Review: Sony QX lens cams is great idea, but…

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

Most gadget reviews focus on what and how a product looks, feels and performs, with judgments pro or con based mostly on how competing comparative products look, feel and perform.

But the two new Sony smartphone accessory lens cameras, the DSC-QX100 ($500) and, in particular, the DSC-QX10 ($250), both available next Wednesday (Sept. 25), have no competing comparative product. These are the first of what I believe will be the first of a multitudinous kind since the product concept and the potential variations on their theme present such wondrous new gadget opportunities.

Just how multitudinous lens cams become depends on whether competitors are electrified by the QX concept or scared off by its limitations. Fortunately for both Sony and its future lens cam competition, these limitations are mostly software related and fixable.

The QX Concept

To save space here, I refer you to the initial introductory story on the QX Raymond Wong filed after its introduction, which describes the lens cams' physicality, features and functions.

After I received my QX10 review sample at the recently concluded IFA confab in Berlin, I proceeded to act like a tourist with it in both Berlin and Vienna, shooting photos alternatively with it, an iPhone 5, the new (and thus far Europe-only) Sony Xperia Z1, the HTC One Mini and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Instead of your smartphone's camera, you use the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app, available for both Android and iOS. PlayMemories Mobile provides on-screen zoom and shutter controls as well as 2- and 10-second self-timers, Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto and Program Auto modes, and a plethora of resolution settings and save options.

The base of the QX is flat so it sits easily on any surface, and is equipped with its own shutter release and zoom controls on the left side. It's charged via a standard microUSB connection and includes a microSD memory card slot. On the base is a standard threaded tripod mount.

QX10 does not come with its own a microSD card, so that'll be an added cost. Yes, photos snapped by the QX10 can be auto saved to your smartphone, but at QX10's full 18.2 MP resolution (or 13 MP if shooting 16 x 9) you'll soon run out of memory space. Or, you can save QX images to your smartphone at a share-friendly 2 MP — there's no in-between save-to-camera resolution, and you can't save both the high- and low-resolution versions simultaneously.

QX Usage Logistics

Yes, the QX10 is designed to replace the cheapo camera found on most smartphones, but in practice it creates a whole new photography gestalt.

Included is a clamp mount, which can be securely secured to nearly all smartphones, even iPhones encased in a chunky external battery case.

But I found myself holding and aiming the QX10 with one hand with the smartphone-as-viewfinder in the other.

When used thusly as a remote rather than attached to the smartphone, you have to get used to moving the now independent lens to aim and frame, not the camera/screen, which feels counter-intuitive. When shooting selfies, QX requires the kind of reverse pitch-and-yaw logic helicopter pilots might find encounter. You have to shift the QX in the opposite left-right direction to what you're aiming at — then you have to remember to look into the camera lens not the framing in the phone when you snap the photo, all while gripping the QX in such a way to provide easy access to its shutter release (since both hands are occupied, you can't tap the shutter release in the phone app).

A QX mounted to a smartphone via the clamp makes for a bulky, clunky package, which you can dangle from your arm via an included wrist lanyard. But the clamp mount can easily and quickly be removed. So when you're not using the 3.7-ounce QX, it can easily be pocketed and quickly re-mounted.

Except…

Connection Issues

QX's entire usage logic relies on a wireless Wi-Fi Direct connection with your smartphone. For most smartphones, you first connect the QX the way you'd connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot — through the Wi-Fi settings; hint: QX's convoluted password is hidden under its battery cover.

Sony's on-screen instruction for this initial Wi-Fi Direct pairing is a bit convoluted. First, I wasn't expecting to have to use the Settings menu. But the message I got in PlayMemories when pairing the iPhone stated:

"Search the shooting device from the network setting of the terminal and set it."

Huh? "[T]he terminal"? You mean my phone? Couldn't you just say "Create the Wi-Fi Direct connection between your QX and your phone in your phone's Wi-Fi Settings menu" or simpler words to that affect?

If your smartphone is NFC-enabled — which no iPhone, alas, is — you can skip this Wi-Fi Settings step.

Regardless, getting the QX/phone combo ready to shoot isn't a smooth or quick process.

You have to locate and boot the PlayMemories app — I'd try and move the app icon to your phone's home screen. If you've got NFC, the app takes a few seconds to locate the QX then another 7-10 seconds to establish the Wi-Fi Direct connection.

If your smartphone doesn't have NFC, you may have to re-establish the Wi-Fi Direct connection in the Wi-Fi Settings menu.

Once connected, you get what looks to be a normal viewfinder, except with occasional buffering as the QX attempts to maintain the Wi-Fi Direct connection.

Theoretically, QX and your phone should maintain their connection should one or the other be turned off. In reality, I found this connection to be hit-or-miss, mostly miss with non-NFC phones and especially if the phone finds another Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to when the QX is turned off.

In this latter case, you are told via an on-screen message:

"Error — Communication with the shooting device failed."

Error? It's not an error. Either the devices decided to disconnect or I turned one or the other off. Again, a more plain English message would be nice.

In all events, and the bottom line, considering the convoluted and time-consuming connection procedure, the QX isn't exactly conducive to quick capture conditions. And if this sounds like more trouble than it's worth — it kinda is.

Reviewing The Review

QX suffers two other deficits. It doesn't include its own flash, and does not engage your phone's flash. As a result, indoor shots with the QX may be sharper with less grain but won't be as well lit; neither result is optimal.

More egregious, and this is another software issue, the PlayMemories app provides no efficient review process.

QX has three picture review modes. The default review mode is On, which means the image you just snapped stays on the phone screen until you tap either Back, which lets you shoot another photo, or Share, which also sends you to another app.

In either Off or 2sec modes, you're quickly returned to shooting mode. If you want to review the shot you just shot, you have to exit the PlayMemories app and boot your Gallery or, in iPhone, Photos, app, then return to PlayMemories to shoot again — assuming you don't have to then re-establish the Wi-Fi Direct connection.

It's hard to fathom why both the non-NFC Wi-Fi settings and/or the captured photos, can't be somehow incorporated into PlayMemories.

Picture Quality

Generally speaking, the QX10 adds wider aspect ratio to photos than a smartphone camera, renders deeper blacks and brighter colors and, especially for indoor photos or shots taken in low ambient light, less grain with more detail.

QX also adds optical image stabilization, which means less blurry results in low light. While some smartphone camera results of shots I took of a bookshelf in my office seem slightly better lit, it took four hand-steadying tries to actually get a clear, unblurred image. A casual tap snap by the QX10 produced a clean image of the same scene the first time.

Because of its wider lens, QX takes more encompassing group selfies, without it looking as if you're holding the camera at arms' length.

But how much an improvement the QX10 provides over your smartphone camera depends heavily on which smartphone camera you're using. Justifying the additional cost to soup up snaps snapped with a recent super smartphone such as those I tested the QX10 with will be harder to justify given how smartphone cameras have improved.

You'll find it easier to rationalize a QX10 purchase if you've got a phone whose camera leaves something to be desired.

QX Summary

Assuming Sony revises its PlayMemories app and Wi-Fi Direct connectivity issues, the QX10 and especially the QX100 suffer one other major flaw — they're too expensive.

You can buy a whole Sony point-and-shoot camera, with screen, full flash, longer zoom and no connectivity issues, such as Sony's WX300, for just $50 more than the QX10; for $100 more, you can grab the company's similarly uncomplicated premium APS-C-equipped 20.2 MP RX100.

Of course, for less than QX10's $250, you can get a new super smartphone with an elite camera included such as an iPhone 5S, HTC One or One Mini, Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020. This is why the lens cam field is wide open for a cheaper, and perhaps more convenient, alternative to the QX10, perhaps even from Sony itself.

Bottom line for the QX: great idea, high quality results, inconvenient execution, poor pricing.

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