(Pocket-lint) - TomTom is diversifying and the Bandit sees the Dutch navigation company move into action cameras. We've seen TomTom lend its name to sat nav and sports devices and there's a nod to GPS experience in the TomTom Bandit, but this is really a foray into new territory.
This isn't a market that's defined so much by the devices, as the quality of the results. GoPro pushes its pro affiliations, saturating YouTube and social channels with breathtaking footage, reinforcing the message that GoPro is top dog when it comes to capturing the action.
In this dog eat dog world is there space for TomTom's Bandit to muscle in?
The Bandit opts for a barrel style design for its camera. It's not unique in this sense, but there's a lot of very clever design going on. Indeed it's easy to say that the TomTom Bandit is probably the most innovative action camera on the market at the moment.
Firstly, it's designed to be used without any exterior casing, which means it's pretty bulky, measuring 94 x 38 x 52mm and weighing a hefty 190g. Compare that to a GoPro Hero4 Black (in its housing) at 152g, and TomTom is approximately 20 per cent heavier. That doesn't matter on your bike handlebars, but it might do on your head.
The trade-off comes in what the Bandit offers. And we're not talking shooting modes or capture options, but the clever arrangement of the Bandit's component parts are a nod to practicality. Take the innovative battery section that slots and locks into the housing, for example. Called Batt-Stick, this central battery also houses a full-sized USB connection, the microSD card as well as LED charge status lights. That means you don't need extra cables to use the Bandit, you just unlock and slide out the battery and plug it into your PC, both for charging or transfer of data (when not using the app).
There's a display on the top for navigating the menus, controlled by the four-way controller underneath. As this lies along the body of the barrel, it feels like it offers more space than other in-camera controls, so it's simpler to use.
Finally, the mount is built into the camera, allowing the camera to be rotated. So once fixed to a helmet, for example, it's easy to get the camera the right way up. Again, there's an innovative one-handed connection to keep it secure, while enabling easy removal.
An extra-sensory experience
The Bandit is also packed with sensors, looking to offer something more than just video capture. The idea is to record a whole load of data about what's happening alongside the visuals, recorded in the video file itself, so even if you move the video off the Bandit, it's all kept intact. We've seen this idea before in the Garmin VIRB XE.
There's more than just GPS too: a G-Force sensor means the Bandit knows how fast you've turned, for example, while other sensors monitor your speed, altitude, rotation and (if you use the accessory TomTom heart rate sensor), your pulse.
This information is used in two ways. Firstly, you can have it added to your video to prove just how extreme it was, with a changing speedometer or G-Force meter on show, for example. Secondly, the Bandit uses it to identify the parts of your video containing the exciting action and it creates highlights, which are useful when it comes to viewing and editing in the smartphone app. In the future, there's the potential to use this information in even more ways.
Waterproofing and lens covers
The big sell of the TomTom Bandit is that it's waterproof without needing an extra case. So while it's simpler than many rival devices as you don't place it into another case, it's not quite as straightforward as that.
As it is, the Bandit is IPX7 rated. Technically it's splashproof, and it won't be damaged by exposure to water, as it's good for temporary submersion to depths of 1 metre. There's an important point to note about the lens covers however: the standard cover it comes with is "splashproof", providing protection for the actual lens, but it has two holes in the bottom where the mic is. That means that if you do have a submersion in water, it will fill up and get damp inside, which will then cause condensation, and fog up.
If you're planning to use the Bandit in water, then you'll need the optional waterproof lens cover. This doesn't have the mic holes in it and means that the Bandit then has an IPX8 rating, with TomTom saying it's good to a depth of 50 metres (5 atmospheres). This accessory costs £30 and we'd recommend buying it from the off if you plan to use your Bandit where submersion is likely.
We've had the Bandit out on white water courses, in the rain and in the swimming pool so we've seen that it's perfectly happy filming in the wet stuff. Of course, when it gets wet, the mic quality deteriorates quickly, so losing the mic holes in the waterproof lens cover is not really a problem - just make sure you understand from the off what each lens cover does.
Camera tech specs and capture modes
The TomTom Bandit has a wide-angle f/2.4 lens on the front, with a 16-megapixel sensor tucked away inside. The wide-angle of the lens means it gives you that familiar barrel distortion when set to wide, or a more regular view when on normal. When you step up to the higher 2.7K and 4K resolutions, however, you're forced to wide view because the sensor resolution can't afford to crop. That also means that the 16MP photos are distorted too, again because the sensor is capturing light from right across the lens and sensor, not just centre as it is with the lower resolution videos.
There's a wide range of capture modes on the Bandit, covering photos, video, slow-motion and time-lapse. There's an additional section called "cinematic" where you'll find the higher resolution 4K and 2.7K options.
There are various options within each and it's nice that you can easily make the changes on the camera itself with minimal fuss. Although GoPro's multi-button approach is ok once you're familiar with it, the TomTom Bandit is much more intuitive to navigate and make selections on the fly.
The important video resolutions include 4K/15p and 2.7K/30p in the cinematic mode for the best quality, although the slower frame rates mean they're not necessarily the best choice for action. At Full HD you get a wider range of 1080/60p and 30p, while HD offers 720/60p and 120p, which will be the choice for most sports capture.
There are slow-mo modes, listed as 1080 2x, 720 4x or WVGA 6x. The 1080 2x ends up being half speed when you play it back, but some may prefer to capture at 60fps and then slow it down themselves in editing software, and so on with the other speeds, the WVGA 6x being the slowest of them all. In reality, if you're going for the zero edit approach that TomTom is pushing with the Bandit, then you'll want to select slow-mo on the camera itself.
Then there's time-lapse, where you can set the frequency of capture, meaning you can setup the camera and leave it to capture busy street scenes, the sun setting or whatever else you want in that distinctive "speedy" time-lapse style. If you want to extend the capture over a long period, there's an optional external power cable you can connect to the rear.
It's not only about resolution, it's about data rates too. We averaged around 25Mbps, compared to the GoPro Hero4 Black's 45Mbps at 1080/50p. Of course, there's a big difference in price between these two cameras, but the data rates equate to GoPro's new Hero4 Session camera and those models below it (i.e., not the Black or the Silver GoPro models).
You can capture photos individually or in bursts, too and this will give you better results than extracting a frame from a video, thanks to the higher resolution.
TomTom Bandit control and app
As we've mentioned, control of the TomTom Bandit settings are pretty easy using the on-camera display and the four-way navigator beneath it. When not changing the settings, the display will also show you the status, like battery, GPS and how full your memory card is.
There are two buttons on the Bandit, which are basically start and stop. The start button on the back powers the camera on, the stop button on the top also powers the camera off, as well as starting and stopping video respectively.
The start button doubles up as a manual highlight button. Pressing this during capture will mark that point in the video for easy reference later when editing.
However, this being a connected camera, there's a slick app to take advantage of. Through the app (Android and iOS) you can manage your camera, change all the settings, perform firmware updates, use the phone as a viewfinder or play video and view photos you've captured.
It's all neatly handled and easy to navigate, so using the camera is simple. There's very little lag between camera and the live viewfinder, so if you want to keep an eye on what you're doing, it works very well.
The app will then let you save your photos or video to your phone, or gives a range of editing options based around automatic identification of the highlights that we mentioned earlier. When you look in your library, it will show you how many highlights there are for your videos. If it's been packed with action, you might have 10 or 15, indicating that a lot happens in that video.
One of the nice features is auto editing, creating a video for you based around those highlights. Tap the option, shake your phone and you'll have a video put together from the highlights. This is nice and quick, taking 6-second sections to run together and create a video you can then share, an example of which is below.
Some will be perfectly happy to have this as a quick way to do something with the content, others might be a little more discerning and want to do all the editing manually, either in another smartphone app after importing the video, or in a PC editing suite for much more control.
The auto highlight feature is pretty good, but the effectiveness of course depends on what you're doing and you may want a mixture, or more of a run in or out of that action, rather than just punching through the most dramatic parts in quick succession. We suspect that the auto creation will be used for quick social sharing, and as you can share individual highlights you can quickly fire out something to Facebook for your friends to enjoy. Ideal if you've had a particularly epic wipeout or pulled off a great trick.
One of the interesting things is that most of the time you're working with a connection to the camera. You can assemble your video and it's only once you want to share that all the parts are moved to your smartphone. We used both the Android and iOS apps and the experience is similar - there's currently a bug where Android users can't see photos (TomTom is fixing this), but we have to say that the Android experience is better when it comes to sharing, because of iOS's inherent restrictions on how you share from your device.
Overall though, we've found the connection to be solid, and the app slick, so it's really easy to use if you're new to action cameras, or want minimal messing around.
The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. First of all, TomTom cites that you'll get 3 hours of capture at 1080/30p from the on board battery. This seems to fit with our experience using the camera for the purposes of this review. You can buy spare Batt-Sticks (£45), so you can easily swap to a spare, remembering to swap over the memory card if you do so.
The TomTom Bandit will capture some great quality action video, with plenty of detail. As we mentioned before, the data rate captured means the leading rivals will have slightly more definition in the details, but that's reflected in the price. If you need crisper, more detailed footage, then the top GoPro Hero4 will better serve your needs.
We found the colours to be pretty good, although there's a slight tinge towards yellow/green casts. In isolation this might not matter, but you could find whites aren't quite as brilliant as they might be elsewhere. Those who demand it to look as authentic as possible could tweak this in post-production, but given that many smartphones have display colour casts of their own, if your main outlet will be social media, it might not matter.
In low-light the TomTom Bandit isn't such a good performer, with image noise appearing fairly quickly. A typical gloomy day, or indoors, is fine, but if it's dark you won't be seeing much.
The microphone is reasonable in the splashproof cover. We found that it picked up good audio, but as soon as it gets wet that's replaced with dulled voices and lots of roaring noises. In many cases - such as when moving, riding, surfing - you'll silence the audio anyway. And yes, the app will let you use your own music to add a soundtrack.
TomTom has come up with an innovative attachment mechanism that you can operate with one hand, making it easy to quickly remove and reattach should you need to check the settings before putting it back on your head, for example.
As we said before, the barrel of the camera has this connection point attached to it, rotating around the camera so you can easily set it at the correct angle for your situation. There's also no need for screw bolts or anything, so there's less to lose and, compared to many rivals, it's a lower profile, so the camera sits closer to your head.
The big downside is that if anything breaks then that's your camera out of action. Unlike those cameras that come in a separate case that could be changed, the all-in-one approach potentially means that any failure in the mounting mechanism renders your camera useless.
In the box you get a couple of 3M adhesive mounting points, ideal for helmets. There's also a GoPro adapter which, once attached to the Bandit, means you can use any of the GoPro (or third-party) mounting accessories, as seen in the image above. TomTom also has a full range you can buy, so your options are wide.
When it comes to action cameras there are a lot of options. GoPro is the dominant force in the market, with a wide range of products to suit the needs of many. The TomTom Bandit sits somewhere close to the GoPro Hero4 Session in terms of tech specs and price, not quite at the same high level as the GoPro Hero4 Black.
But what the TomTom Bandit really offers is innovation. There's a lot about the design that's exciting, especially the arrangement with Batt-Stick (which lasts around 3 hours), even if the overall result is a little bulky.
But it's not just about the hardware, it's about the experience too, and the TomTom app is slick and strong performer. There's minimal lag when using the remote viewfinder on your phone and it's easy to have the app edit and create a highlight video for you for quick sharing. That's going to appeal to those who capture lots but don't have the time to sit down and process everything. For those on holiday, being able to get the camera and app to take care of things before uploading to social media is excellent.
Naturally, if you're after even better quality you'll have to look elsewhere and be prepared to pay for it. But as it stands, the TomTom Bandit offers bags of innovation and is well worth considering, especially if you're looking for a convenient user-friendly approach and an excellent app.