Time To Get Connected?

DxO ONE

Olympus AIR A01

The connected camera market launched rather suddenly in 2014 with the arrival of the Sony QX1. A sort of mashup between a lens and a camera, the QX1 attached to a mobile device and used the phone (or tablet) as the brains for image capture and sharing. It might have seemed like a novelty had new products not arrived this year from Sony, as well as Olympus and hardware-newcomer DxO.

Each manufacturer promises vastly superior image quality relative to a mobile device, yet with all the connectivity of that device in a package that’s easier to use than a “traditional” camera. I put the three systems to the test to see if they could live up to their promises.

DxO ONE

The French manufacturer DxO may be better known for its digital imaging software suite (which is included gratis with the purchase of the ONE) and its lens sharpness tests on the DxOMark.com site, but the DxO ONE is sure to get DxO noticed in the camera world, too.

Right off the bat, I’m particularly impressed with how easy it is to set up and use the DxO ONE. Sliding open the lens cap turns on the camera and extends the spring-loaded Lightning connector to affix the ONE to an iPhone (and only to an iPhone). Plug in the camera and your phone prompts you to download the DxO ONE app. A minute later, the app is up and running, and before you know it, you’re shooting pictures. On-screen navigation is ridiculously easy, and there are prompts for the most crucial stuff. For instance, RAW+JPEG files can be saved to the camera’s optional microSD card, while JPEGs are saved to the phone. It prompted me at startup the first time to make sure that’s what I wanted to do.

After playing around with the ONE for just an afternoon I was smitten. The image quality is evident even on the phone’s screen. This camera clearly improves on the image quality of the iPhone’s tiny built-in camera. And it should; it has a 20-megapixel, 1-inch sensor (the same sensor used in the Sony RX100 III) that DxO says provides 10 times the sensitivity of an iPhone 6. It also has a fast ƒ/1.8 lens with six elements (and six aperture blades for better bokeh).

The ONE is an elegant device, and the usability is outstanding. Combined with the stellar image quality, you may wonder if there’s a catch. Unfortunately, there is. To maximize image quality at every step, and to keep the device as small as possible, a zoom lens just didn’t fit into the equation. So that fast ƒ/1.8 lens is a prime 32mm (equivalent) lens, which puts some limits on the ONE’s versatility. That said, because the RAW file size is large and the image quality is so good, the crop-to-zoom approach can make up for a lack of focal length.

DxO ONE Features
• Compatible only with iPhones via Apple Lightning connector
• 20.2-megapixel, 1-inch CMOS sensor
• RAW (DNG) and JPEG
• 32mm equivalent ƒ/1.8 prime lens with 6-bladed aperture
• ISO range from 100-51,200
• Shutter speeds from 1/8000 to 15 seconds
• 1080p Full HD video mode
• Focuses as close as 8 inches
• Built-in Lithium-ion battery
• Dimensions: 2.7×1.9×1 inches
• Weight: 3.8 oz.
• Street Price: $600
dxo.com

This camera isn’t just for people who want to share photos quickly; it’s for photographers who want to share really sharp and beautiful photos quickly, and for people who really want to shoot in low light, or even incredibly low light. A layman may not see the difference in image quality in daylight landscape images, for instance, but someone who’s serious about image quality surely will—especially in low-light shooting, where the DxO ONE really shines.

Serious users will be intrigued by the Super RAW setting, which would be more accurately called “extreme low light” mode. The camera uses four exposures and combines them in post in the DxO Connect software (eventually in Apple Photos and Adobe Lightroom, as well). It’s for use when the camera is mounted to a tripod, which can be done with a third-party mount.

Because it’s connected to the iPhone (and, by extension, the Internet), the camera gets regular updates and improvements. One day you’ll pick it up and your camera will just be better. (An update, not available at press time, will allow RAW burst shooting at 8 fps up to 16 or 20 frames.)

The DxO ONE really feels and functions like a traditional camera in that regard. And it’s a pretty powerful unit, especially given how small it is. Just a bit bigger than most key fobs, the ONE actually was easy to carry around in the same pocket that holds my iPhone.

It’s small, with a 750 mAh built-in battery, so DxO designers were serious about conserving energy to maximize battery life. After about a minute, the camera goes into power-saving mode. This could be seen as a bother, but a simple tap of the screen or touch of the shutter button wakes the camera very quickly.

Bottom line: The DxO ONE is super-high quality and easy to use, but the lack of a zoom or telephoto option is a bummer.

Olympus AIR A01

My initial impression of the Olympus AIR A01, I must confess, wasn’t great. Opening the box, you’re confronted by what seems like a dozen different pieces. It turns out this is because the A01 is modular. The device that contains the sensor and the shutter release connects to a phone clamp on one end and sports an Olympus lens mount at the other—meaning you can use any of the 20 or so M.ZUIKO Digital lenses on your smartphone. That’s pretty great.

The camera body shares the cylindrical shape of a lens. If you’re already an Olympus shooter, with a wide range of lenses, the A01 makes a whole lot of sense. You’re buying not so much a standalone point-and-shoot as you’re buying another Micro Four Thirds camera body to fit into your system. This one happens to connect to your Android or iOS smartphone via WiFi and Bluetooth (to provide a more stable connection).

Olympus AIR A01 Features
• Compatible with both iOS and Android devices
• Micro Four Thirds lens mount
• 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor
• RAW (ORF)+JPEG or JPEG only
• ISO range from 100-12,800
• Shutter speeds from 1/16,000
to 4 seconds
• 10 fps continuous shooting up to 23 frames
• 1080p Full HD video mode
• Built-in battery
• Dimensions: 2.25×2.25×1.75 inches
• Weight: 5.2 oz. (body only)
• Street Price: $300 (body only); $500 (with 14-42mm lens)
getolympus.com

When you consider the creative avenues this setup avails, things get pretty interesting. For instance, if you thought having a rotating LCD viewfinder was cool, you’re really going to love having a big, beautiful viewfinder that can totally disconnect from the camera and lens.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Olympus AIR A01 is that it’s an open-platform camera. It may not mean much in practice for the average photographer, but Olympus has made the OPC Hack & Make Project a vehicle for creative photographers, designers, engineers and developers to tap into the creative possibilities of the AIR A01 as not only a camera, but also as a device they’re welcome to modify freely. Anything goes with the open platform, and it’s certainly exciting to see a major manufacturer create a system that embraces the “maker” sensibility. Perhaps the AIR A01 will evolve more quickly because of the OPC approach.

As much as I enjoy the camera, I do have some pet peeves. The biggest is how un-intuitive it is to figure out how to use the thing right out of the box. I was surprised I had to practically take apart the device in order to install a microSD memory card. And, once shooting, you have to repeat much of that “disassembly” process in order to switch from horizontal to vertical orientation.

In terms of usability, once you click Mode Dial, there are a few seconds of delay while the camera gets ready to shoot. This delay can feel like an eternity, depending upon what’s happening in front of the camera. It’s this lag—present in all connected cameras I’ve tested—that, to me, represents the biggest fundamental difference between a connected camera and a traditional point-and-shoot. If you’re in a big hurry to pull out your camera and fire away, smartphone camera devices will test your patience.

I found adjusting exposure, white balance and ISO to be quick and easy via the A01’s on-screen display. And the A01’s ORF RAW files look great; the image quality is beautiful, though it’s not as great in low light as the DxO ONE.

Sony DSC-QX30

When I first picked up the Sony DSC-QX30, I instantly realized that not all connected cameras are targeting the same audience. Whereas the DxO ONE is for serious image-quality addicts who won’t miss a zoom lens, the QX30 is practically the opposite; it’s for those who want a huge zoom range, but don’t need any better image quality than what they already have with their phones. The camera sports a 20-megapixel sensor, but it’s a small sensor that outputs only JPEG image files.

Sony DSC-QX30 Features
• Compatible with both iOS and Android devices
• 30X optical zoom lens (24-720mm equivalent)
• ƒ/3.5-6.3 variable maximum aperture
• Optical image stabilization
• Focuses as close as 1.9 inches
• 20.4-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch Exmor CMOS sensor
• JPEG only
• Lock-on AF
• 10 fps continuous shooting up to 10 frames
• 1080p Full HD video mode, including 60p
• ISO range from 80-12,800
• Shutter speeds from 1/1600 to 4 seconds
• Removable, rechargeable battery
• Dimensions: 2.7×2.6×2.3 inches
• Weight: 6.8 oz. (with battery)
• Street Price: $350
store.sony.com

This camera has a whopping 30x zoom. That’s an equivalent of 24-720mm—a massive range. For anyone used to simply turning on their camera and shooting immediately, dealing with any amount of wireless setup is a pain. Worse, every time I connected the camera, I had to visit my phone’s settings in order to point it to the camera’s previously established WiFi connection. This is the fundamental reason why regular point-and-shoot users won’t yet love the connected camera experience: Most don’t function as fast as a typical point-and-shoot.

Since the camera connects over WiFi, there’s also sometimes a bit of WiFi lag between exposure and preview. I didn’t notice a problematic delay between pressing the button and releasing the shutter, but after that you’re out of commission for a few seconds while the camera processes and displays the image file. Again, for shooters who can take their time, this is likely no problem.

About the size and heft of a typical DSLR medium zoom or fast prime 85mm lens, the QX30 is solidly built. The camera clips onto the phone (which can be an iPhone or Android device) pretty easily, though it takes a bit to figure out exactly how to hold it. Like all of these connected cameras, the shutter can be triggered from the app on-screen or from a physical button on the device. This leads to some accidental exposures, as well as a bit of trial and error until you find a method of handholding that makes sense to you.

Did I mention the QX30 has a huge 30x zoom range? It’s seriously amazing. That 24-720mm equivalent range opens up creative possibilities that most other cameras just can’t replicate. For instance, on a nature hike, I found myself in a stretch of woods with dappled light reflecting off of a small pool of water. With a wide or normal lens, the scene was ho-hum. But zoomed in beyond 600mm, I could cut through the clutter and find a beautiful little abstraction in the reflected light in the water. It’s a shot I simply couldn’t have seen, much less made, with another compact camera, connected or not. That alone should make the QX30 appealing to wildlife and sports photographers who never have enough focal length. With this camera, they’re sure to have it to spare.

The Verdict

Before I touched a connected camera, my thinking was that they might signal the death knell for pocket point-and-shoots. What I learned, though, is that on functionality alone, connected cameras don’t rival conventional cameras—at least not yet. Don’t get me wrong: They’re really fun, and each has some impressive qualities, but the average point-and-shooter is likely to be happier with their plain old point-and-shoot. That’s largely a function of the cumbersome process of connecting the camera to the phone every time you want to take a picture.

In the grand scheme of things, the process isn’t bad at all. But when compared with snapshot cameras that are powered up with the push of a button and ready to shoot immediately, connected cameras are still too slow.

Connected photographers, though—those who use Instagram and Flickr and Twitter, and generally make strongest use of the “sharing” aspects of digital photography—are likely t
o love connected cameras. Ultimately, I think connected cameras are less like standalone point-and-shoots and more like exceptionally powerful smartphone accessories. Their usefulness is inseparable from their connectedness. If you’re not going to take advantage of that connectedness, you’ll probably be happier with a dumb old disconnected camera.

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