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The DxO One makes your iPhone better than most compact cameras

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We all take pictures with our phones but some of us want to grow the experience up a little. There is no shortage of companies that will sell you a way to do that, usually by attaching things like lenses that modify your phone's own lens (like the Moment and Olloclip lenses) or actual camera sensor / lens combinations that communicate with your phone via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (like Sony's QX series, or the Japan-only Olympus Air).

The problem with the former is that is they degrade your phone's already tenuous image quality. And, so far, the problem with the latter is that they;re big and bulky, the software is sluggish, and the outboard sensors are so compact they hardly offer an improvement on your phone to begin with.

That's where the new DxO One camera comes in. Yes, it's another take on strapping a separate camera sensor and lens system to your iPhone, but it's the best one yet.

The first thing you notice about the DxO One is its size — DxO says it's the world's smallest 1-inch sensor camera. It's small and light, not much bigger than a zippo lighter. Yet inside is a 1-inch, 20.2 megapixel sensor. On the back is a small, touch-enabled menu screen for swiping between modes, and on the top is a two-stage shutter button.

The fixed lens gives you the equivalent of a 32mm wide focal length, opens all the way up f1.8 (with a pretty great minimum focusing distance of just 20cm) and can stop down to f11. The camera can snap a photo in as fast as one-eight thousandth of a second, and the shutter can stay open long enough for a 15-second exposure. It has an ISO range that starts at 100 and goes, absurdly, up to 51,200. It can shoot in RAW or JPG, and even has a mode called "SuperRaw" that takes four back-to-back RAW images and stacks them to weed out sensor noise for better low light performance. And, of course, it shoots video, with options of 1080p at 30fps or 720p at 120fps. DxO has a ton of mobile photography experience — its spent years developing mobile image processing software and its DxOMark website is a popular reference for mobile image quality standards — and it really shows here in the One camera.

The DxO One attaches via the lightning port, and once it's attached the camera can swivel up to 60 degrees forward and backward. For such a small connection, it holds in place surprisingly well. And because the DxO One attaches this way instead of using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, the whole experience is blazingly fast. The corresponding app launches within a second of plugging it in, and photos taken with the camera's shutter button appear instantly (the app also has a shutter button).

The DxO One has great software and solid hardware

Put the hardware aside for a second and let's talk about the corresponding app that DxO built. I only spent a few minutes with it, but DxO One app is one of the best photo apps I've ever seen. It's got a beautifully simple design, and it works incredibly fast. Most importantly, it lets you access all the manual controls quickly and easily without lots of false taps. I always think I want full manual controls in a mobile photo app until I actually try it, only to be disappointed. Some apps do get close, but DxO's looks like one I'd use even without the external camera.

The only drawback to the DxO One is the $599 price tag. That's too much to spend just for the sake of curiosity, and that amount of money would get you a long way to a really great camera with a bigger sensor like Fujifilm's X100T. DxO does try to sweeten the deal with free copies of its professional grade photo editing and film emulation software, though they don't offer anything you can't get with similar programs you might already own.

The company is taking preorders starting today and will start shipping in September. The list of mediocre third-party photography products for the iPhone is long, but the DxO One is a refreshing exception.