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Sony Action Cam review: Good, but not without its issues

Though the Action Cam has good features and specs for its price, this tiny POV camera's design and performance are a bit of a letdown.

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Joshua Goldman
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Joshua Goldman

Managing Editor / Advice

Josh Goldman helps people find the best laptop at the best price -- from simple Chromebooks to high-end gaming laptops. He's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software for more than two decades.

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7 min read

The action cam market is dominated by companies that don't have a history of making other types of cameras. There is no GoPro point-and-shoot or Contour digital SLR. So, when a manufacturer like Sony gets into the market, it's reasonable to think it might be able to make a great POV camcorder, at least in terms of video quality.

Sony_Action_Cam_HDR-AS15_35426716_01.jpg
6.8

Sony Action Cam

The Good

The <b>Sony Action Cam</b> is a good entry in the POV camera market that includes a waterproof case with a standard tripod mount; is available with or without Wi-Fi; has a small, lightweight body; and offers a decent number of recording options.

The Bad

Video quality is disappointing viewed at larger sizes; can't rotate lens or flip video 180 degrees; camera can't stand on its own and can't easily be used without a door on its case; no access to mic jack when inside case; no still photos beyond interval shots; and additional purchases almost required.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Action Cam is a solid first effort and worth its price, but some design shortcomings may be enough to put off some potential buyers.

Its first efforts in the category, the Sony Action Cam HDR-AS10 and HDR-AS15 (the AS15 has built-in Wi-Fi, the AS-10 does not), make a good initial impression, too. That impression doesn't hold up after use, though.

Maybe Sony was trying to stay below a certain price or wanted the camera to be as small and light as possible. Whatever the reason, in design and usability the Action Cam falls shy of models both above and below its price level. That said, it does offer some nice features, especially if you opt for the Wi-Fi-enabled AS15, and video is on par with that of similarly priced models, though it's best suited for small-screen viewing.

In the box
Sony includes a shock-proof/waterproof housing and two adhesive mounts, one flat and one curved. The housing is waterproof down to 197 feet and has dirt- and dust-resistant seals. It's great that it's so sealed up out of the box, and the housing has a standard quarter-inch tripod mount in the bottom, so it can be used with a wide variety of available mounts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

However, since the housing is waterproof, the stereo mics on the front of the camera aren't exposed, so when it's sealed you'll get nothing but muffled audio. Sony sells a pack of two other doors -- one with a flat lens for underwater use and one with mic openings -- for about $50. They aren't available separately, and neither is the door that comes with the housing. If you scratch the lens covering on one of the doors, you're stuck buying another two-pack or an entire $40 housing.

Also, with the camera completely sealed, there's a good chance you might end up with some condensation inside that could fog the lens. Sony sells desiccant packs, but you can squeeze a small silica gel pack (like the kind you'd find in a shoebox) into the housing and accomplish the same thing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The two included mounts are somewhat large and the adhesive is somewhat weak, so you might be better off finding alternatives that use the tripod mount or just getting better adhesive pads. Other mounts are available, including a head strap that doesn't require the housing. There's also a cradle with a 2.7-inch LCD screen that flips out so you can use the Action Cam like a traditional handheld camera, albeit a very small one.

Design and features
The size and weight of the Action Cam are impressive. The supercompact camcorder measures 2 inches high by 2.6 inches deep by 0.9 inch wide and only weighs about 3.2 ounces with its included NP-BX1 battery pack (a tray is included for use with Sony's NP-BG1 battery, too). That means there's less camera to strap to the side of your head or wherever else you plan to mount it. Because of its rounded bottom, though, it will almost always need to be in some sort of mount when being used, and although the included housing doesn't add a lot to its size and weight, it does add to it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ideally, there should be a tripod mount on the actual camera, but really there's no room for one. On the back are a big record button and a hold switch so you don't accidentally start and stop recordings. The whole back, though, is a sliding door that covers the battery compartment and a card slot supporting both microSD and Memory Stick Micro cards.

Pry open the door on the bottom and you'll find Micro-USB and Micro-HDMI ports, an expansion connector for use with the aforementioned camcorder cradle, and an external mic jack, which is a rarity on action cameras. Here's the thing, though: you can't use the external mic jack with the supplied housing or any of the other housings or mounts available from Sony. You're basically on your own if you want to mount the camera and use the mic jack.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Similarly, if you want to use the built-in stereo mics, you have to buy the appropriate door or another mount from Sony or find some other way to secure the camera inside the included case while the waterproof door is off. There is nothing keeping the camera from sliding out of the case without a door on it either, so if for some reason the lock should accidentally open when the door is on, the camera will pop right out.

The small LCD on the right side of the body is for viewing your settings and making changes to them using the two buttons to the right of the screen. The buttons aren't accessible through the waterproof housing; if you want to do anything other than start and stop recordings (a single press of the record button turns the camera on and starts a new recording), you have to take the camera out of the housing. Not the end of the world, but the body is particularly slippery and with no edges to really hold onto, the bare camera is pretty easy to drop. On the upside, I did drop it several times and even though the back door cover popped off, it easily went back on and the camera kept working.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You get five MP4 recording options: 1080p30, 720p120 (for 4x slow-motion capture), 720p60 (for 2x slow-motion capture), 720p30, and 480p30. The camera has digital image stabilization and can also do time-lapse photography shooting 16-megapixel stills. There is no option to just snap a single photo or a burst of photos, though.

The lens' field of view is 170 degrees as long as you have the digital image stabilization shut off. With the DIS on, it crops the video, changing the field of view to 120 degrees. Unlike models such as the Drift HD Ghost and ContourRoam2, the Sony Action Cam offers no way to rotate the lens, so leveling the camera can be tricky depending on your mount. And, should you mount the camera upside down, you'll have to flip the video with editing software; models like the GoPro Hero3 can be set to rotate the image 180 degrees.

Lastly, there's the Wi-Fi. It might be tempting to go with the less expensive AS10, but I recommend spending more for the Wi-Fi-enabled AS15, if possible. Not so much for the option to transfer or upload videos on the go (though that is nice), but for remote control of the camera.

Initial setup is generally easy: download and install the iOS or Android app, turn on the camera's remote-control option, open the app on your mobile device and enter the camera's password (stored in the camera in a text file), and then wait several seconds for them to connect. From there you get a live view of what the camera sees, and can use the mobile device to start and stop recordings and change resolution settings.

Video quality

The video from the Sony Action Cam reminds me a lot of the video from Sony's old Bloggie minicamcorders. When shooting scenes with little movement of the subject or the camera, video is reasonably sharp and detailed without looking crunchy. The Action Cam handles motion better than the Bloggie models ever did, though; things look nice and smooth.

On the other hand, with complex scenes or fast movement, you will see plenty of artifacts and lose a fair amount of detail (the maximum bit rate is 16Mbps, which is about average for POV cameras). Colors are oversaturated, but that seems to be standard for action cams. Exposure is generally good and transitions smoothly when conditions change, though highlights easily blow out.

Perhaps most disappointing for me are the lens flare and the amount of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) around high-contrast subjects. Also, there is some visible color banding in images of blue skies.

Viewed at smaller sizes on a computer screen, a lot of these things are not as noticeable, and if your main goal is to share your clips online, the Sony's not a bad choice given its price and features. Blown up on a larger HDTV, though, the video is less impressive.

Audio quality is very good, but as mentioned earlier, you basically lose use of the built-in mics once you seal up the included housing with the waterproof door. If you're going to want audio while you're shooting, you'll need to buy the two-pack of housing doors, find another mount that exposes the mics, or work out a DIY solution.

Conclusion
Like I said at the beginning of the review, the Sony Action Cam makes a good first impression. During use, though, there are a lot of minor issues that keep it from being as good as models from other manufacturers. Even its video, the one area where I'd expect Sony to shine, is pretty average and that's not improved by a mediocre lens (regardless of what name is attached to it). However, the current sub-$240 price for the Wi-Fi-enabled AS15 is good for what you get, and none of my complaints are so serious that the camera would not be worth considering if it does what you need it to do.

Sony_Action_Cam_HDR-AS15_35426716_01.jpg
6.8

Sony Action Cam

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 7Image quality 7
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