When news of the Sony QX lenses first hit the internet, I thought it was a brilliant but impractical idea. Both the QX10 and Q100 looked too big to fit in the pocket comfortably to be available anywhere and everywhere with your mobile phone. Although it did open up a new category full of unlimited exciting possibilities (think prime lenses) but would the consumers lap it up? I managed to get my gritty hands on the more affordable QX10 to decide if this is indeed a brilliant idea or not.
The QX10 is the cheaper and more versatile sibling that comes with a smaller 1/2.3” CMOS sensor coupled with a (35mm equivalent) 25-250mm optically stabilized zoom lens. That’s 10x zoom in layman terms. Unlike the QX100, it isn’t blessed with Carl Zeiss optics and ends up with aperture numbers that are disappointing- f3.3 at the widest focal length that worsens to f5.9 at the telephoto end.
The camera is powered by a removable NP-BN lithium-ion (630mAh) battery that you can internally charge via a normal phone micro USB charger. A full charge is good for around 110 minutes of usage or 220 pictures. Under the cover of the battery you can find the micro SD (upto 64GB)/Memory stick M2 (upto 16GB) slot and on the side you’ll find a small LCD that displays the current battery level. Along with the on/off button on the top, you get a zoom and shutter release button on the side.
The lens can either be mounted on a tripod via a steel mount at the bottom or to a smartphone via the detachable bayonet that clamps onto it. The clamp is adjustable so it’s technically compatible with almost every smartphone. Also for the Xperia Z1, Sony offers a casing that allows you to stick the QX10/Qx100 directly on the case without the need of the bayonet.
The built quality of the lens is impeccable and it feels like you’re holding a NEX series lens. It’s pretty small, well-weighted in the hand and the smooth finish feels great. The zoom mechanism works effortlessly though the buttons feel a little flimsy. The usb multi-port cover could have been designed better and you can’t change the memory card if the lens is mounted on you smartphone which is a huge hassle.
The use the QX10 you’ll need to first download the Sony playmemories camera app (available only for iOS and android devices) on your device and then pair the two either via WiFi or NFC. Pairing via WiFi takes a good 10 seconds every time you launch the app which throws out any opportunity of a quick moment snap. The WiFi password for each device can be found under the battery cover.
What we get with the playmemories app is a most basic camera app possible. There are three photo shooting modes in the app for the QX10. There’s the Intelligent Auto mode that gives you a shutter release button, a zoom controller (that should have been a fluid slider) and a setup menu; a Superior Auto mode that feels and handles exactly the same as iAuto mode; and a Program mode where you also get an Exposure compensation slider (upto -/+2) and white balance options (hidden in setup menu).
Focusing is done via the touch interface and you’ve get an option to take 18MP (4:3), 5MP (4:3), 13MP (16:9) and 2MP (16:9) images. Photos are automatically transferred to your device though you’ve got an option to save either a 2MP image or the original image. If you prefer, you can transfer the images later on as well. You also get a self-timer option of 2 or 10 seconds.
When flipping to videos, there are no modes. You only get the record button along with the zoom controller while focusing is executed by the camera itself. Videos are not automatically transferred to the device but like photos you can use the ‘Copy from connected device’ option in the setup menu to transfer them later. Videos are shot at a resolution of 1440*1080 at 30fps in MP4 format (approx. 12000kbps bitrate).
With a hit and miss setup process every time you load up the app, you do begin to keep the lens connected all the time. This not only kills the battery on the lens but also on your device thanks to the screen staying on along with WiFi being connected and continuously transferring data. Hopefully this will improve with software updates but for now you will have to overlook that hindrance, and let the fun begin.
Oddly this lens performs best when not connected to your smartphone. The possibilities are endless as you can place the lens anywhere you want and remotely control it (as long as you’re in its WiFi range). You can use it as a dashboard camera or something to freak out your cats.
Transfer times were quite high and even with the automatic transferring switched off, the shot to shot time was about 1.5 seconds. Working distance is about 15 meters out in the open but the refresh rate of the live view feed drops dramatically once you go past 5 meters. Reconnecting at longer distance was harder as well.
Sadly, the app is an utter piece of waste for the QX10. With the QX100 you at least get aperture priority mode and manual focus but Sony has decided to limit what you can do with the QX10 which is a shame. And to everyone’s dismay, you can’t adjust the ISO sensitivity or shoot full HD videos on either which is completely absurd. Fortunately Sony has opened up the API to third party developers and I’d be very interested to see what people come up with. More controls with possible RAW format would be great to see.
At the widest focal length, the minimum focusing distance is a mere 5cm resulting in great close up images. The detail captured is immense as you can literally count the dirt on the cameras lens. On the other end of the focal length, the minimum focusing distance increases to massive 150cm which renders it extremely useless for macro work.
Image was shot in program mode with Sunlight White Balance and Exposure value set to 0. The app chooses the following settings: 1/30secs, f3.3, ISO 160.
As we found earlier, the images out of the Exmor sensor are a little flat. A bit more contrast would make the images look a lot more pleasing straight out of the camera. Also digital artifacts and noise even at ISO 100 images was a little odd to see. Maybe that’s down to the dusty weather we get here.
At the widest end of the focal length, sharpness was lacking as details (such as the trees) were just smudges of color. Sharpness added in post processing didn’t help matters either as it just made the noise levels worse. Distortion and Vignette was a bit on the higher side. As you zoom in, sharpness improves along with lower amount of vignette. The lens, it seems, performs best in the middle of its zoom range. Clearly the widest aperture isn’t its sweetest spot as typically found in most lenses. As you move on to the telephoto end, vignette gets worse though sharpness looks to hold steady.
Images were shot in sunlight WB with EV set to 0.
Low light Landscape
With aperture numbers ranging from f3.3 to f5.9, it’s clear that this lens isn’t a low light specialist. Throw in the fact that you can’t control the ISO or the shutter speed and you get high ISO images every time you throw the QX10 in a dark environment.
The image at the widest focal length is quite terrible and noise levels are extremely high with hodgepodge. Similar to the daytime shots, the images tend to improve as you zoom in thanks to better sharpness and in this case a better exposure.
Images were shot with EV set to 0. ISO 800 was chosen by the app for all the shots with a shutter speed of ½ second. The difference in exposure was due to the aperture increasing as you zoom in.
With zero control and not very impressive resolution, you seem to believe that the video option on the QX10 is rather pointless. But then you get to remotely shoot a bit of local sea/wild life and you start to appreciate it a bit more. Audio via the stereo microphones is decent though background noise is quite audible and you’d have to be at least 3 meters close to be heard over it.
In low light with zero controls and an ISO limited to 1000, the scene is at least a stop underexposed.
For the price tag, you’d expect Sony to give you more but clearly they saw it otherwise. I still think this a brilliant idea but I’ll drop the impractical bit. Instead I’ll call it badly packaged thanks to a sub par app and so-so specifications especially for the price you pay. Obviously you can upgrade to the better (optically and sensor supposedly) QX100 but you end up paying a lot more for a lot less of zoom versatility and you’ll still be stuck with the same app and video mode. I think Sony needs to rethink its strategy. They really need to unshackle the lenses, push the limits and outshine top end smartphones. Maybe a firmware update down the line will help or maybe those third party app developers will do something crazily awesome.