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Sony QX10 Review -- First Impressions

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Preview posted 09/04/2013

Sony QX10 review -- Front quarter view

It doesn't matter which model you choose, almost all digital cameras have a defining feature: they all place their lens on the front of -- or perhaps inside of -- a camera body that adds bulk. The long-zoom Sony QX10 and its sibling the large-sensor QX100 defy convention, throwing away that box-like body, and retaining only the lens barrel itself. They're unlike any camera you've ever used before, and they aim to change the way you think about photography.

Smartphone adoption rates are now above 50% in much of the developed world. Half of all cellphone owners worldwide should be carrying smartphones by 2017, based on current projections. They might have larger sensors and zoom lenses, but point-and-shoot cameras aren't long for this world, because smartphone owners are already carrying a camera everywhere they go. Why take both?

Do you need two screens? That's the question Sony's engineers asked themselves. The question led them to the simple and rather clever concept behind the QX-series lens-style cameras. Think about it: Your phone almost certainly has a larger screen that makes it much more satisfying to view and share your images on. Why add the bulk, weight, and expense of another, less impressive screen? Wireless connectivity is common in point-and-shoot cameras already, and remote live view is available in more than a few cameras. If you make that the default, you can do away with the extra monitor altogether.

Sony has done just that, with the Sony Cyber-shot QX10, a camera that shares much -- including a similar 1/2.3-inch, 18-megapixel, backside-illuminated image sensor and Sony G-branded 10x optical zoom lens -- with last year's Sony WX150 point-and-shoot.

Sony QX10 review -- Front view

Not only does it completely outclass your smartphone's camera with all that zoom reach, but the Sony QX10's sensor also is a fair bit larger than that typically found in most smartphones. That will go some way to counter the somewhat dim maximum aperture, which starts from f/3.3 at the 25mm-equivalent wide angle, and falls to f/5.9 by the telephoto position. So, too, will the lens' SteadyShot optical image stabilization, which features Sony's Active mode for better video stabilization.

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The theory behind the lens-style camera. By relying on the screen of your Android or iOS smartphone, the camera itself should be able to have a smaller, lighter and less expensive design. (On paper, at least.) And that's despite it sporting a powerful zoom lens, and a rather larger sensor -- neither of which can be shoehorned into your phone. The pairing of camera and display can also be positioned separately where they're needed, adding versatility.

The question is, do these theoretical advantages hold true in the real world? We crunched the numbers for the QX10 lens-style camera and WX150 point-and-shoot, considering the former to be a simple elliptical cylinder, and the latter a simple rectangle.

Sony QX10 review -- Top view

The result gave an edge to the QX10, but not as much as you might think. The admittedly rather loose approximation puts it at around 14% smaller in terms of volume. It's about one-third less wide, but 10% taller and half again as thick as the WX150. The extra thickness means you'll feel it in your pocket more, but it's still easily within the realm of the pocket-friendly.

The difference in weight is more significant. The Sony QX10 is almost a quarter lighter than its traditional camera sibling, when loaded and ready to shoot. There's no advantage in price at all, however: The lens-style camera carries the exact same list price as the WX150.

What it can't do. Obviously, you'll be reliant on your smartphone if you want to frame your photos, rather than simply pointing and hoping. (Although the QX10 can work by itself, too, should your phone run out of power.) And of course, you can't expect the same ergonomics you'd get from a dedicated camera, when you've effectively stuck a lens barrel on the front of a device never intended to bear one. But what are the other drawbacks?

Sony QX10 review -- Rear view

The Sony QX10 lacks a flash strobe or autofocus assist illuminator, and that coupled with a not-so-bright lens is going to make low-light photography tricky (and quite likely, noisy.) If your phone allows it, you may be able to enable its "flashlight" mode while shooting photos, but smartphone strobes are usually weak LEDs anyway, so not of great help. Your best chance will be to raise sensitivity, and hope.

You're limited to Automatic exposure control with the QX10, but then that was true of the WX150 too. Manual control isn't available, nor is it possible to shoot in priority mode, or adjust sensitivity manually. Likewise, white balance is limited to auto or a selection of presets.

Creative options. Relatively few options are available for the photographer to control. There's the optical zoom lens, of course, and you can touch your smartphone's LCD to set focus as well. (Alternatively, the camera will select the focus point.) And as we've mentioned, you can adjust the white balance by selecting a preset. Finally, you can adjust exposure compensation, within a +/-2EV range, in 1/3EV steps.

Sony QX10 review -- Left view

That's pretty typical in a low-end point-and-shoot camera, though, which is what the QX10 emulates. And it does give you more exposure mode choices than did the WX150 -- as well as Program and Intelligent Auto, there's also a multi-shot Superior Auto mode.

Exposure. In Intelligent Auto mode, sensitivity ranges from 100 to 3200 equivalents. In Superior Auto mode, thanks to in-camera stacking of multiple exposures, the upper limit climbs to ISO 12,800 equivalent. For Program auto, it's lowered to ISO 1600. And finally, for Movie shooting, it drops still lower to ISO 1000.

Shutter speeds range from 4 to 1/1600 second in iAuto mode, and from 1 to 1/1600 in Program Auto. And Sony states that its Superior Auto mode will recognize 44 scene types, while Intelligent Auto can differentiate between 33 scene types.

Sony QX10 review -- Right view

Still and video performance. Unfortunately, we don't have any performance figures for the WX150, and so can't make a direct comparison between the cameras in this area. Suffice to say, though, that performance of the Sony QX10 is modest. That's not surprising, when you remember that everything it does must be transferred via a standard Wi-Fi connection. The QX10 has a manufacturer-specified startup time of 6.9 seconds, and the company predicts a shooting lag of 1.2 seconds. Shutter lag is rated at 0.037 seconds.

The Sony QX100's movie resolution and frame rate is noticeably lower than that of the WX150. That camera allows Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixel) capture at a rate of 60 fields per second. The lens-like QX10, meanwhile, is limited to Anamorphic HD (1440 x 1080 pixel) capture, with a fixed 30p frame rate. It has a maximum clip length limit of 25 minutes, and like the WX150, records stereo audio with its movies.

Added versatility. As we noted earlier, the Sony QX10 certainly provides an advantage over the WX150 in the extra framing versatility that it allows. You can position camera and display separately, and since the connection between the two is via Wi-Fi, range between the two devices can be reasonably generous -- as much as 10 or 15 feet. (Perhaps even 20 feet, under ideal conditions.) You still get a live view feed on the smartphone's display, and have complete control over the camera.

Sony QX10 review -- Mounting the lens
The Sony QX10 can be mounted on third-party cameras using this adjustable mount adapter.

You won't be spending all your time shooting on a tripod, though, and holding smartphone and camera in each hand wouldn't make for a very satisfying experience. For that reason, Sony provides a small, folding accessory which lets you attach camera and smartphone to create a single unit. Of course, Sony would love for you to use one of its own phones, but there's a good chance you've already got one you're happy with. For that reason, the accessory will adjust mechanically to accommodate a range of different phone sizes.

Stands alone. The Sony QX10 also works standalone, as noted previously, although of course it lacks a display. There are physical controls for the power, shutter, zoom, and manual focus. (The latter is a fly-by-wire lens ring, just as in the RX-series cameras.)

Charge level is indicated on a small, monochrome LCD located on the side of the Sony QX10's lens barrel. A battery beneath the rear panel provides power for the sensor, processor, lens, and radios. A built-in storage slot accepts MicroSD and Memory Stick Micro cards.

Sony QX10 review -- Alternate lens mount
Sony will be offering custom QX adapters for certain of its own smartphone models, such as this one.

If your phone runs out of power, or you just don't want to take it out of your pocket, absolutely everything you'd need to shoot images is provided. But of course, you'll be shooting blind, since you won't have a display, or any way to adjust camera setup.

The ability to use the QX10 standalone is probably a significant part of why the size advantage isn't greater. Other than its display, it still includes everything else you'd find in your traditional camera.

Sony could likely have pared off some of these features for a smaller device, had it wanted to. It likely decided against that because a just-the-basics design would have been more of a challenge to use, though. You'd have been even more reliant on your phone's battery and available storage, both of which are pretty limited in many phones. You'd also have had to rely on the phone's touch screen for all control, even the shutter button and lens zoom.

Sony QX10 review -- White and gold version
In ideal conditions, you can shoot with the Sony QX10 and your smartphone at distances of up to 20 feet from each other.

NFC and Wi-Fi pairing. Since you'll be turning to your smartphone for almost any functionality -- taking or reviewing images and movies, or even just changing camera settings -- it's important that pairing is quick and easy. For that reason, Sony has included Near Field Communications technology in the Cyber-shot QX10. If your smartphone is compatible with NFC, you'll just hold it next to the NFC logo on the camera briefly. (As long as its NFC radio is enabled, that is.) It will pair automatically, then establish a Wi-Fi connection.

Why two different radio types? Well, Wi-Fi has much higher-speed and longer-range, making it better-suited to providing a live view video feed and remote control capability. NFC has much lower power consumption and a very short range, making for better security, and letting you leave its radio on all the time.

There's an important catch with the NFC radio, however. Apple is so far continuing to resist adopting NFC in its products, which means you can't use NFC pairing with an Apple device. And while Windows Phone, Symbian, and Blackberry devices with NFC are available, Sony doesn't provide its free PlayMemories Mobile remote control app for these platforms, only for iOS and Android. That means that you can't use a Windows Phone, Symbian, or Blackberry smartphone with the QX10, either.

Hence NFC pairing is available to Android users only. iOS users will have to pair the old-fashioned way. Users of other mobile operating systems need not apply at all -- the QX10 will work only for Android and iOS.

Sony QX10 review -- Soft case
In ideal conditions, you can shoot with the Sony QX10 and your smartphone at distances of up to 20 feet from each other.

Connectivity, storage, and power. We mentioned previously that the Sony QX10 includes a microSD / Memory Stick Micro slot. This is compatible with microSDHC and microSDXC cards too, as well as Memory Stick Micro Mark 2 cards. The QX10 also transfers images to your phone's storage as they're shot, so you can share them immediately or just keep them as a backup, until you run out of space.

Connectivity options include the aforementioned Wi-Fi and NFC radios, as well as a single Micro USB port, which provides for USB 2.0 High Speed data connectivity, and in-camera battery charging.

Power comes from an NP-BN12 lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack, and is rated for just 220 frames on a charge, despite the fact that there's no flash strobe. That's only 20 shots less than the WX150, although the traditional camera set its figure with 50% flash usage, where the QX10 lacks a flash. Sony predicts 110 minutes of battery life in Record mode, down from 115 minutes in the WX150. And in movie mode, Sony expects 65 minutes of capture to be possible, up from 60 minutes in the WX150.

Sony QX10 review -- Soft case

Price and availability. The Sony Cyber-shot QX10 lens-style camera ships from September 2013 in the US market. Pricing is set at US$250, including a battery, wrist strap, smartphone attachment and micro USB cable.

Accessories. Sony also has plans to offer a variety of accessories for the QX10 camera, including dedicated smartphone attachments for specific Sony phones like the Xperia Z, as well as a soft carry case that will protect the camera from minor knocks and scuffs.

 

Sony QX100 and QX10 'lens-style' cameras -- Walkthrough Demonstration

 

Hands-on with the Sony QX100 and QX10 'lens-style' cameras

by Dave Etchells

The following includes information on both the QX10 and QX100 since so much of their operation and user interface is the same. I'll call attention to differences where appropriate.

There's no question that the Sony "lens-style" cameras are an interesting innovation (I love the concept!), but how are they to use in actual practice?

Sony QX10 review -- in hand

Interface, controls and design. At first contact, the user interface displayed on the smart device for either of these cameras is pretty functional. You can zoom the lens, adjust exposure, touch the screen to set an AF point and focus, etc. I found using the shutter button displayed on the smart device's screen a little awkward, but both cameras also have a shutter button on the side, which makes for steadier shooting. Zooming the lens with the on-screen controls is also slightly awkward, and zoom speed in that mode is a little leisurely. Again, I found using the dedicated toggle on the side of the barrel more convenient, and the zoom action was a good bit more responsive with it as well.

You can either attach the camera to the front of your phone, using two gripper-tabs that fold out from the device's back cap, or you can hold it separately, and it'll stay connected up to a distance of 10 feet or so; handy for holding the camera over your head or down low, or selfies with a reasonable distance between you and the camera: Set the camera on a table, bookshelf or other object (or give it to the waiter to hold for you), and you can zoom to frame better, adjust exposure, and then snap the shot, all from your phone.

Sony QX10 review --menu screen shot

My big disconnect with these cameras came when I tried to control them as cameras. I guess I'd expect the more digicam-oriented QX10 to have a rather dumbed-down interface, and it does. Exposure-mode choices are restricted to Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto and Programmed Auto. Period. In Programmed Auto mode, you get to control white balance and exposure compensation and not much else. Superior Auto does at least make available Sony's multi-exposure low-light modes (Handheld Twilight and Anti-Motion Blur), but only under automatic control.

Overall, that's really limited, but if the intended market is people who barely know how to push the shutter button on their cell phones, maybe simplicity is a good thing. (On the other hand, I've always said that the thing to do with camera user interfaces is to go ahead and put all the advanced-user options in there, just hide them in an "advanced" mode if you're concerned about confusing the tyros. Why penalize the experienced users, just for the sake of not confusing beginners?) Also, neither model has a built-in flash.

Whatever the case, Sony chose to go with an extremely simple user interface for the QX10, but I could see it still being attractive to its intended audience.

QX100 vs. RX100. OK, that's the QX10, you might expect something really simple like that. The camera I was really interested in the QX100. Just think, an even more compact RX100 in your pocket; take it with you anywhere!

Sony QX10 review -- QX100 versus RX100 front

The problem is, the QX100 really doesn't feel more compact than the RX100; if anything, it feels bigger. Technically, it is smaller; when you do the math for the total volume, the RX100 comes in at about 13.8 cubic inches, give or take, while the QX100 is only about 11 cubic inches. So the QX100 is certainly more compact in that sense. When it comes to sliding either one into a pocket, though, the experience is very different than the cubic-inch numbers would suggest. With the RX100, it's a matter of a chunky but manageable 1.5 inch thick rectangle, compared to the QX100's 2.5-inch diameter cylinder. The QX100's "bulge factor" is dramatically higher. Based on the bulge factor alone, if I were stepping out for a stroll, I'd choose the RX100 over the QX any day, unless separating the lens/camera from the LCD screen and controls was really important to me. (A concert or other crowded event, where having the camera overhead would be a big advantage, or perhaps situations where I'd want to stealthily poke the lens/camera through an obstruction or view block of some kind. Or, of course, higher-quality selfies. Overall, though, these are somewhat limited use-cases.)

Sony QX10 review -- QX100 versus RX100 side

Shooting operation and performance. But that's just the size, what about picture-taking? Unfortunately, that was my second and arguably bigger disappointment. I approached the QX100 expecting the full RX100 experience. I mean, it's all just user-interface, right? And now you've got a big, beautiful touch screen on the smart device to spread it around on. Great news, right? Not quite. The controls for the QX100 were only a smidgen more sophisticated than those for the QX10. Seriously? Unfortunately, yes. You do have a bit more control with the QX100, but it's precious little.

Sony QX10 review -- menu

With the QX100, you have the same Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, and Program Auto as the QX10, but also Aperture-priority exposure control, which is at least something. No shutter-priority, no Manual mode, and once again no ISO control. You do have white balance control as with the QX10, and this time it includes a Kelvin setting with a range from 2,500K to 9,900K, but no Manual/Custom option. And there's no RAW support either. Once again, while Sony's special multi-exposure modes are available via the Superior Auto exposure option, you don't have the option of choosing them yourself, and Sony's excellent Sweep Panorama feature isn't offered either. In fairness, Superior Auto does a pretty decent job of deciding when to use the multi-exposure settings, but the RX100 is clearly an enthusiast camera, and people expecting a similar experience from the QX100 will be disappointed.

Let's talk about the actual process of shooting with either of these cameras, though; the news there isn't all bad. They can in fact take much better photos than the typical cell phone camera, and in the case of the QX100, dramatically so, especially in low light.

Sony QX10 review -- on phone

The Sony PlayMemories app gives you some control over how data is transferred between the lens/camera and the smart device, and your choice there impacts performance significantly. After snapping each photo, you can choose to transfer either a 2-megapixel downsampled file, or the full-resolution one to the smart device. If you choose to immediately transfer the full-res original, there'll be quite a delay between snapping the photo and seeing the result on-screen. Transfer between the lens/camera and the smart device is via WiFi, so the lag between shooting and seeing the "review" image is longer than you'll have been accustomed to with a conventional camera. If you choose to always transfer the full-res file, the delay will interfere with your ability to snap multiple images in succession. Transferring the 2-megapixel downsamled image is considerably quicker, but still a matter of several seconds (I timed it at roughly 4 seconds with a prototype sample). In practice, the 2-megapixel sub-sampled images will be more than enough for posting to Facebook, Twitter, etc., so the full-res images can happily live on the lens/camera's microSD card until you offload them to your computer. (Or transfer to your smart device at your leisure.) Also, while the time from shot to preview is rather long, there's also no continuous-shooting mode with either model. Overall, this slow response is a much different experience than you'd have with even a modest digicam.

Then there's battery life. The QX100 and QX10 are both CIPA-rated for 220 shots between charges, which is very short compared to the RX100 and other compact cameras. While the QX models have to power an LCD's backlight, they do have to keep a Wi-Fi connection live, which evidently consumes a modest amount of power. Compounding this is that the batteries in the QX models are the svelte Sony NP-BN type, packing a total charge of 2.3 watt-hours. Compare this to the RX100's NP-BX1, with 4.5 watt-hours of power. The difference became apparent in playing with both QX samples; they chew through batteries pretty quickly. Fortunately, the battery is interchangeable, so it won't be difficult to pack along a spare or two.

So what's the bottom line?

First impressions. I think that these devices are the first of many such that we'll see, and as the pioneer products in this space, they have a few entirely-to-be-expected rough edges. Despite the QX10's lack of camera controls, it is in fact extremely compact, slipping very easily into even the smallest pockets. That, combined with its relatively low selling price should result in a fair number of sales for it. The opportunity to get not only better image quality, but a 10x zoom, all well-integrated with your cell phone or smart device should be a compelling value proposition for a lot of people.

Sony QX10 review -- QX100 and QX10

The QX100 is a little hard to see, though. I came into this evaluation really stoked on the concept, and really, really wanting to like the QX100. If it really was a more compact RX100 that integrated tightly with my cell phone, I'd have been tempted to buy one for myself. Unfortunately, most of the reasons I'd by an RX100 for don't apply or aren't available with the QX100. The market for the QX100 is clearly enthusiasts rather than casual happy snappers -- but it doesn't really offer what that sort of user is looking for.

All this said, one possible saving grace here is that the UI is just software and firmware. I don't see any reason why most of the functions of a basic digicam (in the case of the QX10) or the RX100 itself (in the case of the QX100) couldn't be implemented over time, through firmware updates to the lens-cameras and to the PlayMemories Mobile app itself. Sony has shown a good track record in recent years of offering meaningful firmware updates to some of their products (the NEX line comes particularly to mind), so I think it's possible that we'll see some evolution of the QX series through firmware/software updates going forward.

At the end of the day, I think that the QX lens-style cameras are a seminal yet significant step in the merging of camera and smart device functionality, a concept and general form factor that I expect others may mimic over time. I can see a place for the QX10, and might even buy one for my own use, to get beyond the limitations of my phone's built-in camera. For the QX100, I think Sony needs to work on the firmware/software, to add more of the features people would by an RX100 for. That's the real promise of the QX100, and if they can deliver on it, I think Sony could sell a fair number of them.

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