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Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 Action Camera Review – Have They Made a GoPro Killer?

Action cameras have improved greatly over the last few years. With 4K recording now a common feature, as such, that is not merely enough today, you need to make using the camera an effective and simple experience. With that in mind, let’s focus both on quality and overall usability in this Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 Action Camera review

Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 Action Camera Review

Garmin Virb Ultra

Garmin has been in the action camera market for three generations of their VIRB camera, each time, improving slightly on the previous design. With the original Garmin VIRB, we had a very odd sling affair for mounting the device. The Garmin VIRB XE built the camera directly into the protective case, and now with the  VIRB Ultra we have a truly grown up action camera from Garmin.

Other companies have steadily been eating into GoPro’s territory over the last few years. The Fly6 rear camera and Fly12 camera and bike-light-combo, have been stealing the casual and safety conscious cyclists, while Garmin has been moving from a cycling centric device to a much broader action camera. With the latest Garmin VIRB Ultra, it’s clear that Garmin doesn’t want to play catch up anymore, but instead wants to be a leader in the action camera market – can you say YouTube Live streaming?

So what are the headline features the new Garmin VIRB Ultra is bringing to the party?Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 21.18.02

  • 4K video at 30FPS – although image stabilisation is limited down to 2.7K
  • Touchscreen – THANK YOU!
  • Wind reduction baked into case design
  • Wifi network access
  • YouTube Live stream – ok slightly restrictive as only available on iOS currently

But bells and whistles are only any good if they are actually accessible and functional for the end user, and Garmin can sometimes forget that slightly. The Garmin Connect app is one of the less user-friendly sports apps available. So the question really is should GoPro be scared of the new Garmin VIRB Ultra??… Quite possibly!

Device Design

Garmin Virb Ultra

In the box, we’ve got a plethora of bits and bobs and a couple of unusual items too:Garmin VIRB Ultra

  • Two plate mounts, one flat, and one curved for helmets, and well other curved surfaces
  • Two different mount attachments – T end and direct attachment
  • Two orientation changes
  • Battery
  • Mini USB cable
  • Camera housing
  • Secondary door housing
  • Manual
  • Desiccation pieces
  • Garmin VIRB Ultra –  of course.

Garmin has interestingly chosen to include two rear doors for the camera housingGarmin VIRB Ultra

Top door; for watersports: solid, tight to 40m / 4ATM – but then the barometric sensor does not work.

Bottom door; for altimeter function – see the tiny grey hole in the bottom LEFT, this allows the barometer to measure pressure – but then also drops the waterproofing down to IPX7 – nothing more than splash proof. During the testing, I kept the waterproof on all the time

You can see the pressure sensor, as the hole on the front of the camera in the bottom LEFTGarmin VIRB ultra

We also have top and bottom, front facing activity/recording lights now, so that you are always going to be able to tell what is going on, no matter the orientation of the camera. A very important point as a usually use a mount under my cycling GPS

On the top, we’ve the speaker grill, simple and chunky power, and wifi buttons, that are also used for navigating the camera menus. We also have the toggle switch for recording, and a shutting for taking photos.

Garmin VIRB ultra

These are both reflected through the housing.Garmin VIRB ultra

The top buttons allow you to access all of the settings and functions which you can do with the touchscreen, should you not be able to use the touch screen – e.g. it is pouring with rain when doing your recording, or you are using the camera in a wet environment such as dividing or kayaking.

Garmin VIRB ultraI am a massive fan of the toggle switch for recording. I’m not a great fan of buttons to initiate recording, as seen on the Fly12 for example. The ability to toggle and ride really makes using the camera a cinch for an action cam, or just press the button down to snap a quick photoGarmin VIRB ultra

Regarding weight, the Virb ULTRA has been on a MAJOR diet compared to the Garmin Virb XE if you look at the specs on the website, where it appears that the weight has dropped from 151g to 89.7g

Garmin Virb Ultra

But I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that Garmin is a little disingenuous with this. The XE WAS a camera and case combined you couldn’t separate

Whereas the new Garmin Virb Ultra is a small discrete camera that can be used without the case (although not in an action camera way). However, you view it the Garmin Virb Ultra is a distinctly separate unit to the case now.IMG_6490.jpg

When the Garmin Virb Ultra is weighed with the case, and no mount, we’ve seen a small weight INCREASE to 159 grammes, hence the slight disingenuous specs on Garmin’s site.

Garmin will sell you a protective cage and lens protector if you really want to skimp on the weight/reduce the bulk of the unit, but I don’t think I’d be wanting to strap the Garmin VIRB Ultra to the front of my bike with so little protectionlf-lgThe charging plate from the side of the XE has  also been removed, and instead we have a mini USB port. I’m not sure that this was a great move, as it means you can’t add a USB charging pack anymore while riding, as the USB port is hidden very much in the protective case. It is likely that Garmin are trying to gently nudge users to buying additional dedicated batteries insteadGarmin Virb Ultra

To swap the battery, insert the SD card, anything like that, you have to remove the camera from the housing, and flick a little switch on the side, which will open up the back hatch.

From there, it is a push-down, to click up the mico USB cardGarmin Virb Ultra

Or just yank out the battery using the attached tabGarmin Virb Ultra

The back of the Garmin VIRB Ultra now houses the very pretty touch screen. Garmin has ensured that the case as well is touchscreen compatible, so you can still operate the unit when attached to a mount.IMG_6652

The touch screen can be used to access all of the settings within the device and to trigger the wifi broadcast  functions to connect to your phoneIMG_0589.JPG

Specification

I think for action cameras you need to view both the device and the camera module as two different entities when looking at specs:

Camera specs

  • Image sensor: 12 MP, 1/2.3″ CMOS
  • File Type: .mp4
  • 4k video: 30, 25, 24 fps
  • Image stabilisation below 4K (3 axis)
  • 2.7k video: 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, 24 fps
  • 1440p video: 80, 75, 72, 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, 24 fps
  • 1080p video: 120, 100, 96, 90, 75, 72, 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, 24 fps
  • 960p video: 200, 120 fps
  • 720p video: 240, 120, 60, 50, 30, 25 fps
  • Still Photo resolution: 12 MP and 7 MP
  • Photo burst: 60FPS

General device specs

  • Device weight – 87.9grams
  • Screen: 1-inch screen for display of settings
  • Max SD card: 128GB
  • Battery: 980mAH – with battery life now “up to 2 hours”. I mainly got 1-2.5hrs out of it depending on resolution
  • Water resistance: 40m in case
  • Sensor compatibility: ANT+ Power, Speed, Cadence, Temp
  • Connectivity: ANT+, WiFi, Bluetooth
  • Other bits:
    • Accelerometer
    • Gyroscope
    • Altimeter
    • Compass
    • Compatible with BlueTooth audio for remote mics

Garmin Virb Ultra User Manual

The Garmin Virb Ultra 30 user manual is available in pdf from HERE

Garmin Virb UltraUsing the Device

I was a little surprised that in the standard box there wasn’t a bike mount. Several helmet mounts, but nothing to easily sling on the handle bars. Now to be fair, there is quite a large debate on the best place to position a road bike camera… but personally, I’m not a fan of mounting on the helmet. Personal preference, and in my opinion, it makes it more likely I’ll bang the camera!

In order to get the most out of the camera, you need to install the Garmin VIRB app. Either from the iOS or Google Play storeGarmin VIrb Ultra

From the app, you can then connect to the camera generated WiFi network in order to be able to use the camera from your phone, or broadcast to YouTube

IMG_6667 copy.jpg

YouTube streaming

Now you are truly a star 😛

Currently only on iOS and a guaranteed way to ensure that your mobile provider loves you forever due to the data usage you’ll rack up.

Simply pair the Virb over Wifi to your phone. Then connecting to YouTube streaming is very simple, you merely connect the app to your Google Account, load the broadcast details, and choose your upload quality.

IMG_6668

Then hit go!

BF33976A-180B-4520-A2DF-E889BE86BEF4.JPGGiven the likelihood that a user could potentially run up a large mobile phone bill without intending to, it is a small thing, but at least Garmin gives an indication of how much data you’ll be using, roughly, in a given period.

There is also the option for the camera to chose the quality given the strength of your connection, in case you are active in an area with patchy signal.=

Mounting

So I’ve been mounting the Garmin VIRB Ultra under my handlebars, while testing knocking around in ScotlandScreen Shot 2017-05-09 at 12.20.19

On the bottom of the VIRB case is a GoPro compatible mount, to allow you to attach to just about every other mount on the planet. I do like it when companies standardise on a single mount, for example, it makes consumers lives so much easier!

IMG_6516.jpg

As mentioned earlier, you get a series of mounting adapters in the box to enable you to position the Garmin in a variety of different locations to make recording and showing off your exploits to your friends (or YouTube) even easierGarmin Virb Ultra

As mentioned the actual toggle system for the shutter/recording on the Garmin VIRB Ultra is great. But Garmin have also decided to build voice activation into the unit.

Using the same approach as Google, with an “OK Garmin” command you get the unit to take a photo, start recording, stop recording, or insert a marker to your recording for easier finding later.

I didn’t think that I was really very fussed about this feature, but actually, the ability to yell “OK Garmin! Take a photo” does work when cruising down a hill towards the sunset, although not too well if you are bombing along – wind noise and all that!. When it does work the system, it is great, but when you are shooting along at speed on the bike,  using a Garmin Remote attached to the handlebars is a much better route!

Using the touch screen is a much better system, pull the padlock to unlock with your finger, and then follow the simple grid menus.

Given that Garmin has opted for a capacitive screen, I’m genuinely surprised how easy it is to use the system when the camera is in the case – assuming you haven’t gotten things wet, but as mentioned above, then you’d just use the standard buttons.

Downloading the videos from the Garmin VIRB Ultra, you need to ideally use the Garmin VIRB software. As I’ve already mentioned in the original Garmin VIRB review, the software is terrific, so you’d probably have to be a videographer, or have a very particular set of video import requirements not to opt to use the software.

Garmin VIRB Ultra

One major omission from Garmin here does relate to the above YouTube broadcast. None of the data overlays which are so effective, are available when you are doing a YouTube stream, instead, just limiting you to a simple video, which is a shame. But hopefully something which can be easily added to the iOS streaming software before long.

Test Videos

The film from any action camera is the real reason for the device review, and here are my videos. As with the GoPro Sessions review, the videos are a spin around Walton Hall. I choose this route for videos as I like it, has varied lighting elements to test exposures, and several areas of detail, such as around the Hall its self.

Here I’ve mounted three cameras to my handlebars…but ran out of mounts, so had to directly lash the GoPro Sessions to the bar – I did say that the small size of the unit is going to allow people to do extra things with the camera! I don’t think I would have liked to have done the lashing with either of the other cameras due to their slightly greater weight.

Down Hill Mountain Bike

Low Light Testing

Sound Testing

I don’t think you are going to get more of a difficult sound to “box” than that of a roaring waterfall!

Conclusion

Garmin Virb Ultra

I really like the Garmin VIRB Ultra, I liked the XE before it, so that it not a great surprise. I think one reason being that it is clear that Garmin is really developing their action camera.

Now the unit isn’t perfect. The voice activation is nice, but from a cycling perspective isn’t great, I’d have been happier with a remote in the box. However in that same breathe, Garmin have not included a BIKE mount in the box – frankly I think that is a little bit of a shame, but I feel it does highlight that the Ultra is focused on a much larger market, and that cyclist is “taken care of” when the helmet mount option.

The touch screen had improved on a few of the minor niggles I had with the VIRB XE, regarding seeing the setting on the camera when it was upside down on my bars!

Garmin has clearly polished the VIRB ultra during the production; it just works, the software works, the camera works, the buttons work. There isn’t really anything frustrating about the camera, and I continue to love the shutter/record switch:

Want to take a photo mid-activity, press the button. Want to check a setting, glance at the screen. Want to start videoing? Throw the great big toggle switch. Easy. 

As a cycling camera, I’d put the Garmin VIRB Ultra as 4/5, so many good features, several great implementations, let down by there being no cycling mount in the box… That is me being a little mealy-mouthed, as many action cameras don’t come with cycling mounts. So when you take into the price £330 for the Garmin vs. £345 for the GoPro Hero 5, I’m going to award a fairer 5/5 – yes the Garmin VIRB Ultra is really that good!

As ever, any comments, drop them below!

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