Monday, September 30, 2013

Sony QX10 Camera

I was looking for a new camera to replace my old Canon PowerShot S5IS. Since I got the iPhone 4S I was mostly using the smartphone to take pictures and movies because it was providing a better quality (actually, same quality for the pictures [8 megapixels or 3264 x 2448] but much better for the movies: Canon shots 640 x 480 in mjpeg while the iPhone does 1920 x 1080 in H.264) and was more convenient since it's smaller, lighter and always at hand. I was using the Canon mostly for events like film festivals where I needed to use a zoom for presentations and press conferences (the Canon has a zoom of 12x optical plus 4x digital for a total of 48x, while the iPhone 4S has only a 5x digital zoom). However, the iPhone (equipped with an Olloclip 3-in-1) also has a better macro capability.

Any recent compact point-and-shoot would have been better than the Canon, but since I am a sucker for gadgets, I was quite intrigued when Sony announced their “Smartphone Attachable Lens-Style Camera.” If it is a camera in its own right it can also be considered as a smartphone accessory, just adding to the capability of the phone while remaining compact and handy. It was quite promising. I read all the articles about the upcoming products and felt that this would be the perfect replacement for the Canon PowerShot S5IS. Maybe I was wrong?

Of the two models announced by Sony [see their respective specs as an image or online], I chose the QX10 even if the QX100 offered a better picture quality (20 megapixels instead of 18 for the QX10 and a bigger CMOS sensor [1 inch instead of 0.53 inch for the QX10]) because the QX10 offered the most zoom (10x versus 3.6x for the QX100) and a much cheaper price ($250 versus $500 for the QX100 !). And a good zoom (even if it was not as strong as the Canon) was all I needed to add to the iPhone (particularly when shooting movies). I also considered the Olloclip Telephoto, but, if it was quite cheaper ($100), it was only adding a mere 2x optical magnification so there was no comparison with the Sony QX10. Therefore I purchased it as soon as it was available (on september 25th).

The controls -- Basically, the Qx10 looks like a camera lens and therefore has no viewfinder. It also has very simple controls: a power button on top [1] near the microphone [2], a tiny LCD display [3] indicating whether there's a memory card inserted or not and the remaining battery capacity, a hook for the strap [4], a tripod socket [5], a status light [7] showing whether it's turned on, charging or recording, the zoom lever [8], the shutter button [9], a Micro-USB plug [10] to transfer pictures and recharge the battery and a reset button [11] both hidden behind a small trap-door. The viewfinder, extra controls and settings are provided by the smartphone to which the camera is connected to (either via NFC or wi-fi direct, depending of the smartphone model--for the iPhone it's via wi-fi since it has no Near Field Communication capability).

Battery & memory card -- The bottom of the camera (opposite side to the lens) opens to reveal the Lithium Ion type N battery and a slot to insert either a microSD memory card or Memory Stick Micro media [here it's a Nexxtech 16 Gb microSD]. Printed inside the camera's battery cover (and on the “Quick Start Guide”) you'll find the SSID password [here it's blured] needed to connect with the software (you'll need to enter it the first time only). The battery can be charged either by connecting the camera to a computer via a micro-USB to USB cable (provided), a USB AC power adapter (AC-UD10 or AC-UD11 [this one is more compact and the less expensive option at only $20, but it is currently out of stock], sold separately) or a battery charger (BC-TRX, also sold separately).

Attachment to smartphone -- The camera comes with an attachment ring that fits most smartphone. It fits the iPhone without any problem even if it's in a case. You first fix the camera to its attachment by inserting the camera into the slots, aligning the index marks on both the camera and the attachment, and then rotating the attachment until it clicks (there's a level that you must slide to free the camera when you want to remove the smartphone attachment). You then open the attachment clamps and extend them to attach the camera to the smartphone. Just be careful not to swing the camera around too much as the smartphone might slip out of the clamps.

The software -- To operate the camera with your smartphone you'll need Sony's software PlayMemories Mobile (available on iTunes apps store for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch). Once you've downloaded the software, connected the camera and the smartphone via wi-fi (in iPhone's setting >> wi-fi; see picture above, on the left), you can open the app which will then connect with the camera (it takes a few seconds; see picture above, in the middle). You can now see the camera's view, control its settings and shoots images using the touchscreen of the smartphone (see picture above, on the right).

On the top left of the apps' screen you have the auto settings (Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto and Program Auto) and, just bellow it, the various auto settings it has selected. On the top right you have the indicator of the space left on the memory card (in number of pictures; here there's 2450 pictures left) and the still image size (here: 4:3 18 Megapixels). Inside the picture (bottom left) you have the zoom control (Wide and Telephoto). Just bellow the picture, clicking on the arrow up or down (< or > sideway) removes the settings from the screen or brings them back. At the bottom left, the tools symbol opens the main settings panel for the Self-Timer (off, 2 sec, 10 sec), the Still Image Size (4:3 18M, 4:3 5M, 16:9 13M, 16:9 2M), the duration of the review image (on, off, 2 sec), the save to smartphone option (on, off), the size of the review image (original, 2M), as well as option to copy pictures from the smartphone, set the beep (on, off, shutter) and format the memory card. At the bottom center you have the shutter button and on the bottom right the mode control (photo for still images and movie). You can change the aperture and the focus by touching an area of the picture (the area of the picture that you want in-focus and best lighted).

After testing the camera in both indoor and outdoor conditions, I must admit that I am VERY disappointed by this product. It is a very cool and interesting concept: a small and compact camera that uses a smartphone for screen and storage, taking high quality pictures and movies. However, I found several serious problems:
  • The worse problem is that the PlayMemories Mobile software is constantly freezing and crashing. It seems that the latest version (3.0, dated June 26th) is not compatible with iOS 7! Without it the camera is totally useless!
  • The advantage of a smartphone camera is its portability. When you see an interesting subject, you can take your smartphone out of your pocket and QUICKLY take a picture. Unfortunately, attaching the camera to the smartphone, connecting them via wi-fi and then opening the software takes a lot of time (one or two minutes at least). By the time you're done, your subject has moved or disappeared!
  • If you chose to save the pictures to the smartphone, it takes several seconds to do so (particularly in 18M mode), increasing considerably the time it takes to shoot a subject. It is therefore quite difficult to take quickly several pictures.
  • You can have only one wi-fi connection at a time, therefore when you are using your camera you can use only the cellular connection to upload your pictures to the cloud or share them.
  • For some reasons, even after disconnecting the camera, pictures taken with the QX10 don't upload to iCloud. Maybe it's because they are too big? That's annoying because you have to plug either the camera or the smartphone to your computer to transfer them.
  • The date/time on the camera is supposed to automatically set itself to that of the smartphone to which it is connected via wi-fi. Well, it doesn't work and the date/time started with January 1st, messing up the sorting of the pictures in iPhoto. Also quite annoying.
  • [Update: Oops! I forgot this one] It can be a little tricky to focus properly and results can be a little disappointing, particularly with the maximum zoom (10x)--which is somewhat to be expected for that type of camera.
  • The camera has no flash and the software doesn't make use of the smartphone's flash.
  • It saves the pictures only in jpeg (for still images) and mp4 (for movies). There's no option to save in raw format.
  • There's no manual controls or Aperture Priority setting (although it is available on the QX100).
  • There's a serious lack of proper documentation. The camera comes only with a “Quick Start Guide” flyer and there's no manual available online. Only sale sheets.

After my series of tests I almost decided to bring the camera back to the store and ask for a refund. That Bad. However, it is small and compact, and takes excellent pictures and movies. Most of the problems seems related to the fact that the PlayMemories Mobile software is poorly designed and has not been updated to work with iOS 7 (it is unbelievable that a company like Sony has failed to timely update its software considering that the iPhone market share is at its highest [even more since the release of the new models], the adoption rate of iOS7 is the fastest so far and the iPhone 4S & 5 are the most popular camera on Flickr!). Once that problem is solved it will be a pretty interesting products. So, I've decided to wait and see. Even if Sony doesn't update the software soon, PinGuo has announced that the next update of its popular Camera360 software (4.7, due in October) will be compatible with the QX models. In the meantime, the QX10 is rather difficult to use and requires lots of patience.

For more detailed reviews you can check Apple Insider, CNET, Engadget, iMore, the New York Times, Photography Blog, Pocket Lint, Technology Tell, or The Verge.

Update (2013-10-07): Apple Insider has revealed that Sony recently promised to quickly fix their QX series' connection problems with the iPhone. PlayMemories Mobile should be updated in “the coming weeks.” Apple Insider also says that another third-party developers, TapTapTap, is working to make its Camera+ photo apps compatible with the QX series. It should be available “shortly.”

Update (2013-10-08): Sony has updated PlayMemories Mobile very early this morning. Now the camera is more stable--it doesn't freeze as much--the date/time problem is solved and it does upload to iCloud even in the 18M format. The focus is still tricky, but I guess it is something we could get used to. Camera+ has been updated too, but there's still no sign of QX compatibility... Anyway, this improvement comes just in time for a few days vacation, so I will have plenty of occasions to test the updated software.

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