Testing: Action Cams
This month, Two Idiots go Hollywood and take on making movies.
You see, there’s a new trend on the trail: action cams (also called POVs). Four wheelers are regularly mounting them to their 4x4s and shooting the trail and obstacles or the details of how their trucks perform off-road, like how the suspension looks at full droop.
Therefore, we decided it was time to get our hands on four of the hottest models we’re seeing on your rigs—Contour, GoPro, Replay, and Sony—and compare them. However, don’t look for a winner to be named here. What we quickly discovered is that each has different strengths, so depending on your needs, you’ll be able to ID the right one for you. For example, do you need serious stability? Is image detail really important? Want super simple usage?
Going in, the Two Idiots figured all action cams were created equal—point and shoot. As it turns out, almost all were somewhat point then scratch your head and get frustrated figuring out which buttons did what, how to scroll through menus, how to know whether the battery is charging, sorting out whether the camera is recording and then, finally, shoot.
However, we’re not ones to start with the instruction manual for any product, so the first advice for your new action cam would be, start with the instruction manual. There are neat features you could miss by trying to stick with only on/record/off functionality. For example, all four cameras have high-definition 1080i—the best resolution available—but you’ll want to learn how to change the settings in order to go with that or the lesser-quality 720p (but still very high quality); we recommend that latter for bumpy action and any handheld shooting without a mount (we stuck mainly with 1080 to have the best-quality videos on www.fourwheeler.com). Basically, that will allow for a not-as-shaky-picture, as less resolution is more forgiving in movement. Switching out of high-def also saves space on the memory card. You also want to read up on how to change frame rates if you’re interested in getting the slo-mo effect. And lastly, doing some manual studying is wise, as action cams are bite size, which means the design equates to less usable space for identifier words around buttons, and fewer buttons overall.
The Idiots did a few different types of tests with the cams—we mounted all to various parts of a Jeep—hood, door, fender, and bumper—and went wheeling, rotating their positions and placements along the way to see how light, speed, terrain, angles, and so on affected their performance. (To see video of what the cameras shot, go to www.fourwheeler.com.) Here’s a look at our findings.
Video quality can be like looking through the naked eye under the right conditions
Easy to use
The lens rotates to 0, 90, and -90 degrees
Needs a stabilizer big time
To change settings, you have to be hooked to the computer
This was a really simple camera to use—slide it into the record position and it’s recording. We also really dug the results—usually an extremely clear picture that picked up the greenest green and the bluest blue. This one does not have a digital display like the Sony and GoPro in order to see the status of anything (like, is it recording? How’s the battery life?). The unit itself is waterproof, so we didn’t need a case for it. The Contour was the only one in the bunch in which we could rotate the lens rather than having to remount the camera to compensate for an angle, such as when we attached the mount to the Jeep’s door to get tire action. The camera also picked up sound and voices clearly. We weren’t fans of the design, though; the “bottom” section is somewhat cumbersome. And this is minor, but we liked the lens cap, another unique feature for the Contour. The Roam2 is the low-buck camera in the Contour lineup, so if having the ability to change settings and such via smartphone is desirable, you may want to look at a different Contour.
GoPro Hero3 Black Edition
Still photos are extremely detailed
Can be operated via remote control
GoPro app is awesome
Shaky during bouncy action in high-def
Cover for USB outlet easy to lose
Users complain about battery life; we concur
GoPro is probably the name you’re most familiar with when it comes to action cams, on land or by sea. We understand why it’s popular—the picture quality is extremely clear, clean, and realistic, particularly during slow-speed action (slow rockcrawling or a helmet cam at a flat skate park). Sound is good, but don’t forget that you lose much of that when it’s in its protective waterproof case. We liked the various available mounts—albeit slightly tricky to figure out at first if you’re an Idiot like us, and we did worry it would be a little top-heavy via its built-in mounting hardware. We were somewhat surprised that for an action cam it didn’t have a more stable picture on fireroads (again, we stuck with 1080, which is part of that issue). And another Idiot moment: We definitely struggled with which buttons did what and would quickly forget between shoots, requiring the manual to be at the ready. That’s one reason we highly recommend downloading the GoPro app—you can change camera settings via your iPhone or iPad, as well as turn it on/off, record, check battery life, and use it as essentially a TV to see what exactly you’re recording in real time. The camera acts as a hot spot
Replay XD 1080
Unbelievably stable when mounted
Compact and lightweight
Was that three vibrations or two? Does that mean it’s recording or shutting off?
The cap that covers the controls should work as a lens cap, too
The On button and Record button placement should be swapped
The first note we wrote down about this lipstick cam was, “The vibrating thing is stupid.” Just turn red or green—that’s pretty much a universal language of something is happening or something is not. However, we liked that there wasn’t a digital menu to scroll through—the Replay’s buttons are external, which was refreshing, but the words/letters are so dang small on the cap’s descriptions of things, you need to tote a magnifying glass. Confession: We immediately ended up turning to this camera when we needed to attach one to a dog for an upcoming Four Wheeler story because it was small and very stable without a mount. And when we did use a mount, it was rock solid. The picture and audio were impressive—we even conducted an interview with it. You might need to adjust the color balance in different conditions (a .txt file/SD card combo allows to you change settings, but will you always know in advance?) The next-gen Replay really needs an app in order to switch settings like color balance while on the go; the .txt file/SD card/computer combo isn’t convenient once you’re on location and discover the weather wasn’t what you expected.
Super stable, steady shooter
Durable case to protect it during undercarriage or other brutal filming
PlayMemories mobile app is a must-have
On a sunny day, you might run into issues of purplish lens flare, and it records it
On a sunny day, video shot through the protective case can sometimes look like it was shot through petroleum jelly, although still photos are good
On a sunny day, rainy day, or any day, the instruction manual is maddening
Not only did we mount this camera in various spots on the Jeep, but we ran on a trail with it in hand. In both cases, we were floored by the results: wow, that is one stable camera. Did we mention we ran, on foot, on a rutted trail and on hills, with it in our bare hands? Thank the built-in SteadyShot, which was truly impressive, and the picture and sound (the camera was outside the enclosure) were quite good. One oddball thing: During our desert testing, the enclosure fogged up a bit, which was befuddling—you know, because the desert is dry. This is another camera with an affiliated app that we insist you download because it’s extremely useful and makes changing settings so much easier than using the actual camera to do that. And while it doesn’t offer as much control over settings as the GoPro app does, you still can’t beat viewing what you’re filming live (albeit a bit on time delay like through the GoPro app).