Sony Action Cam review

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The sports video camera market has becoming increasingly competitive in recent years with market leader GoPro now facing challenges from the Shimano Sports Camera and Garmin Virb among others. In this review CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef considers another would-be challenger: the Sony HDR-AS100V (also known as the Sony Action Cam).

First impressions

If you consider the Sony Action Cam in the context of cameras like GoPro’s Hero range, or the Shimano Sports Camera, the Sony Action Cam’s long and narrow form factor seems a little strange. But when you consider that Sony is coming to the Action Cam having designed more traditional camcorders in the past, the size and shape makes sense.

The unit itself weighs 90g (with battery and SD card installed) and has an IPX4 rating making it “splashproof”. Placing the unit inside the supplied case makes the Action Cam waterproof up to 3m underwater, while increasing the unit’s weight to 147g. The unit feels compact and sturdy; doubly so when housed inside the waterproof case.

The unit has a small screen on the right-hand side which shows which mode the device is currently in. ‘Prev’ and ‘Next’ buttons near the screen allow you to cycle through the options and the red record button on the back doubles as an ‘Enter’ button when navigating those options.

 
 

The battery and a micro SD card can be installed via an access panel on the back of the camera. Flaps on the underside of the camera give access to a range of ports (see Connectivity below).

Technical and recording specs

The Sony Action Cam has seven main video recording options and in each the video is stored in .mp4 format:

  • PS: 1920×1080 resolution at 60 frames per second
  • HQ: 1920×1080 at 30fps
  • STD: 1280×720 at 30fps
  • SSLOW: 1280×720 at 120fps (playback at 30fps)
  • HS120: 1280×720 at 120fps (playback at 120fps)
  • HS240: 800×480 at 240fps (playback at 240fps)
  • VGA: 640×480 at 30fps

You can also capture footage in XAVC S mode which, according to Sony, is “suitable for professional movie shooting”. Footage captured in this way has a resolution of 1920×1080 and a frame rate of either 24, 30 or 60fps.

Turning on the impressive SteadyShot feature considerably reduces camera shake while recording and sets the field of view to a wide 120 degrees. When SteadyShot is turned off, the camera has a field of view of an even wider 170 degrees. A comparison between the two can be seen in the short video below:

There’s a scene mode which allows you to select an image quality suitable for underwater shooting (using either the waterproof case or an optional dive case).

The Sony Action Cam also takes photos, but there aren’t any size options to choose from — images are simply recorded at 13 Megapixel resolution (4896×2752). There are, however, options for interval shooting. You can set the Action Cam to take a photo every one, two, five, 10, 30 or 60 seconds, perfect for creating your own time-lapse film.

Mounting

The HDR-AS100VR kit that we were sent to review included the Action Cam itself, a Live-View Remote (more on that in a moment), the waterproof case and a handful of adhesive mounts. We were also sent a handlebar mount and a roll bar mount (both sold separately), which gave us further options when using the camera.

Whichever mount you decide to use, you first need to place the Action Cam inside the waterproof case or attach the included tripod mount to the bottom of the unit itself. You can then connect your mount of choice to the unit.

In the case of the adhesive mounts (for attaching the camera to your helmet, say) you first need to attach another mount to the tripod mount, which then clicks into the adhesive mount.

Connectivity

In addition to a standard micro USB port (for charging and transferring files off the camera) the Sony Action Cam has a HDMI Out port, for viewing videos on another device, a 3.5mm stereo microphone jack, and an “Expansion Connector” for connecting accessories such as a flip-screen for converting the Action Cam into a more standard camcorder.

The Action Cam also features GPS connectivity which allows you to capture location information and movement speed while recording movies. This data (in the form of .thm files) can then be imported to the free, downloadable PlayMemories Home software to edit and create movies with a map and data overlay.

The editing software feels like a slimmed down version of Garmin Virb Edit (or should that be Virb feels like a scaled-up version of PlayMemories Home?), despite being wrapped in a much bigger photo and video management program.

Here’s a short video from a recent CyclingTips #FridaySickie ride, overlaid with the corresponding GPS data:

Wi-Fi is also included, allowing you to connect the Action Cam to your smartphone and control the camera using the free PlayMemories Mobile app (iOS and Android). The app can be used to show a live view of whatever the camera is seeing (with minimal lag, thankfully), copy photos and videos from the camera to your smartphone, and change a few settings. (It’s also possible to connect the camera to compatible smartphones using Near Field Communication (NFC). Check this list to see if your phone is NFC-compatible.)

Wi-Fi can also be used to connect the Sony Action Cam to the Live-View Remote, a wristwatch-like device that comes with the HDR-AS100VR Live-View Remote Kit. Where a smartphone allows you to connect to and use Live-View for one Action Cam, the Live-View Remote allows you to connect up to five Action Cams.

We only had the one unit to test, but according to Sony, the Live-View Remote allows you to “monitor each cam at a glance, check shooting mode and cam status, start and stop all cams at once, and even change basic setup with one command.”

 
 

To be honest, I didn’t really use the Live-View Remote that much and I couldn’t see myself using it regularly. It might be useful in the case of a multi-camera setup, but for most people the smartphone app is more than enough to check the framing of your shot or monitor a camera that isn’t within arm’s reach.

Recording video

When you’re in video mode (the ‘Prev’ and ‘Next’ buttons on the side of the unit switch between video, photo, settings and other modes) you simply press the red ‘Rec’ button on the back of the unit to start capturing video. Press the button again to stop recording.

The record button itself requires quite a firm press to work (particularly when housed inside the waterproof case), which I assume is to stop you from accidentally starting or stopping a recording. But with a hold switch that can be engaged to disable any button presses, perhaps this hard-press feature is a little unnecessary? I found it to be more of a hindrance than a help.

IMG_0665

Throughout the testing period I used a combination of the handlebar mount and hand-held shooting (as you can see in the video below). The handlebar mount worked fine to attach the camera above or below the bars but hand-holding the device, while providing the opportunity for many different angles, was a little awkward.

The shape and length of the unit make it difficult to find a comfortable hand position. The closest I came was holding it with two fingers below the lens on the front and my thumb at the back on the record button.

Here’s a video I shot entirely using the Sony Action Cam on a recent trip to Japan. Be sure to watch it in HD if you can.

To my eye, the quality of the video is just fine for the sort of application most cyclists will use the camera for, and certainly stands up when pitted against GoPro, Shimano and Garmin’s comparable offerings.

One thing I noticed about the footage created by the Sony Action Cam is a slightly unnatural looking compression at the edge of the frame when panning. My guess is that this is the result of the ultrawide lens combined with the SteadyShot function — an artefact of the camera’s attempts to smooth out the scene when panning. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means and it doesn’t take long until you’re used to it.

The audio quality is about what you would expect from a device like this. Road noise is a bit of a problem when mounted to the bars (or elsewhere on the bike):

And, as you’d expect, the sound is slightly muffled when the unit is housed inside the waterproof case:

Thankfully there’s a 3.5mm stereo input jack which you can use if you want to plug in a better microphone to record higher-quality audio.

Taking photos

Like comparable devices, the Sony Action Cam also comes with the ability to take photos, although this is obviously not its primary function. I didn’t find myself using the Action Cam to take photos while riding, instead opting for my iPhone 5.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with the 13.5 Megapixel photos taken by the Sony Action Cam and the wide-angle lens gives a different perspective than a camera with a standard lens.

DSC00092

Battery life

Sony claims more than two hours of battery life when recording video on the HQ setting (1080p at 30fps) with Wi-Fi turned off. My tests confirmed this, with two hours and seven minutes of recording at room temperature before the camera shut itself off.

This is almost identical to the battery life of the Shimano Sports Camera, about 40 minutes more than is claimed by GoPro for the company’s new Hero 4 Black Edition, and about 20 minutes less than the Garmin Virb.

Price and availability

The Sony Action Cam is the premium model in Sony’s sports camera line and it is available for purchase directly through the Sony website. The HDR-AS100VR package, which, in addition to the camera itself, contains the Live-View Remote, the waterproof case and a couple of mounts, sells for AUD$499.

Other models in the Action Cam line include the Action Cam Mini for $479 and two older models: the HDR-AS20 for $279 and the HDR-AS30V, the latter of which comes with an LCD Screen Mount, for $379.

By way of comparison, the Garmin Virb Elite package is about $480, the regular Virb is $340, and the Shimano Sports Camera is roughly $320. GoPro’s Hero 4 Silver and Black Editions retail for $509 and $639 respectively with cheaper Hero 3 and entry-level Hero options also available.

 
 

Final thoughts and summary

In a market that’s becoming increasingly crowded, the Sony Action Cam does what it claims it will do, and does so effectively. It shoots good quality video and images and has enough options to allow you to customise its use to your own liking. The SteadyShot image stabilisation is probably the most impressive I’ve seen in a camera of this kind. The question I have though, is whether the Sony Action Cam does enough to make it stand out from its competitors.

For $500 you do get the Live-View Remote as well but, realistically, if I had the option of buying the camera sans remote for a lower price, I probably would. Some people will find it useful, but if you’re just shooting basic on-the-bike clips, then it’s probably not required. If you are after a simple option that shoots good quality 1080p footage at 30fps, then there’s a lot to like about the basic GoPro Hero. It does lack many of the features that the Sony Action Cam has — GPS tracking, filming at >30fps (up to 240fps for the Sony Action Cam), and more — but it’s also a third of the price.

But as with any purchase like this, it all comes down to how much you’re willing to spend and what you need it for. If you’ve got $500 to spend and you feel like you’ll use the Live-View Remote and GPS data overlays, then the Sony Action Cam is more than worth a look.

What do each of the ratings criteria mean? And how did we arrive at the final score? Find out here.

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