Motorcycle Words

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Cheap Action Camera | How Bad Can it Be? (Part 1)

dbpower-camera-frontIf you ride motorcycles, chances are you’ve owned or considered owning an action camera to record your rides. I’ve owned a few over the years to make videos for reviews of motorcycles and to demonstrate some great roads to ride on.  Since I shut down Nashvilleriders.com last year I haven’t had much need to for these little cameras and I sold mine off.

Now that I have started this blog and I will be heading down to Barber this weekend for the Vintage festival it seemed like a good time to jump back in to video capture on a bike. Plus it seems like a good idea to ride with a camera these days to make sure you CYA in the event of a crash where someone else caused the incident.

I started looking at was available in the “cheap” range of action camera devices on Amazon. I was surprised how many small action cameras are available and how many of them appear to be very close reproductions of GoPro’s HERO units. The difference in price is astounding!

After reading several reviews and looking at the specs, I settled on one of the DBPower camera units, specifically the Sports HD DV camera. This camera includes all the various mounts and accessories one would need for mounting on a motorcycle, helmet, or pretty much anything I can think of. It also shoots 1080p video, shoot stills on an interval, and best of all costs only $45.99 (USD) with free shipping via Amazon Prime.

Only $45.99!! Well, how bad can it be, right? Let’s find out.

In the Package

In the first part of the review I am just going over what’s included, which frankly is a lot, and also first impressions of the camera and system. Here’s what came in the package:

dbpower-camera-system

Includes all of this stuff, minus the suction cup

The HD DV Camera unit | waterproof housing | four connectors (regular, 90 degree, tall 90 degree, swivel) | camera clip-on frame | belt clip for clip-on frame | two batteries | snap in quick release connectors | two snap in bases (one with tripod thread) | tubular bar adapter | two nylon straps | two hook and loop straps | extra 3M adhesive pads | Steel cable loop | four zip ties | extra housing closure | extra battery door | extra acorn nut | micro fiber cleaning cloth

Whew! That’s a lot of stuff and it fits into a rather small box. You can see the box in the photo with all the contents laid out. The only thing that wasn’t packed in the box is the Pana-Vise suction cup mount for GoPro on which the waterproof housing is mounted. I set this in place to demonstrate how most of the accessory pieces for mounting the camera will connect with actual GoPro hardware. Since I had several pieces of GoPro hardware on hand I thought I would be able to use some of it with this camera but so much came in the package, the only item I might need is the suction cup mount.

Having some official GoPro hardware on hand I did some side by side comparison and I can say, unsurprisingly, that the GoPro hardware has a nicer finish and attention to detail. The plastic pieces from GoPro seem a bit more flexible in regards to the tangs on the quick release clips where the DB Power hardware feels like it might snap if a little care isn’t taken. Not to say it feels brittle, but I can see how quality of the plastic will be a factor down the road so a little care now might help improve the usable life of the hardware.

The Camera

Enough about the hardware, let’s get to the camera. You can see looking at the photos that from ten feet away that one would be hard pressed to think this is anything but a GoPro HERO series camera. Specifically the Hero 3 comes to mind when viewing this camera from DBPower even down to the texture of the upper, lower, and side sections. Unlike that particular Hero Model, the DBPower camera has a screen on the back for monitoring and reviewing videos as well as setting the functions of the camera.

The screen is small at 1.5 inches (36mm) but it is bright and reasonably clear. Better than one would expect for a camera costing less than $50.00 (USD) for sure. To the lower left of the screen are two LED’s for indicating recording, charging, and power on. Moving to the left side of the camera is a USB port used for charging the battery as well as transferring files from the MicroSD card (not included) to a computer. There is also a micro HDMI port for showing videos straight from the camera to an HDMI equipped monitor or TV.

dbpower-camera-top         dbpower-camera-left-back

On top there is one large button with OK screened on it used for starting/stopping recording and snapping still photos. The button also is used for selections in the camera’s menu system. Next to the button is another LED light indicating recording is in progress. The right side of the camera has two small buttons used for menu navigation as well as adjusting the 4X digital zoom function.

On the front of the camera is the power button which also functions as a “Mode” button. after powering up the camera, this button cycles the camera between video, stills, playback, and menu modes. Finally, on the bottom of the camera is the battery opening and associated door. The door is rather small and completely removes from the body when opened. I can see this getting lost pretty easily and so did the manufacturer I guess seeing as they included a spare in the package.

Features

For my part I just want a simple camera for capturing ride videos. Maybe having something like a 60fps mode for doing some slow motion video would be nice too. This type of feature set is pretty common in most cameras of this type now and this camera is right in line with that. The highest quality mode shots video in .mov format and supports resolutions from VGA (640X480) all the way up to FHD (1920X1080) with the highest resolution captured at 30 frames per second. Lowering the resolution to 1280X720 and below results in 60 frames per second footage. If one is interested in super slow motion such as 120 fps then you might need to look elsewhere.

I received the camera with about a 60% charge in the battery so I was able to immediately start going through the menu to set up the camera. I was very surprised and impressed with the depth of adjustable options for this little device. In addition to adjusting resolution one can set ISO, white balance, and even exposure compensation. For someone like me who like setting these things manually, these options are huge and these are just the tip of the “menu” iceberg. There are a  lot of settings and adjustments one can make, so many in fact, that I’m going to wait to delve into it more in the second part of this review.

dbpower-camera-right      dbpower-camera-left

For now I am just going to touch on a few more of the feature highlights, such as HDR recording. I noticed in a few quick test videos that the scenes looked pretty contrasty and it was a bright sunny moment when i took these clips. Having flipped by the HDR setting when browsing the lengthy menu system, i thought I would see if it really helped. The answer was yes! The resulting footage was much “flatter” and didn’t block up the shadows like the first test shots. I like lower contrast footage for video as it can always be graded later and it is much easier to create pleasing and punchy video from this kind of footage than from trying to recover detail from contrasty footage (if it can be recovered at all).

In addition to video, the camera can shoot still images up to 12mp  and can do so at an adjustable rate. There is also a feature called “snapper” that has to do with stills but the instruction manual is rather brief and doesn’t go into a lot of details on some features. One should be prepared to take some time to experiment to fully understand all the features if not familiar with digital cameras already. Even those familiar with these types of cameras might do a little head scratching and testing to figure it all out.

The DBPower camera uses Micro SD cards store stills and video and I understand they can be sensitive to usage of slower cards (i.e. it will not record anything).  Also the largest card support is 32 gigabytes and there is no card included. Finally a reason this camera is so cheap, right? Well I don’t think having to by a card is a great expense. I found a 32G SanDisk card at the local Office Depot for $12.99 (USD). Inserted into the camera it shows over 5 hours of space available at 1080p. More time than I’ll ever need.

I’ve read other reviews on this camera that claim battery like was pretty good and that it would record 1080p footage for about 1 hour and 35 minutes. A similar GoPro Hero 3 with the same capacity battery actually ran for a few minutes less. Of course the Hero probably has a more powerful image processing chip that could easily explain the difference.

Initial Impressions

On paper, in theory, and getting the camera in my hands I cannot believe the feature set and included hardware can be had for less than $50.00 (US). The very short clips I took from the camera just to confirm it works looked good and better than expected. I’m not posting any clips yet as I want to spend some time with some real world footage and try out different settings of which there are many.

So at this point it all looks pretty good and quite a steal for the money. I can confirm the camera turns on and shoots video and I can view it on my computer so we’re off to a promising start. Do I think this is a GoPro killer, not really. GoPro cameras shoot excellent footage and they have excellent sound quality compared to most of their peers. They are also very durable and have a reputation for taking a licking, as it were.

While this camera from DBPower takes more than just a cue from the GoPro HERO design, I have my doubts that it is made as tough on the inside. The quick test clips show the footage is decent but the footage out of my old HD HERO 2 looked better straight out of the camera. Also GoPro has quite an ecosystem of accessories as well as excellent video editing software geared towards users who need a simple way to edit and upload their footage.

On the other hand GoPro cameras are expensive and people who aren’t sure that shooting videos is for them might not be willing to take the plunge with such a high cost of admission. Cameras like the one reviewed here could be the “gateway drug” to the action camera world. Some may find they enjoy it so much that once their cheap knock off breaks down they still have that desire to shoot more videos. After the disappointment of their first camera dying , they might be incentivised  to “go pro”  as it were. That’s assuming the cheap camera breaks of course.

In the next part of this review will seem some actual footage break down some more of the feature set.

1 Comment

  1. I’m one of those that has been thinking about getting a video camera for rides, but I don’t really want to spend the $$ for the GoPro – not for a first time out anyway 🙂

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