Garmin has unveiled its latest action camera in the VIRB X and top-end VIRB XE. It's a world apart from its first VIRB and aims to take on GoPro for the top spot in the action cameras market.
But how can Garmin top GoPro? It's all about sensors. Data is the pull these days and the VIRB XE wants to offer every metric right on the screen along with the video. Recording a cycle route? Watch the video back with real-time speed, g-force, cadence, altitude and more all overlaid on the footage.
Garmin has already got its VIRB XE cameras in the cockpits of the Red Bull Air Race planes and we were invited to take a ride and see just how good the cameras and data recording are.
The VIRB XE looks far different to its first VIRB. The VIRB XE is smaller and lighter as it now comes with the protective housing built around the camera - a housing that can't be removed. Only the battery and microSD card can be replaced, so it's less fiddly than having a separate housing.
The VIRB XE is light enough to mount on a helmet without it giving you neck ache, but reassuringly solid enough to live up to its claim of surviving up to 50m underwater.
Can it survive a fall from a plane as GoPros have been seen to do on YouTube? We weren't going to open the canopy to test that one, but the casing feels strong enough, in theory at least.
The side of the camera features a clip-on connector that means charging and transferring data is possible at all times. No more drilling holes in the side of GoPro cases to keep them connected to power for all day running.
Another nice addition is a physical switch to activate the camera so at a touch you can feel if it's on or off, even when mounted on your head, which is a win for convenience.
Sensing the extreme
The VIRB XE is clearly aimed at the more extreme sports. Since these are the best sports worth filming, this makes sense. It also makes sense to use a g-force sensor to show just how extreme the experience was and we can see this being popular with motorsports fans. Garmin calls all this, along with conventional sensors like GPS, its G-Metrix system.
It's one thing to see a barrel roll in a video but another to see just how many times the force of gravity is being exerted on the passenger and pilot and it's all built into the same package.
People already love watching other people game or share extreme sports, imagine a combination of the two. The same ski route can be recorded but it's not just about time, as the VIRB XE is going to be measuring everything from your speed to how extreme the turns are, a bit like Strava for extreme sports. You'll be able to see what the real differences are between your run and someone else's.
One area that the Garmin VIRB XE can't compete with the GoPro Hero4 Black is on quality, in resolution at least. While it is able to offer Full HD 1080p footage at 60 frames per second, if you bump up to the max 1440p it'll top out at 30fps. The GoPro Hero4 can manage 4K video at 30fps.
For most people this level of quality won't be an issue for some years, until 4K televisions become more affordable at least. Plus, capturing action sports is more about frames per second than resolution anyway. So 1080p video at a speedy 60fps refresh rate should be more than enough to capture even the most extremely fast-paced action.
Garmin says the decision to leave out 4K and focus on frame rate was conscious as it's aiming at giving perfect footage for action sports. It won't add 4K until it's able to be recorded at 60fps, it says.
Baring in mind this is the first VIRB XE from Garmin we wouldn't be surprised to see the resolution in the next generation take that jump up to 4K.
The VIRB XE also shoots 12-megapixel photos at 30 frames per second and can shoot in 120fps slow motion, but we didn't get a chance to try these.
Garmin is all about connectivity with ANT+, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on most of its devices. The VIRB XE is no different as it's able to connect to most other Garmin devices, even in-car systems. That means you can pull in any data you want, be it what gear your car is in, or cadence from you bike, and it'll all be up on screen in the video.
The VIRB XE will also connect to your smartphone to allow for remote control as well as live streaming to the handset display so you can frame your shot. Plus it'll play nice with your Garmin smartwatch if you want control right from your wrist.
At launch Garmin says it should have live stream options that will allow you to stream directly online, via your phone, for others to watch. So once the Garmin Connect software works with the VIRB Edit software everyone should be able to share videos and data directly into their current Connect platform.
Performance in the extreme
As you can see from the video in a Red Bull Air Race place, the VIRB XE performed admirably. Despite being a bright day outside the shot from inside the dark cockpit still manages to show the landscape and inside clearly, with defined colour. Admittedly outside could have better white balance but under the circumstances it's still impressive. And the rate at which the camera adapts to changes in light is also impressive.
Shot at 1080p and 60 frame per second it's clear why this camera is made for action. Not a frame was dropped even when we were being flung about at over 5G. Also the camera was directly mounted to the plane and yet shows no signs of vibration of shaking thanks to the electronic image stabilisation working well.
The wide angle lens captured everything even though we were sure it wouldn't as it felt so close to us in the cockpit. Despite this the image appears clear with minimal distortion around the edges.
Garmin is in a very tough market where GoPro has almost completely perfected the action camera offering and dominates the market. By delivering data and smart sharing options with good software, along with Garmin's history of smart tracking devices, the VIRB XE offers something new.
For those that demand 4K video the GoPro is the obvious choice, but since most will be more focused on frame rate, both the VIRB XE and Hero4 offer 1080p at 60fps.
Garmin also offers smart data recording that could gamify its video, making videos more directly competitive. Could this start a new community of extreme sports videos that compete across the world without actually being in the same place at the same time? That's what Garmin's done with its Connect platform and GPS sports watches, so why not with a camera?
The Garmin VIRB XE will be available in June for £320. The Garmin VIRB X, which tops out at 720p60fps, will be £280.