Sony boldly entered into the sports action camera market in 2012, taking on the market leader Go Pro and making some headway in a very competitive market. A year has now passed and Sony have released a new camera which BNA got a chance to compare against GoPro as well as against their original camera. We really wanted to see whether the “action” in the Action Cam includes cycling.
Before you go on with this review, it is worth reading the review of the original Sony Action Cam since we are cutting straight to the chase with the new camera and concentrating on the new features and the differences between old and new. This also means focusing on features that are more likely to be used by bike riders; options such as single image capture, image bursts or even the underwater video mode won’t addressed.
The orginal Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15 above and new HDR-AS30V below
Aside from some different graphics and labels, the new HDR-AS30V looks and feels the same as its predecessor the HDR-AS15. The camera design and weight are identical, though the battery is no longer inserted using a removable ‘holder’, instead it pops straight in and is easily removed. The micro SD card slot and other cable ports, which are accessible at the bottom of the camera, are the same.
The new camera (left) has a nicer battery compartment
The orginal Sony Action Cam (top) requires the battery to be placed in a ‘holder’.
One of the most notable additions of this new camera is an increase from 30 frames per second (fps) to 60 fps for capturing 1080p Full-HD (1920×1080). There is now also GPS functionality to receive and record your location while travelling. Additionally, Sony incorporate a more advanced (and simpler to use) technology to connect with smart devices. Trialing both the original and the new Sony Action Cameras side-by-side revealed features and improvements that really stood out:
Connecting with WiFi and NFC Pairing
WiFi is a must on a modern sports camera, but it also tends to be a pain, or so I thought. In my experience a lot of patience and trial and error is required to successfully ‘pair’ a smart phone (or tablet) with an action cam, the original Sony Action Cam was no different. For the new Sony I downloaded and opened the Sony “Play Memories” app on my iPhone4 (iOS version / Android version). On the camera I turned on the WiFi setting and then on the phone I selected the camera wireless network, gave it the password and bingo… I was in. It immediately showed a live stream video… wow.
I was impressed by this and if you have a smart phone the NFC (Near Field Communication) capability connecting is even easier. For compatible smart devices (which excludes all Apple iPhones) Sony promote the super easy ‘tap and use’ functionality “This feature allows you to pair your camera with your NFC-equipped phone via WiFi with ‘One Touch’, enabling you to use your smartphone as a remote control and viewfinder quickly and easily.” Apparently it’s the only action camera with this capability. The apps controls are straight forward; the modes can be changed along with basic settings such as video resolution, steady shot, and angle (120 or 170 degrees). While recording there is a live video stream and a facility to swap files with a USB connected device via the smart phone.
This is a feature I neglected with the first Sony Action Cam as I couldn’t do a direct comparison, but this time around I was able to line up the old and new camera with identical settings, one with SteadyShot on while the other had SteadyShot off. SteadyShot takes out or smooths the small bumps while recording, and the footage becomes more fluid. The improvement is first apparent in the direct comparison. The catch is a marginal drop in the level of detail in the video, so budding filmmakers should test both options first – I personally preferred recording with the SteadyShot on as the footage was nicer to watch.
For capturing great footage, the ‘camera mount’ is a crucial part of the equation so I left the plastic Sony camera mount (an accessory for bikes) in the box and went straight for an aluminium K-Edge mount instead. The K-Edge mounts are now available with a ‘camera screw thread’ (1/4-20 UNC threads) option which Sony incorporates instead of the GoPro style mount.
The single most significant improvement for daily use is the waterproof case: – It is smaller and more compact – The door no longer fell off accidentally as the hinge has been improved (i.e fixed). – All of the buttons could be accessed without opening the case. The waterproof case is simply awesome because it has solved all of the problems I faced with Sony’s original waterproof case, but it retained the excellent ‘yellow latch’ mechanism for securely closing and easily opening.
That said, fogging was an issue and both the original and new cameras started showing signs of condensation build-up inside the lens, which of course ruins the video. Neither an air dryer (to dry up condensation) nor anti-fog spray were able to improve this, so Sony provided anti-fog inserts which immediately solved this problem. These inserts are simply a must. Of course this camera can be also mounted on a hard-shell helmet with the head mount accessory, although I find mounting on the bike using the solid waterproof mount infinitely more practical.
Bits and pieces
Remember the days of home video and handheld camcorders? Sony have resurrected the good old times and offer an accessory for the action camera which turns it into a camcorder. While this wasn’t very practical for my purposes, this accessory has an LCD screen and may appeal to sports action film makers for capturing handheld video.
The camera comes with the waterproof case and the camcorder case with LCD as an accessory
One issue with the Sony is knowing which way to insert the micro SD card; it isn’t as obvious as it should be. On one occasion, although the card was correctly inserted, the camera wouldn’t recognise the card which left me swapping cards and wondering what was going on. I asked Sony about this and discovered that my particular card, the SanDisk Ultra Micro SD card was known to have compatibility issues. During the review, I usually recorded at 1980 x 1080 resolution (1080p Full HD) with 30 fps and got an average battery life of about 110 minutes. Recording at lower settings such as 720p significantly increased the recording time. As expected, with GPS and WiFi on, the battery life is reduced. In comparison, the GoPro Hero 3 Black with identical settings has a battery life of 90 minutes.
New and Improved?
I recorded and reviewed over 100 GB of footage directly comparing the old and new camera and admit that I originally found the footage from the older camera more attractive. But that bothered me because newer is meant to be better. The older camera simply has much more colour saturation, however reviewing the full-screen footage side by side showed that the new camera has more realistic colour handling. On the original Sony Action Cam, the skies were bluer than blue skies and the vegetation greener than green vegetation. This made the realistic colours of the new Sony appear dull in contrast.
A subtle improvement of the new camera is better image quality, though this was very hard to detect. By comparing synchronised fast moving full screen footage from both cameras, the video from the original Sony with a 12 Mega Pixel sensor appeared to have a little more fragmentation. The new camera has a 16 Mega Pixel sensor which would explain this difference. The following are stills captured directly from the video and scaled and cropped to fit, but without modifying colour or sharpness. (Some detail is lost in scaling down)
Video Still: Original Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15
Video Still: New Sony Action Cam HDR-AS30V
Video Still: Original Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15
Video Still: New Sony Action Cam HDR-AS30V
GoPro Hero3 Black and Sony Action Cam HDR-AS30V Comparison
The GoPro agent in Australia did not provide a test unit to compare with the Sony, but luckily one of our BNA reviewers was able to lend me a GoPro Hero3 Black. The Hero3 Black was the top GoPro camera but it has just recently been superseded by the Hero3 Black Plus (longer battery life, a smaller unit, and higher quality video capture).
The biggest difference between the cameras is the price: the Sony Action Cam is $349 while the GoPro Hero3 Black was $489 and the new Hero3 ‘Plus’ model is $549. As the market leaders, GoPro packs an impressive array of features into their cameras, but are they worth the extra cost?
The direct comparison between the two cameras shows that the Sony footage is a little darker with less saturation. The GoPro appeared to be better with the contrast low light and shadow sections, but in bright sections the Sony appeared better. The colour saturated footage of the GoPro has the wow factor, similar to the original Sony Action Cam footage. While the SteadyShot option of the Sony improves footage where there is a lot of vibration, for smooth sections the Steadyshot was a slight disadvantage for picture clarity.
Do you or don’t you?
The new Sony Action Cam is coming of age and they have improved on the deficits of the original camera. Although the colour saturation of the video is natural, the artistic effect of a more saturated video from the Sony Action Cam’s predecessor and competing brands could be a deciding factor. The maximimum video resolution of 1080p at 60 fps puts it on par with the more expensive GoPro Hero3 Silver Plus. In my brief testing, GoPro appear to have solved the fogging issue of the waterproof casing better than the Sony, but with the anti-fog pads fogging is eliminated.
Sony have superior menu navigation and camera operation, including via the waterproof case. GoPro are boasting an even smaller unit in the Hero3 Plus edition although these are two different shaped and sized cameras, so it will also come down to personal preference. If you are a Steven Spielberg and higher video resolution is important, then the Sony may not be the right camera, but in price bracket of $349 this is a well known and reliable brand that ticks a lot of boxes with the new Sony Action Camera.
Discover more about the New Sony Action Cam >