Unlike the Panasonic and Canon cameras, the lens ring here is entirely smooth — no clicky feedback at all. However, I found it more pleasant to use than the stiff, loud Canon wheel. Without obvious feedback you do need to keep more of an eye on the display to judge exactly what setting you’re on, though.
The Mode dial sits almost flush with the top plate and offers aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes. Just like the G7 X, both lens and rear controls can both be used in A/S modes and the lens ring takes over aperture in full Manual, leaving shutter to the rear dial.
Changing exposure and ISO takes longer with the RX100 III than the LX100, although with the screen tilted out a few degrees and the camera held at chest height, it’s fairly comfortable to use the manual controls.
Other than offering decent physical controls, the other question often asked of cameras aspiring to appeal to enthusiasts is whether they have a viewfinder. Two of these do, but the cheaper Canon G7 X does not. If you’re not going to be happy composing off a 3-inch screen, steer clear.
So which one has the better EVF, the Sony RX100 III or the Panasonic LX100?
The Sony’s design is certainly a bit more dramatic. There’s a little release toggle on the left side of the RX100 III that makes the unit pop up. You then have to pull out the eyepiece lens manually to get the image to focus.
This isn’t an everyday EVF, but rather one you’ll pull out in lighting conditions where the LCD doesn’t quite cut it, such as in bright sunlight. The Panasonic LX100 EVF is just there, 24/7, with a handy rubberised eye guard that means you don’t need to get your face quite so closer to the camera body.
Both cameras use a proximity sensor that switches over to the EVF when it detects your face is in front of the thing. No fiddling about with buttons is required.
Which offers better quality? From the specs the LX100 seems to walk it, but it’s not that simple.
The Sony RX100 III has a 1.44-million dot OLED EVF while the LX100’s LCD one offers 2.4 million dots. Thats’s a huge difference, and the LX100’s is noticeably sharper. However, given how great the hardware of the EVF is, Panasonic has dropped the ball a bit in its implementation.
First, the actual preview display only uses about 2/3s of the actual EVF’s display space. This seems to be because the LX100 needs to make sure it can fit 16:9 shot views into the space, but means that stubbier aspect ratio shots look tiny: smaller than they do on the RX100 III. In all cases, in fact, the Sony offers a larger image.
The LX100 EVF also emphasises contrast too much, making it a fairly weak indication of the final results.
Even if its hardware is a good deal better than the Sony RX100 III’s, its implementation is quite flawed and ultimately disappointing. The lower resolution of the Sony EVF is quite obvious, but it is slightly easier to work with.
All these cameras have 3-inch screens, and unlike what we’ve seen so far, the Panasonic LX100’s hardware appears to be the weakest of the lot. It brings the lowest resolution, 921k dots, is non-touch and doesn’t tilt or swivel.
However, we shouldn’t dwell on the resolution too much. The G7 X offers 1040k dots and the Sony 1.23 million dots, but the RX100 III’s figures are effectively inflated by its RGBW matrix. An extra white pixel lets it increase brightness without draining too much battery, but this subpixel doesn’t offer more picture information. Just brightness.
Resolution, then, is pretty similar across the three. We did find that the Sony RX100 III offers the most natural colour, although the Panasonic LX100 offers some screen calibration tools to let you tweak the character of the display a bit.
This image makes the Panasonic screen look much more vivid that the others, but in person they're quite even in this respect. Note, though, that as with the EVF, the LX100 doesn't use its entire display as a preview window. No matter which aspect ratio you pick, the display is never quite filled. It's a shame.
The Canon G7 X is the most casual-friendly screen of the lot. It’s the only screen to offer touch operation, letting you use touch focusing, much as you would with a phone camera.
It offers 180-degree tilt, too – perfect for selfies or for shooting at any level below head height.
While non-touch, the Sony RX100 III is offer the most versatile articulation. It tilts down as well as up through 180 degrees, useful for shooting above the head as well as below it. And, yes, it can do the selfie angle if that’s what you’re after.
While these cameras get a lot of attention for their larger-than-average sensors, lens quality is just as important. With maximum apertures of up to f/1.7, they are extremely fast, enabling the sort of creative shallow depth of field effects that aren’t usually viable with a compact camera.
Here are the basic specs of the lenses, using 35mm equivalent numbers:
Sony RX100 III: 24-70mm, max aperture up to f/1.8
Canon G7 X: 24-100mm, max aperture up to f/1.8
Panasonic LX100: 24-75mm, max aperture up to f/1.7
All these lenses settle to a max aperture of f/2.8 as you use the zoom, but we thought we’d take a closer look a their zoom ranges to find out how well they hold on to their lens speed as the zoom is used.
Maximum aperture results
As you can see, the Sony RX100 III is actually the weakest of the bunch despite having the smallest zoom range. It settles down to f/2.8 by the time it hits 35mm while the Panasonic LX100 and Canon G7 X can go that bit wider right up until 60mm, where they join the Sony at f/2.8 max aperture.
All three have ways to make their very wide apertures useful in daylight, where they’re at risk of causing overexposure.
The Sony RX100 III and Canon G7 X use inbuilt ND filters, which limit the amount of light that gets to the sensor. However, while the Sony’s can be set to turn on automatically, you need to do so consciously with the G7 X, which is a shame.
The Panasonic LX100 doesn’t have an ND filters but does offer incredibly fast shutter speeds of up to 1/16,000 of a second. The others only go up to 1/2000 of a second.
With some reports that the LX100 lens is a bit soft wide open, we tried a basic detail/sharpness test, all at 24mm, all with their max aperture engaged. The results are below.
Here we see that the Panasonic seems slightly reticent to use shutter speeds higher than a ‘standard’ 1/2000 seconds, which has resulted in a much brighter photo than the others. It has resulted in better colour, but the sky is overexposed in parts, unlike the others.
The LX100 is also slightly less sharp than the other two, although at this level it’s likely to be as much down to the camera’s lower resolution as anything to do with the lens.
We should also note that the Sony RX100 III suffers from much clearer purple fringing than the other cameras, although the effect isn’t too bad.
Quick disclaimer for pixel-peepers... You’d never normally use this sort of setting for this sort of scene — there are no real benefits to using such a wide aperture in this kind of photo.
All three cameras use contrast detection as their main focusing method. This is the standard type, not the (potentially) faster phase detection kind.
Panasonic boasts of the LX100’s ‘depth from defocus’ focusing aid, but really this is just a software solution based on comparing the rate of defocusing when the AF is searching.
In good lighting, all these cameras are very fast among compacts. So we tried them in a bunch of very low-light scenes to see which fares the best.
Despite some reports to the contrary — some reviews suggest the RX100 III is inconsistent — we found the Sony RX100 III to be generally the quickest of the bunch. Despite the depth from defocus feature, the LX100 suffered from the most obvious focus-searching periods.
We did find that the Sony RX100 III could be a little vague in its focusing during low-light shooting, though, not offering an exact point of focus, but simply suggesting “some point of this scene is in focus. I’m off now, bye.”
So for speed, it’s the Sony, but the others are a bit clearer about the results.
The Canon G7 X also has the benefit of touch focus, making casual snapping all the quicker.
Sensor and Image Quality
Which has the best sensor? Well, the Panasonic LX100 certainly has the largest one. It uses a Micro Four-Thirds sensor while the G7 X and RX100 III have 1-inch sensors, which seems to have become a standard for this kind of camera.
However, the Panasonic LX100 doesn’t use its entire sensor, instead using different portions of it depending on whether you shoot 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 or 4:3 aspect pictures. It takes 12.5-megapixel pictures from the 16-megapixel sensor, giving you a good idea of how much of the sensor is used.
The Sony RX100 III has a 20.1-megapixel 1-inch sensor and the Canon G7 X a 20.2-megapixel one. Once again, Canon has deliberately made very similar moves to Sony.
You get much higher-resolution pictures with the Canon and Sony. But do you get better ones? We took the cameras into our labs to find out. Here are their detail and dynamic range results:
The results are interesting. It seems that despite being lower-res, the Panasonic LX100 can harvest as much detail as the RX100 III in our resolution test chart. The Canon G7 X gets slightly more detail, with the difference becoming more apparent as you work up the ISO range.
The Canon G7 X also outperforms the RX100 III in terms of dynamic range at higher ISOs, although the Lumix LX100 is the clear victor here. As well as offering significantly better maximum dynamic range, it’s better at higher ISOs than either of the others. And unless you’re going to be cropping into images a good deal, dynamic range matters more than fine detail when it comes to a perception of image quality.
What about video? The Panasonic is the stand-out here, as it is the only one to offer 4K video capture. The others max out at 1080p 60 frames per second.
However, none is a true video replacement for something like the Panasonic GH4. The Panasonic LX100 does not offer a microhone input despite having a hotshoe where you could easily slot in a mic. The key function of this hotshoe is to slot-in a flash, which comes in the box. It's the only one of these three cameras not to offer an inbuilt flash.
For those looking to get serious with their photography, we recommend the Panasonic LX100. Its clear, high-quality manual controls encourage you to be a much more active participant in your photos. There are auto settings for everything, too, so you’re not forced into it. Panasonic’s implementation of the technically impressive EVF needs work, though, and it's not pocketable.
The Canon G7 X sensor actually produces the most detail and has perhaps the most impressive lens, with large maximum apertures and a good zoom range, despite being the cheapest of the lot. We just don't like its lens-wheel control, and without a viewfinder, some may struggle to take it that seriously.
The Sony RX100 III has stiff competition, then, but it’s still the only one of the three that doesn’t have any hardware disappointments, beyond the lack of a touchscreen (if that’s your bag). It's the best all-rounder and the least likely to offend.
Ultimately, this is a superb trio of cameras, and proof that big-sensor compacts are now a force to be reckoned with.
Next, read our Best Cameras Round-up