We all know the new mantra is “If it isn’t on Facebook or Instagram, it didn’t happen”. So today more then ever, having a camera with you to capture all that awesomeness is more important than ever. So we take one of the newer entries into the ActionCam market, the Garmin VirbXE, for a spin, plus give you some tips on what to consider when buying your next camera.
We couldn’t possibly start a review of an ‘ActionCam’ without first addressing the elephant in the room – GoPro. In a world where major brands tend to dominate the technology landscape, it’s difficult to believe GoPro ever made it to the top of the heap, beating various technological behemoths like Apple, Canon and Sony in a category it now not only dominates, but basically single handedly created!
Young people today may even struggle to recall a pre-GoPro world but trust us, it did exist. Somewhere between the early waterproof cameras and now, GoPro entered the fray with a whole new concept, and the ActionCam was born. Which brings us to some of the newer players, and in particular GPS giant Garmin who have entered the fray with the VirbX & VirbXE.
Most people’s first reaction to any new player is ‘But why?’ and we’ll admit, our first reaction was much the same. Surely anyone who’s anyone would just get a GoPro, right? We’ve seen Sony have a crack at this space and make very little ground. Even the original Garmin Virb never quite found its place. Whether or not the new Virb makes a name for itself remains to be seen, but we put it through its paces and here’s what we thought.
First of all, the picture quality is fantastic. Stills and video were both crystal clear, as you would mostly expect in this day and age, and easily compares to the like-for-like GoPro – although obviously the top of the line GoPro Hero4 Black outshoots it in the 4K Ultra HD and high speed video department.
We should admit, we’ve always had a thing for the Lumix FT range for all-condition shooting, so some of our comparisons will be against that, and in that department, we’ll readily admit the Virb walks all over the FT in terms of quality as well as image stabilization which is pretty awesome.
But what really sets the Garmin apart is its GPS and activity data capabilities. If you assume it’s mostly otherwise neck-and-neck with a GoPro in every other department, the data it records is where it comes into its own. Let’s face it, Garmin are most famous as GPS/navigation company, so if you think of this as an awesome GPS unit with an excellent camera in it, rather than yet another action cam but with a GPS unit, you’ll have some idea of what they’re aiming to do here. Want to film that great downhill run on the slopes? Any action cam will do, but the Virb will record all your data along the way, and make it easy for you to display on your final video courtesy of the bundled editing software.
Want to know how fast you’re free-falling on that jump? Ditch the GoPro and take the Virb instead.
Want to know where you were, how fast you were going or any other data while you’re skating, boarding, running, cycling, paddling or doing pretty much anything else? Get the Virb. OK, yes, we know you can record your data on another device, and video on your cam, but having it captured right there on video is pretty cool.
Anyone can show you the pictures, Virb can show you the data. All in one. Now it has to be said, if this isn’t a feature that impresses you all that much, clearly you’re back to eeny meeny miney moe depending on your specific requirements.
Our top tips for choosing an ActionCam
And a few final observations for any of you thinking about taking a camera on your adventures. In a world full of infinite opportunities, this basic checklist might help you narrow down the options and make a decision:
- Do you really need your camera to be able to handle all weather conditions? If you do, this instantly narrows it down to traditional style waterproof cameras (like the Lumix FT5) and action cams like the Virb. Even if you won’t be diving into the ocean or rolling around in the snow, a waterproof camera is also usually shockproof, rain-proof, sweat-proof and although not exactly indestructible, certainly way more durable that a regular camera.
- What level of quality do you really need to shoot? If it’s just for basic personal use, don’t get hung up on, or pay for, things like 4K video when good quality HD will more than do the job. Same with shoot speed which allows you to slow the footage down for super slow-mo later. If this is something you might need then pay for it, otherwise, let it go.
- How much control you want when shooting? Depending on the model, actions cams give you a little control, like the ability to shoot wide or zoom mode, and a few other
adjustments, but they’re not so user friendly in that department so it’s very much set, go, point, shoot and hope for the best. Which is why they’re called ‘Action Cams’, right? But if you’d prefer to be able to change things up on the go, and even zoom in and out while you film, you may find a more regular waterproof camera is for you. You won’t look as cool as all the popular kids with their Action Cams, but you’ll get the shot. (This is one of our favourite things about the FT.)
- Accessories are a big deal and ActionCams are the king of the castle in this department. If you’re likely to need a helmet mount, chest strap, bike mount, steadicam style ‘gimble’ to smooth out your shots on the go, the universal mount that’s standard on ActionCams like the GoPro and Virb is the place to be. The official and aftermarket range of accessories for these cameras is ridiculous. Just be warned, you’ll want to factor all your extra bits and pieces into your budget as many of them don’t come cheap.
- Batteries aren’t sexy, but they are kind of useful, so you’re going to want to consider how long they last, how much extra batteries cost, and how easy they are to change when you’re out in the elements. This is another area where we have a personal preference for the Lumix FT, and while it may come at the expense of picture quality, we’d rather get the shot with a powered up battery, than miss it altogether. And remember, all those extra features like WiFi, GPS etc will drain your battery faster. So don’t buy a camera for those extra features if you end up turning them off anyway to save battery power in real life situations.
- Will you be shooting more stills or video? Most ActionCams definitely skew towards video cameras that shoot stills, whereas waterproof cameras are more like stills cameras that shoot video, and as such usually have more photo options. Again, something to keep in mind. We haven’t managed to get our hands on one yet, but Olympus has now released the TG-4 – the first ever waterproof compact that shoots high quality RAW images. By the time you read this no doubt other companies will breathing down their necks, but for now, it’s another feature to keep in mind.
- Everyone gets all excited about picture quality, but let’s not forget it’s not quite as popular little brother, audio quality, either. If you’re going to be shooting video, you may want to think about what the audio quality is like on your camera of choice. Many a great shot has been ruined, or even rendered effectively useless by audio so noisy and painful, it’s impossible to watch. These days the on board audio of many cameras has gotten a lot better but for a few dollars more you can get an attachment that allows you to attach external microphones to many cameras including the GoPro. just remember you usually have to take your camera out of its waterproof housing to use an external mic! The latest Virb works with wireless external mics only so retains it’s waterproof rating.
- Another feature that gets overlooked quite a bit is being able to see what you’re shooting. Models change from time to time obviously, but right now the GoPro Hero4Silver and Hero+ LCD have screens, but it’s a no go on other GoPro models and the Virb. If you’re primarily going to be using the thing stuck on a helmet, you may think a screen is largely irrelevant as you won’t be looking through it while shooting away, but if you want to check to see if you got the shot, screens can be super handy. Various external screens are available though, and remember playing back will also reduce precious battery life so you might want to keep that to a minimum in any case.
- If you’re already taking your smart phone with you, you may be better off just buying a really good waterproof case like the ones from Lifeproof. The latest Samsung and Apple smart phones shot 4K video and awesome quality pics. So if you need to travel light, this may be an option worth considering. Just keep in mind, in the same way not all Merino clothing is created equally, not all lens qualities are the same either. There’s a very good reason high quality lenses can cost $100s or even $1000s of dollars. The size of the lens and the quality of the glass the light passes through affects the end result. A pin-hole sized camera lens with a micro-sensor simply can’t capture the same quality as a a full size DSLR – although the gap is definitely closing.
- Be realistic about what you’ll be using your camera for. It’s easy to get caught up on sensor size, megapixels and various other things, and in days gone by where the focus was on printing things out, it was super important to know if you could print an A4 or an A3 image etc. These days, it’s more about sharing images digitally, and for most people, megapixels stopped being an issue years ago. Just about any camera will shoot a picture that looks just fine on social media. If you’re planning on doing something semi-pro with your images, that’s a whole different topic for another day. For you, buying a camera to capture your adventures may mean being realistic about where the final pictures end up and not getting sucked into specifications that are meaningless at a practical level. Although it is wrth being clear on whether or not there’s a specific feature you will be needing – like being able to also shoot stills while you’re filming, super slow motion, self timer options etc. If you have a specific requirement, that can sometimes help narrow down your choices also.
- Budget is pretty important as well. How much do you really want to spend? If you’re anything like us, you almost always end up spending a little more than you would have liked to get what you want, but if you decide your ballpark up front, you may be able to rule out a few options.
- Finally, just accept you’ll never find one camera that does absolutely everything you want it to. In a perfect world, perhaps, but not here on Earth. So even when you’re traveling light, you may end up taking more than one piece of camera equipment with you and using different ones for different things. Check out ioCrew member Sputnik’s preferred gear below.
ioCrew member Sputnik has no less than four cameras he travels with at any given time. Here’s what he packs:
- Canon 7D. For shorter adventures where packing light isn’t an issue, I’ll always try and take a DSLR. The 7D isn’t exactly the latest model now but does everything I need it to and the quality is superb.
- Canon G7X. I won’t lie, I’m totally and utterly in love with this camera. Some good manual controls and shoots RAW so I can give my pics a tweak later. I find myself taking this with me more and more instead of my 7D for pure convenience. I’ve already trashed one of them because it’s not so durable and I tend to give my gear a bit of a hiding, but this really is a sensational little camera. (Also worth checking out the newer Sony RX100iv)
- Lumix FT6. I’m on my third one of these cameras, and each model gets better and better in terms of quality. It really is my go-to waterproof camera. I’ve rock climbed, waterfall jumped, snorkeled, mountain biked, trail run… you name it, I’ve done it with this camera from Cambodia to Nepal. I’m sad it’s not quite up to scratch with video quality right now though.
- Garmin Virb XE. I’ll admit, having shot on regular cameras for so many years now, I’m struggling to adjust to the ActionCam category in general. But the Virb has found a place in my kit and although it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, it’s definitely come in handy.
Test videos shot on the Garmin Virb XE edited on the supplied software with the recorded data displayed on screen. (There are numerous data display options available.)