Until now, Sony's efforts in the element-stopping sports cam world had largely consisted of handhelds such as the Bloggie Sport HD and the waterproof Handycam. The $200 Action Cam, however, is an all-out hiking-boot-wearing adventurist, with a backpack full of tools and supplies by comparison, that frankly, makes the brand's previous attempts look like they're barely prepared for a school field trip.
A lot of technology can be broken down into numbers. PetaFLOPS, gigahertz and megabytes -- the idea usually being, the more the better. And often that's true. Sometimes, though, what you really need are a couple breaths of fresh air and a healthy shot of adrenaline. And that's where something like Sony's new HDR-AS15 Action Cam shines. It's one of a growing breed of devices that allow us to get our fill of the great outdoors, while still satisfying our gadget fix. With plenty of other competitors lining up to be your sporting partner of choice, however, does the Action Cam have what it takes to keep up? Dive past the break to find out.
There seem to be two main approaches to sports camera design: the cam-and-case brigade (e.g., the GoPro and Veho) and the tough-tube crew (think: Contour and ION). With the Action Cam, Sony has gone with the former. The naked unit isn't all that rugged, but pop it in the supplied waterproof case and it's ready for business. One perk of this approach, especially with the Action Cam, is that you have the option of using it as a regular "non-action" helmet cam when you're not white water rafting, but still want to record some POV footage minus the extra weight. It might be tempting to think this is a happy side-effect of incidental design, but the fact that Sony will sell you a head-mount for the un-cased camera does suggest otherwise.
The camera itself is light (90g with battery) yet well-built. The front lens pokes out from a round-edged, rectangular body, with two small forward-facing mics below it. One side of the unit has a small LCD and a pair of buttons, and there are some hidden ports along the bottom (HDMI, USB, 3.5mm mic input and expansion connector). Around the back is a sliding / hinged cover, underneath which is where you stash the (1,240 mAh) battery and microSD or Memory Stick Micro memory card. This back cover is also where you'll find the big red record button, which should be easy enough to locate when mounted up out of view on a helmet, along with a small "hold" switch to prevent accidental filming, or indeed, unintentionally stopping.
Any of the three buttons on the unit will switch the Action Cam on when pressed, but if you opt for the Record button, it'll go right ahead and start grabbing footage as well -- activating a small red LED above it to let you know it's shooting. That's great for getting it going quickly, but also a recipe for a bundle of inadvertent one- or two-second clips if you just wanted to switch it on. The two side buttons, next to the screen, are for navigating menus and options, at which point, the big red one becomes "select."
Naturally, if you want to see the Action Cam in its full glory, you'll need to slip it into the waterproof case. Unlike the GoPro, or Veho Muvi, the Action Cam's hinge / door mechanism isn't fully fixed to the rest of the case. There is a hinge to lock it in place like the others, but once opened, the lid is only kept united with the body by a long rubber strip with a barb at the end. This is quite easy to pull out completely. While it's fairly easy to thread back in again from the comfort of home, we can imagine it being a bit more of a fiddle when gloved, cold or otherwise ready for action.
If you already have some photography gear, then the inclusion of a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the case will be cause for a mild mental cheer
The case also allows some control of the device while sheathed, but you're pretty much limited to starting and stopping video capture -- or triggering photos, depending on which mode you're in. As you may have already surmised, there is an external equivalent of the record button on the case, complete with its own hold control, but if you want to navigate the menus, you'll have to access the device directly, or use the WiFi feature -- which we'll cover later on. If you already have some photography gear, then the inclusion of a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the case will be cause for a mild mental cheer (we're looking at you GoPro!)
The complete, cased unit is probably one of the larger POV cameras that we've seen. It's not cumbersome, or too unwieldy, but it is something you're going to notice when mounted about your person. That's especially true since -- unlike the Contour -- it doesn't have the option of a rotatable lens to keep footage level regardless to position, so your choices are limited to having it the right way up, or upside down and using software to flip the videos.
If you've ever opened a GoPro, an ION or a MUVI HD, then you'll know that once the box is open, the accessories pretty much spring out at you, somehow never to fit back in again. This is a problem you don't have to worry about with the Sony Action Cam. Once you pop the camera out, along with the waterproof case, you're left pretty much unburdened by accessories, barring a pair of battery trays (why the battery doesn't fit the compartment is unclear), a pair of adhesive mounts and a mounting clip for the case. There are a couple of extra options available -- handlebar and headband mounts for the naked and cased units. Though if you want them, you'll have to cough up extra for them.
Sony's made basic operation of the Action Cam wonderfully simple. As we mentioned, you simply have to poke one of the side buttons to wake it up. The LCD screen might be small, but it's enough, and always makes it clear exactly what menu you're looking at. You'll usually need the device to be out of its case to change settings (unless using the app), and you'll likely need at least one gloveless hand while you do so. Every button push rewards you with a beep or chime sound, which is handy when mounted, but surprisingly there's no option to turn this off. That's not a major hardship, but it does mean if you're operating this at home, in the office or anywhere with low-level noise, everyone is going to know about it.
Sony's made basic operation of the Action Cam wonderfully simple.
Once you've set it up to your choice of resolution (1080p, 720p or 480p), FOV angle (120 or 170) and frames-per-second (30, unless you're in 720 mode where you have the choice of 60 or 120 also), the next step in the process is to get active! We're assuming you don't want this for recording a birthday or family wedding, so we instead put this through its paces at a local theme park.
Unlike some of the competition, the Action Cam lets you record at either of the available angles regardless of the resolution, so you're not limited there. We started at 1080p and 170 degrees before moving on to 720p and the choice of extra framerates that comes with it. The results are pleasing, with no sign of the rolling shutter effect as can sometimes be the case with this type of camera. Light, in particular, seems to be the main deciding factor here. As you'll see in the sample footage below, in near darkness there's lots of visible noise. While this might be understandable as we're moving fast, and no doubt the camera is scrambling to keep up with the sudden change in levels, you can also see the color richness change later on. Shooting a scene where there are lots of tall metal rails from roller-coasters is also handy for spotting any jagged lines, but happily we didn't notice any here.
Perhaps one of the better features of the Action Cam is the 120 fps setting at 720p. This makes it a great option for those who want high-quality slow-mo footage (or at least to have the choice). We set up a few test shots specifically to investigate the quality of this footage and are pleased to report that it does indeed perform very well. You will be sacrificing your audio, as the camera drops that altogether in super-slow mode (as Sony calls it). You'll also be bargaining against the capacity of your SD card, naturally, as the extra data demands more memory to house it.
As for audio, this is typically an area where these cameras falter -- in no small part thanks to usually being locked up nice and tight in a waterproof housing. The Action Cam doesn't shatter audio expectations when cased, but out in the open, it performs well enough. Naturally, wind soon becomes your enemy here, but we're not blaming Sony for that! The inclusion of a mic input should ease the concerns of anyone who has particular audio requirements. Lastly, a note about the battery life. The supplied 1,240mAh cell might not sound like much in mobile phone parlance, but in our testing it fully handled a day's regular use (lots of switching on and off, filming and occasionally connecting via WiFi). If you think this still might not be enough, or fancy some extended filming, its removable nature means you can always buy a couple of spares.
Unlike more sedentary filmmakers, the action crowd has largely had to settle for shooting without either a viewfinder or a way of quickly playing back footage. GoPro has its BacPac accessories, but the more gun-like design of the Action Cam doesn't lend itself to such things. No problem, as Sony has squeezed a WiFi chip into one of the models, meaning you can download the PlayMemories app (iOS and Android) and let a mobile device pick up this slack. Not only will it let you view what the camera is seeing, but you can also change the recording mode, set the camera rolling and view files afterwards. Well, that's the theory anyway.
The Action Cam doesn't shatter audio expectations when cased, but out in the open, it performs well enough.
In practice, the app is temperamental at best. Using it with Android 4.0.4 and 4.1 was basically a non-starter. You can discover and connect to the camera, but that seems to be about it. We had much better success with Gingerbread, however, which works as intended. Apple users fare little better, with the file-transfer mode ("Send" under the menu) working reliably, and the live viewfinder mode working intermittently (connecting about one in five times). This was with an iPad running iOS 6. We contacted Sony about this issue, who advise that it should work on any previous versions of either system, and that its engineering team is working to release an update in November that will cover both iOS and Android. For the immediate, however, this is a shame, as for many people this functionality is a key selling point, and something that should be well within Sony's capabilities to deliver quickly.
Has Sony swept away the competition with the Action Cam? Not quite. But as a debut into this market, it's respectable and promising. The camera does what it promises -- it lets you shoot good-quality action footage. The ability to shoot 720p footage at 120 fps gives the Action Cam a stand-out feature, which may be enough to win it a dedicated following. That said, the photo modes are somewhat limited, and the app integration is far from up to scratch.
If Sony can promise (and deliver) an app update in the near future, along with a firmware bump to allow more camera shooting modes (burst and single-shot, please!), then the Action Cam would go from the leagues of a tandem parachute jump to a gnarly wing-suit dive. With the base-model retailing for $200, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Contour's entry-level ROAM2 and GoPro's new White edition. At this price, only the GoPro has WiFi. If you want that feature with Sony's Action Cam, you'll need to dig a little deeper and pay $270. To be fair, that price puts it at about the level you would expect in the market -- given that GoPro wants $300 for its Silver Edition, which only really offers a stills upgrade from its cheaper sibling. All in all, we enjoyed our time with the Action Cam, and are happy with the results it provided. If its spec-sheet is suitable to your requirements, then there's no doubt it will serve you well.