First-person video cameras, point-of-view action cameras, small wearable cameras – whatever you call them – have become infinitely popular in the last few years. One search on YouTube will yield enough MTB first-person footage to keep you viewing for a lifetime.
GoPro led that charge and over the past few years others have followed, Sony included. The Sony Action Cam is Sony’s aggressive attempt at the first person market and when it’s a market that’s pretty saturated already you have to come up with a good point of difference for the masses to be converted. We think Sony is an industry leader for image quality and stabilisation (and that’s a point of difference), but lacks a little in the accessory and MTB usability departments.
We are reviewing this camera as a mountain bike accessory and while the camera has many other uses and functions we will focus on how useful it is on the trail. Also, let’s be honest, most people don’t buy these cameras in the hope of winning the next Academy Award for cinematography, so we’ve reviewed the camera from a real-world perspective – is it good enough for what the majority of people want and how they’ll actually use it.
Let’s begin with the physical unit. The Sony Action Cam is long and slim and very light. Its “orientation” is opposite to that of GoPro with the lens at the front of the body and more in a “pointed” stance, which in theory is more aerodynamic (but more of pain to chest mount). On the side of the camera is a small LCD screen and two control buttons. The rear of the camera has a start/stop button, a lock button (to prevent accidental operation the camera), a hinged door which opens to reveal the memory card (a 4GB micro SD is include in the box) and the replaceable battery. At the bottom of the camera is another compartment which hides the various ports used for USB (data transfer and charging), HDMI out, Sony accessories, and external microphone port. The ports are great and add functionality to the camera however in reality they cannot be used when operating the camera as you cannot mount the camera without the door being shut. On that point, the only way to mount the camera to anything is with the waterproof case. [Flow has seen some early photos of the next generation of the Action Cam and this issue seems to be resolved.]
Setting up and operating the Action Cam was very simple. The on-camera menu system is easy and intuitive and the information displayed, as to settings and mode, is very clear. Turning the camera on/off is a simple single button push with some audio feedback (although a little muted inside the waterproof case).
We also received the additional wrist-watch accessory that enables you to operate the camera from your wrist. This was great as you can see, in real-time, where the camera is pointing – no more guessing. It is however a little big and looks a little awkward on the wrist.
There is also a smart-phone application that connects to the Action Cam via WiFi and lets you see both the live view and control the camera. We did have some issues with the connectivity of the smart-phone app and our connection rate was about 20%. A very handy function once they get it a little more stable.
Both the watch and phone connection do chew through the battery (due to the WiFi connection) so it’s best used very sparingly. We only got about an hour of use when we were abusing the Wifi connectivity, so only switch it on when really necessary. The Action Cam also has GPS capabilities, however, we did not test this function.
Now to the guts of the camera – it has all the numbers to impress any camera nerd. The Action Cam has several different video modes: 1080p @ 30fps, 720p @30fps, 720p @60fps, and 720P @120fps, just what you need for the slow motion action. There is also a flexible and very handy time-lapse mode that’s great for shooting your standard “moving clouds” video intro. The lens is very wide angled with two different field-of-view options: 120-degrees and 170-degrees (that’s super wide.)
Image quality is clean, very colourful and great for such small lens and sensor. We’re not going to kid ourselves and say it’s DSLR quality, as no little camera like this is, but it is more than good enough to produce excellent web edits. Dynamic range is very good and the details between shadows and light are great which is important when filming in filtered light (like trees on a sunny day).
The camera does of course take still images and at 11.9 megapixels they’re pretty big and usable for all of your Internet posting needs. As with any camera with a small lens and sensor you’re not going to get magically good photos and it’s more akin the smart phone quality and use (without any zoom though).
Audio quality is what you expect; like other wearable cameras, once you get over a walking pace the audio is pretty useless. Great for sounds bites, parties and lifestyle stuff, but on a bike they just get too much wind noise.
The real strength in the Sony Action Cam is the image stabilisation. Sony has a long history with their “Steady Shot” technology and this shows with the Action Cam. We think that the Sony is the steadiest of all the point-of-view crowd but even with the greatest of image stabilisation there is still the need to fix the camera securely to an object, as all the technology in the world is useless if the camera moves too much.
This is where the supplied handlebar/bike mount disappointed us. It was awkwardly too tall and also introduced too much movement and thus the Sony technology was unable to fix that vomit-inducing image shake. The one-time-use stick-on mounts were great, and very solid, but only if you have an unvented patch of helmet you can stick the mount to. We battled to find a spot on our helmet to secure the mount, but obviously you won’t have this problem with a full-face helmet.
The main point, and fun, of point-of-view cameras is the ability to mount them everywhere and anywhere. GoPro has this nailed and looking at the list of available Sony mounts we’re unsure if Sony is targeting the MTB sector as hard as other cameras. If you think about all the popular locations you will want to mount the camera Sony’s lacks capability (the handlebar mount is about it and we’ve covered that).
Interestingly they do have a GoPro mount adaptor (allowing you to run the Sony camera with GoPro’s superior mounts). We do think it is questionable when a company relies on another company’s products for the best mounting options…
One very cool accessory the we received with our Sony was the Handy Cam convertor that allows you to use the same camera as mini Handy Cam, complete with a flip out view finder / display. This is super cool for all your holiday footage.
So what is it actually like to use? (That was the “real-word” testing we talked about at the start of the review.). From a technology perspective it’s a great camera. It takes pretty good videos, has great stabilisation, takes a good hit or two from crashing and dropping, is super easy to operate, and connects to the computer with ease. All the things you want in a camera. But what about a mountain bike camera? That’s where we found a few issues.
Maybe we’ve been a little harsh, but with years of experience with a GoPro it’s always going to be tough for a newcomer to compete. The Sony Action Cam is (we want to emphasise this) fantastic, with all the nerdy technical stuff, image quality and stabilisation. But ultimately it falls a little short in the mounting and usability departments. For us, that fun of inventing new places to mount the camera and capture different angles is part of the appeal, and the Sony isn’t yet up to speed in this area. Hopefully this aspect of the camera is improved as it has the image and construction quality to be a real contender.