CES 2016: Hands-on with DxO One iPhone Camera Add-On

DxO One iPhone Camera

Last week saw the return of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The tech industry’s annual shindig is a mammoth affair sprawling across the US party city, attracting over 3,000 exhibitors and almost 200,000 visitors.

It’s impossible to cover everything at CES and my time there was very limited, so I focused my efforts squarely on two areas that particularly excite me right now: virtual reality and mobile videography/photography.

One of the products I was excited to stumble across was the DxO One Camera. Described by its french manufacturers as a ‘professional quality camera’, it’s essentially the business bits of compact camera re-packaged to attach to an iPhone or iPad.

DxO One

There was a lot of excitement in the iPhoneography community when the DxO One launched last year but CES was my first opportunity to try it out for myself. It attaches to the iPhone’s Lightning port but can also function as a standalone device capturing to a microSD card. It features a substantial 1-inch, 20 MP Sony sensor with an adjustable f/1.8 aperture lens, although the focal length is fixed at an equivalent of 32 mm.

The DxO One looks a promising proposition on paper but – as always with accessories – is difficult to gauge fully until you try it out. Which I did. That for me is the joy of events like CES – all of the consumer tech you’ve heard or read about for the last 12 months all in one place to poke, prod and get a proper feel for. 

I was very quickly impressed by the shallow DoF images achievable when shooting wide open – although I didn’t get a chance to blow up the pictures and pixel peep for softness the advantages over shooting with the stock iPhone camera were immediately obvious. The DxO app too was intuitive and lag-free, aping the familiar UI of a dedicated camera.

No-Go Audio?

Impressed by the image quality, my thoughts turned to practical use. The DxO One has the feel of a well-built accessory, and the mechanism that attaches to the base of the iPhone is ingenious – technology patented by DxO – ensuring no damage to the iPhone’s internal port even should the camera be forcibly detached.

However, one notable showstopper for videography is that the 3.5 mm audio socket is obscured when the DxO One is attached to the iPhone. The Lightning port itself is now in use by the camera too. This means that any audio recorded must be from the DxO One’s own microphone. I couldn’t test the mic quality on the CES show floor but losing the ability to plug in a microphone and control the sound will be problematic, particularly for anybody considering this as a device for mobile journalism.

However, until then it hadn’t occurred to me that the DxO One didn’t have to be plugged in to an iPhone at all…

iPad Sweet Spot

In collaboration with an iPad, the DxO One becomes quite a different proposition. Previously, the far larger viewfinder afforded by Apple’s tablet has been offset by camera performance lagging behind that of the iPhone. But when fed instead by the DxO One the playing field is levelled and, because of the physical location of the ports, an audio input now becomes available.

** EDIT Further conversations with DxO and others in the community have revealed that, sadly, combining video from the DxO One and audio from the iPad’s audio jack is not possible. What a shame.

Sure, the ergonomics of shooting with a tablet may not suit everybody but if your workflow has been to shoot on iPhone and edit on iPad then this may be a time-saver. I’d particularly like to see the DxO One with the iPad Pro’s 12.9-inch super large screen as a viewfinder, but I suspect my sweet spot might be using it with my iPad mini.

DxO Two

Jean-Marc Alexia, one of the creators of the DxO One, wouldn’t be drawn on the likelihood of a DxO Two, but my hunch is that there has been sufficient interest in the first iteration to merit a second.

I hope too that a compromise with the iPhone audio input problem can be achieved. As there is already a micro USB charge/power port on the DxO One, wouldn’t it be easy enough to include a 3.5 mm input on the DxO Two? If, as has been suggested, the iPhone 7 does indeed do away altogether with the headphone socket then the inclusion of a mic input as part of this attachment could be a terrific selling point.

Another feature in the DxO Two many might like to see (me included!) is an optical zoom – for a unit of this size it seems as if it should be perfectly possible.

Removable battery and/or better battery life would be great, although DxO was quick to point out that the camera can be powered on while it charges.

Price

Which brings us to the price. $599/EUR 599/£449 is undeniably a steep price for a smartphone accessory, and is even more expensive than many very good compact cameras. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to pick fault in the build quality of the DxO One, nor to question the passion and attention to detail of Jean-Marc and his team. The image quality, albeit based on the limited time I had, appeared to be on the money too.

Sadly, at this price the DxO One is unlikely to have mass market appeal, and with annoyances like the static battery and obscured microphone port may put off some of its target niche market too.

That said, I’m very keen indeed to give it some further testing in the field – both with an iPhone and an iPad mini – to see how much quality it can add to a mobile video and photo workflow.