Earlier this month at IFA, Sony introduced an entirely new type of point-and-shoot camera. The QX10 and its big brother, the QX100, are missing a built-in LCD. Instead, framing, image review, configuration and even storage are all handled on another device: your smartphone. These “lens cameras,” as they’ve become unofficially known, mount directly on a handset you already own, pairing with Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app via WiFi. The benefits are considerable. The absence of a display allows for a more compact body, improved power efficiency and a lower price tag. The QX100, for example, includes the same optics as Sony’s flagship RX100 Mark II, but retails for $500, compared to $750 for its fully equipped counterpart. The QX10 is the more mainstream of the two, with a smaller footprint and an affordable $250 price tag. We focus on this model just below.
Aesthetically, both lens cameras are quite similar, though the QX100 is larger than the QX10 despite its more limited focal length. The reason for the discrepancy is a generous 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor, and a higher-quality f/1.8-4.9, 3.6x Carl Zeiss lens to match. The QX10, however, sports a 1/2.3-inch 18.9-megapixel sensor — that’s comparable in physical size to what you’d find in a mid-range point-and-shoot. Still, it’s substantially larger than the embedded smartphone sensor it’s likely to replace, and the f/3.3-5.9, 10x G lens is unmatched by all but the Galaxy S4 Zoom. In fact, you might say this is Sony’s answer to Samsung’s misstep, and when you factor in cost, compatibility and image quality, Sony comes out far ahead. In the box, you’ll find an instruction manual, the lens camera, a detachable smartphone mount with an extending arm, a wrist strap, an NP-BN battery pack rated for 200 shots and a micro-USB cable for charging and wired image transfers. There isn’t one accessory you won’t need, nor are there any critical components missing, with the exception of a microSD card. The lens measures 1.5 inches high with the smartphone attachment and 1.125 inches without. You connect the two with an embedded bayonet mount. There’s also a sliding arm that’ll accommodate just about any current phone model, including the Galaxy Note II, and rubber pads positioned where the accessory meets your handset to eliminate any risk of damage when you attach and detach the lens. We tested the QX10 with both a Galaxy Note II and a Moto X, and it fit on both, though the X’s shorter design meant the camera mount often edged too close to the phone’s volume rocker — the Note offered more real estate. We also tried attaching the camera to an iPhone 4, which was an even tighter squeeze than the Moto X. It did fit, though we’d recommend sticking to a larger device if possible. You can also use the lens on its own, though there aren’t many physical controls, and without a viewfinder to speak of, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. There are but three buttons: a power control on the top, then a shutter release and a zoom toggle on the left side of the lens. Any settings adjustments — and there aren’t many to choose from — are handled directly in Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app, which we’ll explore more in the section below.
You’ll spend nearly all your time operating the QX10 from PlayMemories Mobile on an Android or iOS handset, so app usability here is paramount. We did run into some speed limitations, which we’ll explore in the performance section, but overall, the app worked well. The first time you pair with a smartphone, you’ll need to connect to your camera’s ad-hoc WiFi network just as you would any other network. There’s an SSID and password under the battery door. You can download the app from the App Store or Google Play, and if your phone is NFC-enabled, you can simply tap it to the lens to initiate the download. Once it’s installed, launch the app, select the camera and you’re good to go. When you’re connected, you’ll see a live preview through the lens on your smartphone screen. There’s a standard, albeit bare, viewfinder layout, including current mode, resolution and remaining shot readouts, along with a zoom toggle and shutter release (which are duplicated on the camera itself). There’s no option to view the remaining battery life, unfortunately, though there is a small indicator on the side of the lens. As for shooting, there are three primary modes to select from. Intelligent Auto is your run-of-the-mill automatic mode; Superior Auto enables some advanced shooting tools, such as macro or Handheld Twilight; and Program lets you set exposure compensation and white balance. Other settings include turning the camera beep on or off, and selecting the aspect ratio and resolution. The QX10 is very much a point-and-shoot, so, for better or worse, expect the camera do all of the work. Once you’re paired with the camera and using the app, every image you shoot will be stored on your smartphone by default, in addition to the microSD card in the camera, assuming one is installed. From there, you can upload pics to the cloud, including sharing sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can’t capture directly from a third-party app — yet — but after you shoot, it’s easy enough to select your desired image from the gallery and move it to another app from there. Sony released an API (currently in beta), so it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be able to control the QX directly from a variety of third-party applications.
PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE
If you take a moment to consider the feat Sony’s accomplished here, the performance concerns are easier to overlook. But there are issues nonetheless. Most significant, of course, is the start-up time. As you’ll often depend on your smartphone for control, you need to factor in a few extra seconds to power up the camera, connect to WiFi and launch the app. Expect that process to eat about five seconds, perhaps more, though if you’re hoping to capture a moving subject, any delay is unacceptable. To avoid this, you can keep the camera and your smartphone powered on in anticipation of an upcoming shot, but you’ll wear through the batteries on both devices fairly quickly. Once you’re linked up, the delays are negligible, however. The camera zooms and captures within moments of pressing the software buttons, and instantly when you use the hardware controls. There’s only a moment of lag when using the phone’s display to frame a shot — it isn’t an issue when at the shortest focal length, but if you’re zoomed all the way in, the lag can make tracking a moving subject difficult. With some practice and patience, it’s easy enough to anticipate the camera’s response, therefore minimizing the impact. Of course, we wouldn’t recommend either QX camera for sports photography, however informal, but everyday shooting should work out just fine. As for the battery life, we were able to capture 140 images and a bit over three minutes of 720p video on the same full charge. Battery life is tricky to track, as there’s only a small indicator on the side of the lens (and none available in the bundled app), so if you’re planning a full-day shoot, you might want to bring a spare along. Alternatively, as the QX10 charges using a standard USB cable, you can plug it into a portable power pack to top off. Your smartphone’s battery will take a significant hit as well, since you’ll be using the display quite a bit. If your phone can’t make it through a full day as it is, expect even faster drain if you’re shooting a lot with the lens camera.
Many of our shots were slightly underexposed, and normally we’d suggest bumping up the exposure compensation to make up for it, but EV is only available in Program mode with the QX10. If you want to take advantage of the advanced (camera-controlled) features available in Superior Auto, you’ll need to forgo exposure compensation, unfortunately, and leave aperture and shutter speed entirely up to the camera. Colors, on the other hand, while accurate, were oversaturated at times, resulting in some slightly exaggerated blues and reds. White balance was typically accurate, though the camera struggled a bit with some very dim scenes at a restaurant.
One nifty benefit of the QX10’s design is that you can shoot without the lens attached to your smartphone. That means you can hold the camera overhead, out in the distance or at low angles without moving the viewfinder, resulting in some pretty unique images. And, with the camera always set to expose automatically, you don’t even need to evaluate the light from obscure angles, letting you snap interesting shots with ease. Additionally, the camera has a flat bottom surface, so you can easily rest it on a table or ledge for long exposures or video shoots. This enabled us to capture the clip embedded below while monitoring the preview comfortably. There’s also a tripod socket on the bottom, which should come in handy for group shots and the like.
Sony has a unique position in this space, being that the QX10 and QX100 are the only cameras of their kind currently on the market. That will likely change within a few months, assuming these Cyber-shots take off, but for now, the QX10’s primary competitor is Sony’s pricier QX100. We haven’t had an opportunity to take that latter model for an extended spin, but considering the included optics, we’re willing to bet the experience is superior to that of the QX10. Of course, you could always opt for a full-fledged point-and-shoot, and there are a few in this price range, but you’ve likely landed on the QX10 because of its unique ability to mount on your smartphone and share images instantly to the web. If you’re looking for an alternative and you’re in the market for a smartphone, too, you might consider Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Zoom. We weren’t tremendously impressed with this hybrid smartphone and camera, but if you don’t need a ton of processing power and prefer the flexibility of a zoom lens that’s always around, it’s worth a look, as is the Nokia Lumia 1020.
We were admittedly hesitant when we first heard about Sony’s new lens cameras, and we weren’t even convinced after an extended hands-on earlier this month. But after spending a full week with the QX10, including shoots in Berlin and Alaska, it’s hard not to revel in Sony’s accomplishment. Built-in LCD or not, the Cyber-shot QX10 is truly a fantastic camera. It complements just about any smartphone, and at $250, it’s within reach of many consumers. The image quality is just about as good as it gets for a sub-$500 point-and-shoot, and while the lag and start-up delays were irritating at times, the overall picture is worth the plunge.