If I could have any point-and-shoot camera, the one I'd get is the Sony DSC-RX100.
It's $650*, which puts it in the price range of cheap DSLRs, but make no mistake, this is the best pocketable camera possible at the moment.
(*We've got a budget pick at the bottom)
When you go out hunting for a super high-quality point-and-shoot camera, there are generally three things to keep an eye out for: sensor size, lens speed, and the body. The RX100 has major points in its favor in all three areas, which is what pushes it into being our number one pick.
By far the most impressive stat the RX100 can boast is its lens.
The RX100 has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 — which is an excellent thing, and lets in a huge amount of light. The RX100 has a larger aperture than any other camera in this class, which is a huge point in its favor.
As for the sensor, the RX100 packs a 1-inch 20.2-megapixel CMOS that Sony has done an incredible job of fitting into this tiny body — and the bigger the sensor, the higher the image quality. For comparison's sake, most point-and-shoots have a 1/2.3-inch sensor, and the fan favorite Canon S100's is only 1/1.7-inches large.
As a quick aside, when we talk sensor size, the number that gets thrown around is pretty abstract for how large the sensor is. The RX100's sensor isn't actually 1-inch diagonally, which would make logical sense, it's just a holdover from an archaic system that's still being used.
In the high-priced world of the high-end point-and-shoot, the RX100 packs the most image quality into a body this size and at a price that is high but still a good value compared to the competition. We're not the only ones who feel this way, and the RX100 has been branded "the best pocket camera that avid photographers can currently buy" "a monumental achievement the technology" "the best pocket camera ever made" "the most appealing pocket-sized digital camera yet" "the best pocket digital compact of the year..actually, EVER!" by various publications.
Where your standard $200-ish point-and-shoot probably struggles is when shooting in low light. You know, it has trouble locking the focus, and the images come out looking pretty damn mediocre. The RX100 won't have any of those problems. As mentioned above, it focuses well in low light, something that Imaging Resource noted, saying giving it points for "very good low-light AF capability (down to less than 1/16 foot-candle)." They also give it marks for "excellent high-ISO performance" for a point-and-shoot, and for Sony's stellar sounding "Handheld Twilight" mode — a feature of which EOSHD says "sweep panorama and handheld twilight best implementations of such features from any manufacturer currently." Combine those with that f/1.8 lens and a maximum ISO of 25600, and you'll be able to shoot in even the dimmest of bars.
So how does the image quality stack up against other camera? Luckily, comparison images are the lifeblood of photography reviews, so with just a couple of clicks you'll be able to see the same scene shot ad nauseam to compare how the Sony RX100 holds up. I'd recommend checking out the comparisons from Imaging Resource and Steve Huff Photo for a feel of how images coming out of the RX100 look.
For some people, that lack of an external mic jack is a real buzz kill, but for most photographers it's fine. As Steve Huff comments "the RX100 will not give you video as rich as the NEX-5n or NEX-7 or even Olympus OM-D with a nice lens BUT it will give you perfectly acceptable video that is rich and with great [image stabilization]." He also gives it points for letting you control the aperture and shutter speed while in video mode.
The amount of control afforded while recording video is either really good, or really limited depending on who you talk to. Yes, that makes almost no sense, I know. Here's the thing: the controls are good for a point-and-shoot, but not compared to a dedicated video device or even some HDSLRs. As Imaging Resource puts it "while it lacks a 720p capture mode, as well as the external microphone connectivity, manual audio levels control, and fine-grained frame rate control that professionals and more experienced enthusiasts will crave, the Sony RX100's video functionality is uncommonly comprehensive for a fixed-lens camera, and will doubtless satisfy most users."
There are a bunch of other nice little things that appeal to photographers. It has a pop-up flash, but one that you can angle to point at the ceiling, which will prevent it from washing out the shots of everyone you snap, which is an awesome extra. The manual focus is apparently also fantastic, as the RX100 uses a focusing ring around the barrel and a technique called "focus peaking", which you can see demoed on another camera here.
Compared to other high-end point-and-shoots, the RX100 manages to straddle the best of both worlds. While it's significantly more pricey than, say, the Canon S100, our previous pick for best pocket camera, it has a much larger sensor and a faster lens in a body of a very similar size.
One of the bigger names in this camera market right now is Fujifilm, who has released a couple of retro-styled cameras that critics adore. The Fujifilm X100 has a huge APS-C sensor, which is the same size as most DSLRs, and a fixed 28mm lens. However, it costs a whopping $1200, that's almost twice that of the Sony. The X100's little brother is the Fuji X10 which costs just $600, but is significantly larger than the Sony RX100, and it has a slower lens and smaller sensor. Although the higher end Fuji has better manual controls the RX100 is a better deal than either.
Probably the most specific competition to the RX100 is Canon's G1X. The Canon G-series cameras have dominated this marketplace for years, but where the RX100 is a sleek and speedy sports car, the G1X is a slow tank. This $710 behemoth is taller, wider, and twice as thick as the RX100. It does have a larger sensor (1.5-inch, 14.3-megapixel) and incredible image quality, but it's also slow. Slow to shoot, slow to focus, slow to zoom. And with that huge size and weight, it's not going in your jeans any time in the future. The RX100 destroys it.
There's also a whole branch of stupidly expensive cameras, like those of Leica and Ricoh, but they're beyond the funds of us mere mortals, and don't really bare dealing with.
The other interesting comparison is the RX100 against is the current crop of entry-level SLRs and mirrorless cameras. For around the same price as the RX100, you could grab a Sony NEX-5N, our favorite basic camera with swappable lenses, which has a much bigger APS-C sensor.This is where views can get really sharply divided. If we duck back into talking about sensors, you can see that the RX100 has a sensor on par with the Nikon 1 series, cameras are pretty heavily derided for having undersized sensors. So the same sensor size is seen as being small on a mirrorless camera, but huge on a point-and-shoot.
As we noted before, the larger the sensor size, the better the image quality. You'll be able to capture more fine detail, and get less noise when shooting at high ISOs. So when you venture into dim light, that big sensor is going to make a huge difference in how clear the image looks, keeping things nice and sharp. The Nikon J1 has been called to task for crummy lowlight performance, but everyone seems more than impressed with how clear images taken in the dark look on the RX100, so maybe Sony just uses theirs better.
The other downside of a smaller sensor, is that it makes it hard to get a soft, dreamy, out-of-focus area of the image that looks so damned artistic. This is known as bokeh, and the bigger the sensor, the more of your image you can render intentionally out of focus — something that's really important for things like macro photography, or portraits, when you want to isolate a subject from the stuff around it.
The huge advantage to sticking with an interchangeable lens camera is that you can expand it so much. You can buy lenses and adaptors, get into extreme zooms and wide-angles, add strobes and special grips, and all that sort of stuff that's just not possible with a point-and-shoot.
Some people think that the Sony RX100 is such a great camera that it can replace an entry level mirrorless or DSLR, which is a huge statement to make. Andrew Reid of EOSHD is a strong proponent of this, saying "with the advent of the RX100, low end mirrorless cameras packing kit lenses are dead." He thinks that if you don't need multiple lenses, there's no advantage to shooting mirrorless. The RX100 is smaller — even if you're using a small pancake lens on the mirrorless — and has a faster lens with more zoom.
However, on the opposite side of the argument, I point you towards Imaging Resource, specifically the section marked "image quality". If you look at the ISO 1600 shots, the RX100 holds its own against most other cameras. But compared to the NEX-5N? There's a hell of a lot more more detail and sharpness in the NEX's shot. In real world terms, that means that if you're shooting in low light and boost the image sensitivity up, you'll see less sharpness than a mirrorless camera. That said, unless you're blowing up these images really large, there's a pretty good chance you won't even notice.
The NEX-5N is better if you want more image quality than pocketability and you also want swappable lenses. Keep in mind most people who spend $700 on a camera with changeable lenses don't often opt to get a second lens (says the research done by camera companies.) So be mindful if you are going for the NEX-5N that pocketability isn't important to you. (Did we mention that the NEX-5N happens to be our favorite basic camera with interchangeable lenses?)
So, why in the world would you want any other compact camera that isn't the Sony? There are one or two factors which come down to personal preference. The big thing missing here is a viewfinder, which a lot of high-end users adore. They're better for shooting in bright sunlight, let you keep the camera more stable, and are generally a photographers preferred way of doing things. To its credit, the RX100 uses a new type of LCD from Sony called "WhiteMagic" which functions really well in bright sun, as Imaging Resource notes, saying "Sony's not just boasting about the LCD with its high-res WhiteMagic display, it really is vibrant and detailed, even in sunlight." It's not quite the same as an EVF, but it's a good for what it is. The thing is, if you want a viewfinder on your point and shoot, you'll be hard pressed to find one on a camera that is anywhere near as good and as good a value as the RX100.
One other gripe has to do with the size. It's so small that there's not much of a grip, and it's missing the external way of controlling all the settings that some of the competition has. It also doesn't have the expansion ports for add-ons like external microphones and flashes. Whether or not this is a deal breaker is up to you as an individual, but it does limit its use as a professional tool.
Another legitimate complaint I've seen leveled at the RX100 is that even though it has an impressive f/1.8 aperture lens at wide-angle, when you zoom that drops really quickly, soon stranding you at f/4.9, which drops the speed of your shots a lot. This ain't too hot, but is still respectable
The RX100 packs a hell of a lot of camera into a something the size of two deck of cards. For $650 you'll get the best point-and-shoot on the market, and arguable the best ever made. It's fast, will take incredible images, and is small enough that it won't weigh you down.
But maybe you don't want to spend that much money on a point-and-shoot camera. In that case, definitely go for the Canon S100, which costs a little more than half of what an RX100 costs at $365 and is still miles beyond the vast majority of other cameras on the market. Where the RX100 really beats out the S100 is in how sharp the images will look. You'll be counting individual leaves on trees, and spotting stray hairs you never knew existed. You'll also loss less detail when shooting with the ISO ramped up, meaning you can shoot in less light without the pictures becoming uncontrollably bad. The S100 is still a bit smaller than the RX100, but not enough to make a huge difference, and if I wanted to buy the best point-and-shoot that I could, it would be the RX100, all the way.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO
The RX100 has been such a disruptive release that don't expect other manufacturers to take things lying down. The RX100's design was obviously influenced by the Canon S100, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Canon's next foray into this market to take serious aim at the RX100. Alternatively, the Fujifilm X100 has just been discontinued and the X10 is rumored to be on the way out too — I have no idea what Fujifilm's followups will hold, but they'll be interesting, that's for sure.