The Lensor Returns — Sony QX10 Review

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What is It?

The Sony QX10 is Sony's attempt to make a smartphone accessory that gives you a better camera option than the built-in one. As such, it doesn't try to replicate things the smartphone already has (e.g. an LCD display) and just cuts the camera module down to the bare bones. That means mostly lens and image sensor (hey, another lensor!).

Sure, the QX10 has a couple of other things in it beyond lens and sensor. Let's see: a microSD card slot, a very small Sony NP-BN type battery, a WiFi and NFC system, a bit of internal memory, and even a BIONZ processor inside. The image sensor in the QX10 is an 18mp 1/2.3" BSI Exmor R, and the stabilized lens is a Sony G 27.5-275mm f/3.3-5.9 OSS equivalent. (A larger QX100 has the 20mm 1" Sony sensor and 28-100mm f/1.9-4.9 equivalent lens, but is otherwise pretty much the same.)

Externally, you've got a tripod socket (on a wisely chosen flat surface so that if you set the module down it won't roll away from you), a zoom rocker switch, a shutter release button, an itsy-bitty LCD that displays card/battery status, an on/off button, and nothing else. Inside the battery compartment you've got the card slot and the password you need to connect your smartphone to the camera if you're not using NFC (typically you'll only need to enter that once). There's also a bayonet mount accessory that mounts on the back of the lensor and clips the whole unit onto your phone. The clipping mechanism is spring loaded and adjustable.

Relevant things you might want to know: shutter speeds of 4 seconds to 1/1600, auto ISO (all the time) for 100-3200 (1000 in movie mode, 12800 in Superior Auto, 1600 in Program Auto), seven settable white balances, 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios, and +/-2 stops exposure compensation.

Video is a bit substandard, as it is is 1440x1080 at 30 fps, not a full 1080P/30. 

The QX10 module weighs a scant 5.8 ounces (165g) with battery and memory.


How's it Handle?

In a word: disappointing. The biggest issue is the PlayMemories app that runs the whole shebang. I'll need two words to describe it: unstable and incomplete. 

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First, unless you have the right Sony phone, you'll need to switch the WiFi your phone is pointed to over to the camera itself. With new Sony phones, the connection can be done via NFC automatically, but with an iPhone, for instance, it means running to the Settings app before firing up the PlayMemories app. Camera or phone time out and shut down? Do not advance to Go, do not collect US$200. That's right, go back to Settings and reset the WiFi, then run back to the app and restart it.

Even with the NFC option, the QX10 is a slow to first shot camera. If you're thinking you're going to be spontaneous with it, make sure you don't time out while using it. Even then it's not exactly spontaneous. 

Sony's iOS app is maddeningly unstable on its own. I've had it freeze, crash, get lost, just display the wait icon until I eventually get an error message ("Error. Timeout. OK?", which was decidedly not okay), and basically every other thing that shows that its internal logic has some gaping holes in it. Surprisingly, the app is dirt simple: you've got on-screen options for shooting mode (intelligent auto, superior Auto, and Program auto), mode (photo or video), on-screen information or not, zooming, and some basic settings (white balance, for instance). You can tap on the screen to have the QX10 focus at that point in the scene, and you can press the shutter release button. That's about it (the QX100 adds a few additional options in the app, but not things like shooting raw instead of JPEG).

The one thing Sony got right is the "what to do with the image problem." Well, almost right. When you take a picture from the smartphone you're given the options "Back" (to camera mode) or "Share." In the Share mode you have a pretty wide range of choices, especially if you've got a number of apps on your phone. My iPhone gives me AirDrop, Message, Mail, Twitter, Evernote, Dropbox, and a great deal of other options that have all registered as using the Photo Roll (disclosure: I don't have Facebook installed on my phone; if it was, it would be in that  list). It's very easy to send the (reduced size) image any where you'd like it. When I wrote "almost right," I meant that you either have to press Back or Share with every image you take. There is no option for "just shoot" or "default to sharing with…" Moreover, after you've shared, you're taken back to the image, and guess what, you still have to pick Back or Share. Did I use the word "slow" anywhere in this review yet?

The lensor itself (QX10 body) has zoom and shutter release buttons, too, plus a clip-on, fold-out way of gripping the phone to make a slightly cumbersome compact camera imitation. 

One of Sony's touted scenarios for the QX10 is that you can hold the lensor separately from the phone. Right. Now you're one-handing a phone and one-handing a camera module that is circular and has no clear "up" position. This works for hidden camera scenarios where you've got the QX10 hidden somewhere all set up and you're doing the focus and timing from afar by monitoring your phone's screen, but remember, there's a lag involved, so you're not seeing real time, so you'll need to be good at anticipation.

The same "separation" scenario might work for taking group shots in which you're involved, but it's not a  huge improvement on self timer (which Sony does support in the PlayMemories app, albeit again awkwardly).


How's it Perform?

In terms of image quality, you've got your basic Sony Powershot WX300 capability here. Not earth shattering image quality, but pretty good, especially if you haven't used a 1/2.3" BSI compact camera lately. I see some of Sony's JPEG rendering softness at pixel level, but you've got 18mp sensor, so it's probably not likely you're seeing the pixel level for most uses. As such, it has decent low-light performance, and in good light excellent color and even a fair amount of dynamic range for a compact sensor. The lens isn't quite up to what the sensor can achieve, I think, especially at the two focal length extremes. But again, it's not likely that you're pixel peeping with this device. It's really set up to deliver social media friendly images. By default (and to save time in communicating between lensor and phone), the camera is creating a 1440x1080 pixel image. Here's pixel level view of a portion of one of those smaller images I mailed to myself:

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As I noted, good color, reasonable dynamic range (though it goes to black fast and deep at the shadow end). Certainly good enough for the purpose that Sony intends you to use these lensor things for. 

Battery life is abysmal. If you're shooting rapidly, maybe 120-140 images per charge. If you're shooting with some deliberation (or having to restart a lot because the app keeps crashing ;~), maybe 100 images per charge is a better figure to calculate from. Note also that the PlayMemories app does a pretty good job of running down the phone battery, too. I'm not 100% sure what's causing that, but browsing the Web via WiFi runs the battery down less on my iPhone than using the PlayMemories app connect to the camera for the same amount of time.


Final Words

As a proof of concept, the QX works fine: "Hey, look, we can get a phone and a camera module to interact." As a product worth buying, sorry, this one shouldn't have been let out of the cage. 

Now, Sony might get around to improving the PlayMemories app enough that it becomes stable and useful in some way, but I suspect they'd do that for their phones first, and then see if they can replicate that on Android and iOS generally. On non-Sony phones there's still going to be a that "connect" delay that makes the product completely non-spontaneous. Ironically, the same function as the QX10 and QX100 are using is available in a number of recent Sony cameras, including the RX100II. I can control my RX100II the same way as the QX modules, and it's just as useful ;~). 

Sony seems to be trying to make virtually every camera device that they can think of. If it has an imaging system in it, Sony makes it. My problem is that they're spreading a lot of engineering over a great deal of products and not exactly getting any perfectly refined product out of the deal. The PlayMemories app feels like an Alpha 0.5 release. It's not even Beta stable. 

So, Sony has proven the concept that a camera can talk to a smartphone and that the concept might provide some meaningful benefit. If you'd like to pay Sony to learn that same thing, then go ahead and do so. But as far as being a usable camera system, no, we aren't there yet. 

Color me disappointed. The QX10 feels gimmicky, incomplete, unstable, and not completely thought through. Yes, it works—at least until the app gets hung up in some way—but I fail to see the point at the moment. We've got complete cameras that work standalone and connect to the phone the same way that are far better solutions and still fit in your shirt pocket like the QX modules. Heck, some of them even have the name Sony on the front.


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text and images © Thom Hogan 2014 -- all rights reserved // @bythom on twitter, hashtags #bythom, #gearophile