Drift HD helmet cam review

What a difference a year makes, yeah? 13 months ago, we were giving Drift Innovation's latest helmet cam (the HD170) a run through the gauntlet, and now, we're giving that unit's proper successor the same treatment. The simply-named Drift HD action camera is largely the same type of device, albeit one that's 25 percent shorter (this one's just four inches long) and offers a replaceable lens. Moreover, there's a waterproof casing that's on the way, though said shell wasn't ready during our testing phase. The company managed to include a 300-degree rotating lens (complete with a 170-degree field of view) and a couple of capture options: 1080p/30fps and 720p/60fps. The concept should be well-ingrained into the head of technophiles by this point: if you're looking for a camera to mount upside your noggin' (or on your vehicle of choice), this is what you're after. But is the new and improved Drift HD capable of taking on the GoPros of the world while justifying its $369 asking price? Read on.


There's no doubt that this thing's mighty compact for what it does. One of biggest gripes about the HD170 was its girth, and Drift's obviously gone to great lengths in order to trim this fellow down. Hardware-wise, the unit feels sturdy enough, and the twistable lens does a phenomenal job of holding tight once put into place, but we couldn't help but feel that a few corners were cut. The embedded 1.5-inch LCD, while mightily appreciated, is of fairly poor quality; it serves to showcase what you're viewing, and the top / bottom bars inform you of the current settings, but we found it rather difficult to see under direct sunlight.

The back panel is covered by one of two lids, both of which are included. The first is a solid covering that serves to seal out dust, dirt and just about anything else you could think of; the second has two covered ports that can be popped open for easy access to the microphone input jack (3.5mm) and the mini-USB socket. That's decidedly useful for those who have a mini-USB charger in the vehicle with 'em, as it allows the camera to be tethered to a constant source of energy rather than having to run off of batteries alone. Careful when tightening either on, though -- we had to break out a pair of pliers at one point to get it open after over tightening with our Sasquatch-like paws.

There's also a micro-HDMI port back there, with the only other input mechanisms being just beside the LCD: up, down, menu and play / stop. Overall, the 104.14 mm (L) x 50 (D) x 33 (W) mm device felt like a semi-serious piece, but for $369, we expected a far more premium fit and finish. At just 4.23 ounces, it's not exactly a heavyweight, but after you strap on a helmet mount (or one of the other sticky solutions included in the box), it's not something that'll easily slip into one's pocket.

Software and usability

There's just no two ways about it: the user interface here is spartan, and if we're being candid, it's fairly unsightly. Of course, it's not like you'll be spending hours on end digging through the interface options, but we will confess that it's not the most intuitive thing to use; granted, having only four buttons doesn't do Drift any favors, but a little polish over on the software side would've gone a long way. Boot-up was respectably quick -- the camera could go from off to shooting in under five seconds. We noticed that the "beep" sounds emitted when recording was started and stopped were around two seconds too late, but it's a quirk we learned to live with in time.

For our purposes, we shoved a 16GB microSDHC card in and left it on 1080p. After all, if you're shelling out $369, you'll probably be after the finest resolution possible. The bundled remote (which can be worn on the wrist) worked on the first try around 70 percent of the time, and while Drift claims a five meter range, we found it far more useful when we were within three meters of the device. Just so you know, the camera stores each clip on the card in a standard .MOV format, making it dead-simple to import into just about any movie editor known to man. Windows users can simply connect a mini-USB cable to export files, while OS X loyalists will want to have a card reader nearby.

The assortment of mounts (helmet, curved sticky and flat sticky) thrown in were quite useful, and the fact that the battery can be recharged via a mini-USB port warmed our ever-loving hearts. One less charger in the travel bag is never a bad thing. Speaking of battery life, we routinely saw our unit record around 50 to 80 minutes of 1080p footage on a full charge, largely depending on how much idle time we had between each clip.

Video quality

So, here's the make-it-or-break-it moment. For all intents and purposes, the video and audio quality is about the same as what we saw on the HD170. In other words, the built-in microphone is still next to useless. When mounted on our dashboard, the mic wouldn't pick up our voices just a few feet away; meanwhile, our Olympus E-P3 heard us loud and clear when recording in the same position. We suspect the internal mic is there mostly to suck in engine and road noises, but those planning to do a little commentary should reconsider.

Video quality was... decent. We had continual problems with exposure on exceedingly bright days, where the piercing sun would result in a shot that was simply blown out. In the shadows, things were far more palatable, but it's definitely a hit-or-miss affair. We will confess, however, that the infamous "jelly effect" was nowhere to be found here. Have a peek below at a few videos we tossed together during our time with the unit.

Music credit: Copeland | "Love Is A Fast Song" | In Motion


While compact and reliable, the Drift HD's primary problem has nothing to do with hardware, size or results. It's the price. The bloated $369 MSRP sticks out like a sore thumb, and with even the priciest GoPro going for just $299, we can't find a compelling reason to recommend this guy over the less expensive competition. Video quality simply wasn't world-beating, and when you're commanding a premium, it ought to be. If the company threw in a waterproof shell, a more polished / rugged exterior and a 16GB microSDHC card, we might be singing a slightly different tune, but until this guy starts offering itself for less, we'd probably survey the (more affordable) competition.