Introduction

The development of the digital camera and its subsequent miniaturisation for use in mobile phones has spawned a whole new market sector.  This is the sports action camera market in which sports enthusiasts record their exploits on video.  This has been possible for a long time using analogue and later digital camcorders provided there is somebody else present to operate the camera.  The latter were quite large and heavy and not really suited to DIY action photography.  The new generation of camera is small, light and designed for attachment to helmets, handlebars or other appropriate pieces of sports kit and can be operated by the participant.

In the cycling market, these cameras have been taken up by mountain bike and BMX enthusiasts keen to record their hair raising exploits.  There has also been a growing market from commuting cyclists recording their daily rides and the dangerous exploits of deranged motorists.  There is, apparently, anecdotal evidence to suggest that motorists treat camera-wearing cyclists with more caution.  Thus it seems likely that these cameras might also be of interest to those who Cycle Otherwise.

The Waterproof Action Camera

When looking for electronic kit, it is often worth examining what is to be had on eBay.  The choice under the search term “helmet camera” or “sports camera” is pretty wide.  However, the Waterproof Action Camera appeared to be offered by a number of vendors and was taken to be typical of the lower cost eBay offering.

The device is vaguely phallic in shape and comes with a universal mounting bracket that incorporated a screw fitting for tripod mounting and a quick release clip for attachment to any of the wide range of mounting brackets supplied with the camera.  These included a handlebar mount, a helmet strap based mount, a self-adhesive mount and various straps and pads.  With a little ingenuity the provided mounts should suit most applications.

Access to the battery flap, SD card slot and the USB and AV sockets requires removal of the end cap.  This unscrews and clearly looks as if it would be water resistant if properly screwed home.  The battery flap feels a little flimsy, but slides down and then folds up to allow the batteries to be fitted.  Once in place the flap locks fairly securely.  The SD card mount must be fitted a millimeter or two deeper than is normal on still cameras and requires some effort to get it pushed in far enough.  Removal is easy enough, provided the user can push the card in far enough to activate the release spring.

The operating switches are on the top of the camera body, along with a tiny screen that glows when the unit is switched on. The Menu and On/Off switches are raised and easy to feel, though not to differentiate.  The start/stop video switch is between them and, although having a video camera icon etched into it, is not particularly tactile.  This could be an issue where the camera is helmet mounted and is to be started or stopped by feel.

The On/Off and Menu switches require very hard and, in some cases, long held pressing to operate them.  Fortunately once the unit has been set up, the menu is not required again and switch use is limited to On/Off and start/stop video.  The instructions for setting up are in translated English, so not always easy to follow.  However, all that is required initially is to set the data and time and then the video quality to be used.  Once set, the camera retains the settings, even if the batteries are removed.  For those interested in film as evidence, this camera writes a date and time stamp on the bottom of the film as it is saved.  There was no information about how to opt out of this function if it is not required.

If the camera is attached to a PC with the USB lead, the PC will recognise it as an external storage device.  It is then possible to use the normal file manager to copy/cut files and save them on the computer.  The product comes with a disc that includes some software, but this is not required to use the camera, download the files or to play them.

In Use

Of the eBay cameras at this price and specification, the Waterproof Action Camera appeared to be one of the better products for the following reasons.  Firstly, it offered the higher frame rate of 50fps compared to 30fps for most other products, and thus it was anticipated that this would give a less jerky video.  The possibility of using replaceable AA batteries was also seen as a bonus.  These are widely available and, being replaceable, ought to allow all day filming without the need to re-charge an internal battery.

The battery issue is one to which more thought should have been given initially.  The camera has a rating of 3v and a power consumption of 2W, thus demanding nearly 700mA.  In practice this requires the highest power AA rechargeable batteries that offer around 2,450mAh and thus should give about 3 hours use.  Experience using  standard non-rechargeable Duracell alkaline batteries was about 20 minutes before the camera shut down.  Using relatively old 2,450mAh rechargeable batteries gave a rather better performance of 1 ¼ hours.   Thus with the right batteries a reasonable recording time should be achievable.

The choice of SD card was based upon the fastest that was found from a search on the Internet.  This was an 8 GB Integral Ultima Pro rated at 20Mb/sec.  In use it was discovered that the video was somewhat jerky and had a tendency to skip frames suggesting that this card was not working as fast as the CMOS sensor.  Consulting the local photo shop, another card was acquired, at considerably greater cost, the Sony HCI rated at 94Mb/sec.  The results with this card did not seem to be significantly different from tests with the slower card.  One can only assume that the quoted speeds on the cards were for reading rather for writing data.

Another surprise was that, although the camera has a microphone mounted at the front just below the lens, it recorded no sound.  On playback all that could be heard was static.  This issue was queried with the vendor and it seems that the issue lay with the manufacturer’s desire to make the product waterproof.  The microphone apparently has a waterproof cover that is not removable thus making it sound proof too.  The suggested work around was to use the camera with the screw on end cap removed.  When this was tried some sound was recorded but it was indistinct and of little use.  The audio output socket is not wired so as to allow a microphone to be attached.

Mounting the camera on the handlebars of a bike looks, at first sight, to be the ideal location.  It is clear where the camera is pointing and it is possible to adjust that on the move if necessary.  In addition, the small screen should be visible to the rider and it is thus possible to see the stop/start button and the read out of hours and minutes worth of recording space left on the SD card.  However, on a non-suspension bike with correctly inflated tyres, riding on austerity roads, the resulting picture is painful to watch.  This position picks up micro, and not so micro, jolting that regular cyclists are not conscious of as it is absorbed by the flexibility of their hands.  The camera, however, records every single jolt.

The alternative logical position is to mount the camera on the rider’s helmet, assuming that s/he wears one.  The fitting kit items make such mounting quite easy with a choice of side or top mounting.  In use the weight of the camera is noticeable and encourages the helmet to flop about unless the chin straps are tight.  It is also impossible to see the mini screen and switches have to be operated by feel unless the helmet is removed.  Testing is also required to ensure that the camera is mounted so as to capture the desired road ahead rather than the sky or the bike’s front wheel.

The packaging for the camera shows it mounted on a user’s wrist but, being unable to see how to achieve the desired field of view, this option was not tested.

Evaluation

On paper, and in the hand, the Waterproof Action Camera gives the impression of being just the kind of camera that one needs to record one’s cycling adventures.  However, in practice it does not seem to be able to deliver the goods.  The lack of an effective microphone is a serious negative point as the sounds of an event add to the overall effect when it is played back.

The power issue is partly a user slip up, and partly a lack of good advice by the manufacturer.  This device probably uses older design components that are inexpensive, but fairly power hungry.  This can be countered by choosing high drain, high capacity rechargeable AA batteries.

The quality of the video, particularly the skipped frames, was a disappointment.  It is possible that the use of a 50fps CMOS sensor was not a wise manufacturing decision.  Perhaps a 30fps version would have been better and perhaps less power hungry.

Our overall conclusion is that this camera is not a good buy for £47.  There are other cameras on the market such as the Veho Muvi Micro Action Camera that provide the same sort of functions but with better sound and video for a similar price.

(C) 2012 Cycling Otherwise