Sony's lens-style cameras are going to divide opinion. Some will love the geekiness of being able to strap a lens to your smartphone, others will see it as a waste of money. But we can't help being excited about the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX10, the 10x optical zoom smartphone accessory.
It's Sony making a play into new territory, taking a gamble and trying something a bit different. There are new smartphones, new cameras, new cameras in smartphones, new camera-phones but here we have something that's entirely a different. The QX10 is a nod to the astonishing power that the smartphone now yields, but a reflection that is doesn't always meet people's demands.
But does the Sony QX10 answer those questions asked of it? Is this foray into new territory justifiable and can the QX10 earn its place in a gadget fan's bag?
What is it?
Before we step off down the path of reviewing the QX10, we're just going to spend a moment explaining what it is, because so many people have asked us exactly that.
Sony calls it a "lens-style camera". It is, put simply, the lens array that you might find on a compact camera, running from the glass at the front, through to the sensor at the back. It's all included here, so it's like a fully functional camera without the screen.
Its sole purpose is to capture images and pass them on to another device, such as a smartphone. But just because it's a Sony device doesn't mean it's locked down to Sony Xperia kit, it's open to iOS and Android, including approval in Amazon's Kindle store.
In that sense, unlike a regular compact camera, there's little physical to hold: it looks just like the lens part of a camera, along with the necessary elements to let you connect it to your smartphone. There's also the sensor and a removable rechargeable battery that power the unit.
Design and build
Sony openly admitted that the QX10 was derived from the Cyber-shot WX200 compact camera. It is the 10x optical zoom lens from the front and the 18-megapixel sensor within. It's finished in metal and sturdy plastic, so feels like good quality and is available in black or white, to match whichever smartphone you want to pair it with.
It measures 62.4 x 61.8 x 33.3mm and weighs 90g, so it's small and easily portable enough to slip into the pocket of your jeans, ready for any situation. A punch of the power button fires up the device and the telescopic lens extends, making it larger during use.
The QX10's main body offers the minimal controls - a zoom toggle and a shutter button - as well as the release catch to separate it from the supplied mount and a small display that shows the battery status. There's a coloured LED for status to display on, charging and video record.
On the rear is a panel that opens to reveal the battery compartment, as well as the slot for the M2 or microSD memory card. The battery doesn't give you a huge amount of life - Sony says 220 shots or 25 minutes of video - and during testing we found that we flattened the battery on days out. If you want to replace your existing compact camera, you'll probably want a spare Sony NP-BN battery in your pocket too, which can be picked up for around £20.
There's a Micro-USB connection for charging or sharing images to a computer from the microSD card on one side and a lanyard loop on the other.
To the bottom these features square off so the underside of the QX10 will happily sit on a surface without rolling away. It's not a complete cylinder. That means you can place the Cyber-shot QX10 down on any flat surface for taking shots, just as you might a regular compact camera. There's also a tripod screw on the underside for easy mounting.
Prepare to be mounted
The Sony QX10 comes with a clamp mount for your smartphone in the box. It's a compact design and is strong enough to keep the lens securely attached to your phone. In truth it fits the flat design of the Sony Xperia Z or Sony Xperia Z1 much better than curved-backed devices like the HTC One where it can wobble a little. We found it also attached nicely to an iPod touch, as it will an iPhone, Nexus 4 or whatever else of similar, flatter design takes your fancy. The jaws will accommodate devices up to 13mm thick and between 57 and 75mm wide.
READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review
You can remove the lens and leave the mount in place if you want to control the camera from a distance, or to put the pieces in separate pockets. If you are a Sony Xperia Z1 owner, Sony offers a case with the mount integrated so you don't need the separate clamp mount. On many occasions during testing we ditched the mount and just hand-held the QX10, or had it on a tripod.
Wi-Fi to the rescue
As this is an independent camera unit, you need to connect it to whichever device is going to be controlling it. Sony has opted for Wi-Fi for this connection and if you have NFC on your smartphone, you can use that to trigger pairing. You simply tap the NFC logos of both devices together, and pairing starts.
On initial pairing you'll need two things. The first is the Sony PlayMemories for Mobile app on your receiving device and the second is the Wi-Fi password that's included in the QX10's box, or under the flap at the back. This is needed to ensure that your connection remains secure and people can't connect to your lens camera willy-nilly. Once you've been through the password process, you won't need to again until you want to pair it to a new device.
If your phone doesn't feature NFC, for example on the iPhone 5S, you can manually pair it by searching for the Wi-Fi network that the camera broadcasts. Those lucky Android folks with NFC get a better experience as you don't have to manually switch Wi-Fi networks - necessary if your device is already linked up to an existing network - but it's a bit of a pain that there's no way to change the Wi-Fi password to something memorable to make it simpler to connect.
Using Wi-Fi means that your smartphone will disconnect from any Wi-Fi network it might be connected to already. For phones this isn't a problem really, as you'll revert to your data connection, but for most tablets and Wi-Fi only devices such as the iPod touch, that means that you'll be cut off from the outside world while using the camera. If you're planning to share those glorious photos after capture, it's worth checking that you're doing so over Wi-Fi to avoid any surprise data charges.
A slow starter
Camera manufacturers have long been talking about start-up times, or time to first shot, and the QX10's need to make that Wi-Fi connection means that this can be a slow starter. It's a deliberate pairing process that takes time to get established, and the delay is a negative over the speed of a regular camera or using the phone's own camera.
Of course, you can just turn the lens itself on and press the shutter button, but you'll be shooting blind as there is no screen display for preview. Therefore you can't confirm focus, you can't frame your shot, you're just pointing and guessing.
We've found that when we want to take a quick snap, you can have it done and shared from your phone before the connection is even made. We found it took about 15 seconds from NFC tap to capturing the first shot on the HTC One and Nexus 4 we tried it with, but we suspect that this handshaking process might differ in speed depending on the handset that you're using.
Sony PlayMemories for Mobile
PlayMemories for Mobile is available to download free for Android, iOS and Kindle. It connects a number of Sony's existing cameras to smartphones and, at the time of writing, it's the only app you can use to control the QX10 lens camera, although Camera360 has announced that it will support the Sony lenses through its app in the future.
Much of what PlayMemories for Mobile offers is like a regular smartphone camera app. The entire display is dedicated to a live view window for preview, with controls conveniently placed to the sides, but it's worth noting that the quality of the live view picture is much lower than that of the final photo. Both the Android and iOS versions are the same layout and offer the same functions. You can also use the physical controls on the QX10 itself for zooming and taking pictures, or just use those within the app. We also found that the dedicated camera button on the Xperia Z1 would fire the QX10 too.
You get the sort of information you'd expect on the smartphone display as you would from a normal camera. That includes the shooting mode, how many pictures you'll be able to take, the resolution and aspect ratio you're shooting in, as well as access to settings - even though there aren't very many available.
The settings that the app provides are more focused on governing the behaviour of lens, including image previews, image transfer to the phone, self-timer, as well as resolution and four aspect ratio options on offer between 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. Oddly, Sony's spec sheet for the QX10 suggests a few more options than the app provides, such as 1:1 aspect shots and auto HDR toggle. Perhaps these will be in a future update.
Previews are slightly odd. When you press the shutter button, the live view frame freezes, showing up a low-res screen of what you saw at the time you pressed the button. If you opt for a preview, the image will then be copied across to the phone and displayed to you. If you don't opt for a preview, you still get the paused screen from the moment you press the button, before it returns to live view ready to take your next shot.
There are a range of options here, including the ability to save the preview, whether at 2MP or full 18MP resolution, to your phone or not. You can copy photos from the QX10's memory card through the app too, should you need to, as well as share directly through the app. Here Android gets a much wider set of options than iOS, as you'd expect.
The QX10's 10x optical zoom lens equates to a 25-250mm zoom (in equivalent terms) with an aperture range that starts at f/3.3 at the widest angle, narrowing to f/5.9 at the far.
It's this varied focal length that we most appreciate about the QX10. You can just hold it up at the 25mm setting for selfies that are much better than any front-facing smartphone camera, but it's the flexibility of the zoom that's the big selling point, meaning you can get closer to your subject, or zoom in on details that smartphones typically can't reach.
Macro for close-up shots is also pretty good, although as is typical of such a mode it works much better at the wider end of the lens - zoom in close and it won't focus.
But the long-end of the zoom has plenty of use too. At the 250mm equivalent the lens aperture is narrowed but you will still get good quality results in good light, with plenty of detail and no loss of colour - a real advantage over a digital zoom. In lower light, however, the narrowing aperture, inevitable ISO increase and longer shutter speeds make shots more tricky to achieve, and here the tripod mount may come in handy to keep things steady.
There's also optical SteadyShot, aiming to take some of the shakes out of handheld shots. Very few dedicated smartphones offer cameras with optical stabilisation, with the Nokia Lumia 925 being one of few examples.
In use we found autofocus to be pretty fast, with the QX10 taking a central focus point if left to its own devices, but touch-assisted focusing is also offered for more specific focus.
In dark conditions, there's a slight disadvantage in autofocus compared to some smartphones and most compact cameras, as there's no illuminator to paint the subject. The QX10 won't always take the shot if it hasn't confirmed focus, but can seek the focus and snap when it thinks it finds something. But find it does, as in some darkness tests this was more effective than we'd expected.
However there's no provision for flash. The unit doesn't feature one and it can't access that of the controlling smartphone, so that's something of a disadvantage in comparison to a standard compact camera.
The Sony PlayMemories for Mobile app offers three shooting modes, or exposure modes as Sony refers to them: Program Auto, Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto. There's no real manual mode, so you don't get direct control over things like the aperture or the shutter speed, or to control the ISO level.
Sony details that Superior Auto will give you an ISO range from 100-12800, as opposed to Intelligent Auto's ISO 100-3200, as well as claiming that it will find the best shooting settings to get the result you want.
Superior Auto detects scenes and presents a little icon telling you that it's macro, or backlit, and so forth, and then uses the best settings to accommodate for the scene at hand. The most noticeable skill it has is multiple exposure, as it rattles off a number of shots and combines them for a final picture.
Intelligent Auto offers some of the same functions, but with that slightly lesser ISO range, so it sits in the middle between Superior Auto's aggressive post-processing, and Program Auto's lighter touch.
So is Program mode the way to unlock the direct control of the QX10? Not exactly. The ISO range is 100-1600 and the only other settings it gives you are exposure compensation and white balance.
Overall, there's no real information given as to the real settings that are about to be used - such as shutter speed or ISO - other than those scene detection icons, or an indicator that a tripod would be useful, because the QX10 knows it needs to expose a scene for slightly longer than you'll likely be able to steadily hold by hand.
As a result, the QX10's exposure modes, as offered by the Sony PlayMemories for Mobile app, feel as though they have been designed for those who want everything done for them. It doesn't offer the more detailed controls that an enthusiast photographer could potentially use to unlock more of the lens' potential, but this is only software and could easily change in the future.
It's all about quality
The overall aim of strapping a lens to your phone is to improve the quality of the photos you get. It's designed to give you better results and bring you real zoom, something that's not really catered for in smartphone cameras. There is the Samsung Galaxy Zoom, but in our review we felt that it was neither here nor there in deciding if it was a camera or a phone.
At the heart of the QX10 is a 1/2.3-type BSI CMOS sensor with 18.2-megapixels, the glass is designated Sony G quality for the lens, and a Bionz imaging processor handles the imaging demands before the photo reaches the phone in final form. It's all the good stuff from the WX200.
Within the three available shooting modes the QX10 offers a variety of outcomes.
Superior Auto will boost colour saturation and increase the contrast, but at the same time it can introduce image noise in colours, like adding a little grain to a blue sky, as well as losing fine detail. On a bright sunny day, the results from Superior Auto are great and we've been able to capture some vibrant snaps. If you're planning on sharing on Facebook or Twitter, then that's no problem at all; if you're thinking of turning it into a large glossy print, the loss of detail could be detrimental.
S Auto also uses photo combining, taking shots at different exposures and mashing them together to make a composite result. This is mostly done to cater for low light conditions and the most we've counted is six captured images processed into one. It is pretty swift at doing this, although obviously the subject needs to be still otherwise it will be blurred in the final image.
S Auto also has the widest ISO range at its disposal. In some cases, like when presented with unusual lighting, it can combine images, control image noise and give you a great result. In other low-light situations it boosts the ISO so high you end up with a mushy looking image covered in purple blotches, which is where Program Auto is more useful.
Program Auto seems to avoid this degree of post-processing trickery, but falls back on longer exposures because it can't use the high sensitivity options. The results can be better in lower light, especially for static subjects, assuming the QX10 is stable enough to avoid shake.
Program Auto images can look a little flat in comparison to those of Superior Auto, but there's more detail and some may prefer the more natural look it gives. You soon get a feel for what suits each situation better and the preview on your phone will often reveal the results with enough clarity to make a judgement call there and then.
Intelligent Auto sits between the two other modes. It auto-recognises scenes, but doesn't take such drastic measures as Superior Auto. In many cases, the results look like the default settings for Program Auto in normal light, but there's that minor additional ISO range for darker conditions.
For those that like the numbers, in a dark outdoor test shot, Superior Auto used a 1/4 sec shutter speed and ISO 12800; Intelligent Auto opted for 1/4 sec ISO 3200; while Program Auto opted for 1 second at ISO 1600 - the latter settings giving the the cleanest most natural result. Again, Sony's spec sheet suggests that Intelligent Auto will give you a 4 second exposure, but we didn't succeed in getting it to do so, nor would that produce anything sharp unless the camera was entirely stable, whether on a tripod or rested on a surface.
The ISO range does provide some scope to get those low-light shots, however, and in a more natural way than flash. Image noise will creep into the shadows from the high hundreds range, but the results up to about ISO 1600 aren't awfully worse for it, as at worst the grain adds some character.
Above these levels things get progressively noisier with details being lost as the ISO rises. Also bear in mind that the processing of the exposure mode can contribute to this too. At ISO 3200 the mottling is obvious, but if you're just sending that picture out to Facebook, it isn't too much of a problem. But by the time you hit ISO 12800, the noise is very intrusive.
Then there's video mode which doesn't give you any variety: it's 1440 x 1080p, 30fps, with the audio captured through the dual mics on the top of the QX10. It's good quality though and you can still use the zoom during capture. If you're recording something quiet, you can hear the lens motors whirring as you zoom, but as soon as you add environmental noise this sn't noticable. It's also worth noting that the zooming can look a little jerky on the smartphone display, but it's smoother in the actual video being captured.
Overall, the quality of the Sony QX10 is typical of what you'd expect from a compact camera. It's a real improvement in fine detail over a smartphone and the quality of the results from the zoom is lightyears ahead of conventional digital zoom. We'd usually advise to never use digital zoom, but here, optical zoom is available at will. As an advancement to a smartphone, it's here the QX10 hits the mark.
Some connection and lag woes
However, as the QX10 uses a wireless connection there is some lag when panning; a slight delay between what's happening and what's shown on screen - much as there can be when you pan with a cheap camcorder - and it's only really a problem if you're moving the camera around quickly. In slow deliberate shots, or in video, it isn't a problem.
However, with some devices this seems worse than with others, seeming to get confused and stop responding for a few moments before the display corrects. It was evident on the Sony Xperia Z1 we initially tested the QX10 with, as well as the older iPhone touch we tried. The HTC One didn't suffer to the same degree.
Sometimes making a connection seems to take an age and you'll find yourself turning the camera off, exiting the app and starting again. There's the odd occasion where NFC doesn't seem to trigger the pairing, or you get a disconnection for no obvious reason, but we can't tell if this comes from the camera or the phone.
On the whole, the connection seems good enough: once paired, you can set about taking your photos, accepting that those quick shot moments might escape you if you don't have that connection open.
The ability to attach the QX10 to your phone, hold it in your hand, or stick it on a tripod while using your phone as a remote - and then throw it into your pocket after - make the Sony DSC-QX10 a versatile companion camera. Although we didn't initially take to the idea, we're more sold on it having used it for a couple of weeks.
Taking shots low down to see under cars, putting a tripod on a table to raise the camera higher, all using the phone as the remote, does give you plenty of options. If, like us, you always have your phone in your pocket, the QX10 is easy to throw in a bag or pocket, ready for when you want a decent shot. The quality and access to proper zoom, is a real advantage when you want a great shot, rather than your smartphone's average one.
Additionally don't have to compromise on your phone, either. You can pick the device you want an pair with the QX10 - although there is a lack of Windows Phone and Blackberry - which is a better approach, we feel, than Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom. Bear in mind also, that you can refresh your smartphone freely and your humble QX10 accessory will still be there: not so with Samsung's hybrid approach.
Note we say companion camera though. If you see the QX10 as a replacement for a compact, potentially your only camera, then while you win when it comes to portability, you lose on battery life and controls. And at £179 it's perhaps a little on expensive side compared to the level of control it would equate to in a regular compact camera.
But despite the obvious argument for sticking with the status quo and choosing a Wi-Fi connected compact camera instead, we're rather taken with the QX10: we can't help liking this quirky new approach to photography. As a first generation product, it is exciting.
Give us more control, let us see the settings in real time on the display and we'd like the Sony QX10 all the more.