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It’s an interesting adventure using Sony’s new Action Cam, but the camcorder is not an earth-shattering release. With the company's first foray into the world of wearable camcorders, Sony incorporated some excellent features on the Action Cam, but most are things we've seen before from the likes of GoPro—the current leader in the adventure cam space—and its primary rival, Contour.
The Action Cam is available in two versions, one with WiFi and one without. The WiFi-enabled HDR-AS15, which we reviewed here, retails for around $270. The HDR-AS10 is the model without WiFi, and it sells for just under $200. Both Action Cams come with a couple of adhesive mounts and a waterproof case that can keep the camcorder safe when traveling up to 197 feet underwater.
The Sony Action Cam, like all mountable camcorders, is unique when it comes to usability. It’s a simple camcorder to use in one sense, but it can be a challenging product to master. Turning it on and hitting the record button is easy—anyone can do that—but say you want to pair the camcorder to your smartphone to do some live monitoring. That’s where things get a bit more difficult.
The camcorder's menu system, while it can be frustrating, is probably the best we've seen on a wearable adventure cam yet. The onscreen display and well-labeled "prev" and "next" buttons don't pose much of a challenge for cycling through and making changes to menu options. It still has that annoying digital-watch-like feel with the tiny buttons and small screen, but when you consider the Contour+ camcorder has no on-board menu system whatsoever, Sony's menu features are a wonderful benefit in comparison.
There’s also the issue of mounts and cases, both of which are integral to the adventure cam market. Sony ships a strong waterproof case with the HDR-AS15 that provides excellent protection from the elements and is rated to secure the camcorder up to 197 feet underwater. The case isn't the easiest to open and close, however, and when the Action Cam is locked inside you don't have the ability to access ports or buttons other than the start/stop record button. The Sony Action Cam doesn't ship with a ton of mounts or grips, but it does come with a couple of adhesive mounts and the waterproof case includes a built-in tripod screw. More mounts, grips, and accessories are available from Sony at an additional cost.
There's only so much you can pack into a camcorder that's no bigger than a pack of a cigarettes, so it's not fair to expect the Sony Action Cam to come loaded with features and controls. If you're the kind of person who requires access to things like exposure adjustment, shutter speed, aperture settings, or menu customization, you will want to look elsewhere—the Sony Action Cam won't make you happy (but the Contour+2 very well might).
Its lack of manual controls aside, the Action Cam should appeal to adventurers who simply want to mount-and-shoot. It has the essential controls to make hands-free videography as easy as possible, including the ability to pair with your smartphone via WiFi. To be clear, this WiFi pairing doesn't require access to the internet. Instead, it turns the camcorder into a WiFi access point, which you then use to link-up with your smartphone, thereby turning your phone into a remote viewfinder and controller. It's a remarkable feature, but it's not something that is unique to Sony. Both Contour and GoPro have models that can do the same. The Action Cam's slow motion modes are rather unique, however, and they churn out decent-quality video at the push of a button. The time lapse photo option can be fun to play around with, but the camcorder's 2-megapixel size limitation is puzzling. The sensor is certainly large enough to handle higher resolutions, so the arbitrary size cap may have to do with processing instead.
At times, we were impressed with the video performance from the Sony Action Cam. The camcorder captured motion sequences fluidly, especially compared to some of the choppy video we saw from its competitors in the adventure-cam market. But we also saw a huge loss of detail in low light situations, as well as a ton of noise and compression artifacting in certain bright-light shots.
Sony seems to have programmed the HDR-AS15 to drastically oversaturate colors, with blues and greens appearing as neon-like tones even under normal daylight conditions. Still, when evaluating the performance of this model, you have to remember—this is an adventure cam. The quality of the image isn't as important as the ability to capture that exciting moment in the first place, and, while the Action Cam doesn’t necessarily do this any better than the competition, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve.
The Action Cam HDR-AS15 was built on some great ideas—the WiFi functions work well, the slow motion options are easy to use and churn out decent videos, and the on-board menu system makes sense. The provided waterproof case and couple of adhesive mounts make the camcorder usable for hands-free recording right out of the box, although it would've been nice for Sony to include more mounts and grips as part of the complete package.
Like most adventure cams, performance from the HDR-AS15 had its flaws. We were impressed with the smoothness of its recorded video, but the consistent oversaturation of colors was undeniable. If Sony would have just taken a page from Contour's playback and added a few more manual controls, perhaps an extra metering mode or basic exposure adjustment option, then the Action Cam could have been a far more versatile camcorder. Perhaps most impressive is Sony's ability to keep the price of the Action Cam so competitive. The $279 price tag for the WiFi-enabled HDR-AS15 is fair. A cost of $199 for the WiFi-absent HDR-AS10 is good too, but we suggest splurging for the WiFi model if you have a smartphone. The phone-pairing features provide you with very useful tools that make using the Action Cam a lot more fun. Either way, the Sony Action Cam represents a better value than the more-expensive Contour+2, although the Contour is a slightly better camcorder at $299.
Unfortunately for Sony, the Action Cam hit the stores just a few weeks before GoPro announced its new Hero3 adventure cam. With models ranging from $199 to $399, the GoPro Hero3 can appeal to a very broad audience. All of these Hero3 models have WiFi, and all of them have updated components over the Hero2 (although the features and specs differ based on the model). Just based on specs, the Hero3 looks downright scary compared to the Sony Action Cam and the Contour+2. If the Hero3 pans out to be as good as advertised, then Sony is going to have to innovate more and find some way to set itself apart from the rest of the adventure-cam crowd.
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