Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX100 review

The Sony Cyber-shot DCS-QX100 is an example of a bold design as a smartphone add-on lens, but there are performance issues that keep us from recommending it.
Photo of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX100

The Sony Cyber-shot DCS-QX100 ($499.99 direct) is one of a pair of lens style cameras, intended for use with an Android or iOS phone. Releasing a top-end camera without a rear LCD or traditional controls is a bold choice for any company, especially when you consider its premium price tag. The QX100 fulfills its promise of expanding the imaging capabilities of your smartphone, but, even with the latest firmware, there are performance issues that prevent us from recommending it for purchase. Instead, consider spending a little bit more on the Sony RX100 and an Eye-Fi Mobi memory card. Or, if your pockets are deeper, our Editors’ Choice RX100 II, which has Wi-Fi built-in.

Design and Features
Sony calls the QX100 a lens-style camera, and for lack of a better term that’s what it is. It’s a cylinder measuring in at 2.1 by 2.5 inches (HD) with a 5.8-ounce weight. There’s a rear bayonet mount that has clips to attach to a smartphone, and Sony offers a larger add-on mount for tablets if you’re the type of person who likes to captures images using an iPad. Because all of the electronics (and battery pack) are situated behind the lens, it’s actually a bit less pocket friendly when compared with the 2.3 by 4 by 1.5-inch RX100 II—but it is lighter, the RX100 II weighs about 9.9 ounces.

I found that the form factor of the QX100 was more of a detriment than a benefit. I normally keep my phone in one pocket, and if I’m carrying a pocketable camera like the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS that goes in another. If I want to take a quick picture, I reach for one of the two. But with the QX100 I’m pulling out two devices, attaching a clamp to my phone, powering on two devices—by the time that’s all done, the fleeting moment I wanted to capture is likely over. It simply takes too much time to get it set up, and even if I’m wearing a heavy jacket with pockets large enough to handle the QX100 when it’s attached to my phone, I’m still powering on two devices and launching an app before I’m able to snap a photo. The one thing I did appreciate was the ability to hold the camera in one hand and the phone display in the other; shooting in that manner lends itself to capturing images from more interesting angles.

Like the RX100 II, the QX100 features a 20-megapixel image sensor. It’s a 1-inch design, which is close to seven times the size (in terms of surface area) as the 1/3-inch sensor that you’ll find in a top-end smartphone like the iPhone 5s. When combined with the QX100′s 3.6x (28-100mm f/1.8-4.9) Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* zoom lens you have a compact camera that can create a shallow depth of field, and performs much better at high ISOs than any smartphone on the market. If you’re interested in this type of phone add-on and value zoom range over pure image quality, Sony also sells the QX10, a less expensive model with a more typical 1/2.3-inch image sensor and a 10x zoom range.

Controls are sparse—there’s a zoom ring at the front of the lens, as well as a zoom rocker and shutter button on its side. A small monochrome LCD displays the current battery life, and the power button is at the top of the barrel, right next to the NFC sensor. There’s no LCD by design—instead the QX100 sends a Live View feed to your phone or tablet over Wi-Fi. But you can still fire a photo without connecting the QX to your phone; just point and press the shutter button—you’ll just be shooting blind.

If your phone is equipped with NFC, pairing with the QX100 is a matter of tapping the two devices together. Launch the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app (available free from the iOS App Store and Google Play, but not available for Windows Phone) and the feed from the camera should appear on your phone’s screen. If you use an iPhone or another smartphone that doesn’t have NFC support, you’ll need to first connect to the network that the QX100 broadcasts via your phone’s settings menu; the SSID and password are printed on a sticker in the battery compartment.

Assuming that you have the latest firmware installed, the QX100 offers a full range of shooting controls, including full automatic, programmed automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual. You’ll have the ability to adjust the ISO and exposure compensation via the app, and you can use it to zoom the lens or fire the shutter.

For the most part, this works, but there are times when it doesn’t. Sometimes when opening the app on my iPhone 5, I was left with a spinning progress wheel and a ”Searching device” message. What it was searching for, I don’t know, but I had to close the application manually (by double tapping the home button and swiping it up into nothingness in iOS 7) and restart it in order to get it to work. Once that was done, the Live View feed was mostly smooth, until it wasn’t. When a scene got complex, it slowed to a halt and the QX100 became completely unusable. This happened frequently when photographing scenes with bare tree branches against a blue sky, and was also an issue with the QX10; I can only imagine that the amount of detail required to beam the data of that scene to the phone was too much for Wi-Fi to handle. Interference was not a factor; this happened consistently, regardless of my location, and in open areas with no other Wi-Fi networks nearby.

Performance and Conclusions
The sometimes-choppy Live View feed isn’t the only performance issue that the QX100 exhibits. It takes some time to launch, connect, and fire a shot—that requires about 3.5 seconds on average. That’s an eternity compared to a good point-and-shoot; the Fujifilm X20 can start and shoot in about 1.3 seconds. The shutter lag is also on the long side when using the app to take a photo, about 0.4-second; using the physical shutter button on the QX100 trims that to 0.15-second, which is more in line with the 0.1-second response shown by the X20.

There’s no continuous shooting mode available. If you opt to use a memory card (the QX100 works without one, but you’ll have to wait for a photo to transfer to your phone before capturing another one) you can take a photo once every 1.8 seconds via the app; using the shutter button I was able to trim that to about once every 0.6-second, but I wasn’t able to view the Live View feed between shots as the app blacks out the screen after capturing a photo in order to tell you that the image is being processed.

The QX100 may fall short in terms of speed, but its image quality doesn’t disappoint. The Zeiss lens has proven to be a good one on both the RX100 and RX100 II, and Imatest results show that it performs similarly with the RX100′s image processor. At its 28mm f/1.8 setting it manages a center-weighted score of 1,856 lines per picture height, which is better than the 1,800 lines that we use to mark a sharp image. Edge performance is very disappointing, though—the score drops to 1,116 lines at the outer parts of the frame. Stopping down to f/2.8 improves things drastically, with the center-weighted score hitting 2,249 lines and edges approaching 1,700 lines. We tested images in the native 3:2 aspect sensor aspect ratio; if you shoot in the default 4:3 setting the weakest part of the frame will be cropped out.

Zooming to the 53mm equivalent focal length the maximum aperture is f/3.5. The lens scores 2,051 lines here, with edges that hover around 1,500 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 offers improvements through most of the frame; the center-weighted score jumps to 2,309 lines, but the extreme edges are still a bit weak at 1,550 lines. At the 100mm f/4.9 setting the center-weighted score is 1,888 lines, but once again the outer edges disappoint at 1,380 lines. Stopping down to f/8 improves things all around; the center-weighted score is 2,127 lines, with just the very outer edges showing a softer score of 1,586 lines. Despite showing some weakness at the edge of the frame, the QX100 can capture images with a shallow depth of field that your smartphone’s camera just can’t match, especially when working at closer focus distances.

Imatest also checks for noise. Unlike its standalone twins, the QX100 shoots in JPG only, and there’s no way to control the amount of noise reduction that is applied by the image processor. Imatest tells us that the camera keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 12800, but that only tells part of the story. Close examination of images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display shows that noise reduction smears away image detail at ISO 12800. Noise reduction starts to hurt detail at ISO 400, but images hold up well through ISO 3200. Blurriness sets in at ISO 6400. You don’t have the versatility of being able to shoot in Raw mode and apply superior noise reduction using Lightroom like you do with the RX100 and RX100 II. But if you keep the QX100 set at ISO 3200 you should be happy with its image quality, especially if images are destined for online sharing rather than printing.

Video is recorded in MP4 format at up to 1080p30 quality. The footage is crisp, but the QX100 noticeably underexposed our standard test scene; there was no way to dial in EV compensation during video recording. The microphone picks up audio clearly, but it also records the sound of the lens zooming in and out. During slow pans rolling shutter isn’t a concern, but it does show up during quick camera movements, especially when zoomed in. There’s a flap on the side of the QX100 (under the Zeiss logo) that covers a micro USB port (which doubles as a charging connector for the included AC adapter) and a microSD memory card slot. There’s also a standard tripod socket at the bottom of the lens barrel.

I applaud Sony for its decision to bring something as unique as the Cyber-shot DSC-QX100 to market, but unfortunately I can’t recommend it for purchase. It’s not the most practical solution for everyday use, and that it occasionally chokes when trying to send the Live View feed of a complex scene to the phone’s display is a deal-breaker. There’s no arguing with the image quality that the QX100 delivers, but you can get the same imaging in a compact camera in the form of the RX100 or the RX100 II. The RX100 is especially appealing as it’s currently selling for about $50 more than the QX100, and even when you factor in the cost of an Eye-Fi Mobi card, its extra capabilities—including Raw capture and AVCHD video recording—bridge the gap in cost. The RX100 II is our current Editors’ Choice premium compact camera, and expands on the RX100′s functions with a tilting rear display, support for an add-on EVF, and an improved image sensor (the same one that’s in the QX100), and integrated Wi-Fi—but its $750 retail price is high enough that it’s a stretch to recommend it as a comparable alternative to the QX100.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.1 x 2.5 inches
Interface Ports micro USB
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 20 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 1.8 seconds
Touch Screen No
Media Format microSD, microSDHC, microSDXC
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Compact
GPS No
Optical Zoom 3.6 x
Boot time 3.5 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 5.8 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 1856
Image Stabilization Optical
Shutter Lag 0.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 100 mm
Sensor Size 1" (13.2 x 8.8mm) mm

Verdict
The Sony Cyber-shot DCS-QX100 is an example of a bold design as a smartphone add-on lens, but there are performance issues that keep us from recommending it.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc