Our First Take
Digital photography is enjoying a new boom in the form of smartphone cameras, but unfortunately many of them are just plain terrible. Even though the iPhone 5 is the most popular camera in the world, it still isn't anywhere close to being the zenith of mobile imaging tech. That's where Sony's upcoming Cyber-shot QX10 (MSRP $299.99) and QX100 (MSRP $499.99) come into play.
While others are cramming their advanced imaging tech into phones, the Sony approach keeps the camera separate entirely. Instead of buying a phone with the best camera available, you now have the choice of adding one of these Sony modules after the fact. Compatible with Android and iOS devices, these new camera attachments could change smartphone photography overnight.
But don't let its nontraditional guise fool you, the QX100 isn't some fly-by-night experiment from Sony. This thing is built on a rock-solid foundation, with the same image sensor as Sony's point-and-shoot golden boy, the RX100. Giving your smartphone photography chops on par with arguably the best pocket camera ever made? You have our attention.
Design & Usability
This might take some getting used to.
The overall concept behind the QX100 is pretty great. The QX modules are each fully-integrated units that combine a lens, sensor, battery, memory card slot, wireless radio, and a small mount in a tiny, pocket-sized cylinder. While you'd have no way to frame, the QX100 can be used as a standalone camera. Of course, the real magic happens by matching up this little powerhouse with the smartphone you've already got, capturing high-quality images that are then shuttled instantly to your phone.
If you're a Sony Xperia Z owner, there's a case for that device that will let you clip the QX100 directly to the back. For those who own other smartphones, Sony has developed a spring-loaded clamp for the QX cameras to mount to. We found the clamp to be very secure, with a strong grip and sticky silicon tips that prevent it from sliding off your phone. When you don't need the clamp, the two arms fold up neatly, making the whole thing a tidy cylinder.
On the bottom of the QX100 is also a standard tripod mount, which might come in handy for group shots. Since the camera and your phone are connected wirelessly, the camera can be detached and used however you please. on the left hand side is a zoom slider and a small shutter button, both of which are serviceable, but a bit cramped. On the top of the device, you'll find a small, indented power button and the NFC target. Like the RX100, there's a smooth-turning ring around the front of the lens which is set to control zoom by default, and we're told optionally can be used to focus manually.
We found that even though everything works basically as advertised, the whole setup was a bit awkward to use. There isn't a clear alignment mechanism when clicking the camera into a phone or its clamp, which made securing the two hit-or-miss. Then there's the clamp. Even though it has more than enough grip to hold onto a phone's slender body, we found that when attaching it to a larger Xperia, we almost needed a third hand to help guide things together.
Just like an RX100, except when it isn't
Aside from the wild, unique design of this camera/lens/pod thing, at its heart it's really just a reworked RX100. Even though the Sony PlayMemories app does a decent job bringing the phone and camera together, the truth is that there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out to make this as useful as a dedicated camera.
First, the PlayMemories app can only shoot in Auto, iAuto, Program Auto, and Aperture Priority modes. No full-manual control here. Sony tells us that there could be more shooting modes added later, but for now you'll have to be fine with giving up control to the camera. Second, there's no RAW shooting available, meaning you won't be able to get the most out of the great 1-inch CMOS sensor.
Our main reservation isn't the hardware, but the software that links it to your phone; the QX100 only works with Sony's PlayMemories app, so the usability is reliant on Sony's ability to design a proper camera application. In our limited time, we found it to be decent on an Xperia Android phone. Tap-to-focus worked well and all the controls were easy to access and well-labeled. Live view was a little laggy, but not unusable when doing regular, handheld shooting. When using the camera detached from a phone, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the camera has a built-in accelerometer so it knows its orientation on its own, without any help from your phone.
Is this the future of point and shoots?
We're not sure that the the QX cameras can save the low end of the point-and-shoot market, but we'll be watching the QX100 with great interest. Whether or not that's Sony's goal, they've made the perfect choice in building the QX100 around the venerable RX100's lens and sensor. We don't feel the shooting experience is quite as tight as it is when using an actual RX100, but we're not sure it matters. The gulf in image quality between what the QX100 should deliver and what you get from your average smartphone is worth the frustration.
Even beyond that, the QX100 also immediately launches as quite a deal. At $499.99, you're getting all of the guts of an RX100—a camera that still retails for $649.99 and is well worth the price. We're still eager to see how the PlayMemories app holds up over a longer shooting session, but it's safe to say the QX100 has us intrigued.