How to Churn Correctly: Sony RX-100III

(news & commentary)

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Sony today introduced the third iteration of their popular RX-100 compact camera. What’s new? Three things, primarily: the lens now is f/2.8 instead of f/4.9 at the telephoto end (the wide end remains f/1.8), the lens itself is now a Zeiss-designed 24-70mm equivalent (the old one was 28-105mm), and the camera now has a pop-up 1.4m dot, 0.59x magnification EVF built-in. 

Other key features most photographers considering this camera might be interested in: up to 10 fps continuous burst; 10-12 frame buffer depending upon image quality setting; 1/2000 top shutter speed plus a built-in 3-step ND filter; ISO 125-12800, extendable a bit at each end; WiFi with NFC support to iOS/Android apps; and NP-BX1 battery rated at 320 images CIPA. The focus system is still contrast-detect based and the image sensor is still the 1” 20mp one used in the the RX-100II. Weight with card and battery is about 10 ounces (290g). Video recording has switched to XAVC-S (50Mbps bit rate) instead of AVCHD, a welcome change, though not supported by all video workflows yet. Clean HDMI is available to record externally. The camera has grown a tiny bit in size and weight, too, though not enough to factor into decisions. The new camera will ship in mid-June. 

The original RX-100 resonated with many users, including myself, for being a highly competent shirt-pocket compact camera. The 20mp 1” sensor was bigger and better than that of any other shirt-pocket contender, the lens was good, the features and UI decent. Sony upped the ante with the second model by adding BSI (back side illumination) to the sensor, giving it a modest boost in capability, and adding the ability to add an optional EVF via the hot shoe, two welcome additions, and enough that I sold my RX-100 and bought an RX-100II (I already had the EVF from another Sony camera I was using). 

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Now Sony has upped the performance game just a bit more by giving us a more “pro” mid-range zoom in the camera (24-70mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8) and getting rid of the “optional” on the EVF. Someone at Sony is understanding the RX-100 user just about right: these quick iterations are example of product churn done correctly: improve performance significantly or add the most requested feature. In the case of both iterations so far, Sony did both. Better still, Sony has snuck in a few other minor changes that make it a better, more usable camera for serious users, such as the user-controlled ND filter.

The tricky problem is keeping price creep out of the picture when you do this. The camera will sell for US$800, which is indeed a small price creep. (Updated: apparently Sony changed the US price from what I was originally told.)  Right now you can buy the original model for US$550, the second generation for US$700. Effectively you’re getting the EVF and the other changes for US$200, but still, that’s enough of a change to slow some from jumping on it. For those of us who have the previous model and the optional EVF, it becomes a question of just how much we want that new lens. 

The change in lens is going to give some of us a bit of pause, though. I like the stretch to 24mm, I don’t like the loss of 100mm, though getting f/2.8 at 70mm is nice. 85mm would have been a more useful long end, but thing is, f/2.8 for the telephoto end of a lens starts to push size up fairly rapidly as you add focal length. I can see how Sony got to their decision: keep the camera basically the same size and improve the lens. That puts limits on what you can and can’t do, and f/2.8 at 100mm was too big a size change to fit in. Thus, what’s the next best choice? Good question, and Sony’s choice is arguably a defensible one. Still, it gives me just a little bit of pause. (Disclosure: I’m not a big mid-range fan. When I use my 24-70mm lens on my FX DSLR, I tend to use it only at 24mm or 70mm, thus to me the new Sony is a bit like having two primes.)

Why am I stuck on the lens question? Because of the Panasonic GM1, that’s why. Yes, the GM1 with lens is larger than the RX-100, but not enough so to change the way I use such cameras. If I were purely “needs to be shirt-pocketable,” then yes, the RX-100 still would clearly be my choice. But I tend to use my “small” camera as a jacket-pocketable camera, so I’ve got a bit more room in that pocket for something bigger in the lens area. The GM1 offers a larger, better performing sensor, and less need to keep diffraction in account. It also lets me also pocket a small prime or two for some serious shooting. Still, all-in-one versus bigger-but-more-flexible is a tough choice. Moreover, I lose the EVF. I can see people going either way. 

Still, the point I want to make here is that, at least with the RX-100, Sony is doing exactly the right thing: when you have a camera that’s a “winner” and resonating with a group of users, quickly iterate it with the most user-requested needs. Not ditzy features like a new Art Filter or 55 more menu commands that let you tailor obscure settings you don’t understand in the first place. No: iterate the photographically useful things. EVF, check. Better lens, check. ND filters, check. Along the way, try to push performance and image quality upwards (also check in the I to II iteration). Don’t keep changing the controls, the design, the battery, the accessories, etc. Keep the changes to ones that a functional for photographers

Besides being the right thing for the customer, this kind of iteration makes it more difficult for a competitor to come knock you off. About the best they can do is catch up to you, which means that you should preserve your First Mover status in the market and sell better than they do. Imagine the Canon and Nikon teams examining the original RX100: oh, we can do better by offering an accessory EVF. Oops. Sony just did that. Maybe we can make a better lens. Oops. Sony just did that. In other words, the competitors have to target your next iteration, not your current one, which is a much tougher thing to do quickly and well.

So I applaud Sony for this third iteration of the RX-100. The original was a shirt pocket wonder, and now we’re two steps better than where we started without goofing up any of the things that were good.


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text and images © Thom Hogan 2014 -- all rights reserved // @bythom on twitter, hashtags #bythom, #gearophile