It's no secret about how Apple and other manufacturers get around the optical zoom problem on smartphones. One only needs to look at the back of the phone to see the ever-increasing number of lenses and sensors stuffed into the back shell. Sony, however, has figured out another way.
Tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee takes a look at the latest Sony XPERIA 1 IV that packs in a unique party trick that other smartphone cameras don't. Instead of three distinct prime lenses crafted into the back of the phone, there's the requisite 1x (normal) and 0.7x (wide) angles built-in, but the third lens is a telephoto lens that can smoothly zoom from 3.5x to 5.2x (or 85mm to 125mm to photographers in the know). It's such an amazing feat that Brownlee says it "logically should be the future of smartphone cameras."
Brownlee describes the technology as a series of magnets in the phone that move around optical elements in what's a very compressed body of a smartphone. In practical terms, it means you get superior optical zoom throughout the range of 85mm to 125mm, instead of having to stick with three pre-defined focal lengths lest you wander into digital zoom territory. While that's not a lot of range at the moment, this is, after all, just the start of things.
One thing that Brownlee didn't touch upon that's a worry, for me at least, is the concept of introducing moving parts into a smartphone. While I'd love to have more flexibility in shooting with my phone, the concept of precisely aligned elements in a phone sounds a bit foolhardy. These things are dropped, thrown, smashed, and otherwise tossed around in ways lenses and cameras aren't. Just ask anyone with small children who can't keep their hands off their dad's phone. Getting a phone serviced, in general, is a headache, but I can't imagine working on a first-of-its-kind lens system here. It will be interesting to see how this technology fairs on that front.
While the phone retails for an eye-watering $1,599, if having a pocketable camera that also makes phone calls is important, it might be worth stepping out of the established smartphone hierarchies to try a little something different.
Brownlee does a deeper dive in the video of all the phone's photo-specific features and some bits about the phone in general, and it's worth checking out above.
As long as the zoom mechanism works reliably and will last a long time, then it would be good to have. Just need testing to see how well a variable zoom lens on a smartphone holds up as compared to multiple prime lenses when it comes to detail, since the main thing holding smartphone camera modules back, is the lens quality.
While sensor resolution has increased significantly, the lenses used act as a very strong optical low pass filter, where a 100+ megapixel sensor doesn't end up giving any more detail.
That's true - I think that folded optics (like the Light L16 that failed, but was promising) might be the future. Still, also the sensor size is the issue as well.