Smartphones have point-and-shoot cameras (remember those?) that beat in many ways, but there’s one thing traditional cameras are still better at than phones: zooming. The new Sony Xperia 1 IV aims to change that with a true continuous optical zoom lens. It’s certainly a technical achievement, but at this stage it’s more of a proof of concept than a game changer.
At $1599, it’s also a budget concept. Surely you’ll find plenty of premium specs on the device, starting with a 6.5-inch 4K OLED (good, 1644 x 3840, but close enough) with a 120Hz refresh rate. There’s also a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Processor, IP68 waterproofing, 512GB of storage, 12GB of RAM, a 5000mAh battery and even a headphone jack. But $1600 matches the most expensive variants of the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, both of which give you at least 1TB of storage for that kind of money.
In any case, the Xperia 1 IV has something neither Samsung nor Google offer: the stepless optical zoom lens. Sure, many smartphone cameras let you pinch and zoom, but that’s digital rather than optical zoom. At least for now, optical zoom generally gives better results than digital because it actually uses moving lenses to enlarge your subject. Digital zoom typically just crops in a wider image and relies on the AI to try to recover details it couldn’t capture – more educated guesswork than ground truth.
You may also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, like the 3x lens (or 77mm equivalent, to use photographers’ familiar film-era terms) on the iPhone 13 Pro, or the 10x (230mm equivalent) on it the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. They are also not “zoom” lenses, meaning they are fixed and do not allow you to switch focal lengths. The Xperia 1 IV’s telephoto lens is different as it allows you to set the focal length to 85mm, 125mm and anywhere in between.
Smartphone manufacturers stick with fixed lenses because they are smaller and less expensive. Reducing the moving parts of a zoom lens to smartphone size is a technical challenge that few OEMs seem to be taking on. Oppo unveiled a continuous optical zoom concept last year but hasn’t launched it yet. To be fair, the Xperia 1 IV currently only exists as a prototype and won’t ship to consumers until September, so Oppo could still beat Sony. But until then, the Xperia 1 IV offers our only real, tangible evidence of true smartphone-sized zoom.
It’s a great achievement, but it’s also… kind of a disappointment.
For starters, it’s a very small zoom range: only 3.5-5.2x compared to the 24mm standard wide-angle. Sony says it chose these focal lengths because they’re traditionally used for portraits and individually useful for that purpose. I’m just not sure how valuable the distance between them is.
Before we get too far into the zoom lens, here’s a quick rundown of all three rear cameras on the Sony Xperia 1 IV:
- 16mm F2.2 Ultrawide: 12-megapixel 1/2.5-inch sensor
- 24mm F1.7 standard wide-angle: 12-megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensor with OIS
- 85-125mm F2.3-2.8 telephoto zoom: 12-megapixel 1/3.5-inch sensor with OIS
All three rear camera sensors support a high-speed readout of 120 fps, so Sony’s face and eye recognition works seamlessly on each. Seriously, it’s almost creepy how good it is at finding and staying with your subject’s eye, and it works almost flawlessly with all rear cameras. There’s also a 12-megapixel front sensor that now supports 4K HDR video.
The Xperia 1 IV is sometimes capable of taking amazing pictures – photos I’m amazed I was able to take with a smartphone. But the device I’ve been able to demonstrate is also inconsistent, sometimes making bad judgments about white balance and tricky-light scenes. The phone I’m reviewing is a prototype, so things could 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 before then will.
First the good: This phone has a true zoom lens, and it works pretty well. It’s a bit soft, but certainly good enough for the small image sizes used on social media. The small zoom range doesn’t make much of a difference with distant subjects, but it offers additional flexibility for close-up portrait subjects.
In good lighting or constant indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV chooses a balanced exposure with vivid colors that don’t look overly saturated.
It occasionally struggles in mixed or dim indoor lighting – which is unsurprising given the smaller sensor and darker aperture compared to the main wide camera. There’s also some white balance errors, or an HDR effect turning the white ice gray in a fresh fish display. Some of my shots with the zoom lens look a bit overexposed and are softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude acknowledges a prototype autofocus issue specific to the 5.1x zoom that I can clearly see on my device, but these exposure and quality issues appear at other focal lengths.
There is also no way around the fact that the Xperia 1 IV works with small sensors and small optics compared to a conventional camera. As for all smartphones, sharp photos of moving subjects in low light are a challenge and don’t expect much subject separation even at the long end of the telephoto zoom.
The Xperia 1 IV offers a ton of manual controls for video capture – far more than an avid stills photographer like me can hope to properly understand and use. As with previous models, this is all housed within Sony’s Cinema Pro app. Thankfully, there’s a simplified video recording app for this year’s model: Videography Pro. It also doubles as a live streaming app. I haven’t used it extensively, but so far I find it much more comfortable and familiar than Cinema Pro.
Most of my concerns with the Xperia 1 IV stem from its price. For the same MSRP, the Galaxy S22 Ultra offers an excellent portrait mode, standard wide-angle, ultra-wide-angle, 3x telephoto, and a 10x telephoto. For my money, I’d rather have the long range 10x lens and the portrait-friendly 3x lens with digital zoom in between than two portrait lenses connected via optical zoom.
The Xperia 1 IV is IP68-rated, meaning robust protection against dust and water, but it’s not clear how tolerant the lenses inside the Xperia Zoom will be to everyday knocks and wear and tear. Sony hasn’t yet responded to my question about this, and I’ll update this article if they do. Until then, it seems like moving optics can be shaken out of alignment more easily than fixed lenses. If I were to spend $1,600 on this phone, I would want to know how careful I should be with it.
Bottom line, Sony has packed a good point-and-shoot zoom into a smartphone. That’s an impressive achievement. In practice, it’s a little less impressive. It’s essentially two lenses that perform the same function: portrait photography. The fact that an optical zoom joins them doesn’t make them much more versatile. Perhaps the next iteration will go one step further with a larger zoom range. In the meantime, this concept feels like it’s still in development.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verand
https://www.theverge.com/23065641/sony-xperia-1-iv-announcement-hands-on-price-specs-zoom-screen The Sony Xperia 1 IV offers the first true optical zoom in a smartphone