Smartphone cameras are truly convenient, though they can do better to produce high-quality images. Most have just a fixed lens and tiny imaging sensor, and digital zoom is just going to render the subject impressionistic a la Monet and Renoir.
Sony's answer to the problem - the QX10. It adds a noticeable bulk to your phone when attached. But that's a small trade-off for better closeups and pixels, made possible with its 10x optical zoom and a 18.2-megapixel 1/2.3-type BSI CMOS sensor.
Technicalities aside, does it deliver better photos for Facebook or Instagram? Undoubtedly and assuredly, yes.
Self-contained 10x optical zoom lens
The 105g QX10 is essentially a mid-range Sony WX200 compact camera, with its lens and sensor transplanted onto a smartphone. As tiny as it is, the QX10's body accommodates a zoom lever, shutter button and a tripod mount.
It also contains a micro USB port, through which you can charge the QX10's removeable slimline battery. Opening the battery cover lets you access the memory card slot too, which supports M2 and microSD card formats.
Let's not forget that Sony has to squeeze in a Wi-Fi and NFC module as well, so that the QX10 can talk to your phone. Add the mount with the attachment clasps to your smartphone – many phablets would be too wide – and the unit is almost 4cm thick. We haven’t even extended the lens, so it definitely won't fit in your pants. Squeeze it in, and you'll have to answer for that bulge.
App needs more functions
The QX10 has no display, relying on your phone to show live previews and provide touchscreen controls via Sony's PlayMemories Mobile app (available for iPhone and Android).
The touchscreen interface is intuitive enough, even the less tech-savvy will take to advanced settings instantly. Not that there's much to explore at this point. There's no manual ISO nor manual white-balance settings. Burst shooting, sweep panoramic stitching, and so forth – nada. Power users will be making a long list of feature requests. If you are game to program them yourself, Sony has released an application programming interface (API) to tinker with. Us? We'll leave that to the experts.
The QX10's Sony G lens encompasses a highly useable zoom range of 25-250mm (in 35mm film equivalent), working alongside Sony’s Optical SteadyShot to mitigate blurs from shaky hands. The camera can decipher the scenery and decide whether it is a landscape, macro, backlit, etc. Once ready, it’ll automatically apply optimal shooting settings successfully most of the time.
Pixel-peeping at 100% reveals some image noise from ISO 800, but this wouldn't be a concern if you are sharing your photos on social media. Colours are pleasing in good lighting conditions, and automatic white balance handles indoors artificial lighting nicely.
MP4 movies recorded are not quite full high definition, at a narrower 1440 x 1080 pixels. Continuous autofocus does a good job of tracking moving subjects and keeping them sharp. Optical SteadyShot keeps handheld shots stable too.
Zooming is quite smooth and coupled with a video tripod, you can get pretty fluid movements combining tilts and pans for a more professional feel.
Unfortunately, its audio recording leaves much to be desired. The built-in stereo mics are no less susceptible than others to wind-noise, and no amount of post-production can eliminate the pesky background.
Wireless pairing takes a few seconds, so starting up the QX10 with your smartphone is hardly instantaneous. There's a slight live preview delay, but shutter lag is not noticeable. You don’t need to physically touch your phone to the QX10, as the wireless working range is at least a few metres. Yes, that means you can hand it over to a roamer while you preview and remotely control snapshots from a dsitance.
Like all wireless gadgets, the QX10 saps batteries. On a shooting excursion, it lasted around three hours before the battery died. Be sure to bring a spare battery for a full day’s worth of usage. Alternatively, plug a power bank to the QX10's micro USB port and give it a second wind.
Sony Xperia Z and Z1 users can procure dedicated cases for the QX10 and bypass the clasps accessory. Power accessories include battery charger and AC adapter. Who knows, the QX10 may in time allow expansion options such as Mobile High-Definition Link for connection to HDTVs, or even to a compact preview LCD via its micro USB port. A few user-programmed Android apps for the camera appeared within a few days of Sony's release of the API, an encouraging sign of enthusiast interest.
Kudos to Sony for realising this camera concept. For a first version product, some niggles are to be expected but the hardware is sound and software features should be improved along the way. Think beyond attaching the QX10 to phones, and you have some interesting remote shooting possibilities.
Consider also the QX10's bigger brother QX100, which uses the same 1.0 sensor as the Sony RX100 II, and features Carl Zeiss optics with a larger aperture, higher megapixel count at 20.2MP. Just one caveat - the QX100 comes with a smaller zoom range at 3.6x.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX10
The QX10 enhances way beyond a smartphone's standalone imaging capability. There's also Sony's brainstorming sessions and the enthusiasts' tinkering to make it work harder. That said, compared to dedicated compact cameras, it's still a little too limited and fiddly to act as a flawless alternative.