Sony QX100 preview
The Sony QX100 is a new type of digital camera called a Smart Lens, designed to enhance the photographic capabilities of your iOS or Android smartphone. A Smart Lens contains the sensor and optically stabilized zoom lens of an existing Sony camera, squeezed into a small cylinder like a sawn-off canned drink. They also feature their own battery and Micro SD slot, and communicate with your phone using Wifi - with NFC to simplify negotiation on compatible handsets - so you simply use the screen on your phone to compose and control the camera. So rather than Smart Lens, you could alternatively think of them as screen-less cameras.
Sony supplies each Smart Lens with a bracket for gripping onto handsets measuring between 54 and 75mm wide and up to 13mm thick, but it's possible to detach the Smart Lens from the bracket and use it as far away as the Wifi signal will reach; they also have their own tripod threads. This means you can not only use Smart Lenses with larger tablets, like iPads or larger NEXUS devices, but also position them at unusual angles or for self portraits while you effectively remote control them with the mobile.
Sony launched its Smart Lens series in September 2013 with two models. The QX100, previewed here, is based on the 20 Megapixel / 1in sensor and 3.6x zoom of the Cyber-shot RX100 II; indeed the QX100 is effectively an RX100 II without a screen. The lower end model is the QX10 which features the 18 Megapixel / 1/2.3in sensor and 10x zoom of the Cyber-shot WX150 / WX200; again it's essentially a screenless version of this super-zoom compact. At a Sony press event, I got to try both Smart Lenses and got to see how they work in practice - read on for my hands-on preview.
Sony Cyber-shot QX100 hands-on preview
Sony's reasoning for Smart Lenses is driven by the fact an increasing number of people are taking and sharing photos with their smartphones, but are dissatisfied by their image quality and lack of optical zoom, not to mention absence of stabilisation. The Smart Lenses certainly resolve this by bypassing the existing built-in camera and using their own sensor and optics instead - indeed they even use their own storage and power, so about the only part of your phone that they do use is the screen.
Even the software is different. Rather than trying to supply images to the default camera app, the Sony Smart Lenses are designed to work with a newly upgraded version of Sony's Play Memories app, which offers full control of the settings, shutter and zoom. Interestingly though the Smart Lenses also feature their own shutter release and zoom controls, so you don't even need to use the phone for those either. As I mentioned above, they don’t even need to be physically attached to the phone to work - they really are almost entirely independent digital cameras, only without any screens and equipped with basic controls.
In the flesh, the QX100 is a satisfyingly squat cylindrical shape, and like most of Sony's gadgets, looks and feels good in your hands. I was initially concerned by screen and shutter lag over the Wifi link, but keeping the lens and phone within a couple of meters of each other kept them feeling responsive.
The key selling point of the QX100 is its 1in sensor, that's around six times bigger than the tiny sensor in most phones. Coupled with a higher quality Zeiss zoom, it means much higher quality images, especially in low light, while the 3.6x optical zoom range will let you get closer to subjects too. So the QX100's message is all about delivering far superior image quality to your existing phone's camera.
But at 63mm in diameter and 56mm thick, the QX100 is not exactly pocket sized - it's like having a small lens for a DSLR or system camera, and they don't exactly slip into trouser pockets unseen. Meanwhile the sensor, lens and subsequent JPEG quality may essentially be no different from the RX100 II, but there are a number of important differences to be aware of in case you were considering the QX100 as an alternative. For starters it doesn't yet let you record RAW files, only JPEGs. Secondly the Play Memories app may offer Program and Aperture Priority modes, but there's no Shutter Priority or Manual exposure modes. Amazingly for a Sony, there's not even a Sweep Panorama option.
There's also no flash and the battery life is shorter too. The QX100 may not need to power a screen, but it does need to use Wifi the entire time it's under control by the smartphone. Sony quotes 220 pictures per charge (plus of course the additional impact on your smartphone's battery), compared to 330 shots on the native RX100 II.
So if you went for the real RX100 II, you'd benefit from manual control, RAW files, sweep panoramas, a longer battery life and a body which at 38mm thick, could more easily squeeze into pockets; you even get a free screen with it too!
But an important difference I've not yet mentioned is price: the RX100 II costs about 50% more than the QX100. So while there are a number of restrictions and limitations, the QX100 is giving you the JPEG quality and the optics of the RX100 II at a much lower price point. If you can live without the missing features, it could be a bargain for some.
But while I find the quality of the QX100 appealing, I can't help but wonder who'll actually buy it over the much cheaper and smaller QX10. The QX100 is bigger than it looks and certainly won’t slip into small pockets like your phone. It is a fairly chunky device which is actually less pocketable, and less capable, than the camera it's based on. And if you love the idea of holding a lens in one hand and composing with your phone in the other, don't forget you can already do this with the RX100 II, and again it's more pocketable than a QX100 and equipped with a battery that lasts longer.
In contrast, the QX10 is less than half the price of the QX100, almost half the thickness, offers three times the optical zoom range, and for enthusiasts who like to compare specifications, suffers from fewer differences with the model its based on. So while the QX10 lacks the big sensor of the QX100, for me it's actually the more sensible choice - so long as the Smart Lens concept appeals to you of course. Indeed I reckon the QX100's specification will initially draw many people to the concept, but once they do more research, they'll end up finding the QX10 to be the more sensible accompaniment to a phone, or that actually the camera they really want is a fully-fledged RX100 II. Speaking of which, if you want to know more about the RX100 II and its quality, check out my in-depth Sony RX100 II review!
I'd really love to hear what you think about this new concept in digital photography, and while there are a number of foibles in the implementation I can't help but admire Sony for always trying something different. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and G+!