Back at IFA, I got my hands on Sony's QX10 lens camera, one of two such devices the electronics manufacturer announced in Berlin. I wasn't sure what I thought about it then, having only played with it for about a day, but I've spent some quality time with the device since, and I'm ready to lay down my full impression.

For those not quite up to speed, the QX10 (and its higher-end counterpart, the QX100) is a camera in a lens. The generally lens-shaped body houses a sensor, microphones, and telescopic zooming lens assembly.

This odd device can clip onto your smartphone with a special adapter included in the box, accommodating most form factors adeptly with its spring action.

Once set up, the camera will send images to your phone over Wi-Fi direct, or store them on a microSD card, should you have one inserted, also allowing for video capture (but only if you've got a memory card in). Let's take a closer look.

QX10 Specifications

  • 1/2.3" 18.2MP sensor
  • Sony G Lens with max aperture 3.3
  • 10x Optical zoom
  • 630mAh battery
  • microSD slot
  • NFC, Wi-Fi
  • On-board microphones for video

The Good

  • Build Quality: The QX10 is solid. Its hardware isn't perfect, but I never felt like I had to handle it gently, which is good for a device meant to be toted around in a bag.
  • Image Quality*: The asterisk is because the lens produces good images in good light. Low-light performance isn't awesome, and there aren't any meaningful manual controls, leaving the quality totally out of the user's hands.
  • Ease of Use: While using the QX10 isn't super fast, it is pretty darn easy once you've set it up with the Play Memories app.
  • Tripod Mount: In dark scenarios, the QX10 will drag the shutter. While shooting video, things get really shaky really fast if you zoom in. Luckily there's a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the lens!

The Not So Good

  • It's Slow: The lens performs quickly … once it's set up. You won't be capturing any fleeting moments with this thing, because setup takes at least 15-30 seconds.
  • I Can't Figure Out What Problem This Solves: I'm just really not sure what the true purpose or utility of this camera is. It has its merits, which I'll discuss later, but there are certainly more elegant solutions to accomplish the goal of having a better alternative to your phone's camera readily available.
  • PlayMemories Mobile: The app is absolutely unpredictable. While testing I experienced crashes, lag, and connection issues consistently. The good news is that Sony can probably fix most of this with updates through the Play Store.

In a nutshell: I really want to like the QX10. It's an interesting idea, executed just about as well as it could be, but there's just something that isn't quite satisfying about it as a product. I carried it with me for a few weeks trying to use it when possible, but it's slow to get going and just as cumbersome as a similarly-priced point-and-shoot. Its major downfall for me, though, is a lack of any semblance of manual controls. That said, I could see it as an at least viable solution for those that don't want either a P&S or a DSLR, but do want something more than their phone's camera.

How it Looks

I already took a pretty close look at the QX10's outer appearance in my hands-on, but let's recap. The QX10 basically looks like a camera lens, minus a camera mount and plus an expanding zoom assembly - like one you may find on a point-and-shoot. It's flat on the back with a battery compartment and slots for the adapter that will join it with your phone.

The adapter has two arms, one of which extends to fit just about any phone. It won't stretch far enough to fit, say, the Nexus 7, but it's pretty accommodating and has grippy rubber on the inside to avoid damage to your device.

Besides that, you'll find a power button, a shutter release (yes you can use the lens by itself), zoom control, and a battery indicator. Oh, and a door for plugging in a micro USB cable. The microSD card slot is actually located parallel to the battery under its slide-out door.

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How it Works

As I mentioned in the initial hands-on, the lens can be used headless (that is, without a phone/viewfinder), but since that's completely impractical, we'll focus on using it with your phone as intended. The setup and shooting process hasn't really changed from my hands-on, so if you've already read that, skip to the next chapter.

The first thing to note is that using the lens requires Sony's Play Memories app. Basically, this app provides a viewfinder for the camera lens and takes care of transferring photos to your phone. Photos are stored in an album in your gallery and can easily be yanked off your device later. Of course, there's also the option of storing full sized photos on a microSD card if you so desire.

Once the lens is latched onto your phone, the app will attempt a Wi-Fi direct connection with it. Each lens has its own ID and is protected by a password, which you can find on the inside of the battery door. To prevent future confusion, the app will connect automatically to your device after initial setup, so you don't need to remember the weird, obscure ID every time.

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Though setting up the app to work with the lens is exceedingly easy (assuming your password is handy), it does take a while to connect. In my experience somewhere around 5-10 seconds, which is a long time if you're anxiously trying to capture a quick moment. If you've got time to spare though, it's not really a big deal at all.

Once everything is all paired and ready to go, you'll be dropped into the shooting interface.

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The icon in the upper left changes the shooting mode. Available shooting modes include not your normal M, A, S, and P, but instead Sony's Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, and Program Auto. Here's Sony's own table explanation of each mode.

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In reality, the meaningful differences between images shot in each of these modes are few. I've got a few examples we can look at later in the review.

Along the rest of the top row in the shooting interface we've got an SD Card indicator, a resolution indicator (set above to 4:3 at full 18MP resolution), and a "mode" button which switches between still and video modes. Circling around to the middle right we have the shoot button, settings, zoom controls, a settings icon, and a playback button that will disconnect the lens and take you to your gallery. If you're in Program Auto mode, you'll get a bonus button to control exposure compensation. That's the only customized shooting setting available in the mode. The arrow icon, for those wondering, hides all the other controls.

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The settings icon lets you choose to copy images from the lens to your phone, set a self timer, adjust resolution (for capture and transfer – you can choose to transfer low-res thumbnails to your phone if speed is more of a concern than quality), and – if you're in Program Auto – you can adjust white balance from seven preset options.

A Word About the App

Having looked at Play Memories Mobile's shooting interface, I would be remiss if I didn't mention its frequent, consistent performance issues. Whether this is specific to the Nexus 4 I can't be sure, but while reviewing the lens I experienced frequent heavy lag, several instances of the app simply stopping, and seemingly random connection issues with the lens, including one instance in which the lens refused to reconnect, only connecting once I finally reinstalled the app altogether.

Sony does give you a way out when the shooting interface hangs (tap the back button twice to disconnect), but the performance of the app overall was a major downer for the experience as a whole.

Image Quality

This is the big question – how good are the final photos? Does the QX10 provide high enough quality to make it more reasonable than carrying around a point-and-shoot? I've done a few tests to try and find the answer.

Auto Modes

First let's take a look at the QX10's auto mode samples, from Intelligent Auto to Superior and Program Auto. There aren't necessarily huge differences, but they're different enough to have a second look at. From left to right, the samples below show Intelligent, Superior, and Program Auto.

intelligent superior program

The top set, taken in daylight, don't show too many differences. Superior auto has a slightly wider dynamic range, but overall the three are pretty unremarkable.

When used at night, there are considerable differences between the three, but we'll look at that later.

Zoom

The QX10 has 10x optical zoom, and as expected from optical zoom, the results are good. See below for full-res samples of zero and 100% zoom. The exposure didn't remain exactly the same between the two, since automatic settings seem to be adjusted according to the frame's average, so when I zoomed in 100%, settings were reconfigured for what the sensor was seeing at that length. Still, things look pretty good.

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Exposure Compensation

The QX10 has adept exposure compensation, allowing you to adjust the exposure up to two stops in either direction, at 1/3 stop intervals. This isn't super useful in everyday shooting, as the auto settings kind of make those decisions for you, but it does perform well. Here's a quick sample divided in full stop intervals. It's apparent that even at two full stops up, the QX10 tries to balance the exposure as best it can, minimizing blown out highlights.

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White Balance

As with everything else about the QX10, don't expect to be adjusting color temperature manually. The lens camera has seven White Balance presets – Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent: Cool White, Fluorescent: Day White, and Fluorescent: Daylight. In practice, there are appropriate uses for all these presets, and they work well. Manual color temperature control would of course be nice, but with such a wide range of presets, it really doesn't feel necessary with the QX10. In fact much of the time, Auto does all the heavy lifting for you.

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Top: Auto Bottom: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluor Cool White, Fluor Day White, Fluor Daylight

Easy Conditions

A well lit scene is a softball for just about any camera. Here are a few full-res samples.

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The exposures, all shot in Program Auto with zero exposure compensation, are pretty. They're balanced, sharp, and completely usable. At 100% crop, we can see some noise in what should be smooth surfaces like the water below, however.

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Really this isn't a huge concern though – the noise isn't large, colorful, or intrusive enough to really show up when casually reviewing photos, can be dealt with quickly in Lightroom, and likely would go unnoticed in prints of a reasonable size.

Dusk/Lower Light

Next up are some photos in less-than-optimal but still not very challenging light. The QX10 performed admirably in these conditions, though it did have trouble balancing an overall exposure when confronted by a dim room with a bright doorway. Here are a few quick samples.

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Low Light / Night Photos

This is likely what most readers have been waiting for – a test of low-light photos. After all, even the best sensors out there can suffer from lowlight problems at night, when higher ISO values and slower shutter speeds are requirements. If there's one recommendation I can make for the QX10 when shooting at night, it would be to avoid Program Auto. Check below for a Program Auto sample at night on the left. It looks tons better than the same shot from my Nexus 4 on the right, but it's still not objectively great.

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So at least it's better than that.

What about Superior Auto mode, though? Sony says that it should behave better in more difficult situations. During testing, Superior Auto actually bracketed five exposures, combining them into one image. The result was actually the best low-light photo I captured with the QX10, though there's still a considerable amount of noise, probably due to the fact that the QX10 cranked the ISO all the way up to 12800 with a 1/4 second exposure. And as expected, the Program Auto test came back the worst. Here's a comparison between all three modes with white balance set to Auto.

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Left: Superior Auto Middle: Intelligent Auto Right: Program Auto

Video

Finally, we have video. There are only a few notable things about video with the QX10. First, the microphones seem to pick up fairly tinny sound, amplifying things like cars going by or slight breezes. Also, as you may expect, things get pretty shaky if you zoom in, so you'll probably need software stabilization when retouching your videos. Otherwise, videos are – as I said in my hands-on – very similar to the photo experience but, well … moving.

Battery Life

Battery life with the QX10, like with most things, depends on how long you use it at a stretch. Sony packed in a 630mAh battery, quoted to last 220 shots or 120 minutes turned on but not shooting. In my experience this was roughly accurate. It's more likely that you'll reach the 120-minute uptime mark before you snap off 220 shots, considering transfer times, but the battery life is definitely good enough to tote the lens camera around for a couple of days without worrying about charging it.

Final Thoughts

I recently saw a commenter noting – on another review of the QX10 – that "if it works as well as a DSLR," they’d have no qualms about toting around Sony’s camera-in-lens contraption.

That’s kind of the sticking point with the QX10 though - what does it mean to "work well?" For some, that means image quality, for others that means the controls, tuning, time-to-shoot, and overall creative freedom you’d expect in a single lens reflex. If you’re the former, the QX10 will meet your expectation. The latter? No way.

Even if you’re only after image quality, the other question any potential buyer must ask of themselves is “will I want to carry this thing around?” If you’ve got the spare space in your purse or bag, I say go for it. As the title of this review suggests, I see the QX10 as yet another stepping stone between mobile phone cameras and DSLRs. If you don't like P&S cameras for some reason, can't stand your phone's camera, and want something that'll give you decent images on the go, the QX10 probably fits. Just realize that you still won’t be capturing those fleeting picture-perfect moments in 18 megapixels - you’ll be too busy setting the QX10 up.

Post Script: Did I miss something you are interested to know about the QX10? Let me know in the comments!