12 Sep 2013

Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15 a personal review.

After at least a year of torment and indecision I now own a Sony HDR-AS15 Action Camera. A quick(?) trip around the block on my trike shows that the image stabilisation works really rather well. The centre of the image remains amazingly still even watched at full screen. Though the edges do shuffle about a bit.

Even in overcast conditions the pictures are no better, nor really worse than expected. Though still a bit disappointing at this price point. Certainly a vast improvement on the Aldi Medion. Which was a complete waste of money.

It has to be said that the sky colours on the Sony are utterly bonkers! With turquoise well in evidence where no blue even existed. What part of childrens colouring in crayons, on acid, does Sony not understand?

The sound quality when using the essential, hermetically sealed, waterproof case is absolutely abysmal. With the camera picking up only the conducted noise of the tyres. The recorded soundtrack is nothing but a monotonous roar seemingly regardless of the road surface. Passing traffic goes almost completely unheard unless you are really lucky and a large convoy of Hells Angels passes by. I wan't that lucky. Voices nearby simply do not register, at all. So forget all about eaves dropping on the neighbours with the Sony.

I had deliberately placed the £30 Sony handlebar clamp "back to front." So the camera was brought nearer the head bearings. Rather than hanging off the front of the bars like a rather odd and oversized, semitransparent headlamp. The idea was to minimise visible handlebar rock by reducing the optical leverage. This seemed to work very well but brought the left brake lever into the edge of the picture frame even at the 120 degree setting.

Not a deal killer but an unwanted distraction in the endless tedium of watching not much else happening on an empty, rural, minor road. Towns do have a unique advantage here if you are looking for interesting videos to upload to YouTube. Most people like watching other people. (Or kittens) While one stretch of empty rural road looks very much like any other stretch of empty rural road. It soon takes on all the fascination of an empty conveyor belt. <yawn>

I have ordered a SanDisk Class 10, 32GB SDHC memory card online for £22 equiv including P&P. The same cards were £35 in the shops. No memory card (at all!) is supplied with the camera. The only homeless (Class4) card I had lying about was a 4GB. Which provides only 30 minutes of video at 1080P 30fps HQ.

So I'm working on the vague theory that one hour means about 8 GB (battery willing). This seems to match Sony's claims of about 3 hours maximum recording time. 32GB should give me a bit of leeway but not enough for a 6 hours ride by several orders of magnitude. Why no solar trickle recharging cell on the stylishly curved roof of the camera?

The lack of a memory card to play with, straight out of the box, seems like just another of Sony's deliberate own goals. How much is a Class4 4GB micro card going to cost them over a year's sales on their vast manufacturing scale? It's no wonder the dinosaur is struggling. Even the shop boy missed this serious lack and failed to offer me a suitable memory card at the point of sale while I was still in spending mode. So having a flat battery and no card has been a bit of a double whammy. (Whatever that means in the real world of Lycra-clad adults on tall, skinny tricycles.)

The new SanDisk Micro SD card turned up in the post. Truly amazing service from Cinemagic A/S. The 32GB's worth proved to offer 4 hours and 20 minutes after formatting in the camera.

Battery recharge time is around four hours via USB. (The only means of recharging the battery as sold) The separate Sony "RAPID" charger (not supplied) takes about three hours. So there's no great desire to rush out and spend even more money on that. Though a charger is essential if I don't want to recharge overnight. Which would mean leaving the computer on. Add a spare battery and a charger begins to make more sense. provided it is economically priced.

Several big retail chains advertised the Sony, at the same price I paid, without mentioning that it was Internet sales only. However, a great many of them now stock GoPro in all its expensive pick'n mix variety. So there is some serious commercial penetration going on there. Last time I looked around I could find no GoPro stock to ogle anywhere. So "the powers that be" must be following my blog very closely.

Sony's own shop in the mega shopping centre had no stock. Just as they had no stock last time I asked to see one. Perhaps they can't compete with ordinary retailers? Because then they would lose even more money than when they are standing around looking bored with no customers every time I pass.

I will readily admit that I have frequently been very sorely tempted by the GoPro Hero3 Black hype. But, at twice the price of the Sony, with absolutely infantile run times on the standard battery, I thought I'd wait until the newly crippled minted Hero 4 Au-de-Nil comes out. Just to see what problems they were promising to fix next time around. The Hero 3 Black might seem slightly more affordable and better fixed by then. Normally they slash prices to clear the shelves for the next iteration of still unfixed merchandise. The Pro in GoPro must stand for (empty) PROmises.

Surely image stabilisation is an absolute must at this price point? Sony manage it at half the discounted retail price. GoPro have only got away without it so far by using ultra wide angle, short focus lenses. Which have massive problems with fish eye distortion. Judging from the endless YouTube videos using 1080P 30fps there is really very little to choose between any two of these cameras when it comes to video picture quality in sunlight.

The Sony now boasts a few more fixtures and fittings than when it was first released. In an apparent mad dash to compete in the market with an obviously, half-finished product. So I will have to think hard about my fixing alternatives for my triking use. No, not that sort of fixing! Real tricyclists don't need Armstrong's dodgy "health supplements."

The red recording indicator light is on the back of the camera, very dull and completely invisible from above. Meanwhile, the LCD screen is on the side which will be instantly lost by any, left side of the helmet, clamping system! So its no wonder they don't supply a "big ears" clamp. That would mean that those of us who ride on the right/correct side of the road, meaning most of the barely civilised world, will be completely unable to adjust the camera or see what on earth is going on! I understand the Japanese drive on the incorrect side of the road too. So they might well have been blinded by the bleeding obvious here.

In bright light the only way for me to tell if recording is on is to get off my trike. Remove my sunglasses and put them somewhere safe. Search for, find and put on my reading glasses. Crouch beside my trike. Then peer at the tiny little screen to see if the time counter is actually running! Nul points! (In a French accent)

So an extra bright, top mounted LCD would surely give a far better indication of recording activity for bikers (and trikers) who prefer handlebar mounting via the Sony designed and retailed (Chinese) handlebar mount.

It has occurred to me (somewhat hesitantly) that a small vanity mirror on a lanyard around my neck would allow me to monitor camera activity with much less inconvenience. Though at the greatly increased risk of being pulled over by a (non-existent) patrol car for pretending to use a mobile telephone while in motion. It would also give me one more thing to remember before leaving home. And, even more importantly, one more thing to lose while out on my trike!

Once the camera is safely in its waterproof case its own warning sounds are muffled to the all but inaudible in the lightest of traffic. So I had to repeatedly perform all of the above to see if I had started recording!

Putting one's ear to the camera case, while in forward motion, may well be on the next long list of evil cycling offences. With matchingly vicious fines, planned by The Bag Lady PM.Dk in the absence of anything important to do.

Just in case you have missed the point I have to go through all of this palaver or I might just be fooling myself that I was actually capturing a "once-in-a-lifetime" video. One which would make me the envy of YouTube. Without any poorly clad, very minor celebs, iSlave worship, or kittens ever being involved.

I really can't live with the present dull roar recorded by the handlebar mounted camera  but detest wind noise even more! The supplied clamping kit can't even do a side-saddle, helmet fixing. You'd need a separate, right angle bracket equipped with a tripod screw on one leg and a tripod screw socket on the other. So, for the moment you can only wear the camera in best 1950s Martian invader style. With a strangely translucent, TV antenna sitting right on top of your space helmet. (Nanoo-nanoo) It just makes you look a complete plonker and at severe risk from aerial collisions. Certainly not the ideal solution for landlocked peasants living in half-timbered cottages. Nor regular visitors to lighting emporiums!

But! There are some excellent, dirt cheap, mobile phone clamps out there. Fitted with real tripod screws! Now showing on YT as available, for very small change, on eBayUS. These offer far more fixing promise than Sony's skeletal clamp. No doubt the latter is the result of billions of dollars of expenditure on bleeding edge R&D and is all they can (allegedly) manage for all their hordes of PhDs and a box full of patents under the bed.

A dozen video recordings later I still have very mixed feelings about the Sony Action Cam. It almost literally bursts into life, in true UHD sharpness and gorgeous Techni-colour when the sun finally deigns to come out for a moment. Except that then the waterproof case can easily fog up. Which has happened twice already unbeknownst to the chump pedalling furiously right behind the camera. (Until he climbed off again, of course)

To maximise the true enjoyment of action cams you probably need to move to barmy balmy California, the Med, or even Africa. Most cameras seem to thrive on sunshine but go rapidly downhill with the arrival of cloud and lower light conditions. This is totally regardless of Sony's empty hype about their special Exmoør sensor and its supposedly miraculous abilities in poor light. It's all pure hype. Totally untrue. Lies by any other name judging from my own experience with this Sony (Sunshine only) Action Camera.

They even misspell the sensor's name on the side of the camera as if to ward off evil clouds. And, I still haven't dared mention (until now) that it can only manage 2MB stills! My very first, Sony, compact, digital camera was the size and weight of a compact, round-the-world-cruise,  luggage trunk. Yet it still managed a hypothetical 3.5MB with a following wind. The Exmoør is supposed to have mid teens, image devastation capability in the seemingly endless MB wars. Not so with the Sony Action Camera. Perhaps they feared people would buy it for [gasp] alternative uses? Which might undermine sales of their more profitable lines.

Confused? I know I am. I put off the purchase of any (expensive) action cam while turning myself inside out doing my homework online. I scoured YouTube, read endless technical reviews and ploughed through countless forums to see which was really the best camera. The real answer seems to have been that none of them is best. At least not yet. They each seem to limp from one severe handicap to the next. Somehow, no one camera had quite cornered the market for being the really badly crippled commercial product. Except perhaps the Aldi at £70. But that may not count.

I was almost certain that Sony's finest R&D bods would get a severe kicking from on high and very quickly come up with the Action Cam 2! Tarah!! This one would fix all the pathetically childish design faults of their first iteration. Don't even get me started on a shopping list of obvious potential improvements. But no. Sony was much too proud to fall on it sword and publicly admit the half-baked first edition was a total disaster. They grudgingly released a flat lens cover for playing rude games in the bath but that was about it. Hardly a life-changing admission of abject failure.

So, the electronic sockets are all still arranged under an irritating flap on the bottom. Where they can't possibly be reached in the waterproof case. Nor, more importantly, can the vital control buttons on the side! So make sure you have a dry paper hanky ready when you resurface from 60 metres to reset the camera to something more useful than ultra slow motion. When all you intended to do was film some gently wafting seaweed in a (gentle) current to take YouTube by <cough> storm.

There is still no simple clamp nor stand offered with a flat bottom and tripod screw socket. It still won't stand up unless constantly attended by a trained team of  helpers with lightning fast reactions. Yes the bare camera is sweet and even rather dinky if,  like me, you have a particular fetish for matt black plastic. However, the Action Cam grows truly lumpen if you have to use the essential waterproof case. How else will you hold the damned thing still?

The Sony image stabilisation sold me in the end but it only works at 120 degrees. The slow motion is fun but takes its only cue from the silent movies of over a century ago! Cue piano!

I haven't yet mentioned the PlayMemories bundled software. Which seems not to offer any useful editing facilities at all. Except trim and join. Even the Aldi camera software had a "Dynamic Lighting" button to bring a little relief on those endless dull days. What about image rotation to cope with the fixed stare of the rigidly formal Asian uprightness of the Sony? Not in your lifetime!

Though I notice that the Sony is labelled as "Made in China." So, once the clever Chinese have backward reverse engineered all of Sony's alien technology, we can expect a raft of vastly superior (forgeries) competitive models to be rolling off their own production lines sometime soon. Probably sometime next week.

Who needs industrial espionage when people keep sending the Chinese the real thing to play with? Keep an eye out if you are still looking for a much better camera than the HDR-AS15. Unless, of course, Sony actually manage to right all the wrongs, fire all the dead wood in R&D and bring out a truly world beating Action Cam 2.

It would  not be fair to describe the Sony handlebar clamp as anything less than accomplished.  Though no lightweight it offers a wide range of soft rubber clamp liners. Pressing the sprung button allows the head to rotate on its axis against a series of firmly locking clicks. So the camera can not only be fitted to a wide range of handlebar sizes but lifted and lowered relative to the handlebars themselves by rotating the whole device around the clamp.

If the knurled clamping wheel is loosened slightly the camera can also be rotated horizontally on the tripod screw as it sits on its firm rubber plate. The whole thing is rather impressive. Being strong enough to last and looks the part in use. Though the camera in its clear housing looks a bit obvious and even rather incongruous sitting up on top.

Provided you don't mind using the clear plastic case the handlebar mount makes a decent handle to turn the camera in to small handheld video camera. The case will kill the sound of course unless you physically knock it. A trial video in the garden was acceptable with bright overcast provided I didn't turn towards the sun. Then everything went very dark with lots of false colours and over-bright skies. I have just ordered a mobile phone clamp with a tripod socket. So by next week I should be able to have videos with sound. Provided I don't use slow motion.

There is probably little doubt that there are at least two kinds of customers for the Sony AS15. Those few who normally enjoy a great deal of bright sunshine. They will probably be absolutely delighted with their Sony Action Camera and will want to share their good luck online. They will rave about the picture quality to anyone who will listen.

Image borrowed and altered from David Gilsen's photography blog.


Then there are all of those who, through no fault of their own, live further from the equator. They will see their blocky, smudgy, soft focus, almost monochromatic, greeny-grey and off-white videos with some distaste. This group will just have to wait for the technology to catch up with cameras sensitive enough to break through the all-pervading gloom. Or, perhaps there ought to be a separate camera for the Scandinavian market? One to cope with the lower average light levels. Or at least offer a camera menu setting for "dreadfully dull".

In conclusion: Sony can and must do (much, much) better than this if they are to be taken seriously in the action cam arena! Otherwise, why bother? Surely they aren't just money laundering to offset taxes? It's all very well letting little children design your toy cameras for you. But you still have to take responsibility for the success or failure of the final commercial product. Most of which will be bought by naive adults: People like me. People no longer willing to damn with faint praise and who will tell it how they really see it.

Bottom line: After two days of mostly cloudy weather, with occasional sunshine, I still don't have a single video I'd want to share with anybody. Otherwise you'd find it embedded here after I'd uploaded it to YouTube. To receive international praise from the (YT) film critics for its artistry and production values.

Click on any image for an enlargement.

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