Smartphones outperform point-and-shoot cameras (remember those?) 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, sure, but at this stage, it’s more of a proof of concept than a game changer.
At $1599, it’s also a highly priced concept. You’ll no doubt find plenty of premium specs on the device, starting with a 6.5-inch 4K OLED (well, 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 5,000mAh battery, and even a headphone jack. But $1600 matches the more expensive variants of the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, which give you at least 1TB of storage for that kind of money.
In any case, the Xperia 1 IV has something that neither Samsung nor Google offer: that continuous optical zoom. Sure, many smartphone cameras let you pinch and zoom, but that’s digital rather than optical zoom. At least at this point, optical zoom generally produces better results than digital, since it actually uses moving lenses to magnify the subject. Digital zoom usually just crops out a larger image and relies on the AI to try to recreate the details it couldn’t capture, more like an educated guess than the basic truth.
You can also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, like the 3x lens (or 77mm equivalent, to use film-era terms familiar to photographers) on the iPhone 13 Pro or the 10x (230mm equivalent). ) on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. They are also not “zoom” lenses, meaning they are fixed and do not allow you to move between focal lengths. The Xperia 1 IV’s telephoto lens is different in that it allows you to set the focal length to 85mm, 125mm and anywhere in between.
Smartphone makers are sticking with prime lenses because they’re smaller and less expensive. Apparently reducing the moving parts of a zoom lens to the size of a smartphone is a technical challenge that few OEMs are prepared for. Oppo showed off a continuous optical zoom concept last year, but has yet to bring it to market. To be fair, the Xperia 1 IV exists only in prototype form now 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 proof 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 relative to standard 24mm wide angle. Sony says it chose those focal lengths because they’re traditionally used for portraiture and, individually, they’re useful for that purpose. I’m not sure how precious the space between them is.
Before we get too deep into the zoom lens, here’s a quick rundown of the Sony Xperia 1 IV’s three rear cameras:
- 16mm F2.2 ultra wide: 1/2.5-inch 12-megapixel sensor
- 24mm F1.7 standard wide: 1/1.7-inch 12-megapixel sensor with OIS
- 85-125mm F2.3-2.8 telephoto zoom: 1/3.5-inch 12-megapixel sensor with OIS
All three rear camera sensors support 120fps high-speed readout, so Sony’s face and eye detection works flawlessly on each. Seriously, it’s almost creepy how good it is at finding the subject’s eye and sticking to it, and it works almost flawlessly on all rear cameras. There’s also a 12-megapixel front-facing sensor that now supports 4K HDR video.
The Xperia 1 IV is sometimes capable of taking fantastic pictures – pictures I’m amazed I could take with a smartphone. But the unit I was able to test is also inconsistent and sometimes makes poor judgments about white balance and scenes with challenging lighting. 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 May it change a lot from now on.
First, the good stuff: There’s a real zoom lens on this phone, 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 for distant subjects, but up close for portrait subjects it does provide some additional flexibility.
In good lighting, or constant indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV is smart about choosing a balanced exposure with vibrant colors that don’t look overly saturated.
It does run into trouble from time to time in mixed or dim indoor lighting, which is hardly surprising given its smaller sensor and dimmer aperture compared to the main panoramic camera. There are also some white balance glitches or an HDR effect that turns white ice into a display of fresh fish grey. Some of my zoom lens shots look a bit overexposed and softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude acknowledges a problem specific to the prototype unit with the 5.1x zoom autofocus, which I can clearly see on my device, but these exposure and quality issues are seen at other focal lengths.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that the Xperia 1 IV works with small sensors and small optics compared to a traditional camera. Sharp photos of moving subjects in low light are a challenge, as they are for all smartphones, and don’t expect to get much subject separation even at the long end of telezoom.
The Xperia 1 IV offers a ton of manual control for video recording, far more than a keen photographer like myself can hope to understand and use properly. As with previous models, this is all housed in Sony’s Cinema Pro app. Fortunately, there’s a more streamlined video recording app available on this year’s model: Videography Pro. It also doubles as a live streaming app. I haven’t used it much, 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, a standard wide angle, an ultra wide angle, a 3x telephoto lens, Y a 10x telephoto lens. For my money, I’d rather have the long reach of the 10x lens and the 3x portrait lens with digital zoom in the middle, rather than two portrait lenses connected by optical zoom.
The Xperia 1 IV is IP68-rated, which means robust protection against dust and water, but it’s unclear how tolerant the lenses inside the Xperia’s zoom will be to bumps and everyday wear and tear. Sony hasn’t responded to my question about this as of now, and I’ll update this article if they do. Until then, it seems that moving optics could become more easily misaligned than fixed lenses. If I were to spend $1,600 on this phone, I’d like to know how careful I should be with it.
Simply put, Sony put a good point-and-shoot zoom into a smartphone. That is an impressive feat. In practical use, it’s a bit less impressive. Basically, these are two lenses that fulfill the same function: portrait photography. Just because there’s an optical zoom connecting them doesn’t make them much more versatile. Perhaps the next iteration will go one step further with a longer zoom range. Meanwhile, it seems that this concept is still in development.
Photograph by Allison Johnson/The Verge