The RX1’s body is solid, and its understated design somehow looks retro, modern and premium all at once. The camera handles like a dream, with every control you need at your fingertips. There’s only one glaring problem, which we'll address right at the end.
The lens looks ridiculously oversized at first, but you quickly get used to it. In fact, we slowly grew to love the way it looks, from the aperture ring (it’s electronic, not mechanical), the clever macro switching ring and the orange highlight around the base of the lens. A little blue Zeiss logo by the side complements the orange, the lens hood (included with the camera) is beautifully engineered, and even the lens cap impresses. Made from aluminum, the lens cap has a solid weight and snaps into place smoothly. The lens has a clever macro AF switching ring in front of the aperture ring. To shoot in Macro mode, shift the focusing distance to 0.2m-0.35m, to switch back just shift it again to 0.3m-infinity.
The camera doesn’t offer much to grip onto, the front of the body is flat while the rear thumb-rest is small. The camera has a relatively balanced heft even with its protruding lens, thanks to that you’ll be able to retain your grip on it but we would worry about dropping the camera if someone bumped us (maybe its price-tag caused us to worry more than usual). To improve your hold, the camera comes with a thumb-grip attachment which attaches into the multi-interface shoe; it’ll obstruct the Play button and rear control dial when in use but can be rotated 180 degrees out to free the controls.
The shutter release feels perfect, with the right amount of tension when you go down to half-press. The shutter itself isn’t silent but is very close, you can hardly hear it close when it shoots, making the RX1 a quiet companion. The power switch is stiff enough not to accidentally trigger in the bag, and not too stiff to make it tough to switch. The AF/DMF/MF switch on the front of the body is another matter; it’s very stiff without much to grip on. That's a good thing when you don't want it to change by accident, a bit of a wrestle when you do want to change it.
Even though the camera has a simple design, everything you need is right there on the camera body, and using it is a pleasure. Aperture is dictated by the aperture ring around the lens, and shutter speed is controlled via the rear control dial, which may look small but is actually quite easy to use. An exposure compensation dial takes care of any EV adjustments, and a useful customizable button sits above that. Even the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) button can be customized, and except for the up direction which corresponds to the Display command, the other three directions on the rear d-pad can also be customized too.
The video Record button is cleverly positioned off to the side of the thumb-rest, making it harder to accidentally press and keeping it within reach. It takes some effort to move your thumb over to press it though, as you give up your firm hold on the thumb-rest you’ll need to use your other hand to steady the camera.
Some people might miss a viewfinder, but we invite them to check out the rear LCD monitor to see if they’ll change their minds. The 3-inch display is gorgeous, with a 1,228k-dot resolution. The image is sharp, the colors vivid - the only problem is that they can sometimes be too vivid, leading you to think that the images are brighter than they are.
The Fn button brings up a useful overlay of essential settings on the screen, like the drive mode, AF area and ISO setting – similar to the overlay on Sony’s Alpha DSLR cameras. With all the options displayed the screen can get cluttered, we preferred toggling the Display command to get them out of the way. There are some nice, small touches inside the menu. The Menu can be set to start again from the last used position or from the top, and you can set the Delete command to confirm on ‘Cancel’ or ‘Delete’ first. Unfortunately, there is no way to select and mass delete images from the Play screen.
The one option we missed from Sony NEX’s cameras is the ability to display the amount of battery left in percentages, instead of just in bars. This turns out to be the one missing info crucial to the RX1, as we discovered - to our dismay - that the battery life is low, very low. With the LCD monitor quality set to ‘High’, battery life is rated for approximately 220 images, set the monitor quality to ‘Standard’ and battery life is boosted to a meager 270 images.
To further compound the problem of battery life, you can only charge the RX1’s battery while it’s inside the camera, via USB. And even if you bought a second battery for S$79, you won’t be able to leave the first battery behind to recharge because the RX1 doesn’t come with an external battery charger. You’ll have to pay S$119 for one as an optional accessory. That’s just nasty.