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If there's one thing Sony's camera division has in abundance, it's chutzpah. While some camera manufacturers have stood pat the last few years, Sony has continually pushed to be the first to new technologies, form-factors, and price points. First translucent-mirror digital cameras. First full-frame camera under $2,000. First APS-C mirrorless cameras. First pocketable point-and-shoot with near-DSLR image quality. First full-frame compact. You get the picture.
Now the company has achieved another first: the first smartphone attachment camera.
With the Cyber-shot QX10 (MSRP $249.99) and high-end QX100, Sony has taken dead aim at a growing class of phone-only photographers. The QX-series concept is half-genius, half-crazy. Instead of simply putting extra glass in front of your phone's existing camera, the QX10 adds a whole imaging unit—lens, sensor, battery, memory card, and processor—and pairs it with your smart device via WiFi. The end result is that you use your phone (or tablet) as the viewfinder, while the "lensor" does all the work.
It's a setup with obvious advantages: The QX10 provides better image quality than your phone could manage on its own, and shots are wirelessly transferred to the phone's internal memory, ready to be shared. Oh, and then there's that 10x optical zoom—something no traditional smartphone camera can match. But the stripped-down camera module gives up a lot in exchange for its compact profile, and it's still another device you have to carry around with you.
Is Sony's "lens-style camera" a revolution in mobile imaging, or just another quirky idea littering the road to the future?
Here's what the Cyber-shot QX10 offers: You get a 10x optical zoom (25-250mm equivalent), a 1/2.3-inch 18.2-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, and one of Sony's BIONZ processors. All of that is packed into a high-quality polycarbonate body that measures about 2.5 x 2.5 x 1.19 inches. Built into the body you'll find a micro USB port, a compartment for the removable lithium-ion battery and microSDHC (or Memory Stick Micro) card, and a metal tripod socket.
The QX10 also comes equipped with a bayonet-mounted, spring-loaded clamp that attaches the camera to your phone. The good news is that the clamp's spring is ridiculously strong—we never felt the QX10 was in any danger of tumbling off. The clamp arms also have rubber pads that will prevent damage to the sides of your phone. It's a thoughtful touch that you'll come to appreciate if you're attaching and removing the camera with any regularity.
The super-strong clamp also makes it a bit of a struggle to get the thing hooked up. Also, if your phone has soft keys on either side, you may have to slid the clamp off-center; depending on the size of the phone, this can really throw off the balance and affect the stability of your shot.
If you happen to own a Sony Xperia Z, many of these problems can be rendered moot. Sony makes a special $30 lens attachment case that lets you forego the clamp and simply screw the QX10 directly onto your phone. It also centers the camera on your phone, which improves the handling quite a bit.
Unfortunately, not many people own Xperia Zs, and competing manufacturers are unlikely to create cases to fit Sony's cameras. (Though third-party accessory-makers might jump on the bandwagon if these cameras sell in large enough numbers.)
Setting up the WiFi connection is dead simple on Android, particularly if your phone features NFC connectivity. You simply need to tap your phone against the NFC logo atop the QX10. That'll turn the camera on, open the PlayMemories Mobile app on your phone (or prompt you to download it), and pair the two devices.
If you've got an older Android phone without NFC, you can simply install the app, open it, select your camera from the list of devices, and manually enter the password (found under the battery cover and on the front of the manual). You'll only have to do that once. The same goes for iOS, though you'll have to go to your phone's settings to make the WiFi connection.
Let's start off with the superlatives: The Cyber-shot QX10 is a well-made product. It doesn't feel cheap, despite an all-plastic build, and the cleverly tight packaging gives it a pleasant density. A metal tripod socket shows Sony hasn't tried to cut too many corners, despite the QX10's low-end ambitions.
That said, there are a significant number of ergonomic issues. The biggest problem is that on smaller phones (by which we mean sub–5 inches), the QX10 creates a serious off-axis weight imbalance. If you try to shoot the QX10 the way you normally shoot smartphone pics—i.e., holding two corners with each hand—the whole thing wants to lean forward.
Instead, you need to cradle the lensor with your left hand, which naturally places your left thumb over the zoom lever and physical shutter release. It's a much more stable shooting arrangement, but it'll take some re-training for those with strong muscle memory. On larger phones—like a certain 5.5-inch phablet—this issue is less noticeable, since you have a larger body to hold onto. Regardless of how you hold the QX10, though, it's still less ergonomic and less stable than a camera with a proper grip, and that makes it difficult to get the most out of the 10x zoom.
The QX10's few buttons are in serious need of refinement. The shutter release is spongy and too easy to inadvertently press; we found ourselves accidentally snapping shots with alarming regularity. The power button is so annoyingly placed (up against the clamp arm), and so flat (actually slightly recessed below the body) that it's difficult to activate without looking. And the zoom toggle? Well, it's fine, but we'd prefer if the directionality were reversed. Pushing up for telephoto just felt wrong, somehow.
The rest of the build is nice and solid—from the battery/media compartment to the telescoping lens barrel—with the lone exception of the USB cover. The flimsy little plastic flap often refuses to shut properly. It's not a big deal, just a tiny bit of poor design that takes a little shine off the overall package and, y'know... quietly gnaws away at your soul.
Another issue is the lack of flash. The QX10 doesn't have one built-in, and there's no way (at the moment, at least) to get the camera attachment to work with your phone's own flash unit. That's a problem, since judging from our test results, you don't want to be shooting with this camera when the light gets dim.
One of the reasons people upgrade to a better camera—probably second only behind the never-ending search for greater image quality—is improved control. Manual control over shooting settings is a notorious failing of smartphone cameras, so when rumors of the QX series began to leak out, many assumed the new camera attachments would bring all the functionality of a "real" camera to their phones.
Disappointingly, that's not the case. When shooting with the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app, the QX10 actually provides less control over shooting settings than many smartphone camera apps. With the QX10, you get three automatic shooting modes: Program, Intelligent Auto, and Superior Auto. You can also set a self-timer, and in Program mode you can also choose from among five white balance presets (no manual WB, though) and set exposure compensation of up to two stops. That's it. There's no aperture control, no shutter speed, no ISO, no burst shooting, no RAW capture, no noise reduction options—no nothing.
Given the full-auto nature of the camera, we found Superior Auto to be the best choice in most shooting situations. This mode recognizes the kind of scene the camera's looking at and employs multi-shot composites to reduce noise and get the sharpest results. If you're shooting subjects in motion, the Intelligent Auto mode is probably a better choice, since layered shots don't work so well on moving targets.
Sony states that the QX10 has a WiFi range of around 15 feet. In our experience, that's a drastic understatement—WiFi is notoriously variable, and Sony's probably just covering its rear here. In our open-plan office, we were able to maintain a connection over 70-plus feet with line of sight, and the QX10 had no trouble through two walls over about 25 feet. In most circumstances, you're going to have plenty of reach.
The QX10 transmits images wirelessly to your phone immediately after you snap them, and you can choose between 2-megapixel (the default) and full-resolution transfers. As you'd imagine, the amount of time it takes to transfer a shot depends on both the selected size and the distance between your phone and camera. We never saw one take more than about 15 seconds, though. All shots are also saved in full resolution on a MicroSDHC card plugged into the camera itself.
Once you've taken a shot, you have two options: go back to live view, or share the photo. Puzzlingly, there's no option to delete photos—to do that, you'll need to go into your gallery/camera roll, which will kill the PlayMemories app and your connection to the QX10. Sharing your shot also turns off the WiFi pairing, freeing you to connect to the internet and upload the image. Note that it does this even if you already have an active cellular (3G or 4G) data connection.
On Android phones, you'll also get dumped back to the home screen or app drawer once you're done sharing. So you'll need to manually go back into the PlayMemories Mobile app and re-enable the WiFi pairing before you can get back to shooting. On iOS, you're taken straight back into the app when you've shared the shot—a rare plus to Apple's otherwise iffy multitasking.
Once connected, the QX10 keeps your phone's screen awake. It's the behavior we want, but it'll definitely drain the phone's battery with lightning speed. So if you plan to be out shooting with the QX10 for extended periods, it might be prudent to take along an extra battery pack. Those of you with non-removable batteries, well, you're going to have to make do.
The QX10's sensor is bigger than all but a few smartphone camera sensors—the exceptions being the Nokia 808 PureView and Lumia 1020 models. But it also packs in far more pixels. The QX10 captures 18.2 megapixels on its 1/2.3-inch sensor, for a pixel pitch of 1.25 microns (µ). Compare that to the to the iPhone 5's 8-megapixel, 1/3.2-inch sensor at 1.5µ, or the HTC One's 4-megapixel, 1/3-inch sensor at 2.0µ. The end result is that the QX10 is capable of resolving more fine detail, but each pixel receives less light, creating noisier images—especially in dim shooting situations.
What does all of that mean? It means the sensor isn't the reason to get the QX10—it's simply not that much better than what you probably already have. The real reason to get the QX10 is the 10x optical zoom. There is no smartphone camera that can match it, with the lone exception of Samsung's oddball Galaxy S4 Zoom. The optics of smartphone cameras—even the best ones—are so compromised by their compact design that even a mundane optic like this one is a quantum leap forward.
In general, photos out of the QX10 look like photos out of any low-to-mid tier compact camera. Test images were sharp in the center but fell off quite a bit toward the edges. They were actually less oversharpened than we're used to seeing from cheap compacts, which means they should respond a little better to post-processing. It's an odd programming choice, since most users will likely share the shots straight from their phones and not bother with too much editing. Contrast was a lot higher than in similar shots from smartphone cameras, again thanks to the improved glass.
We weren't able to test for noise since there's no control of ISO sensitivity, but our shots in dimmer lighting showed evidence of significant noise reduction in the Program and iAuto modes. Superior Auto retained just as much detail with less obvious NR by taking multiple shots and averaging out noise rather than artificially smoothing it.
Automatic white balance performance was strictly average—there's a strong warm cast under incandescent light, while compact white fluorescents and simulated daylight fared much better. Since there's no way to set a manual white balance, you'll want to avoid shooting under incandescents as much as possible, or switch to the dedicated Incandescent WB setting, which is better but still less than ideal. Color accuracy in the only available color mode was very good, but saturation was pumped up to 117% of ideal. Vivid red shades showed the most distortion, followed by blues.
The QX10 does shoot HD video, but it's far from a big selling point. 1080/30p clips were relatively crisp and smooth, but there was plenty of trailing. The biggest problem was that videos shot in low light looked absolutely terrible. The QX required a whopping 43 lux of ambient illumination to create a broadcast-acceptable video image. The extremely similar Cyber-shot WX80 (MSRP $169.99) required only half that, and most small compacts can make do with around 20 lux. We're inclined to think the QX10's software simply isn't optimized for low-light video.
As the population of smartphone-only photographers continues to grow, it's inevitable that camera manufacturers will look over the fence for greener pastures—especially those with a background in the mobile phone biz. Samsung has already done so with the Galaxy S4 Zoom—a device that mashes together a high-end smartphone and a compact camera—and now Sony has followed suit with its "lens-style cameras."
Sony's approach is to give you a symbiotic device—a disembodied camera brain that's essentially powerless unless attached to your phone. On paper, this seems like the best of both worlds: choose whatever phone you want and attach a compact camera with zoom lens whenever necessary. Unfortunately, there are a few hitches that become apparent when you spend any time actually using the QX10.
The QX10's image quality is better than your smartphone's, yes, but not by much. The biggest gain is in terms of optical zoom, but the camera's awkward handling makes actually utilizing that 10x telephoto a challenge. And while the QX10's pairing behavior and user interface are better (or at least less convoluted) than any other WiFi implementation we've seen, shooting with the app still felt arbitrarily limiting—almost like a chore.
Smartphone photography is all about having a tool that lets you capture the moment without stepping outside of it, and most smartphones already meet that criteria. They're simple, reliable, and always on hand. In terms of pure imaging chops, the QX10 is a better tool, but it's not as convenient a solution to that basic need. From a practicality perspective it's just another device you have to carry around with you—no different in that regard than a dedicated compact camera. And it's great that it hooks up directly with your phone, but the mandatory PlayMemories app is just another middleman between you and the social network of your choice.
That means Sony needs to target people who care about image quality more than convenience. It's a smaller market, but one that could still provide enough customers to make the QXes viable. Unfortunately, the QX10 comes up short in that regard, though we're hopeful that the QX100—essentially an RX100 for your phone—is a different story. Assuming the QX100 replicates the RX100's image quality, most of our remaining reservations could be overcome with better, less restrictive software—or with more direct integration into other smartphone apps.
The good news is that Sony has recently opened its wireless camera API, which means enterprising developers can (in theory) code apps that better take advantage of the QX10's clever design, or allow existing apps to control the camera. It's something we fervently hope comes to pass.
NOTE: You may have noticed that we haven't given the Cyber-shot QX10 a score. Due to the camera's basic design goals, it is missing many of the components that we factor into our standard scoring system. Its lack of manual control also means that we were unable to run several of our usual performance tests. However, you can have a look at the Science Page of this review for detailed results from the tests we were able to run.
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