- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 13 December 2012
Sony releasing a sports action camera? That really caught my attention when I read it on the BNA Forums. A lot of relatively unknown companies have tried to get into the not-so-niche-anymore sports action and extreme camera sector, but they usually just follow, or fall in the wake of, the market leader GoPro. Sony are not just any brand, they are veterans and pioneers in the digital world; I got my first Sony digital camera in the late 90’s and not long after a Sony DV camcorder, both of which were reliable products at a fair price. If Sony were getting into this new market, things were about to change.
In releasing their first action cam, Sony build on their strong background and their ability to innovate. Shortly after their new Action Cam was launched in Australia, I was able to secure a unit for reviewing on Bicycles Network Australia. As you read this review, you shouldn’t be surprised that GoPro are referred to frequently. They essentially created the market of relatively affordable cameras that are compact, simple to use and extremely durable – they’re the benchmark. With that in mind, let’s have a good look at this new contender.
The Sony Action Cam as a Bike Camera
BNA is a bike site, so we are looking at this camera specifically for cycling. To me, cycling means both on road and off-road, vibrations and bumps, camera mounted on the head, the forks, the stem and the handlebars – everywhere you are most likely to use and mount the camera. It comes with a durable waterproof case, so I was encouraged to get it wet as well. Slow moving footage and fluid video? No way! – fast moving footage with bumps and shakes; I wanted to put the camera to the test.
The Action Cam Close Up
The Sony Action Cam, without the case, is light and compact. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t stand up on its base; when it’s on your desk, it lies on its side. Since the lens can’t be rotated like a Contour camera, it means that the Sony camera is really only practical for filming while mounted or in the waterproof case.
Lying on its side, the base of the camera is accessible and has a door which conceals a USB port, microphone port, HDMI jack, an ‘expansion connector’ and a light to show charging. I only used the USB port which let me charge the camera and mount the camera onto my computer to transfer files, though there was no simultaneous charging and mounting.
The battery and memory card are accessed from the rear of the unit and are quite straight forward. Out of the box, the camera comes with two batteries, a 4GB SD Memory card, desktop charger and universal mount adapter. The camera I reviewed (the HDR-AS15K) had an microSD 8GB memory card which extended my recording time, at the highest resolution, from 30 minutes to just over 60 minutes.
Camera Navigation and Control
The Action Cam presents the budding film maker with three buttons: next and prev are on the side, situated close to an LED screen; and the record button is on the rear. The tactile feedback of the buttons and knowing that a button has been pressed is reassuring. The three buttons offer a slight edge in navigation over two button cameras, but still require a bit of learning to navigate into menus, change settings and navigate back. The LED on screen info was quite intuitive for the main settings and functions.
The manual for the camera comes as a large sheet of paper with a schematic diagram of the menu and function structure. Truth be told, it’s pretty scary. While you can still try to learn intuitively, to get the most out of the camera and all of its settings, it is worth reviewing.
Waterproof Case and Mounting
Sports action cameras owe a lot of their appeal to their durable waterproof cases. On a bike you can’t always guarantee dry weather, so waterproofing makes sense and further, it protects the camera from dust and knocks. The Sony waterproof case feels tough and durable. It has a rather clever latch for the front door (and lens cover) that opens and closes easily and provides a good seal. The front cover isn’t hinged, rather it’s connected to the main housing with a thin plastic strip which I found detached itself at times. It was a shock the first time it happened as I am particularly careful in protecting the lenses from scratches and dust. When the camera is inside the waterproof case, you are limited to only the record button to control the camera, so you have to remove it if you want to change settings ,or use a smart phone to connect wirelessly.
The waterproof case accommodates a screw in clip that can be clipped onto adhesive mounts. For biking, I completely avoid this type of mount and relied instead on the Sony handlebar mount which can be purchased separately. This mount comes with different sized rubber inserts to accommodate different handlebar diameters and screws tightly with an allen key. The camera can then be attached and screwed on with the integrated ‘screw wheel’ which is reliable and tight.
Once in place, the Sony handlebar mount can be tilted or, by loosening the screw wheel, the camera can be reversed and easily tightened by hand. The handlebar mount has the camera on top of the handlebars, which this is fine for commuting or road cycling, but on the mountain bike I like to keep the top of the handlebars free of any electronic equipment that can be damaged if I take a tumble. As such I mounted the handlebar mount (and therefore the camera) up-side-down, though the allen key screw is tougher to reach from underneath between the gear and brake cables. If there is a tumble, however, the camera is better protected, plus it’s ‘out of the way’ for normal riding.
It is worth noting that the Bike handlebar mount works exceptionally well, it is sturdy and doesn’t seem to suffer from flex and vibration that other brand mounts tend to exhibit. It would be possible to use this as a generic mount for any camera’s that have camera screw on the base, though worth testing to ensure it fastens securely.
An alternative mount is the head mount accessory which is purchased separately. For this mount the waterproof case is not used, which makes it a conveniently light camera, lighter than many other action cameras. It doesn’t, however, work with a normal bike helmet, so on the bike the head mount is only practical with a full face helmet or a skater type helmet.
Because the waterproof camera case accepts a camera screw for mounting, it opens up creative possibilities for DIY mounts and 3rd party mounts to get different angles. That said, the camera prefers to film upright as the lens can’t be rotated, although most video editing software can rotate the footage to compensate. While the shape of Sony Action Cam means that it mounts well with the handlebar and head mount, it isn’t well suited to a chest mount.
Connecting wirelessly to a camera via a smart phone is a must these days, and the Sony Action Cam can be used with Sony’s PlayMemories app, which is available for iPhone, iPad and Android. The setup, however, is difficult and after following the instructions that were provided to my by Sony, I headed online and with the help of Google found instructions that guided me through the Wifi setup.
The app is wonderful when it works. I set it up on my iPhone and after pairing my phone and the camera, and connecting to the wireless network of the Sony camera, I could see live video from the viewfinder. The interface allows you to switch between video and photo mode and record directly. Setting the shot via the smart phone is incredibly handy as is the ability to start and stop recording.
From within the app the field of vision can be changed between 120° and 170°, the resolution/frame rate changed, and steady shot video stabilisation toggled on or off. Because the smart phone interface is so much bigger it would be a real advantage to able to adjust all of the camera settings from the app. In using the app, however, I had frequent problems; often the camera wouldn’t appear or would drop out so I couldn’t connect. Even with my phone next to the camera there were frequent connection stability problems to the point of having a serious lag when pressing record; at times the camera never got the message.
When I asked Sony about this they informed me that the PlayMemories App has been updated and this has been resolved. By this time, however, I no longer had the camera to be able to test and confirm.
Sound, Camera and Action
Many of the camera tests comparing the Sony Action Cam with other brands, such as the GoPro Hero and Contour, compare stationary or slow, hand held footage. Cycling is tougher on the cameras; not only is there faster movement, there are also bumps and vibration that make it challenging for any camera to record clean footage. For testing, I was joined by John Hawkins to mountain bike on sandy and rocky Sydney trails. We choose a bright sunny day to test the Sony. Filming at 1920×1080 resolution, the quality of the footage was influenced by the amount of sudden movements, speed and detail of the surroundings. The higher the speed, the more bumps and movement, and the more detailed the surroundings, the less detailed the footage was. All action cameras in this market segment have the same limitations.
Watch the Sony Action Cam Cross Country MTB video in full resolution
The Sony Action Cam, with Sony’s “Steady Shot” technology, has noticeably improved stability, creating a much smoother video. In comparing this directly with the GoPro Hero2, the Sony footage also showed more detail. While both cameras operated well with sun and shadow contrasts, the Sony footage was noticeably paler in colour than the Hero2.
In the moving footage, the Sony was more detailed and had a higher contrast, while the freeze framed footage was softer and more attractive on the GoPro. The Sony didn’t deal with direct sunlight as well as the GoPro, being more susceptible to lens flare and less accurate light balance.
Watch the Sony Action Cam and GoPro Hero2 comparison in full resolution
The ability to change the field of vision to from 120° to 170° is nice and when mounted on the handlebars, I preferred the wider angle. The Sony footage has less fish eye lens distortion compared with the GoPro Hero2 (though the Hero3 probably reduces this).
During filming, the GoPro Hero2 camera heated up and the inside of the casing started to fog relatively quickly while the Sony resisted this, even though the Action Cam recorded for longer during our testing. The GoPro importer suggest that their recently released GoPro Hero3 (Silver) would provide a better comparison, however they were not available for testing.
The Sony was a little “louder” during our filming; though it fits snugly in the waterproof case, it seems seems to have some room to play, so some padding inside the case would probably eliminate movement and noise.
The handlebar mount from Sony was the best branded handlebar mount I have tested. It was constructed to be solid and stable and reduces micro-vibration that could cause rolling shutter. The chest mounted position for action cams is quite popular as it eliminates the vibration of the bike and movement of the head to provide relatively consistent footage. The shape of the Sony, however, rules out this option, but the camera screw mount makes it more easily adaptable.
Recording Modes and Runtime
Filming at the highest resolution (HQ 1920×1080 at 30fps) gave about 65 minutes recording time which filled the 8GB SD card and also coincided with the battery run time. For 1280×720 at 30fps (STD, standard resolution), I got 140 minutes recording time (6.8 GB) before the battery was empty. The Super Slow (SSLOW) mode records at 1280×720 with 120fps and recorded for about 43 minutes, which gives a playback time at 30fps of about 170 minutes of slow motion footage (albeit with no audio in slow recording modes).
The SLOW mode records at 1280×720 (60fps) and the VGA mode an old fashioned 640×480. This will obviously deliver a much longer runtime (pending battery charge) however, if recording time was an issue, it would be easier to use a second battery and a larger memory card. The battery recharges in about four hours.
It’s a Wrap
Practice makes perfect and it’s a matter of taking the time and testing to see which recording modes and settings work best for your purposes. As its first Action Cam, Sony has done its homework and holds its ground. You will be able to generate quality footage and, while the Sony is not miles ahead of the competition, it doesn’t lag behind.
The general operation of the Sony is good and, if the WiFi issues are resolved as reported in the latest PhotoMemories App update, it then really comes down to personal preference in choosing a sports action camera for biking. With the inbuilt WiFi, the Sony Action Cam beats the GoPro Hero2 on hands down price; the Hero2 requires the additional WifiBack pack (~ $99). On price and specifications the Sony Action Cam competes with the GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition.
The Sony Action Cam is available in most electronics stores and retails for $369. Make sure you’re getting the HDR-AS15K version with WiFi, as there is also a version without WiFi (HDR-AS10) and version without the accessories (HDR-AS15). The Sony camera is being promoted with the Weekend Lives On (WLO) campaign which is a community website where you can upload your awesome footage and photos.
More details and specs for the Sony Action Cam.