In Sony's recently arrived line of camera modules for smartphones and tablets, the QX-100 is lined up as a more advanced, expert-level option than the QX-10, inheriting the inner workings of none other than the RX100 II flagship expert compact. In other words, it's loaded with the same 1" 20-Megapixel sensor and 3.6x optical zoom lens with f/1.8 aperture at wide-angle. This makes it twice as chunky as the more basic QX-10. So is the QX-100 the ultimate snapper for street photography? Is it set to change the shape of the camera market as we know it?
The QX-100 comes in a cylindrical little box that also contains a USB cable for charging and file transfer, an instruction booklet with the Wi-Fi password, a guarantee card and various other non-essential bits of paper. The lens cap doubles up as a handy mounting system for clipping the QX-100 to a smartphone up to 86 mm wide—coincidentally, just big enough for the Xperia Z1. The clamp grips onto the phone tightly and holds the module firmly in place in spite of its relative size and weight.
Due to its longer body, the QX-100 has a slightly different control layout to the QX-10. Both units use the same NP-BN Li-ion battery (2.3 Wh, 630 mAh), still housed in a compartment with a flimsily held on cover. The memory card slot has moved, though, and can now be found in a compartment right underneath the Zeiss logo, along with a USB port. There's a little icon the help you load in the card the right way round, but this isn't easily seen, so you may find yourself inserting the microSD card or Memory Stick Micro incorrectly. If you do get it the wrong way round, the QX-100 beeps, a little light goes orange and the LCD (battery level) screen on the side of the module tells you that there's no memory card. The zoom control, shutter-release and On button (which you'll need to push with the tip of your nail) are all back again, like on the QX-10. Seeing as it's aimed at more advanced users, the QX-100 gains a settings ring around the lens, like the RX100 Mk II. In AF-S mode this ring controls the zoom. In MF mode it can be used to focus. It can't be assigned any custom settings.
Like other QX modules, the QX-100 can be used as a stand-alone camera, although there's no screen or viewfinder for lining up shots. However, it's mainly intended to be tethered to a mobile or a tablet and controlled via Sony's PlayMemories Mobile application. This is only available for Android and iOS, with no options for BlackBerry and Windows Phone users. Still, hardcore Windows fans can always opt for the Nokia Lumia 1020, which is perhaps a more effectively integrated solution.
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-100 (DIRECT-7bQ0:DSC-QX100), 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. You'll need plenty of patience ...
For Android handsets with NFC, you simply tap the devices together, wait 5 to 10 seconds (depending on the handset) then 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.
The PlayMemories Mobile application has more options and settings on offer than with the QX-10, including an aperture priority mode (A) for adjusting the module's lens aperture directly from a smartphone or tablet. Exposure correction can be adjusted too. On the other hand, there are still no manual settings for sensitivity or shutter speed, there's no RAW mode, no Full HD video and only one exposure mode (matrix). And when you've experienced the full potential of the RX100 II, the QX-100 feels all the more bridled.
Still, all is not lost. It's safe to say that the sensor and lens outperform the display capabilities of any smartphone or tablet screen (Retina, Full HD, 4", 5", 6"). The level of sharpness when lining up shots is really quite incredible, and it's genuinely possible to play around with the depth of field. It's instantly impressive, and quality-wise it runs circles around any built-in mobile phone camera. The only downside is that the QX-100 is heavy, bulky, only fits in larger pockets, and tends to roll over when placed on a table. When used handheld it's hard to shoot straight as the smooth, flat body has no marks or features to help you tell which way is up. When clipped to a smartphone it makes your mobile fall forwards under its weight. It therefore makes quite an unusual add-on that can take some getting used to.
The RX100 and RX100 II aren't necessarily lightning-fast out of the blocks but they go the distance once up and running. The QX-100 is pretty much the same, taking almost four seconds to start up and get its lens into position. And that's not including the time it takes to tether to your smartphone! Once connected and switched on, it's thankfully much speedier to use. Photo-to-photo turnaround is a little on the slow side but it's still above average compared with stand-alone compacts. The autofocus, on the other hand, is surprisingly speedy. Plus, unlike the QX-10, the QX-100 beeps when it finds its focus, which is always handy.
Only very few stand-alone compacts are able to beat the QX-100 on image quality, and those include the Sony RX100, RX100 II and Fufjifilm X20. The QX-100 is therefore quite a technical achievement for Sony, which meets expectations perfectly and delivers on its promises. Image quality is subtle, sharp and detailed, and perfectly well handled by this camera module. As is often the way, sharpness levels are at their best at f/5.6.
Seeing as the PlayMemories Mobile app doesn't offer sensitivity settings, we had to measure this camera's performance by playing on its other settings, modifying the surrounding conditions and taking hundreds of test photos. Still, the QX-100 did help us out a little, as to minimise camera-shake it keeps the shutter speed stable at between 1/25 seconds and 1/30 seconds, and instead chooses to push up the ISO setting. The range covered starts at 100 ISO and runs up to 3200 ISO—we couldn't manage to push the camera up any higher than that.
Up to 1000 IS0 picture quality is excellent—it's virtually flawless, in fact. At 2000 ISO saturation drops and smoothing gets a little stronger, although it's still far from problematic. At 3200 ISO colours look washed out but noise and grain are still kept in check. While the stand-alone compact versions (RX100, RX100 II) perform better and keep quality cleaner at higher ISO settings—as well as shooting in RAW—the QX-100 is light years ahead of current smartphone cameras. It cheats a little by deploying Sony's seriously bug guns, but the results are excellent! The only downsides are the module's relative bulk and the frustratingly limited range of settings.
QX modules need to be loaded with a memory card for the video mode to work. Video can only be saved to the memory card in the module, not directly to a smartphone. Resolution is limited to 1440 x 1080 pixels at 29 frames per second in MP4 format, and that's your only option. The mics are placed on the top of the QX-100 module, just by the ON/OFF switch, which leads to a slight hissing noise in the background of movies. Plus, they're too close together to properly distinguish left from right in the audio recorded. There's no way of changing any settings once you start filming and you can only film in Intelligent Auto mode. You can either focus manually or use the continuous autofocus. This takes a little time to find a subject, but once it gets there it keeps the video image looking nice and sharp.
The video image is free from aliasing and exposure is nicely balanced. Shadows and highlights are rendered well. The sensor and lens really do a great job and the overall levels of sharpness are very impressive. Quality actually seems better than in many stand-alone compacts, even ones that film in Full HD! Hats off to Sony!