Must be action cam season again. The recent Yi 4K camera—which is about as capable as a GoPro Hero4 Black for only half the price—really impressed me. While we’re all waiting to see how 800-pound gorilla GoPro will respond to that threat, Garmin has stepped into the game. Clearly, the company is swinging for the fences.
Garmin Virb Ultra 30
Innovative features like voice control and excellent case-on audio quality set it apart from a crowded field. Same resolution, framerates, and shooting mode as its competition. On-board sensors let you incorporate ride/stunt/adventure data into your videos. Works with most of the common mounts and accessories on the market.
Battery life is only meh. Image stabilization feature fails to impress.
The Virb Ultra 30 is the latest in Garmin’s Virb line of action sports accessories. There have been Virb-branded action cameras before, but the Ultra 30 represents a thorough rethink. It’s Garmin’s attempt at a kitchen-sink style, high-end action camera, and for the most part it really succeeds. Its resolution and speed reach up to 4K at 30 frames per second, or 1080p at 120fps, just like GoPro’s Hero4 Black. In fact it looks almost identical to a GoPro. Like the Yi 4K (another GoPro dead ringer) it also has a touchscreen on the back—something which the Hero4 Black lacks, but the mid-tier Silver edition has.
Remarkably, you can continue using the touchscreen even with its case on, which is waterproof to 133 feet. But that’s not the most notable thing about the case; Garmin specially designed a mic port for the waterproof case, and you may not believe it, but the sound is just as clear with the case on as it is with the case off. Crazy, I know, but watch the video comparison and you’ll see what I mean. It’s totally unprecedented in the arena of action cams, and its audio quality blows the doors off everything else.
Another terrific idea Garmin has implemented is voice control. You alert it by saying “OK Garmin…” and then “start recording,” “stop recording,” “take a photo,” or “remember that” (to add a tag to that part of the video). I tested it thoroughly while mountain biking some singletrack in the badlands of North Dakota, and I quickly grew to love the feature for one very important reason: It meant I didn’t have to take my hands off the handlebars. It’s always the dodgiest moments that you want to capture, which are the exact moments you really shouldn’t be letting go. Obviously, this applies to many different sports. It certainly doesn’t work perfectly, and your videos will always end with “OK Garmin, stop recording,” but true hands-free control is a major advantage.
Garmin makes wearable sensor tech of all sorts, so it makes sense that the new Ultra 30 packs a GPS radio, a barometer (for elevation), an accelerometer (for force and motion), a gyroscope (for rotation), and a compass (for bearing). All of that data can be overlayed onto your video (if you use Garmin’s app or desktop editing software). I’ve always liked this approach. Point-of-view footage doesn’t always do a great job of capturing things like speed of descent or steepness of terrain, and it’s nice to be able to add that layer of detail. Using those sensors, you can slap a text overlay into your video denoting your speed, pace, altitude, g-force, hang time, jump height and distance, rotations in air, lap times—all kinds of stuff.
This advantage is extended further because the Virb also has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ANT+, which means it can pair with dozens of external sensors that Garmin either makes or works with. Heart rate monitors; cycling sensors for cadence and power, OBD2 ports for a plethora of data from a car’s engine, flight computers to get you pitch and roll, boat computers for things like course over ground and wind speed. Insanity.
Video quality is on par with GoPro’s top-of-the-line Hero4 Black. Dynamic range is good, colors are pretty accurate, and the image is sharp, maybe even a hair sharper than GoPro’s. It has nearly all the same options for framerates, resolutions, and shooting modes as GoPro, too. It even has an “Expansive Mode” which is analogous to GoPro’s SuperView. Basically, it takes a 4:3 image and then squishes it into 16:9 so you see more at the top and bottom of your frame. It’s the mode you want to use whenever the action is close to the camera (surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, gratuitous selfies).
The slots at the bottom of the waterproof case just happen to fit into any GoPro mount. It’s a sneaky way to leverage what has always been one of GoPro’s biggest advantages. When I was taking the Virb mountain biking, I knew I wanted a chest mount. I didn’t have a Garmin chest strap, but I had one of GoPro’s. It worked perfectly. It does feel a bit lousy to be supporting copycatting like this (the camera looks just like a GoPro, its battery is almost identical to GoPro’s, most of GoPro’s shooting modes have been cloned), but I can’t say it’s bad for the consumer.
One feature I’m not totally sold on is that the camera has a two-way switch on top to start/stop recording (separate from the button that takes stills). It’s a good idea since it lets you feel whether the camera is rolling or not, but the switch is too stiff. I often found myself fumbling with it. I imagined negotiating the switch with the camera mounted to the nose of my surf board, a wave coming, my hands wet.
It wasn’t all perfect. Battery life is an issue, since all those sensors and connections take a real toll. For my 2.5-hour bike ride I had it paired with a heart rate monitor and was shooting mostly 1080p 60fps, with a little bit of 4K at 30fps, but it died long before the ride was over. I wound up with only 31 minutes of video and 42 still photos to show for it. Having voice controls enabled further taxed it, because it’s always listening for a vocal cue. About an hour in, I started powering down the camera in between shots to try and save battery, but it still died about two hours in.
One feature that Garmin is really hyping up is the three-axis image stabilization, but I think you’re generally better off not using it. It’s digital image stabilization, not optical/mechanical, so your shot ends up cropped. The field of view is narrowed, and the camera stretches the image to fit the frame. It doesn’t look bad, but it does degrade the image quality and spoils your wide shots. It also has a lens distortion compensation setting which crops too much as well, and this camera doesn’t even have much of a lens distortion problem.
The Virb Ultra 30 is available today for $500. That puts it right up on the top shelf with the Hero4 Black, but with the Virb, you just get much more for the same money. The voice commands, the superior mic, the touchscreen, and the cornucopia of sensors and stats all add up to a better camera.
In fact, after five years of testing action cameras I can say that this is the best one I’ve ever used—so far. GoPro? Sony? Whattaya got?
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