There’s been a lot of talk in the last two years about the future of the compact camera and more so about the direction they’ll take with the ongoing development of smartphones. Not one for resting on its laurels, Sony understood that to ensure the compact camera had a future it had to improve significantly for the better – something the manufacturer successfully achieved in 2012 by launching the Sony Cyber-Shot RX100.

At the time of its launch into the market, the RX100 was revolutionary in the way it managed to squeeze a 1.0inch sensor inside a tough, travel-friendly aluminium body. With a sensor approximately four times larger than conventional 1/2.3-type sensors found in traditional point-and-shoot compacts, the RX100 quickly became the compact to own for those who wanted to resolve the highest level of detail from a pocket camera.

Ever since, Sony has been working hard to develop the RX100 to ensure it stays one step ahead of its competition, and in true Sony fashion, the Mark II version arrived twelve months later. Improvements included a back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor that was claimed to be 40% more sensitive to light, a tiltable 3-inch WhiteMagic LCD screen that improved on the fixed variety found on its predecessor and the addition of a Multi Interface Shoe, which opened up the opportunity to attach an external flash, electronic viewfinder or stereo microphone.

In addition to these new features, the RX100 II introduced Wi-fi/NFC connectivity and the option to shoot HD video at 24p for cinematically styled movies. When we tested the RX100 II it was hard to see how Sony could make improvements to make it an even better camera. A year on and Sony has gone one better by releasing the third member in the RX100 series – the RX100 III.

Sony Cyber-Shot RX100 III – Key Features

After consulting consumers about the experience and expectations from the RX100 II, Sony looked to improve its premium compact in three key areas. While the 1.0inch 20.1MP Exmor sensor is essentially the same as found in the Cyber-Shot RX100 II, it’s now partnered alongside Sony’s latest and most powerful Bionz X image processor that’s already seen use within other recent cameras such as the Sony A77 Mark II. Claimed to operate three times faster than the previous Bionz engine, the RX100 III maintains a maximum ISO sensitivity of ISO 25,600 and is capable of shooting at up to 10fps in its Speed Priority Continuous Shooting mode.

AP’s Deputy Technical Editor, Michael Topham tries out the RX100 III’s new in-built EVF

The biggest change of all is found in front of the sensor, with the RX100 III’s lens better suited to those who’d like to squeeze more in the frame. Equivalent to 24-70mm, the lens doesn’t extend as far as its predecessor at the long end, however it is a brighter optic which allows an aperture of f/2.8 to be used at full telephoto. Added to this, the improved focusing distance of the lens sees it capable of focusing within 30cm of a subject at the long end of the zoom. The lens’s improved light-gathering capabilities also allows faster shutter speeds to be used to freeze fast-moving subjects, while the addition of a built-in ND filter gives users the option to use slower shutter speeds in bright lighting conditions – a feature also recently introduced into one of its key rivals – the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II.

Another area Sony has looked to improve the RX100 III is in terms of its viewfinder. Those familiar with the RX100 II will remember the optional, and very expensive (£309), EV1MK electronic viewfinder that was designed to clip onto the camera via the hotshoe and connect via the accessory port. The accessory port and hotshoe have both been removed from the RX100 III and in its place is a pop-up flash that’s raised using a small switch above the screen.

A pop up flash replaces the Multi Interface Shoe, with the EVF positioned off to the side

Sony’s answer to clipping a viewfinder onto the body has been to produce the first ever premium compact with a pop-up EVF. This rises ingeniously from the corner of the body and helps to keep the body as streamlined as possible. It features a 1,440k-dot resolution and uses a Zeiss T coating to help reduce reflections and deliver excellent edge-to-edge clarity. What’s also impressive is the way Sony’s engineers have designed it so that it can be used to power up the camera as an alternative to using the On/Off button.

Other improvements to note on the Sony Cyber-Shot RX100 include the option to record Full HD video footage at up to 50Mbps, or up to 100fps in the XAVC S format. Dual video recording will also be appreciated by those who’d like to record high quality AVCHD/XAVC S footage alongside a smaller MP4 format file that’s easier to share. To help ensure steadier movies are created, the RX100 III also features a 5-axis stabilisation system – a first on the RX100 series.

Working out at just 9 grams heavier than the RX100 II, the RX100 III also features a 3inch Xtra Fine LCD that flips by 180 degrees and down by 45 degrees. This manoeuvrability is an improvement on the RX100 II’s screen that could only be tilted up by 84 degrees, meaning the RX100 III is the better option for those who enjoy to shoot arm-length portraits.

It perhaps no surprise to find that Wi-fi and NFC connectivity has also carried over, and with support to Sony’s Play Memories app, there’s the option to enhance the cameras functionality by using a selection of free or paid-for creative effects and filters.

Sony Cyber-Shot RX100 III – First Impressions

Although the shape and design of the RX100 III is very similar to the models that have been released before in the RX100 series, the removal of the Multi Interface shoe makes it look a little more like the original RX100 than the RX100 II.

In the hand it feels every bit the same as the RX100 II and for those who purchased an RX100 but didn’t feel there was enough on the RX100 II to justify an upgrade, the RX100 III is a tempting proposition for its inbuilt electronic viewfinder alone.

The way Sony has engineered the 1,440k-dot OLED Tru-Finder into the body is a great technological achievement considering how small the camera is. Flicking the EVF switch pops up the viewfinder much like a pop-up flash, the only difference is that you’re required to pull the EVF towards you slightly before it can be used. I didn’t find this to be a problem however, and the eye sensor performed responsively – just as we’ve come to expect from Sony’s electronic viewfinders. Up to the eye, the viewfinder offers a clear, bright view with good clarity. The resolution sadly doesn’t match that of the clip-on viewfinder as offered for the RX100 II, but it’ll be more than good enough for most users.

On first glance the Sony RX100 III looks almost identical to the original Sony RX100

Although the camera benefits from Sony’s new BIONZ X processor, the camera’s autofocus and lock-on speed seemed just as snappy as the RX100 II, locking onto subjects with minimal fuss, even in relatively low-light conditions.

Some users will appreciate the improved customisation control, and the customisation that’s been added to the control ring is an advantage over the previous model. Anyone coming to the RX100 III from a previous model in the RX100 series will be able to pick it up and use it from the word go – very little has changed in the menu other than a few new additions.

Our overall view is that it’s an improvement on an already excellent premium compact. The RX100 II picked up numerous accolades and there’s no reason to say the RX100 III will be any different. Now with an inbuilt EVF, it offers the perfect blend of what users want from a premium compact camera.

The only question we’d like to know the answer to is how much consumers will have to pay to get their hands on this latest model. Pricing and information was unavailable at the time of writing, but based on the launch price of the RX100 II and the benefit of having a new electronic viewfinder built in to the RX100 III we’re half guessing the price won’t be a million miles away from a four-figure sum.

The good news for anyone looking at the RX100 or RX100 II, the price of both can be expected to fall in the coming months.