Hands on: Sony RX100 VII Review

Does Sony's latest RX100 make compact cameras great again, or further cement its place as a wallet-shredding anachronism?

First Impressions

The RX100 VII's main benefit over its predecessors is that it's a potentially excellent, if very expensive, little vlogging camera. The RX100 series already had the flip-up screen and 4K video quality, but now this model adds a microphone input and Movie Eye AF. If you're mainly a stills shooter, the benefits are likely to be marginal, despite the autofocus and burst shooting boosts this version brings. This means it'll be worth looking our for price reductions on the RX100 VI or, if your priority is low light performance over zoom reach, the even older RX100 V or IV. While it seems likely that the RX100 VII will again be the best compact camera you can buy, there is better value to be found elsewhere.

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £1150
  • 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens
  • 4K HDR movie recording with real-time Eye AF
  • New microphone input
  • 20fps blackout-free continuous shooting with AF/AE tracking
  • One-inch, 20.1MP Exmor CMOS sensor
  • Touchscreen LCD that tilts 180-degrees up, 90-degrees down

Compact cameras need to comfortably outperform smartphones to justify their existence, and that’s becoming an increasingly difficult thing to do. But there are two surviving breeds that still offer something unique – rugged models like the Olympus TG-6, and big sensor innovators like the Sony RX100 VII.

The RX100 series has often felt like Sony’s ‘concept’ compact range, a money-no-object demonstration of what it’s currently possible to cram into a pocket, fixed lens camera. This is, as we found in the Sony RX100 VI, mostly a blessing – but sometimes a usability curse, too.

Sony RX100 VII

From my brief time with its successor, this theme seems to have continued with the RX100 VII. The big improvements are mainly in the video department, with a new microphone jack a big boon for vloggers, and real-time Eye AF now available in movie mode. Autofocus and burst shooting have also been given another injection of speed.

But is there still a place for a one-inch sensor compact in between smartphones and small, APS-C compacts like the Fujifilm XF10 and Ricoh GR III? I spent a few hours with one in Dublin to find out.

Related: Best compact camera

Design – The RX100 VII is the same mix of fun-packed and slightly fiddly

I won’t spend too much time on the RX100 VII’s design, as it’s identical to its predecessor. If you want to read about its impressive miniaturisation and foibles, check out our Sony RX100 VI review.

But here’s the short version: the RX100 VII packs an incredible amount into its small frame, including a pop-up viewfinder, built-in flash and tilting screen (which folds up 180 degrees, and down 90 degrees). There’s also the same 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 lens as its predecessor, which gives you the equivalent of 8.3x optical zoom.

Sony RX100 VII

This lens comes with a similar caveat to the RX100 VI. It has excellent optics and produces sharp images throughout its zoom range, but if you regularly shoot in low light or like shallow depth of field, you may prefer to sacrifice the reach for the brighter aperture of the lens on the RX100 V, IV or III.

If you’ve been considering one of the RX100 VII’s main rivals, Canon’s new G5X Mark III, then here’s how they compare in size. Sony’s one-inch compact certainly feels more premium in the hand, as you’d expect from a camera that costs £300 more, but the Canon’s larger size gives it room for a bigger grip, which is a boon for handling.

Sony RX100 VII

The Sony RX100 VII (left) vs the Canon G5X Mark II (right)

Something Sony has got right on the RX100 VII is the viewfinder mechanism – this pops up and is ready to go with just one press of the switch, unlike the G5X Mark III’s EVF, which you need to pop up, then pull out towards you. It sounds trivial, but if can be the difference between getting a shot in bright conditions and missing it.

Unfortunately, the Sony RX100 VII still lacks weather-proofing, so if you’re likely to be shooting in a downpour it’ll be wise to invest in a case.

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Features – The RX100 VII is almost unnecessarily powerful and is the series’ best video camera

What the RX100 VII lacks in handling, it makes up for in features – as usual, it’s basically a pocket-sized Sony Alpha camera, only now it’s better for shooting video as well as stills.

The RX100 VII brings three main new additions to the series’ video skills – a microphone input, improved 4K video stabilisation, and Movie Eye AF. The biggest one, particularly if you like vlogging, is that mic input, which lets you plug in an external microphone to get decent audio with your video.

Sony RX100 VII

The other two I didn’t get much time to test, though I did shoot this quick sample walking shot to get an idea of the stabilisation. While it’s decent, Sony’s electronic stabilisation doesn’t seem to be quite up with the likes of GoPro’s gimbal-like Hypersmooth. More testing is needed, but if you want super-smooth moving video, it seems likely that you’ll still need to use it with a small gimbal.

If you stick the RX100 VII on a tripod or shoot static shots handheld, though, then it’ll likely make a fine vlogging tool, thanks to that Movie Eye AF and flip-up screen. In my brief tests, the Eye AF in both movies and stills was extremely sticky and tenacious, and by far the best I’ve seen in a compact.

There have been some boosts to the RX100 VII’s stills game too. As before, it’s built around a Bionz X processor with front-end LSI for a generously sized buffer. But now the new one-inch, back-illuminated 20.1MP Exmor CMOS sensor is apparently built around Sony Alpha 9 architecture, making its burst shooting performance even more impressive than the already speedy RX100 VI.

Sony RX100 VII

In single burst shooting, you can rattle off seven JPEGs or Raw photos at 90fps (which deserves an exclamation mark) with a single shutter release, or a mere 20fps with blackout-free continuous shooting and AF tracking.

That’s incredible for a compact camera – you probably won’t need that power, of course, but then McLaren owners will rarely tick the speedometer above 200mph either. The RX100 VII is the supercar of compact cameras – for better and worse.

The main benefit of the RX100 VII’s power comes with autofocus – even more so than the RX100 VI, it’ll be difficult to miss a shot, unless it’s at the very edge of the frame. It now has 357 phase-detection AF points covering 68% of the frame, and Sony is again claiming a new ‘world’s fastest autofocus’ of 0.02 seconds. That will, of course, only be achieved in very specific conditions, but all you need to know is that the RX100 VII is lightning fast at locking onto subjects.

Sony RX100 VII

Its autofocus is also smarter than previous RX100s. The RX100 VI brought real-time Eye AF for the first time, but its successor now adds Animal Eye AF and Movie Eye AF to that list. This again needs some more real-world testing, but it’s unlikely you’ll find better autofocus on any compact camera. Or, indeed, on most smartphones and many interchangeable lens cameras.

Is the RX100 VII missing any features? One slight weakness has always been battery life and, while I wasn’t able to drain my battery to zero, it’s likely to be the same with this version, with real world performance somewhere between 220 and 240 shots. At least you can recharge via the USC-C port, if you have a portable battery pack with power delivery.

Related: Best vlogging camera

Image quality and performance – Signs of the usual excellent RX100 sharpness and consistency

It’s a bit too soon to make any conclusive statements about RX100 VII image quality, but the early signs are that it has the usual mix of detail and sharpness at all but the most extreme focal lengths that we saw from its predecessor.

Sony RX100 VII

The RX100’s shortest 9mm focal length (the equivalent of 24mm) is handy for squeezing buildings and architectural shots into your frame, even if there is sometimes a slight corner softness (shot at 1/30 at f/8, ISO 100)

At its widest, the RX100 VII is sharp in the centre with some slight softness in the corners, which is something you’ll find at the telephoto end at its maximum aperture.

Still, noise is well controlled up to around ISO 1600 and the RX100 VII’s photo quality is excellent in the middle of its zoom range. Fast burst shooting and the relatively large sensor give you a chance of capturing challenging action shots too.

Sony RX100 VII

While you’re unlikely to use an RX100 VII for product photography, its one-inch sensor means you can get good quality indoor shots containing movement that may be beyond your smartphone (shot at 1/1600s at f/4.0, ISO 3200)

You can get some lovely bokeh when shooting relatively wide open from a moderate distance too – there are no worries about your smartphone making mistakes with its virtual bokeh here.

Sony RX100 VII

The RX100 VII’s minimum focusing distance at the wide end is 8cm – get close to that and you can get some nice background blur, with none of the faux bokeh mistakes that can sometime blight smartphones (shot at 1/250s at f/3.5, ISO 100)

Sony RX100 VII

This is the kind of shot that can trouble a smartphone’s bokeh algorithms, but the RX100 VII’s optics produce the kind of results that are the equal of much larger cameras (shot at 1/100s at f/4.5, ISO 100)

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