Lens in One Hand, Camera Phone in the Other

Earlier this week, Sony introduced a very different way to think about your cell phone as a portable camera. The DSC-QX100 is the kind of innovative product that engineers love, and marketers don’t love because it is, well, kind of hard to explain, understand, and justify in terms that makes sense to consumers.

Basically, Sony’s engineers have, quite reasonably, identified the tiny lens as the weakest part of the idea of an in-camera phone. The phone must be small, and the lens wants to be as large as possible (to allow more light to reach the sensor, allowing better image quality and greater control over depth-of-field, and more). Sony’s solution: a full-size lens that works with any smartphone.

“Works with” is the key phrase here. You can physically connect the lens with the phone so that the whole rig resembles a traditional compact camera, as below.

Sony-Cyber-shot-QX100-Premium-“Lens-style-Camera”-4-1024x768

Here, the phone’s screen becomes the camera’s viewfinder–essentially, this is the way any camera phone works, except here, there is a full-sized Zeiss lens attached. Again, I’m choosing words carefully. The lens is attached, but not connected to the camera in the traditional way. The sensor is inside the lens, and so is the memory card. The camera is used ONLY as a viewfinder.

And that introduces an interesting variation on the theme. The phone can be held in one hand, and the lens in the other.

sony-dsc-qx-100-1

In fact, there are two different models. The better one, the QX-100, contains a healthy 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor, a fast f/1.8 lens, and costs about $500. The lesser one, the QX-10, contains a lesser 2/3 of an inch sensor and offers an ordinary lens, less well-suited to low-light, and costs half as much.

How does the signal make its way from the lens to the phone? NFC if the phone offers that type of (newer) connectivity. If not NFC, then Wi-Fi (thank goodness it’s not Bluetooth).

How’s the image quality? Think in terms of the image quality that you could buy for about $600 in a compact digital camera, and that’s the QX-100. For the lesser lens/camera (or whatever these contraptions are called), think in terms of what you could buy at Best Buy for two or three hundred dollars.

So now that we both understand how these new devices work, the obvious question re-enters the room. Is this a good idea? Basically, you’re buying a lens with a built-in sensor and a slot for a memory card, but no way to actually see what you’re shooting unless you connect the thing to a smartphone. Seems kinda goofy to me, but under some circumstances, for the right people who, for reasons that are still unclear, cannot, will not or should not purchase a traditional compact digital camera.

How the heck did the marketing people get talked into this one?

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