Sony did something a little radical in 2013, launching the lens-style camera accessories for smartphones. With two models on offer - the QX10 and the QX100 - the idea is to bring quality to your smartphone photos that would be otherwise be impossible and a proper optical zoom that otherwise lacks. As such, these lens-style cameras provide you with a good quality lens and sensor, stepping around the inherent shortcomings of a camera built into a smartphone.
We were impressed with the quality of the QX10 when we reviewed it soon after launch, but highlighted some problems with the setup and the app that you use for control, although the price, given the results, is attractive.
The more advanced model, the QX100, aims higher than the QX10. It gives you Zeiss glass and a 20-megapixel 1-inch type sensor, transforming your smartphone into a device of high-end compact camera proportions. But at this price and given the physical size, would you be better off just sticking to a real camera?
The Sony Cyber-shot QX100 is the lens barrel of a camera, but without the controls or display. It's based on the RX100 II, Sony's award-winning high-end compact camera, so starts with a great foundation.
It's a pretty sizeable chunk of lens thanks to the large sensor and the 3.6x zoom that it offers. It measures 62.5mm in diameter and is 55.5mm long when collapsed, so it's small enough to slip into a jacket pocket or bag, but less so than the QX10, which you could put in your jeans pocket at a push.
Arguably, the size of the QX100 makes it less attractive than the QX10 because you're looking at something that's almost the same size as a compact camera. That's true, and priced at £349, it might be substantially less than the £649 for the Sony RX100 II it mimics, but it's still a hefty price.
Around the front of the lens is a barrel ring that can be used for focusing in manual focus mode and there are a number of controls so that you can zoom and shoot from the lens, without needing to do it on the touchscreen of the connected smartphone.
Attaching the QX100 to your smartphone there's a supplied mount with jaws that will clamp on. It's easy to clip on or off and this arrangement means you can easily detach the lens from the phone to get those tricky angled shots, or if you are setting up the ultimate selfie. For the ultimate in stability there's a tripod mount on the bottom of the lens too.
The lens houses its own battery, which will give you around 200 shots, as well as a microSD card for storing your images. There's a Micro-USB for charging, as well as letting you import images to your computer.
The QX100 needs a connected smartphone to operate. Although, technically, you can turn it on and use it without seeing precisely what you're doing. Zoom in or out, snap a photo no problems - but there's no way to change the settings, preview your shots or confirm focus without your smartphone's display.
The QX100 uses Wi-Fi to connect to your phone. To do this, the QX100 sets up its own network to which your phone connects, meaning you can't be connected to your home Wi-Fi network and the QX100 at the same time. You'll need to plug in the password details, but after that, connecting in relatively straightforward.
If you have an NFC-enabled phone, you'll be able to tap you phone against the QX100 to initiate connection too, although once you're all setup, it's just as easy to turn on the lens and open the app. Interestingly the device doesn't have to be physically connected to a smartphone, so if you want to mount the QX100 on the tripod and use your smartphone like the camera's controls then that's possible.
Connection can be a little slow: it's not simply the case of turning on the lens and starting snapping like you could with a camera. There's a delay of about 10 seconds to get yourself connected and start shooting, so those quick shots aren't possible unless you have the lens and phone on and ready to go. Once connected, there's a delay between each shot too, so shooting with the QX100 is always at a leisurely pace.
Like the QX10, we found that the connection sometimes dropped. A message saying there are connection difficulties will appear, but often it will flick back to being connected an instant later. It's irritating because it shouldn't happen and it seems to be completely random as to when it does.
Once connected, the PlayMemories Mobile app takes care of everything. The phone becomes the controls and your display to see what you are doing. Given that the QX100 is larger than the QX10 we previously reviewed, it can feel more natural to hold the lens barrel when shooting, as it feels more balanced.
From the app you get a number of shooting modes and importantly it takes things a little further than the QX10, by offering an Aperture Priority shooting mode. This joins the Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto modes, as well as the Program mode.
Aside from these shooting modes there are a number of settings and options that you can change, such as the aspect ratio. There are 3:2, 16:9, 4:3 and 1:1 options and each can be set to capture either high or low resolution images. For example, at 4:3 you have the option of 18 or 5 megapixels.
You can also tweak the white balance and set a self-timer to 2 or 10 seconds - the second being really handy for setting up longer exposures or pictures of yourself using a tripod.
There is the option for single autofocus or manual focus via the front lens ring. Manual focus is handy for more deliberate shots, perhaps when mounted on a tripod, but the option of touch-focusing in AF-S means you can often just poke what you want on the screen. And autofocus is pretty good, with a half press of the button on the lens itself focusing for you. It's nice and fast, but - and just like the RX100 II - doesn't like macro focusing when you're zoomed in. It will focus at fairly close range, but only at the widest angle.
One of the shortcomings of this entire setup is that the image sent to the phone from the QX100 isn't as high quality as the image captured. This is probably down to limiting the amount of data being sent to avoid lag, but it means that what you see isn't exactly what you get.
The app does provide options for controlling how you view or transfer the pictures you take. You can save the preview to your phone and you have the option to save either the full image or a 2-megapixel version. At any point you can dive in and transfer the pictures to your phone for onward sharing through your smartphone's normal connections, which is definitely a useful touch.
As with the QX10, the QX100 has the same point and shoot modes. Intelligent Auto attempts to recognise the scene and optimise settings for you, while Superior Auto will do more advanced things like taking multiple shots and combining for a better result with its auto HDR function. Neither give you a huge amount of real shooting information, although there are icons that flash up when a particular type of scene has been recognised.
Program mode gives you more information, as well as the option to manually set the white balance and exposure compensation. It's here that you can at least see what the lens has selected for the aperture and the shutter, so you can make a decision about whether it's going to work handheld or not. If, that is, you know enough about photography - but if you're spending almost £350 on this device we suspect you either do or are looking to learn.
Finally there's Aperture Priority, which will let you control the aperture from f/1.8-11, although the maximum aperture is limited as the zoom extends. This shooting mode is a welcomed addition and a step on for those who want to get beyond the auto shooting options. But there's no ISO control nor the option to access raw data, so enthusiast photographers might feel it's not a step far enough.
There is also video capture at 1080p30, offering good results captured using continuous autofocus to ensure subjects are always kept sharp and in focus. In low light things get a little grainy, however, but that's not entirely surprising.
The raison d'être for the QX100 is quality. It's a quality lens looking to bring some of the results of the RX100 to your smartphone. Not having any control over the ISO at all is something of a drawback, because the QX100 will often jump to ISO 3200 in aperture mode as soon as the light dips.
In truth, ISO 3200 isn't too bad because this sensor is so good. The photos aren't destroyed as they are with a lesser sensor and the QX100 copes better than the average compact camera in these conditions, as you'd expect given the RX100 model it originates from. But if you have set the aperture at f/11 and want a long exposure, there's no way to stop the high ISO rushing in and mottling the fine detail.
In the same way, you'll often find that the QX100 chooses f/1.8 in low light, which isn't always the best for the subject thanks to the narrow depth of focus. The lack of information fed back means you won't always know unless you go and check the photo you've taken. To avoid this, you'll have to use Aperture Priority.
However, put the QX100 into a low-light situation and the results are far in advance of anything you'll get from a smartphone. Sony's Optical SteadyShot, the range of apertures and higher ISO settings that don't destroy the image, mean you can easily get indoor shots where the majority of smartphones would fail comprehensively.
Give the QX100 good light outdoors and it will return some lovely shots, but we get the feeling that some of the advantage is lost, as many smartphones perform perfectly well on a sunny day. You get advantage of being able to crop in after you've taken the shot - where many smartphones will reveal a lack of detail, but that's not the case here. Yes, the QX100 will give you great shots, but it's really in the realms of low light that it makes its case.
The more we used the QX100, the more apparent the difference from the QX10 became. Once connected to a phone, the QX100 is difficult to get into your pocket. Even with a big jacket pocket, attached to a big phone like the HTC One, it was just too big to stuff away when connected. That's not a problem with the more budget QX10.
The experience through the PlayMemories app is also very much the same as the earlier QX10, from the time to first shot to the dropped connections. But once you consider the additional price premium you pay to get the QX100, we don't view it quite as favourably as the QX10. The QX10 feels like it's works as an attached device, but the QX100 feels more useful as an external lens, mounted on a tripod, or for delicately composed shots.
Although, ultimately, the QX100 has a better quality lens and sensor, as well as giving you a higher ISO range with better results, you don't get all the information you really want to set this hardware to task or the controls to make the changes. Where this is acceptable to a point on the QX10, it's more difficult to swallow with the QX100.
For the QX100 to succeed, it needs to let the user take advantage of what's on offer. With a large sensor and a Zeiss lens, we want to see more information all the time, we want the option to control the ISO, we want to be able to access the raw files. PlayMemories may adjust for some of this in the future, but in the here and now those finer points lack. That would go some way to elevating the experience of using the QX100 to the price it is asking, as for now we'd simply opt for an RX100 as a standalone camera instead.