GoPro’s initial public offering last week might have had some consumers wondering: What’s the big freaking deal about these little cameras?
In short, what began as a purpose-driven device for thrillseekers has created a new category of cameras that are used to capture point-of-view footage of almost anything you could think of — even dishwashing. Yes, really.
But while GoPro is one of the best-selling cameras in the world, there are some worthy competitors, like the Garmin Virb Elite and Sony’s new POV Action Cam, which has the lengthy appendage “HDR-AS100″ to distinguish it from Sony’s previous cam.
(There are others available, too, like the Contour+2 [$300], the Drift HD Ghost [$300] and the Ion Air Pro 3 [$279], which my colleague Bonnie Cha has written about. But I haven’t had the time to test those in full, so this column focuses on the three I mention above.)
Here’s a guide that covers the pros and cons of these.
Pros: Thinner body, longer battery life than previous version, tons of video options, and shoots high-quality footage up to 4K resolution. Plenty of controls through the mobile app (iOS, Android and Windows).
Cons: Tedious navigation of the many options and settings, adult-proof packaging, no GPS, and battery life could still be better.
My co-worker has a theory that GoPros and cameras like them are essentially for narcissists. Maybe that’s true, and if that’s the case, it seems like narcissism-tech has taken off.
The GoPro Hero3+ is diminutive, smaller than its predecessors and the tiniest camera of the three I reviewed, although the clear plastic case it comes with adds some bulk.
One of GoPro’s differentiators is the number of options it offers users. Most people, except for maybe digital video pros, probably wouldn’t dive into all of them, and I certainly haven’t been able to test them all. It does shoot 4K, which, again, matters mostly to pros (or those lucky enough to have true 4K TV screens at home). And the Hero3+ has a new SuperView mode, for super wide-angle footage.
For average consumers, the important thing to know is that it defaults to 1080p HD and can also shoot in 720p. You can adjust sharpness, brightness and even white balance in the settings, and there’s a new low-light setting with the GoPro Hero3+, addressing some users’ complaints about low-light capture in previous models.
It also shoots still images in five-, seven- and 12-megapixels (adjustable for time-lapse purposes). GoPro claims that this model’s improved lens offers better optics.
GoPro offers a wide variety of mounts and accessories for its cameras, including a standard head mount, the “3-Way” tripod arm, the “Chesty” chest mount, the “Floaty Backdoor” flotation case. (Whoever named these was probably grinning their way to the stock market last week.) With its normal case, the GoPro Hero3+ is waterproof up to 40 meters.
I’ve used the GoPro in a variety of situations, shooting time lapses for multimedia projects and POV sports videos — I’ve even hooked it up to a hummingbird feeder at home. Its versatility is one of its greatest features, making it easy to see why it’s a best-selling camera. Newbies should know, however, that it will take some time to familiarize yourself with the GoPro and learn how navigate its menu options.
Price: Virb is $300; Virb Elite, which I tested, is $400, but can be found online for less.
Pros: GPS and heart-rate monitoring capabilities, viewscreen and long battery life, plus high-quality imagery.
Cons: Bulkier than the GoPro Hero3+ and Sony POV cam, uncomfortably so when it comes to chest/shoulder mounting. Mobile app is somewhat limited.
It seemed like a no-brainer when Garmin jumped into the action-camera market a year ago, given the company’s long history of making GPS products for outdoorsy consumers. And while the Virb doesn’t claim the share of the market that the GoPro has, I’ve found it to be a formidable competitor to the newest GoPro.
The Virb Elite, the one I’ve been using, is especially loaded. It records 1080p HD video and shoots 16-megapixel stills, and has a 1.4-inch display that acts as a viewscreen. It’s water-resistant up to one meter for 30 minutes. The company claims that its battery can last for up to three hours, though in my experience it died sooner when I was connected to the compatible mobile app.
Its giant, ribbed “record” button is easy to find and slide into action, without having to look down at the camera or fumble with a bunch of different buttons.
The Virb Elite also pairs with other Garmin devices to let you control the camera from your wrist, and show heart-rate levels during athletic activities. I wore a Garmin heart-rate strap during a bike ride, with the Virb attached to my bike, and I really liked being able to see my heart-rate levels on the camera’s display while also shooting video.
The downside of the Virb Elite is that it’s heavier and bulkier than the others. That’s fine when it’s attached to something like a surfboard or standard bike mount; when attached to my road bike, it captured crisp, stable footage. But later that week, I went ultra-geek, wearing a chest mount and the Virb Elite propped up on my shoulder like some sort of parrot. It was hard to forget it was there while I was trail-jogging, and the resulting footage was shaky and unusable.
Also, while there’s a free Virb mobile app for both iOS and Android devices, it’s good for framing up your shot, but not much else. You can see how your video is going to look before you begin recording, but once you hit “record,” the mobile app offers no visibility.
Sony POV Action Cam
Pros: Super lightweight, though still larger than the GoPro-sans-case. Offers different scene settings and full control from compatible mobile app, plus wristband remote (GoPro offers a wristband remote, as well). Equipped with GPS, Wi-Fi and NFC.
Cons: Short battery life, no dual-capture capabilities for stills while shooting video and, like the GoPro, doesn’t have a viewscreen.
This brand-new POV Action Cam from Sony has some notable improvements over its predecessor, like Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities and a more splash-resistant body that now has a tripod mount. And it’s lighter and sleeker than the Garmin Virb cameras. I wore the Sony POV Action Cam on the side of my head during a hike, and while it looked silly even in tech-centric Palo Alto, Calif., it was light enough to forget it was there.
As you might expect with Sony, a lot of emphasis has been put on its image-capture capabilities. The POV Action Cam has a Zeiss lens and shoots 1080p HD video as well as high-speed 720p video. It captures 13.5-megapixel still images — though you’ll have to stop recording video to snap those — and two-megapixel time-lapse images. It has an “active” mode with enhanced stabilization for when you’re, well, being active; and two modes for image richness, “neutral” and “vivid.” I mostly shot neutral; vivid looks more saturated.
The POV Action Cam also boasts at least 25 add-on attachments and accessories from Sony, ones with G-rated names.
The downsides? Initial set-up is kludgy, and the camera’s display is text-only — no video viewscreen here. Battery life in my experience was poor — around an hour of record time while connected to the Sony PlayMemories mobile app via the camera’s Wi-Fi. (Although, unlike the Virb’s mobile app, this app lets you monitor video while you’re recording.)
Finally, keep in mind that while consumers are constantly coming up with wacky ways to use these cameras, they’re still really best-suited for people who love recording their outdoor adventures and creating time-lapse videos. These are not the cameras for people who want a basic point-and-shoot for weddings, vacations and kids’ birthday parties. Well, unless you want a first-person POV from inside the bounce house. Which, come to think of it …