Words/Video/Photos by Johan Hjord
The action has really been heating up in the wearable POV video camera market. Once the exclusive domain of GoPro, the last couple of years have seen additional competitors enter the ring which has led to new capabilities and lower prices – in other words a classic case of success breeding success.
Sony is of course a powerhouse in professional media production, and it provides an impressive lineup of pro and semi-pro grade camcorders that often feature among the best in class. We were therefore quite excited to see Sony enter the POV market, and eager to lay our hands on the new Action Cam (HDR-AS15 and HDR-AS10).
Out of the box, the Sony appears well put together, with quality material and workmanship throughout. It ships with few mount options included in the basic case (notably absent is a tilting helmet mount), but those you get work well and feel very solid. The waterproof case is very similar to a GoPro case in terms of the plastic used, and although the door requires significantly less force than that of the GoPro to close, we experienced no leakage throughout our time with the camera.
A couple of features stand out on the Action Cam: SteadyShot, hi-FPS super slo-mo recording modes, and built-in WiFi (on HDR-AS15 only – HDR-AS10 is the same camera without WiFi). SteadyShot is Sony’s long-standing take on image stabilization; in the Action Cam, it is the electronic version that is used (which basically means that the camera records from a cropped area of the main sensor, and uses electronic algorithms to compensate for camera movement/shake by moving the cropped area around as the camera moves). Although typically less effective than the optical version (which uses motors to move certain optical elements in a lens to compensate for undesired camera movement/shake), it is also takes up far less space, which is of course crucial in a wearable POV camera. We were keen to see how it would stand up to being bounced down a rough mountain bike trail, as you'll see in the videos, below.
Another new and exciting feature is the arrival of 120 FPS (frames per second) recording at 1280x720 resolution (“standard” HD as opposed to “full” HD at 1920x1080). This translates to super-smooth 4x slomo when played back at 30 FPS – which in turn translates to you being able to share every single little detail of your latest exploits with the world. This does NOT translate to a license for you to make all your web-edits in super slomo from this point on.
Built-in WiFi is a very nice addition, especially at this price point. It allows you to connect a smart phone (via apps that are available both for iPhone and Android platforms today), both for controlling the camera’s settings as well as previewing what the camera is actually looking at on the smart phone’s screen. You can also start and stop recording from the app.
The Sony can take a couple of different types of standard Sony rechargeable batteries (it ships with the highest capacity one), which is great – easy to bring a spare for long days of shooting, and if you already own Sony cameras, you may already have a battery that will work for the Action Cam as well.
There are other recording modes (full-HD 1080 at 30 FPS for example) as well as the ability to take stills or time-lapses (basically a sequence of stills, shot at configurable interval). This latter feature is more of a nice-to-have as opposed to a stand-out feature however, as the implementation here is not particularly impressive (only 2MP resolution used for the stills, and some white balance issues with the time-lapse sequences make them more gimmicks than serious pro tools).
Check out this edit for a look at the video produced by the HDR-AS15 during our tests:
Video shot entirely on the HDR-AS15
The Action Cam is operated via 3 buttons, a main on/off button that also acts as the “Enter” button while navigating through the in-camera menu settings, and 2 navigational buttons (“Prev” and “Next”). The menu system is well-thought out and easy to navigate through, with no real hidden options or hard-to-get-to tweaks. The built-in LCD is small but informative (it is only used for displaying settings and navigating through menus, it does not display what the camera sees or play back recorded footage), and it is always easy to tell what recording mode you are in, and indeed whether you are recording or not.
If you turn the camera on via the main Start/Stop switch, it starts up and immediately begins recording. This is good if that is what you wanted to do, however if you just wanted to turn the camera on, then you’ll have to stop recording immediately (you’ll have a bunch of little 1 second clips at the end of the day). If you use either of the other 2 buttons to turn the camera on, it powers up without starting to record. When the camera is in the case, the main Start/Stop button is the ONLY one available, so you’ll need to remember to stop the recording if you just wanted to have the camera on standby.
It is simple to choose a recording mode, although note that not all combinations of modes are possible. Because the SteadyShot is electronic, it cannot function when using the wide angle (170 degree) field of view (because the whole sensor is used for the image capture in this case), nor is it available in 120FPS super slomo (presumably because of the available computing power being monopolized to record at that frame rate). The field of view restriction is less of an issue in reality, because the wide angle of view is inherently less sensitive to camera shake, but it is one to keep in mind when choosing to record in super slomo mode – best used for trail side shots with steady hands or a tripod.
Because only one of the 3 buttons are available when the camera is used inside its case, you have to open it up every time you need to change settings. This is where the “PlayMemories” app comes in handy. Power up the camera, start the app on the smartphone, and now you can view and change your recording settings via the phone. Previewing your shot is also very useful, especially if you are setting up the camera on your helmet for the first time for example, or when framing a trail side shot.
The app works well enough, although the WiFi connection tends to drop off every now and then (in which case the easiest fix is to turn WiFi off and then on again on the phone). The image in the app looks good when the camera is in standby mode, but becomes choppy when viewed through the app while recording, presumably because the camera only sends a few frames to the phone while actually recording, but it remains useful for checking framing during a shot if need be. The result (the clip actually recorded by the camera) is not affected by running the app.
The most important aspect of any video recorder is the result – your clips and edits. The Sony delivers in some areas, whilst it let us down in others:
-SteadyShot is very very good. It is by far the most effective way of stabilizing POV video we have ever seen, superior to wide angles and similar tricks. When mounted on a helmet, it produces very smooth results – so smooth that it is almost unnerving, especially if you are used to the shaky images produced by other cameras.
-Super slomo is excellent. The video produced is very smooth when played back at normal speed, and the camera seems to benefit from the high bitrate used here to produce video of acceptable quality. Note that you lose audio both at 60 and 120 FPS, which is a bit annoying but probably not a deal-breaker (let’s face it, slomo may look cool, but it doesn’t sound very exciting).
-The PlayMemories app and built-in WiFi support (on HDR-AS15 only) work well enough and are useful both for setting up shots and reviewing your footage before leaving a location (the operation to get files off the Action Cam and onto the smartphone for viewing is a bit cumbersome and illogical, but it does function well enough once you figure it out).
-Audio is well controlled, and sounds a bit less “boxy” than we have become accustomed to on other POV cameras. With the waterproof door, sounds is muffled of course, but still audible.
-The Action Cam uses far too much compression on the video files it produces. It’s OK in direct sunlight, but once you are in the forest or the weather turns overcast, there are a lot of visible compression artifacts in the result. The colors are also not particularly vivid, and the white balance is definitely a bit too cold for our liking – but these 2 latter issue can be easily addressed in post-production. The compression issue however, cannot. This really is a major let-down, especially given that Sony have used a sensor that has both the resolution and the low-light abilities to deliver really crisp video, as well as Carl Zeiss optics which are usually of high quality. We are hoping a firmware update might address this (by increasing the bitrate of the video files), but at the time of writing, it is what it is. Compared to a GoPro, it appears the bitrate is at least 25% lower on the Sony, and that loss is quite visible in the result.
-Less control over image settings – the Action Cam does not allow the user to play with aspects like White Balance, and its capabilities as a stills/timelapse camera are severely restricted compared to a GoPro HD Hero 3.
Minor Things That Could Be Improved
-The strap that holds the door of the waterproof case (it is not hinged like on the GoPro for example) tends to come loose quite easily, which means you end up dropping the door quite a lot if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. The part of the door that covers the lens seems very scratch-resistant, but this may still be an issue over time.
-We’d like to see more accessories out of the box – notably the fact that you have to buy a tilting adaptor for your helmet mount separately is a little bit on the cheap side. The Sony is still attractively priced compared to its direct competition (GoPro HD Hero 3 Black and to some extent the Contour +2, although the latter is lacking the 120FPS mode at 720 resolution), but a tilting helmet mount is really a must. You can also buy replacement doors for the case separately – a flat lens for better shots under water (this is a must if you plan to shoot underwater, the domed port door that ships with the case produces out of focus video when used underwater), as well as a door with a small opening for the microphones to enable better audio while still protecting the camera.
-Not enough mounting options at this point. It’s early in the game for Sony, so it would be unfair to expect it to have the same variety of mounts available as the GoPro for example, but nevertheless, Sony needs to step up its game in the mounts arena if it wants to seriously compete. Notably the legendary chesty mount… (note that the Action Cam mounts on a standard tripod interface, so any third party mount with a standard tripod screw will work great).
Update: after some more time in use, the tilting handlebar mount developed play in the head. We replaced it thinking we had a lemon, but the same problem occurred again with the replacement unit. This particular accessory looks like it has been badly designed. We recommend buying a third-party handlebar mount if you need one.
-The small red LED that indicates that you are recording is all but useless in daylight. You do have the built-in LCD screen to fall back on to check if you are indeed recording, but still, this could have been done better. Also, the audible “beep” and “bee-bee-beep” to indicate starting and stopping recording are not very loud (although a full face helmet will amplify them nicely). We predict many “is it on?” moments…
What's The Bottom Line?
Sony did well for their first foray into the wearable POV camera market. They have delivered some very attractive features at a good price point, in an easy-to-use and robust package. However, the image quality produced by the Action Cam lets it down – it seems strange to us to apply such heavy image compression to a raw image which presumably has all the prerequisites for being excellent (optics, sensor, etc). Unless there is a firmware update to address this issue, 3 stars is all we can reasonably muster at this point – but the potential is there for a far better score.
The GoPro HD Hero 3 looks to have an edge right now in terms of image quality, but the pricetag for getting the same features as the Sony is significantly steeper (the HD3 Black retails for $399, while the Sony ships for $269 – add the cost of a couple of accessories for the Sony and you’re still only at about $300).
For more details, visit sony.com
Additional Media Samples
Variety of clips shot on the HDR-AS15