For plenty of users, the best camera around is a camera that's always to hand and ready to snap the action at a moment's notice—i.e. a mobile phone camera. But smartphone cameras generally have small-format sensors, lenses that are rarely up to scratch, no real optical zoom, and shoot poor-quality pictures in anything other than bright daylight. In spite of that, smartphones are slowly pushing entry-level compact cameras towards the sidelines of the market, gradually eating away at their market share. Users are expecting the quality of mobile phone cameras to keep on improving and each manufacturer seems to have a different approach to making that happen. Samsung has opted for a 10x optical zoom and a larger sensor for its Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, whereas Nokia has used a 41-Megapixel sensor in its Lumia 1020. Sony, for its part, has come up with something a little different for its Xperia Z1 smartphone, with a set of add-on QX camera modules. Loaded with the inner workings of a compact camera (the WX200 in the case of the QX-10), these clip-on cameras can be attached to a smartphone and tethered to the device over Wi-Fi. It's an interesting idea that promises to combine the best of both worlds. But can it deliver?
The QX-10 comes in a cylindrical box that looks almost like a mini hat box or some kind of fancily packaged cheese. Inside, the camera module can be found nestled among a load of white plastic alongside an instruction manual that's almost as thick as the QX-10 itself. It's hard to believe that Sony has managed to pack a 1/2.3" 18-Megapixel sensor and a 10x zoom lens (25-250 mm) into such a compact device. But it definitely has. And when you think about it, in spite of its unusual shape, the QX-10 is probably quite roomy. At 33.3 mm thick—or almost 38 mm if you include the lens cover that doubles up as a clip-on mount—that's 1 cm more than the Cyber-shot WX200 compact from which it inherits its main specs. So although it's supposed to be more compact than a compact camera, the QX-10 actually ends up a little thicker. But that's understandable, as the battery, sensor and lens are all lined up in a row from back to front (Li-ion battery, 2.3 Wh, 630 mAh, Type N, charges via USB only, mains charger not supplied).
The battery compartment is also home to a memory card slot for a microSD card (up to 64 GB) or a Memory Stick Micro (up to 16 GB). There's a handy guide to help you load the cards in the right way round, although this isn't immediately visible at first glance. The compartment cover is only held on by a thin strip of plastic that doesn't feel especially sturdy. The USB connection can be found on the side of the device, under a little cover held on by two dubious looking hinges.
Controls are kept to a strict minimum. On the left-hand side there's a zoom control switch, just next to the shutter release button. On the right-hand side a little LCD shows the battery level (with three charge level bars) and tells you whether or not there's a memory card onboard. Unfortunately, this screen isn't backlit. Up top, there's a rectangular "On" button that's a bit fiddly to press with the end of your nail. Wi-Fi connectivity fires up as soon as you switch on the QX-10, which then allows it to tether to a smartphone or tablet from where the module can be controlled. And that's where the problems start.
The round design makes the QX-10 easy to hold and handle. It can be used as a stand-alone digital camera (although there's no screen or viewfinder) that you can grip in a hand and secure using the wrist strap supplied. Still, it's mainly intended to be strapped onto a smartphone. But not any old smartphone. The QX-10 module is controlled via the PlayMemories Mobile app, which is available for iOS and Android but not for Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Plus, seeing as Apple has chosen not to load its iPhone and iPad with NFC, iDevice users will have to rely solely on the Wi-Fi connection. Once the QX unit is switched on, Apple users should go into the Settings menu then to Wi-Fi Networks, then select the network corresponding to the QX-10 (DIRECT-KeQ0:DSC-QX10), enter the password given in the instruction book or on the inside of the battery compartment door and fire up the application. Then cross your fingers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It seems to be pot luck. For Android handsets with NFC, the devices can simply be tapped together, then wait 5 to 10 seconds for them to connect (depending on the handset) and you're ready to shoot. Connection can still be a little slow, but it's much quicker and more reliable than the manual 100% Wi-Fi method.
Once you've got past that first hurdle, it's time to start playing around with PlayMemories Mobile. When lining up shots, the real-time image is displayed onscreen with virtually no lag and within a range of almost 10 metres. The QX-10 therefore doesn't have to be constantly attached to the phone! However, the app is a little limited. The QX-10 has three shooting modes to choose from: Program Auto (P), Superior Auto and Intelligent Auto. Seeing as the only extra option on offer in Program Auto mode is white balance settings, to be honest, you may as well just switch straight to Intelligent Auto and let the camera take care of everything automatically. And it does a good job of that ... which is just as well seeing as you can't actually change any settings. There's no sign of ISO settings, AF options (it's continuous AF only), flash settings, speed or aperture settings, there's no RAW mode and you only get 720p video.
With so few settings, the QX-10 is certainly easy to use, and it'll be very straight forward for users with no technical knowledge. Day-to-day smartphone users shouldn't find things too complicated, although they may be disappointed that the QX-10 can't be used with third-party apps like Instagram. For that, we'll have to wait for app developers to come up with a fix. And that may take a while, as Sony only released its API at the beginning of September 2013. Still, photos can be saved straight to your phone or tablet (2 or 18 Megapixels) for editing with applications like Photoshop Express or SnapSeed.
In practice, the QX-10 is perfectly pleasant to use. We prefer using it handheld rather than strapped to a smartphone, as it just looks a bit daft—like some kind of massive growth on the back of an otherwise sleek-looking mobile. Handheld it's discreet, fun and intriguing, and it can be used to line up shots from unusual angles or to shoot in tricky locations. Plus, it fits neatly in the palm of your hand. Then again, when you think about it, a pocket-sized Wi-Fi compact can be used in almost exactly the same way.
When saving shots directly to the smartphone it can feel like you've got room to go crazy, but you'll definitely need to make sure you've got a memory card for storing snaps. Plus, the video mode won't even work if there's no memory card onboard.
We decided to measure the responsiveness of the QX-10 unit simply mounted on a tripod with no accompanying smartphone so as to measure the intrinsic response times of the module itself. And it's slow. OK, so the autofocus is reasonably swift, but with start-up at almost three seconds and over a second and a half between photos, spontaneous shooting isn't the name of the game! And that's what you get with the QX-10 used on its own, with no way of seeing what you shoot. When connected to a smartphone, things get slower still.
Note, however, that you can save time by saving directly to the onboard memory card in the QX-10 rather than opting to transfer shots to a smartphone. You can also sync the devices for transfer after having taken a few snaps ... but that pretty much defeats the point of Sony's concept.
With no ISO settings, shutter speed settings or aperture settings, testing the performances of the QX-10 proved a little challenging. With no controls on offer, we just had to leave everything to chance and test the QX-10 in its fully automatic mode. We also compared it to the most similar product available spec-wise—the CyberShot WX300, which uses the same 18-Megapixel BSI CMOS Exmor R sensor. However, the QX-10 has a 10x 25-500 mm f/3.3-5.9 stabilised zoom lens (20x 25 -500 mm f/3.5 -6.5 for the WX300).
According to the EXIF data for our sample shots, we managed to shoot over a sensitivity range of 100 to 8000 ISO. From 100 ISO, the image is already grainy but it's relatively clean on the whole. At 320 ISO smoothing starts to kick in, which can help to smooth out areas of block colour. However, it does so at the expense of finer detail, which gets steamrolled out of the shot. It seems that 800 ISO is the limit for the QX-10, as image quality and saturation drop. With anything beyond that the onboard electronics are clearly out of their depth. Then again, seeing as the QX-10 has no manual settings, it can be hard to stop it from using those higher ISO settings in some situations. All in all, quality is a small notch above the Samsung Galaxy Zoom and Nokia Lumia 1020.
As for the lens, chromatic aberration is very sparse and purple fringing is very well controlled. However, sharpness levels aren't great. The QX-10 struggles to keep things looking sharp and crisp at wide angle, even in the middle of the frame. And this gets progressively worse as you head towards the blurry edges of the frame. Some heavyweight processing is clearly applied to the outer edges to try and clean things up, but the result still isn't great. Things get better as you zoom, but the grainy noise that comes from the accompanying rise in sensitivity in turn wipes out finer detail. And there's no built-in flash to help you out either.
In spite of that, the QX-10 gives you a bigger sensor that the average smartphone camera, with which it's possible—to a certain extent—to play around with the depth of field.
The video mode is neither here nor there. For starters, it only works when there's a memory card in the QX-10 module itself. It's therefore strange that video resolution is limited to 720p. High-res video being streamed and saved to a smartphone could certainly prove too bandwidth-hungry to stay smooth, but here it's saving straight to the memory card in the QX-10. So where's the problem? Sound is devoid of any kind of stereo effect. Plus, the mics on the top of the QX-10 can get covered up by your fingers when holding the module.
On the whole, the video image lacks sharpness. It doesn't shimmer but moiré effects are sometimes visible. The autofocus is quite slow and there's considerably more lag to deal with than when working in photo mode. The zoom works with about a second's delay when piloted via a smartphone so you're better off using the physical zoom control on the side of the module itself.