There's a significant gap in the market when it comes to solid camera hardware inside a smartphone. Aside from the Panasonic CM1, most mobile phones have really small sensors compared to most dedicated cameras.
Though, say, an iPhone is far more convenient to shoot with because it's in your pocket already, the photos you take with it just aren't enough to cut the mustard for some. So what do you do if you want better pictures but a standalone camera is too clunky and inconvenient?
DxO is taking aim at just such a consumer. Though the DxO One (MSRP $599.99) companion camera isn't going to replace your DSLR or mirrorless anytime soon, will it offer enough to woo iPhone owners on the fence about a camera upgrade? At PhotoPlus Expo in New York, we were able to get our hands on one to find out.
Design & Usability
The camera is an evolving item
When you first lay eyes on the DxO One, it's hard to believe that it's got a lot of camera inside it. Frankly, it's almost unrecognizable as a camera unless you know going into it just what the hell you're looking at. It's small, rectangular, has very few features on the outside of the unit, and is unlike anything you'd find at the Apple store (yet).
Once you pull back the guard on the lens, everything starts to make a bit more sense. DxO has gone to great lengths to make the One as smooth as possible on the outside, so outside of the shutter button there aren't many obvious indicators that the device you're holding is a camera at first. It simply looks like a small box half the size of a deck of cards.
Flip out the Lightning connector from its rotating mount and slide it into the port of your iPhone, and you'll be prompted to download DxO's app. One thing's for sure: this app is fantastic. Not only does it allow you to use your iPhone as a live view monitor, but virtually all of your settings are controlled by the app interface.
In all my dealings with camera apps, this one is the best by a country mile. There isn't the jankiness or dated graphics found on just about every other app out there. Settings and modes are found on the left of the screen, and they're surprisingly well enumerated. Really, there isn't much missing to want for, and because it's an app there's always the theoretical capability to add in other things like filters later.
Once you start shooting with the DxO one, you'll notice right away that the rotating mount allows you to get interesting angles (+/-60˚) on your snaps. Selfie monsters in particular will make frequent use of the camera in place of the low-res front-facing camera on the iPhone. Not only is it easy to frame your shot, but you don't have to make the usual tradeoff in quality—and the app will automatically brighten your phone's screen to act as a fill light so you don't suffer the ill effects of a bad flash.
After taking a handful of shots in your orientation of choice, you'll notice that your pictures have a surprisingly good depth of field and bokeh. That's due to the combination of the large, 20.2 megapixel 1-inch sensor (also found in Sony's RX100 cameras) paired with a 32mm (full-frame equivalent) f/1.8-11 prime lens. Though Apple's latest camera modules boast a wide aperture, it can't touch what's offered by the DxO One's vastly superior hardware.
Below the screen is a small door that hides a microUSB port for charging, and a microSD card slot for expanded storage. Though you can save directly to your phone, having external storage is often preferable if you're not sharing your snaps right away so you don't burn through your phone's limited internal storage.
This is important, because the DxO One has the ability to shoot in JPEG, RAW, or DxO's proprietary Super RAW. The latter of which is where the camera takes multiple exposures of the same scene to aggressively dispel noise and artifacts to produce a much cleaner RAW file.
A familiar specsheet
As far as features go, the DxO One camera is surprisingly well fleshed-out. In addition to boasting high-end point and shoot specs, it has a lot of the features shooters look for in making a compact camera purchase.
For example, the One offers contrast-detection autofocus, with several useful modes. Single-shot and continuous AF work well, and the tap-to-focus feature is great for isolating subjects that aren't in the exact center of your frame. We've seen this feature on other cameras before, and it definitely makes getting the perfect shot a lot easier to accomplish.
Additionally, the manual focus mode is surprisingly slick. A box opens over the live view with a zoomed-in portion of your image, and you drag your finger along a ticked slider on the left of the screen to move your focus from near to infinity. Once you've nailed your focus, snap away.
Though the settings will show up on your screen, there's a secondary screen on the body of the One that will give you a quick overview of what your shot settings are. It's not exhaustive, but it's more than enough to get a good handle on things at a glance.
Video on the One is a little lacking in comparison to what we know its hardware can do. For whatever reason, you're limited to 1080p/30p video clips, where the latest iPhones can capture 4K video. Though on paper this sounds bad, I should point out that the bigger sensor and wider lens will most likely generate higher-quality clips than the tiny camera modules of a smartphone.
I should point out that DxO really knows their stuff, so this isn't some trinket with a short development period; it's the real deal. As both a manufacturer and vendor of camera testing software, DxO is intimately aware of what works and what doesn't on a camera—and they've tested their baby to see how it stacks up to other cameras in its price range.
A unique take on a familiar concept
Like the Sony QX30 and Olympus Air before it, the DxO One seeks to exploit the gap in the market between cameras and phones. Though there have been several takes on this kind of device, the DxO One has—by far—the most user-friendly package with tried-and-true guts to boot. It's just gravy that its app is so good.
As it sits right now, there isn't really a good alternative that's available for purchase unless you're willing to make some serious tradeoffs. The Olympus Air comes close, but it's much bulkier, and doesn't fit into a pocket like the DxO One does. However, it's a bit hard to swallow shelling out another $600 on top of whatever you paid for your iPhone to get a better camera. But consider this: you're getting hardware that's about on par for a point and shoot of the same price, so the ability to interface well with your primary link to the internet is a huge check in the plus column.
But that's only if you have an iPhone (or new iPad), and only if you have a modern one. While a successor to the One might have a way to use USB once more phones move towards the USB C standard, that day isn't here, and it isn't quite on the horizon. Android and Windows Phone users wanting to make use of the DxO One are out of luck for now.
If you don't need to document your life on social media every step of the way, this is still an enticing purchase, but you may decide that a regular ol' camera suits your needs better. For example, you might want optical zoom, the ability to swap lenses, or maybe you simply want something more affordable. All of these things could be had by a little shopping around, but the DxO One benefits from filling its niche—and doing it well.
We're eager to give this camera a spin in our labs, and we'll report back when we have the data to determine how well the One stacks up to other point and shoots. On paper, the DxO One has a lot to offer—but we can't say for sure until we put it to the test. One thing's for sure, this shooter is certainly unique.