[Update on 2/3/2014: Sony has released the firmware update mentioned in the review. We will be updating our QX100 unit and update the review accordingly.]
“Turn your smartphone into a DSLR-caliber camera.” That’s essentially Sony’s promise for the Cyber-shot QX100, a new category of point-and-shoot cameras it categorizes as “smartphone attachable lens-style cameras.”
Smartphone cameras have improved dramatically, but most still can’t achieve the image quality of high-end cameras; camera makers, on the other hand, have been trying to figure out how their cameras can fit into the smartphone conversation. Samsung has dropped Android into some of its cameras, like the Galaxy Camera and Galaxy NX (or a camera into a smartphone, such as the Galaxy S4 Zoom), but those products have their issues. Sony’s QX100, on the other hand, puts all the imaging components into a cylinder that also contains the lens. It latches onto your smartphone and uses it as the controller, but takes better images than what you could accomplish with your phone alone.
The QX100 uses components from one of Sony’s best compact cameras to achieve that high image quality. But without the rest of the camera, can this smartphone accessory truly take images that rival high-end cameras, even DSLRs? It can, but not without clearing some hurdles.
Features and design
The QX100 is roughly the same shape, size, and weight of a small interchangeable lens for a mirrorless camera. If you didn’t know it was a self-contained camera, you would have guessed it was an ordinary lens. At 3.2 ounces, it’s fairly lightweight, but the weight and dimensions don’t make the camera easy to pocket, creating a noticeable bulge (ahem) even in our winter jacket.
Inside the camera is a 1-inch, 20.9-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor and Bionz image processor. For a point-and-shoot, a 1-inch sensor is huge, so the QX100 is packing a heavy arsenal that’s designed to capture impressive image quality. The lens is a 3.6x Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* optical zoom with a lens construction of seven elements in six groups. It also has Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, and an aperture range of f/1.8-4.9. Of course, there’s Wi-Fi and NFC onboard for pairing the camera with a smartphone or tablet.
Despite the easy setup, the wireless connection isn’t always stable.
These imaging components are similar to those in the highly lauded Cyber-Shot RX100 II compact, one of our favorites. You could say Sony took all the imaging guts out of the RX100 II and put them inside a little canister, but performance-wise the RX100 II is still the super shooter, as the QX100 doesn’t have all the features and performance of a regular camera. We don’t think Sony’s intention was to give the QX100 the same caliber performance as the RX100 II; it’s supposed to be seen as an upgrade to a smartphone or tablet, rather than a competitor to traditional cams.
The QX100’s minimalist design means you won’t find the usual buttons, dials, display, or built-in flash. On the top is a small power button near the stereo microphone, and the N-mark where you would tap against another device’s N-mark to enable NFC pairing. There’s also a light that turns green to tell you it’s on, orange to signal that it’s charging, and red when it’s recording video. On one side is the shutter button and zoom lever, and a cover with the Zeiss logo that covers the Micro USB port (Multi Terminal), microSD/Memory Stick Micro slot, and reset button. On the other side is a small display panel that shows battery life and if a memory card isn’t inserted. On the bottom is the tripod mount.
On the front is the Zeiss lens that extends out when turned on. There’s also a control ring around the lens that lets you operate zoom or manual focus. On the back is the battery compartment; the SSID/password for Wi-Fi pairing is listed on the inside of the battery door. The smartphone attachment accessory, which has the arms for securing the camera onto a smartphone, locks into place behind the back.
The QX100’s attachment arms will fit most smartphones, even ones with larger screens. We clamped it onto an iPhone 5S and Sony Xperia Z1S with ease. But as phone makers continue to churn out even larger screens, there is a limit to what the QX100 can accommodate; you can forget about tablets like iPads. We just happened to have a Nokia Lumia 1520 next to us, and its 6-inch screen form-factor was too big for the QX100 to attach onto; of course, there’s no support for Windows 8 so we couldn’t use the camera with the 1520 anyway. But if you’re a “phablet” user, know that one size does not fit all. You can still use the QX100 detached, however. (Sony in Japan is releasing a new accessory that would accommodate larger devices, but so far Sony U.S. hasn’t mentioned whether it’ll bring it stateside.)
Smartphones are about convenience, but the QX100’s slow performance defeats this instant gratification.
The camera can technically be used independently without a smartphone, but that would be like using a camera blindfolded and defeating its purpose. You really need an iOS or Android device to not only get a live-view image of what you’re actually shooting, but also adjust settings. Right now you can only use Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app to control the camera, which lets you change the shooting modes (Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Program Auto, and Aperture Priority), switch from photo to HD video (1440 x 1080), and change exposure compensation, aperture, and other settings. The app is identical on both platforms, so you aren’t getting or losing any functionality on either. Sony has released the SDK for the camera to app developers who might want to add support for the QX cameras, so we could potentially see apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accessing the camera in the future – if they choose to, that is.
If you want the QX100’s full 20.9-megapixel images, you’ll need to have a memory card in it. You can choose to have images saved to the smartphone, but it will only save a lower resolution of the captures. If you set the camera up to save both, you can keep high-res shots on the card to print, and low-res shots on your phone for easy sharing with social media or email. Unless you opt to save a lower-res version onto your phone, you won’t know what images and videos are stored on the camera.
What’s in the box
The QX100 comes in a round container that also includes the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Micro USB cable, wrist strap, smartphone attachment, and a thick manual that contains basic instructions in various languages (the full manual is on Sony’s website). There’s no battery charger, as the battery charges inside the camera via USB.
Performance and use
For our review, we paired the QX100 with both an iPhone 5S and Sony Xperia Z1S, as well as older iPad 2. The QX100 only pairs via Wi-Fi, so the wireless performance is the same regardless of whether you attach it to a phone or use it separately. The first time you enable pairing, you’ll need to create a direct Wi-Fi connection between the two by locating the device’s SSID in your phone’s Wi-Fi settings and entering the password. Once that’s done, open the PlayMemories Mobile app (you’ll need to download it if you don’t have it installed already) and, after a few seconds (sometimes it can feel like an eternity), a live-view image should appear along with camera controls. It’s a bit of legwork at first, but subsequently the app should remember the camera, so you don’t have to reenter the information.
Setting up the Android-based Xperia, however, was painless: We tapped the N-mark of the QX100 to the N-mark on the back of the smartphone, and it took us to the Google Play Store to download the app. After the app downloaded, we tapped the two devices again and it handled the Wi-Fi pairing automatically – no SSID or passwords to worry about. We still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of NFC in digital cameras, but in this instance we found the feature to be plus. Because the camera isn’t tied to any particular device, you can share the QX100 with others.
Despite the easy setup, the wireless connection isn’t always stable. Whether it was the iPhone, iPad, or Xperia, we often encountered lag times in the live-view stream, where the image would just stall before it could catch up. It’s not an issue when panning slowly or shooting still life, but moving around quickly will cause some hiccups in the stream. This was particularly frustrating when we tried to shoot movies, as the live-view would freeze up as we were filming – sometimes for as long as five seconds, if not more.
As mentioned, the time it takes for the camera to get connected to the phone can be painfully slow. Smartphones are about convenience, and the appeal they offer casual photographers is the ability to capture the moment when it happens. The QX100, therefore, defeats this instant gratification, so don’t bother using it if you’re trying to photograph a fleeting moment. After taking a picture, the camera and app take a while to process the photo, particularly if you’re saving two images, so expect some waiting time in-between shots (action shots aren’t this camera’s forte). Also, expect some delay when you adjust settings, like changing exposure compensation. Because you’re technically sending an instruction from one device to another, there’s a short buffering time before you see a change take place, as opposed to digital cameras and smartphones where it’s all built in. Perhaps it’s the limitation of current technology, but Sony says some of these issues, like connection time, should improve once the firmware update is released.
The Xperia Z1S is a shiny, slim smartphone, so it looks both awesome and a little ridiculous with a big lens attached to it. Although the arms grasped onto the phone snugly, it’s not a tight hold, so it’s best to hold onto the camera instead of just phone itself – ditto for the iPhone. One thing we enjoyed is the ability to use the camera to shoot in a variety of angles when detached. You can hold the camera up high or down low, in a hard to reach area or in a unique POV, all while viewing the image from uour phone. This also makes taking selfies or group pictures easier, and it offers some great perspectives when shooting videos. (It’s not a totally new concept, as you can do this with many Wi-Fi-enabled digital cameras with remote view.)
To describe it in a few words, the picture quality is absolutely stunning.
Operating the camera is a breeze. You can take a snapshot using the shutter button or zoom toggle on the camera (or the control ring around the lens), or use the same buttons on the touchscreen via the app. You can touch to focus, or touch to focus and snap the photo. The camera is essentially an automatic point-and-shoot, but you can make some adjustments in Program and Aperture Priority modes, such as the exposure compensation, white balance, and aperture, but it’s limited. Again, once Sony rolls out the firmware update, you’ll have more control over the shutter speed in a new Shutter Priority mode and ISO. If we had to complain about another thing, it would be the short zoom, which was an issue we had with the RX100 II. It’s also missing any creative modes or filters that would appeal to the intended user.
With the intricacies out of the way, let’s talk about the QX100’s biggest draw: image quality. To describe it in a few words, it’s absolutely stunning. The iPhone 5S and Xperia Z1S have excellent onboard cameras that take very good photos, but they can’t compete with what the QX100 pumps out. Its cousin, the RX100 II, is one of our favorite compact cameras that take beautiful photos – photos with extremely accurate colors and great levels of details. Being that the QX100 shares the same parts, we were pleased that the lens camera captured similar-quality photos. The QX100 did a great job with saturation and details in highlights, shadows, and midtones. In a comparison shot of a street scene on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the Xperia’s photo, while fine, didn’t show the level of detail the QX100 captured (despite having a smaller sensor, the iPhone did better than the Xperia in many of our shots). With an f/1.8 aperture, we were able to shoot close-up images with nice bokeh blurring, but that’s only available at the widest angle. Unlike the RX100 II, however, the autofocus system isn’t speedy; it’ll take a second or two for the camera to lock something into focus.
Where the QX100 really shines is in low-light: In a shot of the Empire State Building at night, the QX100 managed to capture a nice shot with good colors and details, and minimal, uniform noise. The only issue we encountered was in extremely limited light.
Just for kicks, we compared the QX100 with a Canon EOS 7D DSLR by taking a low-light photo of the Manhattan skyline. Surprisingly, the QX100 produced a more pleasing image than the 7D, although we should point out that we didn’t play with the settings on the DSLR. After some fiddling, we were able to grab a great photo with the 7D. But here’s to proving Sony’s point: The QX100 is capable of achieving high-quality DSLR-like images without trying. You can get a far better photo with a DSLR, of course, but that’s if you know what you’re doing (using the automatic setting isn’t going to do it); with the QX100, there’s no thinking involved to get great image quality.
An upcoming Sony firmware update will add shutter priority mode for selecting shutter speed, increase the ISO to 12,800 from the current max of 3,200, and push video capture up to Full HD 1080/30p (1920 x 1080). The update was not yet available during testing, but we will update this review should there be significant improvements.
The QX100 definitely qualifies as an innovative product. What’s amazing is that it delivers on image quality in a unique form-factor, and has lots of flexibility in how you can use it to take creative shots. It’s easy to use, and it will give smartphone photographers a huge edge – especially those who enjoy taking pictures with their tablets. Being that is works directly with a smartphone or tablet, you get the convenience of uploading your images straight to the Web. One day in the future, as smartphone cameras and software get more powerful and stronger, lens cameras like this won’t be needed; until then, the QX100 tries to bridge the divide between traditional cameras and smart devices.
The question, though, is how much you are willing to put up to get that extra edge. At $500, the QX100 isn’t cheap, and it also suffers from a lot of issues such as slow autofocusing, limited functionality, long connection times, and streaming lag. It’s not as effortless as Sony’s promotional video suggests. Plus, it’s bulky enough to make you wonder if you should just carry a regular camera in addition to your smartphone. Sure, it’s much more compact than a DSLR or compact system camera, but still…
Consider this: For $200 more, you can get the Cyber-shot RX100 II. It’s a faster camera with more features and greater performance, and you get the same specs (and more) as the QX100. It also has Wi-Fi and NFC, so you can use some of the remote functions found in the QX100. It’s also compact enough that, we think it’s easier to pocket. If you’re going to carry two devices anyway, why not carry a camera that’s even better?
The QX100 is a cool, fun (yet frustrating) gadget that will appeal to many, but not all (although Sony said the QX100 sold like hot cakes over the holiday season in 2013). There’s a less expensive model, the QX10, which uses lesser parts, but won’t deliver the high-quality images like the QX100. If you’re willing to overlook the problem areas for a smartphone accessory that takes great images, very few point-and-shoots can match the QX100 at this price. We’re hoping Sony’s upcoming firmware upgrade, however, will resolve some of the issues. Regardless, if Sony continues with this series, we could see even stronger models that overcome these first-gen problems.
- Excellent image quality
- Great low-light performance
- Simple to set up and use
- Flexibility allows for creative shooting
- Live-view stream lags
- Slow autofocus
- Limited shooting options
- Connecting times, shutter lags are long