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Sony Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 review: Full-size performance in a tiny body

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Consider Sony's Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 to be a streamlined version of the Action Cam HDR-AS100V , its top-of-the-line POV camera.

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8.2

Sony Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1

The Good

The Sony Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 is smaller and lighter than many competitors; it has excellent video quality with solid electronic image stabilization; the live-view remote lets you wirelessly preview, review and change settings, and has GPS; it has a splashproof body and a removable, rechargeable battery; the included tripod mount gives you plenty of accessory choice.

The Bad

Recording at its highest bitrate requires a microSDXC card; changing settings requires a wireless connection to a mobile device or the remote; battery life can be brief; its curved lens isn't great for underwater use; Wi-Fi connection to the live-view remote is temperamental; using image stabilization reduces its angle of view; the dual-format card slot can be a pain.

The Bottom Line

A leaner, lighter version of its top POV camera, the Sony Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 puts big performance in a little package.

Basically, Sony shed much of that higher-end models extra features like its video and audio jacks, but kept its excellent high-bitrate XAVC-S-format video, Zeiss Tessar f2.8 lens with a 170-degree field of view, electronic image stabilization and wireless features. It even updated its Live-View Remote that puts a color LCD on your wrist to control the camera and preview and review shots.

Getting rid of those extra features allowed Sony to make the camera very compact. Though with small bodies come small batteries and other compromises that may put you off.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

GoPro's Hero4 Silver may have received our Editors' Choice Award, but the Action Cam Mini is great in its own right and, for some, will be the better choice. The Sony is also technically less expensive than the GoPro, too (there are some potential hidden costs).

The Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 can be bought alone in the US for about $250. It is also available as a bundle, the AZ1VR, with the second-generation of Sony's Live-View Remote for around $350, £279 in the UK and AU$479 in Australia.

Features and design

With traditional cameras, small and lightweight can be a good thing, but there's a point where cameras can be too small and light making them difficult to use. With mountable video cameras like the AZ1, the smaller and lighter, the better.

At about two-thirds the size of the AS100V Action Cam , the Mini is just as wide as that camera at 24.2mm (0.95 inch), but its height has been cut by 10.5mm, down to 36mm (1.4 inches), and the length is 76mm (3 inches), shaving off 5.5mm. Plus, it weighs about an ounce less at 2.2 ounces (63 grams).

Joshua Goldman/CNET

That size difference is all the more impressive because there isn't much of a performance gap between the two. However, they are different enough that you may want to go with the higher-end model.

The feature differences include a 13.5-megapixel effective resolution for the AS100V versus 11.9 megapixels for the AZ1; your high-speed slow-motion video choices are just 720p at 120fps on the AZ1, while the AS100V can do up to 240fps at 800x480-pixel resolution; there is no HDMI output, mic jack or expansion port on the AZ1 and GPS isn't built in.

The AZ1 is also missing the AS100V's larger built-in LCD. The AZ1 has a screen, but it's so small it's only used to let you know the battery, Wi-Fi and memory card statuses. Unlike the AS100V's, the AZ1's buttons can't be used to change settings, beyond powering on the Wi-Fi and selecting its mode: single connection, multiple camera or live-stream.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

All other setting changes for the Mini need to be done with either the Live-View Remote or an iOS or Android device connected to the camera via Wi-Fi. It's for this reason I would strongly recommend picking up the AZ1VR bundle that includes the camera and the Live-View Remote (RM-LVR2V); though the camera can be picked up on its own in the US, the remote can't be purchased separately.

True to its name, when the remote is paired to the AZ1 you get a live view from the camera so it doesn't take more than a glance at your wrist to see if you're getting the shot you want. The remote can also simultaneously control up to five Action Cams and it has GPS to grab location data for your videos and photos.

On the screen's left are mode/navigation buttons, on top are menu and display buttons with a power button on the bottom and on front is a big record/enter button. That's a lot of buttons for a wrist remote, and navigation can be confusing at first if you're trying to make a quick change.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The two connect to each other relatively quickly. There were times, however, when the connection would drop and it wouldn't reconnect without powering down both the remote and camera. It's not the end of the world, but it's a potential source of frustration.

If you don't want to pay extra for the bundle, you can use your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet and Sony's PlayMemories Mobile app, which lets you do all the same things as the remote. The camera has NFC, too, so if you have an Android device with NFC, you can just tap the two together and the app will launch and connect.

Squeezing it all in

It's pretty amazing how much Sony managed to fit into the Mini, but there are definite compromises, the battery being one. It's a smaller rechargeable pack than you'll find in the AS100V, which could be a reason why GPS was removed and put into the Live-View Remote.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

I tested the battery life continuously recording at 1080p at 60fps in MP4 (28Mbps) and averaged 1 hour and 18 minutes. That was better than I expected, but switching to the camera's high-bitrate format and/or using Wi-Fi shortens that. Basically, you'll want to buy a backup or two if you're going out for a full day of shooting.

Behind two panels on the back, you'll find a Micro-USB port and a memory card slot that takes both microSD cards and Memory Stick Micro cards. Normally this would be a good thing, but it makes it very easy to seat the card incorrectly, which you may not know until you're ready to record. On top of that, you'll need at least a 64GB SDXC card to record in XAVC-S format.

On-board controls are minimal. Aside from the power button, there's a record button that, with one press, will turn on the camera and start recording. There is a hold switch to keep this from happening accidentally. Lastly, you'll find a Wi-Fi button for powering that on and off and changing its mode.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

In the box along with the camera and remote (should you buy the bundle), you'll get a Micro-USB cable, a battery, a waterproof housing good down to 5 meters (16 feet) and a tripod mount that clips on and securely screws into the base of the camera. There is a quick-connect buckle to use with the flat and curved adhesive mounts that are part of the package.

Sony has a little more than a dozen mounts available for the camera, though about half of those use a standard 1/4-20 tripod mount. The rest take advantage of the quick-connect buckle.

Video and photo quality

Again, despite the smaller size, the Mini's video quality is close to the AS100V and on par with the GoPro Hero4 Silver.

The camera can be set to record in MP4 at bitrates up to 28Mbps or Sony's XAVC S format (in an MP4 container) at a bitrate of 50Mbps. In MP4, you can record in 1080p at 60fps or 30fps; 720p at 30fps or 120fps; and 480p at 30fps. The 720p at 120fps can be recorded as slow-motion video or just at high-speed. For the best video quality, you'll want to go with the XAVC S format available in full HD at 60, 30 and 24 frames per second.

The clips in the video above were recorded in XAVC-S format in 1080p at 60fps with Sony's advanced SteadyShot electronic image stabilization. Using the EIS does narrow the field of view to 120 degrees, and it occasionally looks jerky to me, but it's way better than the wobbly mess it could be.

The camera has Vivid or Neutral color settings. The video above was shot in Vivid, but even the Neutral setting is all too neutral. There are no other controls though save for an Underwater scene mode, which I imagine is made for bluer waters than I tested in. GoPro's Protune mode on the Hero4 might not give you noticeably better video, but it does offer you more control over the final results.

As we experienced with the AS100V, highlights tend to blow out (common for these small-sensor cameras) and while exposure is generally very good, if the camera is head mounted or moves around a lot, you can expect exposure to change with it.

Audio quality is quite good, too. In the clips, only the underwater and skating scenes were in the housing. I did cut the audio from the driving scenes as the wind noise was just too much.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

Photos are good, but nothing special. You can shoot single photos at 11.9 megapixels or set it to capture 2-megapixel photos at shooting intervals of 1 second, 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds and 60 seconds.

Conclusion

The first couple Action Cams from Sony gave the impression it was coasting on its brand recognition. The Action Cam AS100V and the Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1, on the other hand, are serious entries that deserve consideration. Thanks to its size, weight and performance, the AZ1 might just have you saying goodbye to GoPro.

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Sony Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Image quality 8