Action Cams

Hello there !

** update March-2016 — There will be no review of the product because I sent it back to Amazon (refund, no question asked) shortly after I got it. The main reason being that the camera would simply stop recording in the middle of the “action”. Unfortunately, at the moment my life doesn’t offer me the luxury of having the time to investigate why a brand new product doesn’t work as expected, so I sent it back. Might be because of the brand new 128GB SD-XC memory card purchased separately (yet it fits the minimum requirements). Who knows. Maybe the doubt on the memory card would not exist if Panasonic bundled one in the box. The other drawback of the HX-A1ME, which is difficult to evaluate before you buy (a few reviews actually address that aspect), is the quality/limitations of the software on the iPhone; the App looks very “clumsy”, is unstable, not fast, not intuitive, bad ergonomy, poor design, doesn’t integrate very well; nothing you’d expect when you use an iPhone anyway. Such a software, I normally throw away; except you need it; doing without brings other limitations. This second reason isn’t enough in itself to ship the HX-A1ME back, but it just adds up; worth mentioning.  But in a nutshell, the product fits my needs in terms of size, weight, video quality (compression/bitrate OK for me), water resistance. The battery doesn’t hold long but that was by design (ie. small battery comes with the relatively cheap price and light weight and small size). All in all a good product, if only it worked. Conclusion : my helmet is now 40 grams lighter 🙂 **

2014 was the year of the wearables. 2015 being definitely *the year* of the wearables (hem…), I got interested in an Action Cam. Well. For sure 2016 will be the year of wearables mass adption 😉

So if even journalists say it, let’s give it a shot. Would be a shame to miss that train.

For my specific use (that is every day bike commute), there are a few constraints.

  • needs to be tiny, lightweight and in a shape of a bullet (to be able to strap it to the helmet without looking like a deer with only one horn)
  • needs to be waterproof (to a certain extent), shockproof, and dustproof. Things can get pretty ugly when you commute everyday whatever the weather.
  • needs to be simple to operate. In winter when you wear gloves, you don’t want to have to manipulate tiny buttons. Switch on, it records, switch off, it stops.

I have learnt from my reasearch that there are a few aspects that don’t necessarily pop-out at first sight. For instance :

  • the bitrate (BR). Expressed in mbps. Most of people concentrate only on video image resolution (or HD-720p, Full-HD 1080p…). But the resolution alone means nothing, although it is the main marketing argument. In fact, recorded images are compressed to create a video stream; the compression level impacts the size of the data and the bitrate. The more you compress (lower bitrate), the more image details are lost. For instance, a Full-HD 1080p video stream highly compressed (eg. with a low bitrate) will look like as “bad” or worse than a HD-720p video. Recording a 1080p video requires a higher bitrate than recording a 720p video if you want to keep the same sharpness/quality. The higher the bitrate, the better. The downside of that is: recording at higher bitrates require more computing power, takes more space on the memory card, and drains the battery more. That doesn’t go well with compact devices. When chosing a camcorder, the bitrate must be verified depending of what you want to do with your video (internet streaming on a 5″ mobile or watching at home on a big TV screen?). The table below shows the recommended minimum bitrates per resolution and framerate (ie. for Youtube); that’s for online streaming (mostly on mobile phones or tablets. In my opinion, the recommendation is a bit weak for “action” and video post processing (ie. iMovie, Final Cut Pro X). Not only the resultion, but the framerate (fps, frames per second) too has an impact on the minimum bitrate required to record a good quality video, as you can see below. What’s more, both the encoding format (codec, ie. H.264 being the most common today) and the bitrate have an impact on the quality of the recorded video (for the record, future encoding technology, ie. H.265, will permit the same video quality for bitrates 50%-65% lower than the universally used H.264 compression technology).
bitrates
Recommended bitrates for streaming services (Youtube)
bitrates2
Recommended bitrates by lighterra.com
  • Hardware and Software. Optics (lens), size of the MOS sensor, encoding chip and encoding software (multipass, CBR/VBR…) all have an impact on the final quality of the recorded video. It is a Jungle. My advice : read reviews (www.cnet.com, www.digitalversus.com, www.gizmag.com, etc…) and watch uploaded video samples in order to make an opinion for yourself.

Here is the document I made to help me choose the perfect Action Cam 🙂

ActionCamReview
Click on the image to enlarge the document

Other things.

  • Stabilizer. Some devices integrate an image stabilizer which basically keeps the recorded video stable in shaky situations. The stabilizer (and the quality and setup of the chip/software which does stabilization) has a great impact on the recorded video. Stabilization almost always gives the Jelly-effect or Jell-o, the impression to fly or to be sitting on jelly or on the back of an elephant. Please note that some devices don’t allow the stabilizer to be disabled at all, which can be a problem. Video stabilization can be done later by using after processing software (PC, Mac…)

Conclusion

Panasonic-HX-A1
Panasonic-HX-A1ME

My final choice (and in my opinion the second most suitable product for my needs) is the Panasonic HX-A1ME, which can be found on Amazon (France, Germany) for less than 150€. The second choice (best of all, I think) would have been the Replay HD Prime X because of the higher bitrate, better fps and better battery life, but this model is way over my budget. Besides, the Panasonic is smaller and half the weight of the Replay XD.