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

Smartphones have point-and-shoot cameras (remember?), 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. It’s certainly a technical feat, but at this stage it’s more of a proof of concept than a game-changer.

At $1599, it’s also a competitively priced concept. To be sure, you’ll 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 120Hz refresh rate. There’s also a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, IP68 waterproofing, 512 GB of storage, 12 GB of RAM, a 5000 mAh battery and even a headphone jack. But $1600 equates to 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 that neither Samsung nor Google offers: that continuous optical zoom. Sure, many smartphone cameras allow you to pinch and zoom, but that’s digital rather than optical zoom. At the moment, optical zoom generally produces better results than digital, as it actually uses moving lenses to magnify your subject. Digital zoom usually just slices in a wider picture and relies on AI to recreate details it couldn’t capture – more like an informed guess than ground truth.

You may also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, such as the 3x (or 77mm equivalent, to bring cinema-era terms to photographers) lens on the iPhone 13 Pro or the 10x (230mm equivalent) on the iPhone 13 Pro. Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. They’re also not “zoom” lenses, meaning they’re fixed and you can’t move between focal lengths. The Xperia 1 IV’s telephoto lens is different in that you can set the focal length to 85mm, 125mm and everything in between.

Smartphone manufacturers stick to fixed lenses because they are smaller and cheaper. Reducing the moving parts of a zoom lens to the size of a smartphone is a technical challenge few OEMs take on, apparently. Oppo showed a continuous optical zoom concept last year, but has not launched it yet. To be fair, the Xperia 1 IV now only exists in prototype form and won’t ship to consumers until September, so Oppo can still beat Sony. But until then, the Xperia 1 IV provides us with only real, tangible evidence of a true smartphone-sized zoom.

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

For starters, it’s a all narrow zoom range: just 3.5–5.2x over the standard 24mm wide angle. Sony says it chose these focal lengths because they’re traditionally used for portraiture, and individually they’re useful for that purpose too. I’m just not sure how valuable the space between them is.

Before we get too far into the zoom, here’s a quick rundown of all three rear cameras on the Sony Xperia 1 IV:

  • 16mm F2.2 ultra-wide angle: 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 120 fps high-speed readout, so Sony’s face and eye detection work seamlessly together. Seriously, it’s almost uncanny how good it is at finding and holding your subject’s eye, and it works almost flawlessly on all rear cameras. There’s also a 12-megapixel sensor on the front that now supports 4K HDR video.

The Xperia 1 IV is capable of fantastic photos at times – photos that, to my surprise, I was able to take with a smartphone. But the device I’ve been able to demonstrate is also inconsistent, sometimes giving poor judgment on white balance and challenging lighting scenes. The phone I’m testing is a prototype, so things may 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 that real zoom on this phone and it works pretty well. It’s a little soft, but definitely good enough for the small image sizes used on social media. The small zoom range doesn’t matter much for distant subjects, but up close for portrait subjects it offers some extra flexibility.

If all goes well, the Xperia 1 IV is capable of excellent image quality.

This 85mm image shows some unappealing magnified highlights and seems to have missed focus.

With good lighting or consistent indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV is smart about choosing balanced lighting with vibrant colors that don’t look overly saturated.

It occasionally runs into problems with mixed or dimmed indoor lighting – unsurprising given the smaller sensor and dimmer aperture compared to the wide main camera. There are also some white balance misses or an HDR effect that turns the white ice in a fresh fish rendering gray. Some of my zoom shots seem a little overexposed and softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude recognizes a specific problem for the prototype device with the 5.1x zoom autofocus, which I can clearly see in my device, but these exposure and quality issues are seen at other focal lengths.

There’s also no denying 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 challenging, as for all smartphones, 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 recording – far more than an avid photographer like me can hope to understand and use correctly. As with previous models, this is all housed in Sony’s Cinema Pro app. Fortunately, there is a more simplified video recording app available on this year’s model: Videography Pro. It also acts 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 the price. For the same MSRP, the Galaxy S22 Ultra offers an excellent portrait mode, a standard wide angle, ultra wide angle, a 3x telephoto, and a 10x telephoto. For my money, I’d rather have the wide range of the 10x lens and the portrait-friendly 3x lens with digital zoom in between, than two portrait lenses connected by optical zoom.

The Xperia 1 IV has an IP68 rating, which means rugged protection against dust and water, but it’s not clear how tolerant the lenses in the Xperia’s zoom will be to everyday bumps and scuffs. Sony has so far not responded to my inquiry regarding this, and I will update this article if they have. Until then, it seems that moving optics can be pushed out of alignment more easily than fixed lenses. If I were to spend $1,600 on this phone, I’d want to know how careful I should be with it.

In short, Sony has put a good point-and-shoot zoom into a smartphone. That is an impressive achievement. In practice, it’s a bit less impressive. They are essentially two lenses that serve the same function: portrait photography. The fact that they have an optical zoom doesn’t make them much more versatile. Perhaps the next iteration will take it a step further with a wider zoom range. Meanwhile, this concept feels like it’s still in development.

Photography by Allison Johnson / MovieUpdates

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