The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 is a unique digital camera which not only redefines the all-in-one category, but questions whether you really need a digital SLR. One of the greatest advantages digital SLRs always had over all-in-one models was a larger sensor, allowing high sensitivities and low noise even at high resolutions – but now the R1 offers such a sensor in a sealed body. Couple this with high resolution and an excellent lens and you’ve got what should be a winning package.
In use the R1 certainly feels like it’s delivering the goods, starting quickly and feeling responsive under general conditions. The build quality and ergonomics are of a very high standard and the camera feels comfortable to hold.
Then there’s all the benefits of a live view system: composition using a flip-out screen and real-time feedback including histograms and an optional grid to aid composition. Like other all-in-one cameras though, manual focusing using the LCD screen is definitely harder than with a true SLR, although Sony’s magnified view certainly helps.
We were however disappointed to find the R1 didn’t have a movie mode, despite the Sony engineers telling us it could have been possible. As we mentioned in the main review, movie modes may seem like a novelty to serious photographers, but one would have provided the R1 with another neat plus point over SLRs. If it really were possible, it’s a missed opportunity.
The flip-out screen’s position on top of the camera also seems slightly strange at first especially when it’s stood upright to face directly backwards. But turn it round and fold it back into the body and you have a highly usable waist-level system which encourages fun and unusual angles. Our only complaint with the screen though was it felt less convenient to use when angled-out for portrait orientation shots.
While much of the R1’s attention has been devoted to its large sensor, the real triumph is actually the 24-120mm Carl Zeiss lens. You’re normally lucky to have an all-in-one with a 28mm wide angle, but one which extends to 24mm is a joy. The lens may not zoom-into the heady lengths of the 300mm and up super-zooms, but at 120mm it delivers a decent telephoto option. And crucially the lens performs very well, with low distortion and high sharpness, along with no particular concerns over vignetting or fringing – the demons of the earlier F828 have truly been laid to rest.
As for the sensor, it really does resolve measurably higher detail than the 6 and 8 Megapixel digital SLRs, including the Canon EOS-350D / Digital Rebel XT – although it’s quite close to the latter. We hoped the large sensor would match digital SLR noise levels too, but sadly while our model kept noise under control up to 400 ISO, it really became apparent at 800 ISO and above – certainly higher than the 350D / Digital Rebel XT.
Ultimately the decision between the Sony R1 and a digital SLR though really boils down to how much you need the capability to swap lenses. While many enthusiasts would assume yes straightaway, it’s surprising how many owners of budget digital SLRs rarely swap their bundled 3x optical zooms.
For these people, the R1 is definitely a better bet, offering a wider, more useful zoom range, not to mention higher quality and faster optics than most bundled SLR lenses. You’d really need to spend a considerable sum to match the R1’s range, optical speed and quality with SLR lenses. And remember the disadvantage of non-removeable lenses can be spun into a positive, as a sealed body should prevent dust from entering.
Before concluding though, we should re-iterate a couple of points from the main review. The R1 has very modest burst shooting with just a three frame buffer, and it’s not as easy to manually focus as a proper SLR. So if you need precision manual focusing, a large continuous shooting buffer, low noise at very high ISOs, or of course different lenses then you’ll be better off with a digital SLR.
If these points don’t concern you though and you’d be satisfied with the R1’s optical zoom range, then we can highly recommend it – indeed for many people considering a budget digital SLR, it’s simply a better choice. The combination of good design, an excellent lens and a high resolution sensor for the asking price represents great value. We look forward to seeing more large-sensor all-in-one cameras soon.
Excellent quality lens with useful range
Large sensor for all-in-one body
High resolution beats 6 and 8 Mpixel D-SLRs
Flexible 2in display
Noise not as low as we hoped above 400 ISO
Harder to manually focus than D-SLRs
Tiny three frame buffer
No movie mode