The onboard camera in an iPhones is great for taking casual photos for Facebook and Instagram posts, but what if you want to go beyond the image quality barrier of a smartphone? Enter “transformers,” like the DxO One that morphs your phone into a picture-taking powerhouse. Unlike add-on lenses that put a different field-of-view, the DxO One is a separate camera that uses the phone for control, framing, and sharing. It turns your iPhone from smartphone camera to an advanced enthusiast-level compact. But with its $499 asking price, is the gadget a worthy investment for iPhoneographers, or are you better off buying a standard camera instead?
Features and design
The DxO One might be the ultimate but pricey photographic accessory for your iPhone. To be clear, it’s not really an iPhone camera (in that it improves the internal camera), but a camera that works with your iPhone. The compact device easily connects to the Lightning port of your iPhone or iPad (DxO doesn’t recommend using it with an iPod Touch) and lets you take much superior pictures, thanks to the 1-inch 20.2-megapixel sensor, which is several times larger than the sensor inside the iPhone. To state the obvious, the DxO One will not work with non-iOS devices due to the Lightning connector requirement (there’s no Wi-Fi option), and the company hasn’t announced any intention to support them.
An observable reason why it’s so small (2.6 x 1.9 x 1 inches, 3.8 ounces) is that there’s no traditional viewfinder; the DxO One is basically housing a sensor and a fixed-focus (f/1.8 32mm) glass lens. Working with the DxO One app, the user makes all the photographic adjustments by way of the iPhone or iPad display. Images and videos are saved to a Micro SD card (up to 128GB as long as it’s UHS-I U3), and a tiny OLED screen shows battery life, camera setting, number of shots remaining on the card, and whether you’re shooting RAW (something you can’t natively do with an iPhone). A USB port, hidden behind a tiny door that also covers the memory card slot, is used for recharging or data transfer. Because it has its own battery, it doesn’t draw energy away from whatever it’s connected to.
There are only two physical controls. Sliding the lens cover down reveals the lens and turns the device on. The other is the shutter button. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Now, even though the DxO One only works with iDevices, you can use it as a little standalone camera; using the latest firmware (version 1.3), you can frame shots on the tiny monochrome display. But if you want a full-color live-view or adjust settings, you’ll need an iPhone/iPad.
A prominent feature is the Sony back-illuminated 1-inch sensor that’s used in many enthusiast cameras.
Connecting the device is a breeze, but there is an important step that may not come across clearly in the quick-start guide. To pop out the Lightning connector, you have to slide down the lens cover and press down on it once more; you’ll need to do the same move to close the connector back in. This is to ensure that the camera stays in place when connected to the phone or tablet. Amazingly, despite the tiny size of the Lightning connector, the connection is sturdy, and you can twist the camera up or down to adjust the shooting angle. Once connected, the DxO One app should start up; if not, just launch it manually.
As noted, one of the prominent features of the DxO One is its imaging chip. It’s the same Sony back-illuminated sensor used in many (albeit older) enthusiast cameras, such as the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 and RX100. With it you can capture 5,406 x 3,604-pixel stills and 1080p movies (albeit at 30 frames per second), and judging from the performance of those Sony models we mentioned, the DxO one should be able to deliver impressive results (see more below). Compare this to the much smaller 1/3-inch 8-megapixel sensor used in the iPhone 6 we used for testing, and you can see why this is such a cool accessory for shutterbugs.
Besides framing through the OLED, the new firmware (released on March 9) adds motion blur alert; faster image browsing; a “message center” with info from DxO One; easier way to adjust white balance, metering, and focus modes; improved photo management; and ability to save settings.
The small box contains the DxO One, USB cable, power adapter, cleaning cloth, and a nicely illustrated 12-page quick-start booklet. Download the DxO One app from the App Store. If you purchase the more expensive version ($599, recommended) you get some of the company’s excellent software including DxO Connect, Film Pack, and Optics Pro. The trial version of ViewPoint 2 is also worth checking out. (However, the camera is “optimized” for Apple Photos for OS X and Adobe Lightroom.)
DxO offers a basic one-year warranty.
Performance and use
The DxO One has the best software and user interfaces of any camera we’ve reviewed. It’s elegant and we wish every camera maker would study this device and then try to emulate DxO’s user experience. Not only does it help with basics like removing the unit from your phone, but converting SuperRAW or RAW files to JPEGs is done with just a couple of clicks on your computer. Making camera adjustments is just as simple using swipes on the touchscreen.
If you aren’t familiar with the DxO name, DxO Labs is a French company renowned for its imaging software and benchmarks for lenses and cameras, and its lab tests are often cited by camera and smartphone makers when they tout image quality. The DxO One is the company’s first hardware product.
Given this well-designed system, shooting with the DxO One is simple, as you’d imagine. We used it with an iPad Air, iPad Mini 3, and an iPhone 6. Although we loved the huge 10-inch viewfinder of the iPad Air, it’s rather awkward to use and feels dorky. An iPad Mini should be as big you should go; an iPhone is just right.
One of the great things about the DxO One is its small size. Say you’re checking out the sights, phone in hand and the scene in front of you is a beauty – something you’ll want to save and tweak on your computer, not just to have on your Camera Roll for Instagram posts. You can easily carry the DxO One in your pocket, connect it to your phone when needed, fire up the app, and grab 20.2MP stills or 1080p videos. The 32mm lens is much larger and higher quality than the iPhone’s, and this alone makes the DxO One a winner for serious photographers.
Note that there have been other attempts to turn smartphones into high-quality cameras, such as the Sony QX100 ($500) and the Olympus Air 01 ($400). These connect via Wi-Fi rather than the Lightning port and the integration is not nearly as sophisticated as a DxO One attached to a compatible iOS device. You can use Android devices with the Sony and Olympus add-ons, however, and they don’t need to be tethered to the phone.
We were happy with the results since we’re quite familiar with this chip, having reviewed it in other cameras. The DxO One is good for static subjects such as landscapes, but not so much for fast action since its top continuous speed is 1 fps. Along with basic Auto, there are options for program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual. Top electronic shutter speed using the Version 1.3 app is 1/20,000th of a second and maximum ISO is 51,200 – very good specs for an enthusiast camera, let alone an accessory.
We love the concept, software, convenience, and results.
Shooting our test subject in SuperRAW at ISO 51,200 – suggested for low light subjects – the unprocessed file was a total mess. But after it was developed by DxO software it was very usable – quite good, in fact. JPEGs are another story as we wouldn’t go above ISO 3,200. Since this expensive device is geared for experienced photographers, we think most will be shooting in SuperRAW so JPEGs aren’t really a major issue.
There are some other limitations. The DxO One only offers electronic image stabilization when recording videos, but not stills. Also, you’re stuck with the flash in your iOS device, rather than a much larger one found on a traditional camera (you can easily solve this with an LED lighting accessory). But the DxO One has a wide f/1.8 lens so this, coupled with the SuperRAW setting, makes it possible to take photos in low light (use a tripod).
The DT Accessory Pack
Although we love the concept, software, convenience, and results of the DxO One, it’s relatively expensive, considering some of the restrictions, i.e. iOS only. For the same price, you can get the original RX100 with a 3x Zeiss optical zoom lens and even greater camera controls, or a Canon PowerShot G9 X with a 1-inch sensor and built-in Wi-Fi. It’s also using an older Sony sensor that achieves video capture at 30p instead of 60p of newer versions.
But if the money is worth the convenience of a highly capable camera that you can easily stash in a pocket, and that you can instantly share the high-quality photos to social media, it’s a great iPhone accessory. If you’re a photographer who wants a companion camera for sharing purposes, the DxO One is an attractive alternative to bulkier products, and DxO’s software and interface simply can’t be beat. But, like Sony’s QX-series and Olympus’ Air, it definitely falls into the niche category.