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

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Smartphones have point-and-shoot cameras (remember that?) beaten in a lot of ways, but there’s one thing traditional cameras do even 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 feat, sure, but at this point it’s more proof of concept than a game changer.

At $1599, it’s also a high-priced concept. To be sure, you’ll 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 5000mAh battery and even a headphone jack. But $1,600 is for the more 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.

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In any case, the Xperia 1 IV has something that neither Samsung nor Google offer: that continuous optical zoom lens. Sure, many smartphone cameras let you pinch and zoom, but that’s digital zoom rather than optical zoom. At least right now, optical zoom generally produces better results than digital because it actually uses moving lenses to magnify your subject. Digital zoom usually just crops a wider image and relies on AI to try to recreate the details it couldn’t capture – more like an educated guess than ground truth.

You can also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, like the 3x lens (or 77mm equivalent, to use movie-age 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, which means they are fixed and do not allow you to move between focal lengths. The Xperia 1 IV’s telephoto lens is different because it lets you set the focal length at 85mm, 125mm, and anywhere in between.

Smartphone makers are sticking with fixed lenses because they are smaller and cheaper. Reducing the moving parts of a zoom to the size of a smartphone is a technical challenge that few OEMs are willing to tackle, apparently. Oppo showed off a continuous optical zoom concept last year, but hasn’t brought it to market yet. To be fair, the Xperia 1 IV is now only in prototype form and won’t ship to consumers until September, so Oppo could still beat Sony to the punch. But until then, the Xperia 1 IV offers our only real, tangible evidence of true smartphone-sized zoom.

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

For starters, it’s a very small zoom range: only 3.5 to 5.2x compared to the standard 24mm wide angle. Sony says it chose these focal lengths because they’re traditionally used for portraits, and individually they’re useful for that purpose. I’m just not sure about the value of the space between them.

Before we get too zoomed in, here’s a quick look at the Sony Xperia 1 IV’s three rear cameras:

  • 16mm F2.2 ultra-wide: 12-megapixel 1/2.5-inch sensor
  • 24mm F1.7 standard wide: 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 high-speed 120fps playback, so Sony’s face and eye detection works seamlessly on all of them. Seriously, it’s almost scary how good it is to find your subject’s eye and stick with it, and it works almost flawlessly on 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 fantastic images – photos that I’m amazed I was able to 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 difficult lighting. The phone I’m testing is a prototype, so things are likely to change before the device ships later this year, but Sony’s senior product information manager El-Deane Naude says he don’t expect much to change by then.

First, the good: there’s that real zoom on this phone, and it works well enough. It’s a little 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 up close for portrait subjects it provides extra flexibility.

When done right, the Xperia 1 IV is capable of excellent image quality.

This image at 85mm has unattractive blown highlights and looks like it missed focus.

In good lighting or constant indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV intelligently chooses a balanced exposure with bright colors that don’t seem overly saturated.

It sometimes struggles in mixed or dim indoor lighting, which isn’t surprising given its smaller sensor and lower aperture compared to the main wide camera. There’s also some lack of white balance or an HDR effect that turns white ice into a gray fresh fish display. Some of my zoom shots look a bit overexposed and softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude acknowledges a prototype unit-specific issue with autofocus at 5.1x zoom, which I can clearly see in my camera, but these exposure and quality issues are seen at other focal lengths.

There’s also no getting around the fact that the Xperia 1 IV works with small sensors and optics compared to a traditional camera. Sharp shots of moving subjects in dim light are a challenge, as it is with all smartphones, and don’t expect to get much subject separation even at the long end of the telephoto zoom.

The Xperia 1 IV offers a ton of manual controls for video recording – more than an avid photographer like me can hope to understand and use properly. As in previous models, this is all housed in Sony’s Cinema Pro app. Fortunately, a more streamlined video recording app is available on this year’s model: Videography Pro. It also serves 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 excellent portrait mode, wide standard, ultra wide, 3x telephoto, and a 10x telephoto lens. For my money, I’d rather have the long reach of the 10x lens and the 3x portrait-friendly lens with digital zoom in between, rather than two portrait lenses connected by optical zoom.

The Xperia 1 IV is rated IP68, which means robust protection against dust and water, but it’s unclear how tolerant the lenses inside the Xperia’s zoom lens will be. everyday wear. Sony hasn’t answered my question about this yet, and I’ll update this article if they do. So far, it looks like moveable optics can get misaligned more easily than fixed lenses. If I was spending $1,600 on this phone, I would want to know how careful I should be with it.

Bottom line, Sony has put a good point-and-shoot zoom in a smartphone. It’s an impressive feat. In practice, it’s a little less impressive. They are essentially two lenses that serve the same function: portrait photography. The fact that there’s an optical zoom linking them doesn’t make them that much more versatile. Maybe the next iteration will go further with a longer zoom range. In the meantime, this concept seems still under development.

Photography by Allison Johnson/The Verge

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