The attempts to design a practical solution to upgrade a phone camera's options -- whether it's better photo quality or a zoom lens or both -- have been unsuccessfully ongoing since 2013 when Samsung tried to integrate a zoom lens on its Galaxy S4 ("the camera-shaped Zoom is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to use as a phone.") and Sony first rolled out its QX series of cumbersome lens-shaped zoom cameras that connect via Wi-Fi.
The more recent DxO One camera, which plugs into the Lightning connector of an iPhone or i Pad, is probably the most successful option to date; it adds better photo quality with its 1-inch sensor, but no zoom, and is limited to iDevices. Now there's the Hasselblad True Zoom, an attachable camera with a big 10x zoom lens but a small 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor, which can work only with the Motorola Moto Z phones. That's because it takes advantage of the Moto Z's elegant Moto Mods add-on architecture.
For the most part, the True Zoom succeeds at delivering optical zoom into the hands of phone photographers and is a great first effort. And I can't stress enough how convenient a zoom lens is. But I can't help thinking that a larger sensor with half the zoom might have been a more attractive option.
Though some might consider $250 (that's the Verizon price) a lot for what's essentially a basic compact camera that snaps to the back of your phone, I think the price is pretty reasonable -- especially compared to the $500 (£400) DxO model. I don't have other pricing yet for the True Zoom, but that $250 converts to about £191 and AU$335. Through motorola.com it will cost $300 (that's about £228 and AU$400). It will be available starting September 15.
How it works
It's dead easy to add and remove: Moto Mods attach to the phone via magnets, and in this case the phone's stock camera app switches to a version designed for use with the camera mod. Snap it on and you're ready to go.
There's a physical power button to turn the camera on and off and a zoom switch to navigate the 25-250mm-equivalent range. It's a little too sensitive and stepped for my taste, making it hard to frame shots exactly. And pressing the shutter without shaking the camera is harder than using the on-screen shutter button. Still, the True Zoom delivers a very nice camera-like experience.
Extensions to the camera app add the ability to shoot raw+JPEG, as well as offering scene modes and and black-and-white shooting in Auto. It automatically downgrades the options for video and photos; for example, you can't shoot 4K video with the mod attached on the Moto Z Play Droid I tested it with, and that phone's internal camera is 16 megapixels. Though you can use third-party camera apps with the True Zoom, you can't shoot raw with them.
There's not a lot here that's Hasselblad. It's got the company's 75th anniversary commemorative orange shutter button with half-press focusing, a grip with the same nice physical feel as the one used by current Hasselblad cameras, and the big H. It will also ship with access to Hasselblad's raw software, Phocus, to edit the True Zoom images on a computer. Unfortunately, Phocus mobile is only available on the desktop and iOS, not Android . You can edit the standard DNG files with any editor, though. The phone does come with two years of free full-resolution storage in Google Photos.
One of the frustrating aspects of using the True Zoom is the camera app. It always reverts to the stock app default settings, even if you switch away from it for just a second -- something you do constantly on a phone. That means, for instance, it forgets you're in Professional (manual) mode or that you shoot raw. According to the company, that's a feature, not a bug; a feature that's bound to make you miss some shots unless you shoot only on the defaults. It's also too easy to accidentally hit the home, menu and back buttons while using the physical shutter button. Crazy-making.
What about the pictures?
The True Zoom has similar sensor specs to models like the Nexus 6P. But unlike most fixed-focal-length lens phone cameras, the True Zoom's photo quality will vary a lot over the zoom range. As with most zoom lenses, its maximum aperture narrows -- from f3.5 to f6.5, in the True Zoom's case -- as you zoom toward 250mm. That means you really can't zoom in when the light drops below twilight levels without photos getting really mushy.