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Sony Xperia 1 IV introduces the first true optical zoom in a smartphone

Sony Xperia 1 IV introduces the first true optical zoom in a smartphone

Smartphones have point-and-shoot cameras.Remember those?They excel in many ways, but there’s one thing traditional cameras still do better than phones: zoom. The new Sony Xperia 1 IV aims to change that with a true continuous optical zoom lens. It’s a technical achievement for sure, but at this point it’s more a proof of concept than a game-changer.

At $1,599, it’s a hefty-priced concept, too. You’re sure to find plenty of premium specs on the device, starting with a 6.5-inch 4K (well, 1644 x 3840 but close enough) OLED with a refresh rate of 120Hz. There’s also a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, IP68 water resistance, 512GB of storage, 12GB of RAM, a 5,000mAh battery, and even a headphone jack. But $1,600 matches the most expensive variants of the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, both of which at least give you 1TB of storage for that kind of money.

Anyway, the Xperia 1 IV has something that neither Samsung nor Google offer: a continuous optical zoom lens. Sure, a lot of smartphone cameras allow you to pinch and zoom, but that’s digital, not optical zoom. At least for now, optical zoom generally produces better results than digital because it actually uses a moving lens to zoom in on your subject. Digital zoom is usually just cropping onto a wider image and relies on AI to try to recreate details it wasn’t able to capture – like a more educated guess than a ground truth.

You might also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, like the 3x (or 77mm equivalent, to use film-era terminology familiar to photographers) on the iPhone 13 Pro or the 10x (230mm equivalent) on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. They’re not “zoom” lenses either, which means they’re fixed and don’t allow you to cycle between focal lengths. The telephoto lens on the Xperia 1 IV is different because it allows you to set the focal length at 85mm, 125mm and anywhere in between.

Smartphone makers stick with fixed lenses because they are smaller and less expensive. Reducing the moving parts of the zoom lens to the size of a smartphone appears to be a technical challenge faced by a few OEMs. OPPO He demonstrated the concept of continuous optical zoom last year But it has not yet introduced it to the market. To be fair, the Xperia 1 IV is only in a prototype now and won’t ship to consumers until September, so Oppo can still beat Sony. But until then, the Xperia 1 IV offers the only real evidence we have of a true smartphone-sized zoom.

It’s a huge achievement, but it’s also…kind of a disappointment.

For starters, it’s a file very Small Zoom Range: 3.5-5.2x only for the standard 24mm wide angle. Sony says it chose those focal lengths because they are traditionally used for portraits, and are individually useful for this. I’m just not sure about the value of the distance between them.

Before we go too far into the zoom lens, here’s a quick summary of all three rear cameras in the Sony Xperia 1 IV:

  • 16mm f2.2 ultrawide: 12-megapixel 1/2.5-inch sensor
  • 24mm F1.7 Standard: 12MP 1/1.7″ sensor with OIS
  • 85-125mm F2.3-2.8 Telephoto zoom: 12 MP 1 / 3.5 inch sensor with OIS

All three rear camera sensors support high-speed reading at 120 fps, so Sony’s face and eye detection works seamlessly on every device. Seriously, it’s almost intimidating how well it finds and sticks to your target’s eye, and it works almost flawlessly on all rear cameras. There is also a 12MP front sensor that now supports 4K HDR video.

Sometimes the Xperia 1 IV is able to take great pictures – photos I’m amazed I’ve been able to take with a smartphone. But the unit I was able to display is also inconsistent and sometimes makes poor judgments on white balance and hard-lit scenes. The phone I’m testing is a prototype, so things are subject to change before the device ships later this year, but Sony’s senior product information manager El-Deane Naude says he doesn’t expect much to change between now and then.

First, the good: There’s a real zoom lens on this phone, and it works fairly well. It’s a bit soft but definitely good enough for the small image sizes used on social media. The small zoom range doesn’t make much of a difference for distant subjects, but it does provide some extra flexibility for close-ups for personal ones.

When things get right, Xperia 1 IV is able to get excellent image quality.

This 85mm image has some unappealing highlights and appears to be out of focus.

In good lighting or consistent indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV is smart in choosing a balanced display with vivid colors that don’t look overly saturated.

It occasionally has issues with mixed or dim indoor lighting – which is not surprising given its smaller sensor and dimmer aperture compared to the main wide camera. There are also some errors in the white balance or the HDR effect that turns the ice white in the display of fresh fish gray. Some of the shots I took with my zoom lens look overexposed and are softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude acknowledges a problem with the prototype unit with autofocus at 5.1x zoom, which I can clearly see in my device, but these exposure and quality issues appear at other focal lengths.

There’s also no getting around the fact that the Xperia 1 IV works with smaller sensors and optics than a traditional camera. Clear images of moving subjects in low light is a challenge, as is the case for all smartphones, and don’t expect to get a lot of subject separation even at the long end of the telezoom.

The Xperia 1 IV offers plenty of manual control over video recording – way more than an avid photographer like me can hope to understand and use properly. As in previous models, all this is in the Sony Cinema Pro application. Fortunately, a simpler video recording app is available on this year’s model: Videography Pro. It doubles as a live streaming app, too. I haven’t used it extensively, but so far I find it more comfortable and familiar than Cinema Pro.

Most of my interest in the Xperia 1 IV stems from its price. For the same MSRP, the Galaxy S22 Ultra offers excellent portrait mode, standard wide photo, ultra-wide, 3x telephoto, And 10x telephoto. For my money, I’d rather have a 10x long lens and a 3x portrait-friendly lens with digital zoom in between, rather than two attached vertical lenses with optical zoom.

The Xperia 1 IV has an IP68 rating, which means solid protection against dust and water, but it’s not clear how well the lenses inside the Xperia Zoom will withstand daily bumps and wear. Sony hasn’t answered my question about this yet, and I’ll update this article if they do. Until then, it appears that moving optics can be knocked out of alignment more easily than fixed lenses. If I spend $1600 on this phone, I want to know how careful I have to be with it.

To sum up, Sony has put a good zoom in and out feature in a smartphone. This is an amazing achievement. In practical use, it’s a little less impressive. It’s basically two lenses that serve the same function: portrait photography. The fact that there is an optical zoom that connects the two does not make them more versatile. Perhaps the next iteration will go a step further with a longer zoom range. In the meantime, the concept appears to be still in development.

Photo by Alison Johnson/The Verge

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