At Sony's IFA press event, reps handed out samples of the company's $250 lens cameras to everyone in the room. We really enjoyed our time with the Cyber-shot QX10, but that model's more powerful sibling, the QX100, promised even better performance, albeit in a substantially larger package. Unfortunately, it's been a bit difficult to come by, and our loaner missed the deadline for a review. We'll examine it here instead.
At $500, the QX100 is an incredibly pricey smartphone accessory, but when you consider that the cam features the same optics as Sony's $750 RX100 Mark II, that ambitious sticker price is a bit easier to swallow. Still, for the QX's target demographic -- smartphone users looking to boost the quality of Twitpics and Instagram photos -- bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.
Both the QX10 and QX100 function in much the same way, but internally, they're entirely unique. The base model includes a 1/2.3-inch sensor and a 10x optical zoom lens, while the more expensive version, available for twice the price, features a much larger 1-inch sensor and a higher-quality 3.6x Carl Zeiss lens. It's essentially an RX100 Mark II without the LCD, and with limited advanced control. Instead, like with the QX10, you use a connected smartphone as your viewfinder. Unlike with that flavor, however, you now have the ability to tweak the aperture (down to f/1.8). On paper, it's a much better fit for advanced photographers, and the image quality is good indeed, but ultimately this is an accessory for your smartphone. Keeping that in mind, let's see how it performs.
Our biggest concern when first handling the lens cameras was lag. Both connect to your phone via WiFi, which is fast enough for transfers, but a bit inconsistent when it comes to framing shots. There's a noticeable delay, and while we were able to look past it with the QX10, given that that model is designed for casual use, it's a significant issue with the QX100, which for all intents and purposes is a top-shelf device. The second issue, for the bigger model in particular, is its size. The QX100 was designed to accommodate larger components, and the addition is substantial. Where the QX10 stood out while attached to our Moto X, the QX100 looked downright silly. We were attracting all sorts of attention while walking around with this thing in Manhattan, and whereas passersby seemed interested before, here they were perplexed.
As for operation, you're still going to do everything on the phone. There's a shutter release and zoom toggle on the left side of the lens, just as there are on the QX10, but they're awkward to access, and a bit less convenient than the software equivalents. After launching the PlayMemories Mobile app on your Android or iOS handset, things move pretty quickly. There's a live, though noticeably laggy, preview on your phone, bordered by aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance, focus, resolution and shooting mode indicators.
In Aperture Priority mode, you can tap the aperture to make modifications there, and you can adjust the shutter speed by selecting exposure compensation (up to three stops in each direction), but that's about it. There's no manual mode, and you can't tweak a darn thing in Intelligent Auto or Superior Auto modes. Program Auto adds the ability to adjust white balance and EV. From there, you can snap a 20-megapixel shot or record a 1080i video clip pretty quickly.
Stills look great and videos look decent -- you can sample both below (with the original shots here) -- but image quality was never much of a concern. The biggest barriers here are the camera's price, and its size. It's bulky, and while you can attach it directly to your phone (there's an adjustable mount in the box), you probably won't want to. On the Moto X, the QX100 was awkwardly forward-heavy, and though you're supposed to hold it below the lens as you shoot, the more common mobile position is to hold the phone with each hand, reaching over with your thumb to tap the on-screen shutter. It's possible that the new technique will feel natural over time, but why bother? Serious photographers need a serious camera, and the QX100, as much as we wanted to like it, is not a serious camera. Fortunately, the RX100 Mark II is available, and if you're after solid image quality, that's the model we'd recommend.