(Pocket-lint) - EE is looking to diversify its offering, making a step into action cameras. The aptly named 4GEE Action Cam arrives with the hook that it's connected, tying it into the 4G network and giving you the option to broadcast your adventures direct from the camera over EE's network.
However, there's a slight catch here that you'll need to understand from the start: EE sells the Action Cam as a connected product, with a pay-for data contract. If you don't have any great desires to frequently broadcast your action, or want a simple one-off payment with no further ties, then it's unlikely to be the action camera that you're looking for.
We'll talk about the costs later in this review, after we've looked at EE's take on the Action Cam. Can its connectivity take it to another level and leave key competitors such as GoPro in the dust?
The EE 4GEE Action Camera is actually built by BenQ, bearing a close relation to the BenQ SP2 camera. EE's offering measures 59.2 x 42.7 x 35mm – but the bulge of the lens swells that depth measurement to 51.3mm, making the product fairly squat and square. It weighs 128g including the cards and battery, which although not neck-breakingly heavy is considerably more than the GoPro Hero4's 89g.
There are two housings in the 4GEE Action Camera's box: a lightweight (36g) housing that acts as a basic holder for the camera, allowing you to mount it but without water-resistance; and an underwater housing (109g) that's completely sealed in a similar style to what you've probably seen used by GoPro.
The camera itself is finished in plastics, sporting EE's livery and with corresponding colours – grey, yellow and turquoise – so there's no mistaking which company this camera is affiliated to.
There's a small display on the top that will show you the status, letting you switch though basic settings using the two flanking buttons in a move-and-select style. It's a little fiddly, but then most of these cameras are.
The battery sits to the rear under a flap, beneath which is the nano SIM card slot tucked right out of the way. On the right-hand side is a USB connection for charging or transfer of files, as well as the microSD card slot. There's 4GB of internal memory, as well as support for cards up to 64GB.
There are coloured LED indicators on three sides of this camera that flash red when it's recording, no matter what side you're at it looking from.
All those facts and figures combine into a thing that, well, isn't the prettiest around. It looks rather brutal and lumpish compared to GoPro's models, but once in the housing, that might not matter. In the waterproof housing the bulk increases, losing out to the slimmer market leaders, but EE provides some anti-fog pads (do not eat) to help avoid fogging inside the case, which is a nice addition.
Resolution and streaming limits
The 4GEE Action Cam has a 1/2.3-inch type 13-megapixel sensor with a fixed-focus lens delivering a wide-angle 145-degree view onto the world. That high resolution isn't needed for the Full HD 1080p capture on offer (there's no 4K option either), but can capture stills at scale through various aspects and resolutions, as well as via a burst mode and self-timer.
It offers various qualities of video capture, missing out on the desirable 60 frames-per-second or faster frame rates at 1080p, meaning you'll have to step down to 720p60 for smoother capture of faster moving action, or if you want fine slow-mo playback. There are 24p and 30p options at Full HD, as well as 480p120 option if you really want to slow it down.
The full range of resolutions are available for recording, but if you want to stream the content over EE's network, you get fewer options. The default is 480/24p which is a little basic, but there are 720/24 and 30p options too. The loss of faster frame rates is perhaps less of an issue than you might think, because the intention is that you watch a stream as it's happening, rather than edited, with slow-motion inserts that would benefit from those higher frame rates.
With Cat 4 LTE, 3G and Wi-Fi, there are plenty of options to connect to companion devices like a smartphone or the Viewfinder Watch that comes in the box, as well as to the cellular network to let you stream your action live. And even with connectivity, the 2260mAh battery on board is good for over four hours of Full HD video capture, or over three hours of HD live streaming.
Control and Action Cam app
As we've mentioned, you can control many of the settings through the menu on the camera itself. It's a little fiddly, so you're much more likely to use the companion app to set things up. This is fairly common for action cameras, allowing you to perform the setup on your phone, then commence the action.
There are apps for Android and iOS and, again, it's been dressed up in EE's livery. That results in the use of yellows and turquoise and a user interface that's, well, perhaps a little soft and basic. It lacks the sort of clean-cut sophistication that GoPro or the TomTom Bandit offers, instead using basic icons that are a little blocky.
You connect via Wi-Fi, so there's a slight lag to what you see live, but that's common. Making a connection itself is a bit of a faff and we spent some time flitting between the app and our Android device's Wi-Fi settings during the connection process – something that rivals manage to avoid.
It did seem solid once a connection was made, however, and quick to respond to commands. From within the app you can change all the camera settings (video, stills, streaming, etc), view and download files from the camera, as well as the more exciting jobs of recording the action. You also get status icons so you know exactly what's going on, including the camera's battery status.
There aren't a huge number of settings, which will come as a relief to some, as it means the 4GEE Action Cam is easier to use than those with so many settings it's all a bit baffling.
Having your phone to hand might be a problem, so the 4GEE Action Cam comes with its own Viewfinder Watch. Once paired to the camera you'll be able to check the live view, as well as start/stop or take a photo. You have to switch pairing from one to the other, so you can't have both the app and the Watch connected at the same time.
We were unable to get the Watch to pair with the camera, landing on the pairing screen but never seeing a connection made. We'll update this review if we have success with it. That's not the only problem we encountered with the Viewfinder Watch, however.
Charging needs a bespoke cable that attached to a slidey clip arrangement on the side. It's held in place by lugs on the cable end and the second time we used it, one of these broke off, meaning that the cable wouldn't stay in place easily when charging.
To test the 4GEE Action Cam, we went to Lea Valley White Water Centre – which was built for the London 2012 Olympics. That proved to us that the waterproof casing is certainly waterproof and that the 4GEE Action Cam will take plenty of abuse.
The 1920 x 1080 resolution video looks good and you can find a sample here on YouTube. There's enough detail, but it's not captured at the highest data rate around. We found in good light that it averaged around 20Mbps at 30fps, or 16Mbps at 24fps. Compare that to the GoPro Hero4, at more like 46Mbps, or the TomTom Bandit's 25Mbps and EE's camera lacks.
That might not matter – and price might be a factor here – but GoPro's reputation has been built on capturing great quality. If that's the yardstick against which you're going to measure the 4GEE Action Cam, then you'll come up a little short.
That can mean the 4GEE Action Camera's video capture can look a little mottled, with less definition around objects within the frame. Colours tend to be fairly saturated, especially in lower light. This might give a nice boost to liven things up, but we found it can make faces a little redder than they might naturally be, or grass a little yellower.
In bright conditions, things can look a little washed out, but not so much that we'd see it as a problem. Exposure is also not so well handled, with detail getting lost in darker areas of the scene and high contrasts boosting those dark areas.
In low-light things get grainy quickly, even just indoors, although that's not uncommon for such cameras. It's good enough to capture shots at night, but the results will have that persistent image noise to them. There's no low-light mode, per se, so again you lose out against the best rivals.
Also worth noting is that the waterproof housing muffles the mic (again, a common problem among such cameras) so don't expect fantastic sound when the Action Camera in the waterproof case. If you can afford to let the camera out in the lightweight housing, you'll get much better quality sound. There's nothing to protect it from the wind, however, so once you start moving, you're likely to hear wind noise and not much else. When the mic isn't muffled, however, the sound is pretty good – so using it for a piece to camera indoors before stepping out into the thick of your action will give you decent results.
To use the streaming side of the 4GEE Action Cam you simply have to select Live – either in the app or on the camera itself – and a connection will be made and streaming commenced. This is via the Skeegle platform. Skeegle exists as a separate app and can be used to live-stream content from your phone to friends you select in groups, called Circles.
It's a platform that's been backed by EE (hence its use here) and the idea is that you sign-up and link to Facebook so it knows who you are and then connects you to friends so you can share live. Although you use Facebook to sign-up, you can then invite any contacts on your phone. When you first fire-up the Live portion of the 4GEE Action Cam, it will ask you to download Skeegle and sign-up, then link the two together.
Control of who sees the live-stream is handled by the Skeegle app. Once you've selected what Circle will see it, that's the default the camera uses until it's changed in the Skeegle app. When you start streaming, an invite is sent via SMS to those people, who can click through and watch live.
That means that these streams are then watched via a mobile device, so again, the quality won't be the biggest issue as the size is smaller and you have to consider network connections too.
Live-streaming is less about quality and more about the fun of letting people watch it happen in real time. Some content that we've extracted from Skeegle has a data rate of 2Mbps (at 720p30), so this isn't the route to go if you need lots of detail.
Live-streaming from the camera, without a phone, works and as long as you've previously setup your Skeegle Circle, there's no problem. That's really EE's unique angle: you can be kayaking and decide to show your friends with a simple hit of the button on the camera putting it out there for all to enjoy.
But in many cases, people will have a mobile phone with them anyway, and connecting your camera to your phone to live-stream is a common option. For watersports EE might have the edge (you don't want your phone tucked into your wetsuit), but for many other activities, EE's unique offering is perhaps less potent.
If you don't have a connection, of course, it doesn’t work, but there is some appeal in the fact that you can stream it from the camera and after the initial setup of Skeegle, you won't need to switch apps or faff around to do so.
Mounting and accessories
As we mentioned, the 4GEE Action Cam comes with the waterproof and lightweight housing in the box. Both mounts have a slot in the bottom into which a mounting bracket can be clipped.
There are two mounting options provided in the box. There's a mounting plate with a bespoke connector in it, so you could stick it directly to a helmet, for example. Or there is a clip that converts it to GoPro standard mounting, for use with GoPro accessories. The latter is likely to be the best option, because the range of accessories is extensive and widely available.
The waterproof housing also has loops on the bottom and back so it could be strapped onto your head or chest. There are a range of accessories available directly from EE's website, including spare batteries for £19.99 a piece.
But the size of the camera works against it. Once inserted into the waterproof housing and mounted on the top of your helmet, for example, it's 238g of weight, compared to the 151g of a GoPro Hero4. We tested both cameras on a helmet mount and that weight difference is really noticeable.
4GEE Action Cam prices
As we mentioned at the outset, the 4GEE Action Cam is an oddity, because you're buying it as a connected device, with a SIM card and a contract. That might be a deterrent to those who'd rather just keep it simple and pay for a camera and stream via their phone, using the data contract they already have.
There are three options for buying the 4GEE Action Cam. If you already have a contract with EE, then you can add the Action Cam for £15 a month, over 24 months. That's a total of £360, but then you're on a Shared Plan, with any data you use being deducted from your allowance.
Or you can buy the camera up front, on a Pay As You Go contract. This is closer to buying the camera outright, as you'll pay £299.99 upfront and you'll get 2GB of data. If you want to live stream, you'll need to top up that data. Or you can pay £399.99 and get 24GB of data, but you'd have to be a serious streamer to take that option.
Finally, you can have a new monthly plan. You'll pay £49.99 upfront for the camera, then you have to pay for the 2GB or 10GB plan. The 2GB plan is £15 a month, the 10GB plan is £20 a month and these are 24-month contracts. The advantage of this over the Shared Plan is that you get more data, but you'd pay a total of £409.99 for the 2GB option over two years.
Tether from your Action Cam
So if you do buy into a new contract, are you wasting all that data you don't use when you're not sharing action sports? Not really.
Once you're connected to the 4GEE Action Cam, it's effectively a hotspot. We found it would only allow one connection at a time, which is a downside compared to a MiFi, for example, but you can put that data to use.
It's a little strange that when your phone is connected to the camera it's then drawing data through the Action Cam. But at the same time, if your data contract expires, all the functions of the 4GEE Action Cam work without a SIM, with the exception of live-streaming. So if you do invest, or see that the PAYG £299.99 price is worth it, then you still get an action camera that doesn't necessarily need data too.
The 4GEE Action Cam is an interesting proposition, but it very much hangs on whether you want to live-stream your content or not, and whether you need to do that from the camera without having your phone nearby. That might make it appealing for those who are going to get wet a lot – white water rafting, canyoning, coasteering – but remember you need to have 3G or 4G in these areas.
Quality of the content for straight video and stills isn't up there with the likes of GoPro, but bear in mind the price difference compared to the Hero4 Black we've been using for comparison. The GoPro Hero+ LCD does offer comparable features, with built-in wireless connectivity and comparable bitrates for capture – and the advantage of 1080/60p that the 4GEE Action Cam lacks.
Ultimately, EE faces a tough challenge with the Action Cam. It works, we've had fun testing it and, yes, it's independently connected with a Viewfinder Watch in the box. But it's challenged by market leaders that offer great quality, a more sophisticated app experience and a camera that comes in a smaller overall package.