HTC Re camera review: A camera so simple it doesn't even have a power button
Getting people to put down their phones and pick up a camera isn't easy, but HTC is betting the Re is the little shooter that might do the trick.
The HTC Re isn't anything that didn't already exist in one form or another. It's basically an heir to the Flip-style minicamcorder or, more accurately, the pistol-grip Sanyo Xacti dual-cameras and a cousin to current POV action cams.
The little periscope-shaped shooter (asthma inhaler and right-angle flashlight are also suitable comparisons) is designed so that you stop watching and recording life through your smartphone's screen and get in on the experience instead by simply pointing the Re at what you want to grab and not worrying about framing.
However, the Re costs $199 in the US and £169 in the UK. The Re has just launched in Australia for an equally hefty AU$249. That's no small sum of money for something that duplicates capabilities already found in your smartphone and requires you to carry around a second device, even if it is very small and light.
As single-purpose devices go, though, the Re does what it does well, with at least part of the credit going to HTC's smartphone expertise.
Design and features
Though the body is certainly compact and lightweight, the large lens is tough to miss -- an ultrawide f2.8 lens with an 146-degree angle of view. Behind it is a 1/2.3-inch 16-megapixel Sony-made CMOS sensor.
That sensor is bigger than what you'd find in almost all smartphones, but average for point-and-shoot cameras and action cams such as those from GoPro and Sony. And that lens is so wide that you can pretty much just aim it at your subject and you'll have them in the frame. Still, it'll take some trial and error to know what will actually be in your shot.
The vertical tube that bends down from the lens barrel gives you something easy and stable to hold for one-handed shooting, though the plastic gets slippery after some use. Your thumb falls naturally on the bend where there is a big shutter release/record button.
HTC pitches the Re more as a lifestyle cam like Polaroid's Cube than a rugged action cam for extreme sports, but the body is waterproof to 1 meter (3.3 feet) for up to 30 minutes without an additional housing.
That means capturing that time-lapse of a passing thunderstorm or a splash in the pool should be no problem. There is also an optional waterproof cap that lets you take it down to 3 meters (9.8 feet) for up to 120 minutes.
However peculiar it looks, the design works well for picking it up, pointing and shooting. Press the big button once and it captures a 16-megapixel photo in 4:3 format (12- or 8.3-megapixel if you opt for a 16:9 format). Press and hold for a couple seconds and it starts recording video at 1080p or 720p resolution, at 30 frames per second. You can choose from an ultrawide view with some barrel distortion, or a narrower view that's cropped in to correct the distortion.
A red light shines through the button's surface and blinks when recording; a second record light is on the front along with a speaker hole. The camera emits a bleep when you start and stop a recording or take a photo. This can be silenced, but the lights cannot be shut off.
Another button in the crook under the lens switches from recording regular video into a slow-motion mode capturing 720p video at 96fps. Press and hold the button and it changes modes, then just press the record button as usual.
There's no audio in this mode and it is straight slow-motion and not high-speed video that can be slowed down when editing. Also, once you stop the slow-motion recording, the camera changes back to its regular video capture mode.
Perhaps the coolest part about the Re's design is what's missing, though: a power button.
The body has capacitive touch sensors built into it, so the camera turns on as soon as you pick it up. And really that's one of the biggest advantages to grabbing the Re instead of your phone. There is no unlocking or launching of apps; you just pick it up and press the shutter.
There is no screen, so you'll have to get used to framing shots without one, which, again, is actually easier than it sounds given the wide-angle lens. If you want to see what you're shooting, though, you can wirelessly connect the Re to your smartphone.
The Re connects to your mobile device via Wi-Fi with an assist from Bluetooth LE. Launch the Re app (which is available for Android and iOS later this year) and it initiates the connection process via Wi-Fi. Once connected you can control the camera, remotely starting and stopping recordings or snapping photos.
The app lets you view and download your recordings, too, so you can edit and share from your smartphone. Plus, if you have HTC's Zoe app installed on your device, you can use it to assemble a highlight reel of photos and video from selected shots.
With the app you can also activate a time-lapse mode so you can take a series of photos over a period of time, which it uses to create a movie (the photos are saved as separate JPEGs as well). You can set how often it takes a photo, how long to record for and playback speed -- 30fps, 10fps or 1fps. The app even calculates how long the final video will be and how many photos it'll be made from.
When the camera is not in use, but still in range of your phone, Bluetooth LE is used as a low-power way to keep a connection between it and the Re. That way, when you reopen the app, the connection process is a few seconds shorter.
In general, the Wi-Fi experience is good, but don't expect it to be completely frustration-free. It seemed especially temperamental in areas with tons of wireless network traffic, whereas out in an open area like a park, the connection was solid.
As for mounting options, there's a standard 1/4-20 tripod mount on the bottom so really no problems there. Well, other than it being plastic instead of metal. HTC has a few mounts specifically designed for the Re's tubular body, as well as a handy battery base for shooting extended time-lapse videos.
Along with the tripod mount on the bottom you'll find a Micro-USB port and a microSD card slot for storage. An 8GB card is included, but the camera supports cards up to 128GB.
HTC estimates battery life at about an hour and a half for continuous 1080p video capture and my testing jibed with that. Using Wi-Fi will definitely shorten that time, but the idea is that you take it out of your pocket, shoot a short clip or snap a couple photos and move on. The battery isn't removable, but HTC sells an extender battery that locks into the base, making for one very long camera body.
Video and photo quality
Chances are good you'll be viewing the Re's video on a smartphone or tablet, and that's where it looks best. Viewed closely at larger sizes on a computer monitor, details are mushy and soft. The 30fps video doesn't look the smoothest, especially with fast-moving subjects. There's also visible fringing around subjects in high-contrast areas.
That said, at small sizes, such as on your smartphone's screen, it's pretty good-looking video. Even low-light video, while certainly softer and noisier, is usable as long as you're not too picky. Underwater video was also very good.
While it does have electronic image stabilization, it's not terribly effective. Under heavy camera shake or vibration video looks Jell-O-ey and watching it might make you a little queasy. It'll handle walking OK, but for the most part you'll want to keep it as steady as possible.
Colors are a little flat and not the supersaturated look you might expect from this type of camera. While white balance was good, particularly under incandescent and fluorescent lighting, moving the camera around might result in some color shifting. The same goes for exposure.
As a still camera, I liked using the Re quite a bit -- even with its noticeable shutter lag -- mainly because I could just point and shoot without powering it up first. Like its video, however, the Re's photos are best viewed at small sizes. Subjects can look overprocessed, but once you start to enlarge, things start to look more and more like paintings. (Click on the images above and below to view at full size.)
And, like low-light video, dimly lit photos are noisy and soft. Because there's no optical image stabilization to help out, you'll have to be careful about camera movement in low light, too.
As minicamcorders go, the HTC Re is a pretty solid little entry in what's a very crowded market. The only real difference between it and an "action cam" is the design, which is made more for quick one-handed shooting than for hands-free mounting. The instant-on shooting is what stands out here, but the camera is good overall, if a little too expensive for an impulse purchase.