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Sony's Lens-Style Cameras: Last Gasp for Point-and-Shoots?

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 18 comments
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Point-and-shoot cameras are dying — or seen another way, they have become, like so many other things, another smartphone feature. The old photographer's adage says that the best camera is the one you have with you, and for more than half of all cellphone owners in the U.S., that’s a smartphone.

After years of camera makers trying to defend their turf, Sony has broken ranks and gone over to the smartphone side with two new models called lens-style cameras, the $250 QX10 and $500 QX100. All the electronics required to make a digital photo are slapped onto the back of a lens barrel, which in turn clips onto a smartphone and connects with it through Wi-Fi and an Android or iOS app. (Which is separate from the app for the phone's built-in camera.)

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Real zoom for smartphones

The lens cameras offer the one thing a smartphone (probably) never can — a zoom lens. The $250 QX10 provides a whopping 10X optical zoom with 18.9-megapixel capture. The $500 QX100 Premium offers 3.6X zoom, but in a very high-end image-making package. They also provide electronics that cellphone makers can only dream of — or dismiss as too bulky and expensive — large, high-end sensors (up to a one-inch, 20.2-megapixel chip in the QX100) and advanced image processing. Coupled with the large-aperture lenses (as big as a gaping F1.8), they can shoot in very low light and likely achieve some of the artsy shallow-depth-of-field effects found, for example, in portraits.

Sony Lens-Style Cameras

It's an odd setup, however, especially when you feel the heavy lens pulling a smartphone downward (especially pronounced with a smaller phone such as my iPhone 5). The spring-loaded clips hold the lens tightly to any size phone, but it's tricky to hook the lens onto some smartphone models (the Sony Xperia model the company used for a demonstration) without the clips squeezing the power, volume or other buttons on the sides.

But the image results should be satisfying. The preproduction models I tried had difficulty focusing and metering in bright light, but there's reason to think the final versions will shine when they go on sale later this month. The $500 QX100, for example, is the business end of Sony's $750 well-regarded RX100-M2. Review site said of the RX100, "We have very few concerns about the RX100's image quality" — for both stills and HD video. And the M2 version should improve upon that.

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Beyond point and shoot

In fact, with their high-end specs, Sony's lens-style cameras, especially the QX100, scarcely count as point-and-shoots and are closer to advanced pocket cameras that photo enthusiasts carry. However, Mark Weir, one of Sony's camera experts, told me that the models are aimed at people who until now have shot only with smartphones and aren't interested in a traditional point-and-shoot. It may be a stretch to assume that people who don't know any better than smartphone photo quality will decide that they need and should pay for this image upgrade — especially for the $500 QX100 and maybe even for the $250 Q10.

Still, Sony's plan, though not perfect, is less clunky than other options to marry a "real" camera and a phone. Many cameras now have Wi-Fi to send photos to a smartphone: Canon, for example, made a big splash in August to introduce fairly modest updates of its point-and-shoots, the main upgrade being Wi-Fi. But you have to lug around an entire camera, which is bulkier than Sony's lens-style models. 

Samsung has come from the other direction, building a full camera onto the backside of a smartphone with its Galaxy S4 Zoom. But its image quality is less than stunning,  it's quite bulky, and Samsung is not bringing it to the U.S. Furthermore, it requires you to always lug a camera around.

Still, it's unlikely there will be a lens-style camera in every pocket the way point-and-shoots were a few years ago. Sony's models, despite the company's target audience, are likely more for people who take photography seriously — almost all the time. But at up to $500, the lens-style cameras are pricier than more-capable entry-level DSLRs, including Sony's own models such as the new, $400 Alpha a3000. Since the lens-style cameras are extra gear that shooters have to plan to bring along, perhaps they'd rather go all the way and take a small SLR instead. 

But even if photography lovers bring along Sony's lens-style cameras, they are clearly opting for the relatively big guns, not for what a basic point-and-shoot offers. The real point-and-shoot is your smartphone without the Sony camera attached.

Follow Sean Captain @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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  • -2 Hide
    jaber2 , September 5, 2013 9:28 AM
    Yea, no
  • -2 Hide
    glasssplinter , September 5, 2013 9:49 AM
    Minimum $250 for a massive lens that I still have to carry around and then attach for a picture? No thanks. My Canon p&s is smaller then this and will still take better pictures faster then this setup. I'm just wondering at what point consumers settled for quality. We went from 110 film to 35mm, then digital came out and quickly improved. Everyone loved the massive improvements they thought they got with each extra megapixel. Then smartphones came out and everyone is happy with the quality? Don't get it...
  • 0 Hide
    chill1221 , September 5, 2013 10:16 AM
    Smart phones will never, NEVER, replace a real camera for quality pictures.
  • Display all 18 comments.
  • 1 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:23 AM
    Interesting, I think I would still rather have a dslr and use my phone for just snap pics.
  • 0 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:29 AM
    I take it back, I watched the video and thats pretty freaking cool. You can set the camera up somewhere an control it remotely. You can take the family pic with you in it, and see if everyone is smiling when you take the pic. This feature actually has a ton of possibilities. Maybe wildlife pictures, but if you get up close with a camera you disturb their behavior, with this no problem. I wonder how the pic quality compares to a medium priced dslr.
  • 0 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:31 AM
    You can take high angle shots were previously you were limited by eye level or by standing on something, no this is cool.
  • -1 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:32 AM
    Hell, guys in the military could use it to look around corners without sticking their head out.
  • -3 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:33 AM
    Hell, guys in the military could use it to look around corners without sticking their head out.
  • -1 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:35 AM

    People are only happy with smartphone cameras for taking selfies or quick family/friends pics.
  • 0 Hide
    kyzarvs , September 5, 2013 10:41 AM
    My Fuji FinePix S4500 bridge camera was ~£110 with a 30x Optical zoom and all the features and quality that's above a phone but below a full DSLR (hence the term 'bridge'). Not sure how 3x the price for a bit of kit that is not as good is progress?
  • 0 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 10:43 AM

    People are only happy with smartphone cameras for taking selfies or quick family/friends pics.
  • 0 Hide
    deftonian , September 5, 2013 12:02 PM
    @ Chill1221
    That is a bold statement. Thinking like that takes place every generation and the funny thing is, every generation proves that kind of thinking wrong. Never say never my friend, that only leaves room for someone to prove you wrong. Camera phones have come a very long way in quality and my Note II takes stunning pics and video. It may not be as great as a DSLR but it rivals P&S for what I use it for. With technology, anything is possible.
  • 0 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 1:24 PM

    Its a pretty safe bet, electronics get better, image sensors get better, but the optics have the same limitations as they did 30 years ago.
  • 1 Hide
    Jeff Krogue , September 5, 2013 1:25 PM
    If you want great pictures you have to have a great lens.
  • 0 Hide
    kartu , September 6, 2013 3:52 AM
    It's still a good compromise though and a step forward.
  • 0 Hide
    gggplaya , September 6, 2013 6:43 AM
    The major real advantage is you can write cool camera software which can add many effects to the photos while their taken. Also the internet connectivity of your phone. Take an awsome photo and upload directly to facebook.
  • 0 Hide
    gggplaya , September 6, 2013 6:45 AM
    They should just take this image sensor and put it into their Xperia line of smartphones with a fixed large apeture lens. Even if it adds a 1/2" of thickness, people who take photography seriously will line up for it as long as it still fits nicely in your pocket.
  • 0 Hide
    Steveymoo , September 6, 2013 7:55 AM
    Sorry chaps, but this lense uses NFC - that means it has a very limited range unfortunately. Otherwise all of these wildlife and portrait ideas would be sweet.
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