How do you build a better smartphone camera? This is a question handset engineers have struggled with for the past five years, if not more. First we saw more megapixels, then better sensors and lens optics, and then companies went all in and just strapped mega lenses on the back (Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom) or shoved in every possible megapixel (Nokia Lumia 1020).
Add to this the growing number of cameras that come with Android and wireless connectivity built-in (along with a monthly fee) and it's clear that everyone is trying to come up with a way to give shutterbugs what they want: good optics and easy one-tap sharing.
Now it's Sony's turn with the Wednesday introduction of the Cyber-shot QX100 and QX10 "lens cameras."
High-end camera features on your smartphone
At first glance the Cyber-shot QX models look like smallish lenses of the type you might attach to a Sony Alpha NEX camera. But they're not just lenses, they're complete cameras in themselves. Cameras with built-in Wi-Fi that can connect directly to an Android or iOS phone or tablet. When connected, the phone/tablet becomes the QX's viewfinder since neither lens camera has one of its own. Snap a picture with the QX100 or QX10 and it saves to a microSD card (if inserted), or to the device connected to it. The QX cameras can even shoot video — and yes, you can use the phone/tablet as a viewfinder there as well.
This is an evolution of the remote viewfinder idea we've seen from Sony, Samsung, Nikon and others. Using a tablet to control a camera is cool for when you want to be in the shot, and saving photos right to a smartphone makes them easier to share. Doing this with a full camera, no matter how small, still isn't as easy or convenient as just taking shots with a smartphone alone. With the QX cameras, that's not as much of a problem.
Both lens cameras are small and fit into a pocket and, even better, both can attach to your smartphone so that you don't have to hold both things while shooting. A spring-loaded bracket on the back stretches to accommodate phones as big as the Galaxy Note II and as narrow as the iPhone 5. You don't have to physically attach the lens to the phone if you don't want — the connection between the two devices is all wireless — but doing so makes it easier to frame a shot, and to keep track of your camera.
You don't need to connect the cameras to a phone or tablet in order to take pictures as long as you have a microSD card in. Since the QX100 and QX10 don't have viewfinders of any kind, you won't see what the pictures look like until you connect to a mobile device. This harkens back to the days of film cameras where you didn't know for sure how a picture looked until you developed it and may appeal to the Instagram crowd, if no one else.
The price and extras
Both QX cameras work in the same way but offer two different types of shooting experiences. The smaller $250 Cyber-shot QX10 has an 18.2-megapixel sensor and a 10x optical zoom. The larger Cyber-shot QX100 is longer and slightly heavier (not by much) and costs $500. This steep price hike is due to more advanced optics. The 20.2-megapixel sensor is the same as found in the Cyber-shot RX100 II, Sony's high-end ultra-compact camera. The wide-aperture Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens is speedy and offers 3.6x optical zoom and a powerful image processor. This model features a physical control ring for focus and zoom. In addition to the heightened hardware, you'll gain access to more shooting modes with the QX100.
The QX10 is more for the casual shutterbug, the QX100 is for more advanced photographers, but both will give you far better images than a smartphone.
Sony's solution to the connected camera conundrum is not just novel, it's practical and versatile, too. The ability to turn any smartphone and, even better, any tablet into a really good camera with a single tap is pretty sweet. Since it works with almost every Android or iOS device, you don't have to worry about losing the functionality if you upgrade or lose the device. Winning all around.
The Sony Cyber-shot QX100 and QX10 will be available later this month. Look for them and assorted accessories (including an Xperia phone case with a special mount) in Sony's online and retail stores later this month.
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