I had been looking for an action camera for awhile, mostly for biking but also for hiking and other activities. While biking there have been many things that I would have liked to catch on video or photoed over the years that I have missed. Not to mention the sheer number of times people who have done stupid things while I have been biking that I would have liked to catch on video.
I do have a nice Canon Rebel, an older Canon point and shoot, and a pretty good quality Samsung cameraphone (the Samsung Galaxy Alpha). But hauling around a Rebel on something like a bike isn’t practical nor safe of course (though it’s occasionally done) and I’m not a big fan of mounting my expensive cameraphone on the handlebars (it’s safely zipped into and nestled in its carrier on the top bar and below my seat). Mounting my point and shoot with a bike mount worked okay but an ordinary point and shoot just doesn’t have the battery life for long-term video recording nor does it have the ability to be ready for taking a quick shot while in standby and at a moment’s notice.
So I did a lot of research, and so did my wife apparently. I’d somewhat settled on a GoPro clone, the SJCam SJ400, that had a preview display but unfortunately had the drawback of a battery life that left a lot to be desired – but which I could overcome with battery packs. I had ruled out the GoPro series as they are quite expensive and also because of the lack of a stock built-in preview function, which I really wanted. Not that I don’t love the GoPro series and what they have brought to photography.
I usually buy something that I have wanted for myself after Xmas time but my wife beat me to it and got me a Garmin Virb Elite for Xmas.
The Elite adds many features that the base version of the Virb (which isn’t being made by Garmin any more) doesn’t have. There’s also a new version of the Virb, the X and XE, which are visually is very different but add many internal features.
The Garmin Virb Elite not only shoots in HD for long periods of time with fairly minimum battery usage but also has a GPS to geotag your action, an altimeter and accelerometers, a Dashboard function that acts like a display panel for speed and distance and other stats, and wirelessly connects to and streams live video to an Android or IOS device. And that’s just a few of the features, more of which I will get into.
On to the unboxing; the Virb Elite packaging is slick as you would expect from a large company like Garmin, with screenshots and action photos shown on the package and the camera itself displayed prominently inside a clear case sort of thing fitted into a cardboard base. The package is pretty easy opening and maybe most importantly it doesn’t have the sealed plastic edges that you have to cut with a knife or scissors.
Inside the packaging the Virb is sitting on its mounting cradle and on some of the mounting hardware attached through the bottom of the cardboard, unscrewing the ring at the bottom removes the Virb and mounts and is part of one of the included mounts itself. Under the cardboard bottom that the base ring was attached to one of the adhesive mounted bases, it’s down on the bottom of the package so don’t forget it’s there, or you may leave that in your box and chuck it by accident – though you should of course keep packaging for a reasonable amount of time in case of returns anyway; like I really need to tell anyone that…
There is a short, quick and easy to understand manual for getting you started, covering all of the basics (a few different language versions are included). There’s also a Garmin Virb sticker and a couple of other pieces of paperwork, like where to go to download the Virb apps and the Virb Edit program.
The Virb Elite comes in two colors – ‘white’ (see the Garmin promo graphic at the start of this review) and ‘dark’ (see photo at right). The ‘dark’ is the one I have, basically it is grey. The Virb architecture looks very much different from the GoPro with more of a shortened torpedo shape, somewhat aerodynamic. In fact, I think it looks like a little one-man sub with the little glass cockpit in front. But maybe that’s just me. Anyway, on top is a small LCD display screen, and a recording LED (which can be turned off). On the left side is a large sliding video recording button. Slide it forwards, whether the Virb is turned on or not, and it boots up and starts recording as well as grabbing a GPS signal. It’s a great feature – letting you go from a complete powered-down condition to recording HD in a short time. GPS signal lock is usually very quick, like most of Garmin’s stuff.
The front is a plastic transparent dome protecting the camera itself, it’s somewhat protruding. Bit of a questionable design idea here, but it does allow the camera inside to be protected and also allows for a very wide field of view. It looks like the plastic protective dome is replaceable. On the right are four buttons, the bottom-most being the power button which also selects menu items. The two upper buttons scroll up and down the menus and the middle button allows you to take still photos and manipulate other options. The back has a small rubber waterproof door that can be lifted to access the charger and HDMI output. Under it is the slot for a lanyard. Excellent addition and very thoughtful on Garmin’s part, a thin lanyard attached here can be great peace of mind when mounting it on pretty much anything, even with the most stable mounts it can be used a backup.
The bottom has a small access loop that you turn to unlock the battery/memory card door. Inside the door is the battery compartment and under that is the memory card slot, nestled safety near the middle of the device. If you get hit by a tractor trailer while this is on your bike the memory card could conceivably survive it, I suppose 😉
The Virb itself has a plastic shell, slightly soft and ‘grippy’, and supposedly it has some sort of metal (aluminum alloy?) shell inside. It feels substantial, and almost heavy – though it certainly isn’t. It just feels heavier duty than some other action cameras.
The Virb has a ‘cradle’ that attaches to the Virb itself and which has an attachment point on the very bottom consisting of a tab with a hole and anti-slip small teeth around the edges on either side. This connection point is what all of the other mounts use to secure to it, a sort of cradle as I mentioned. This cradle connects to the Virb itself with a tab in the back that it slides into, and two tabs that you push in on either side of the front of the cradle; it’s completely secure and tight as if the cradle is part of the Virb when it is attached. Maybe you won’t even be taking this cradle off too much unless you need to access the battery compartment or memory card or take the Virb inside to connect to your computer while leaving the cradle attached to something else.
On the Virb the microphone is on the back, facing backward and with the cradle/attachment point on there is a tiny windscreen/waterproofing covering the mike and built into the cradle. Some people have popped this little rubber thingy out so that the microphone has clearer audio, but it’s also going to compromise the mike’s safety somewhat, depending on what conditions you are using the Virb under (like rain or mud). Unfortunately this does muffle a lot of the sound.
There are a number of included attachments that connect onto this cradle mount and in turn allow you access to a huge assortment of other mounts, including GoPro and SJ4000 compatible ones. Some of the mounts and adapters have dual tabs, and there is one with a single tab on one end and one mount arm to make it compatible with GoPro mounts, as well as a couple thumbscrews which are good for getting a good tight connection. The Garmin-specific mounts and adapters (at least the Virb mount end of the adapters) have knurled contact points to keep the mounts from moving and changing position, which works quite well and was great foresight on Garmin’s part. The GoPro compatible ones do not.
Pretty much any mount that works for a GoPro will connect to this Virb, though of course not something shape-specific like the waterproof cases. The Virb has it’s own case for that purpose, including diving. The Virb is much more waterproof than a GoPro even without the aforementioned Virb dive case, with the ability to be submerged at least for a short time – without any additional case or protection.
The Virb of course mounts at a different angle than a GoPro or SJ4000 due to its shape. You may have to keep that in mind and experiment a bit with GoPro mounts (helmet mounts, bike mounts, ATV mounts, etc as well as arms and extenders) as needed – sometimes you’ll find that you don’t’ need anything extra, sometimes you need an extra extension or adapter and sometimes you will find that it is a much more optimal shape and mountable position than the GoPro, depending on what you are doing with it. From my observation and experimentation it seems as if using the extensions that are included or that you can buy would allow you to angle the Virb to fit pretty much any GoPro mount and emulate any position.
There are also some stick-on mounts included, like one that is made for curved surfaces.
If you have an aero-bar or tri-bar on your bike check out my “Garmin Virb Aero-Bar Mount” post. And if you do mount it on a bike or motorcycle or ATV or whatever – there is even a level in the Virb’s menu (see upper-right screenshot in the screenshots graphic further along in this review).
Once I had the Virb out of it’s packaging I downloaded the Virb desktop edit program from Garmin, I usually like to install the software that comes with a device first just in case specific drivers are included. Otherwise you may have to do a bit of messing around if Windows can’t find the right driver right away and installs what it thinks is the correct driver or installs a generic driver or an old one instead. PITA sometimes.
One drawback to the process of getting video and photos off the Virb is that normally you can only use this desktop program to do it. The IOS and Android apps allow you to connect to the Virb wirelessly and preview and display live videos and photos, access settings and take pic and video – but it’s a huge oversight by Garmin in not allowing this app to do a download of the previously recorded videos and photos. Hopefully in the future Garmin will add this capability to the app.
In the meantime an easy workaround is to use an OTG cable with your Android device or an 8 pin to OTG cable for your IOS device, and access the DCIM directory on the Virb to download the video and photos directly to your mobile device if you don’t have access to a desktop or laptop. Easily done, but not wireless.
Installing the apps was just as quick and straightforward, typing ‘VIRB’ into the App store brought it up right away or you can go to the link shown on the little paperwork that comes with the Virb. I installed the app on my Ipod, holding my breath as I have an older iPod which can not install IOS 7. To my relief it installed fine. Installing the app on my Asus Memopad 7 (review here) went perfectly as it is newer. The app is mostly identical in whatever device you use.
It was a simple matter to go into the settings on the Virb and turn on WIFI for the wireless connection to the mobile devices. You can change the default password, as well you always should, and you can also change the SSID of the Virb.
Once I did all of that I went into the Settings on my iPod and let it scan for WiFi signals, connected it to the Virb, switched back to the app and I was in business. Same with the tablet and phone.
The apps immediately started previewing the video output from the Virb in the app, turning off the preview screen on the Virb itself automatically. The app lets you change any of the Virb settings, the same settings that can be changed under the settings screen on the Virb’s menu screen. From the app you can turn on and off video recording and take still pictures as I said above, all of the video and still photos are stored on the mini sd card on the Virb, and as I mentioned you can’t transfer or display any non-live content from the Virb in the app. But perhaps as the app software and the firmware for the Virb itself matures Garmin will include this ability. It’s really needed.
One thing I noticed right away when plugging the Virb into the computer was that some of the regular USB cables I had lying around seemed to give me varying levels of results. Some would charge it but the computer would not recognize the Virb itself, others did both. The short cable that came with the Virb did both of course.
Also, experimenting with various USB hubs gave the same results – some worked, some not so much.
The drivers took awhile to install, it seemed like a bit longer than usual but maybe I was just being impatient. Once the drivers and the edit program installed I was ready to go. The Virb edit program has a little video tour that starts up when you boot the program, useful I suppose. The program allows you to download your videos to your computer from the Virb’s memory card, delete them, and of course play and edit them. You also have full access to all of the info and stats as well as the GPS info, in the editor. The editor is basic but quite nice, surprisingly, with overlay templates and gauge overlaps in abundance, and you can even create your own overlays and mix and match pieces from the stock ones. You can overlay everything from live maps that show your position as the video is playing to gee force meters, speedometers, your pitch/yaw/row, etc and a multitude of other things, you can even display data from ANT+ devices of all sorts including wattmeters and HRM’s. It seems as though Garmin is continually updating this program and making it better and better as time goes by. It really is a good addition and nicely made.
After I put the battery in the Virb I noticed that the battery was mostly charged, of course you should fully charge it before you use the Virb.
I couldn’t wait for a full charge so I grabbed an old micro SD card, to start out with I had a 4 gig from something else that I put in to test it with. For some reason I had plenty of regular high capacity SD cards but only one small micro SD free at the time, so I ordered a 64 gig micro sd card off Amazon right away. You need to get a good quality and fast-enough card.
When I started up the Virb I thought that there was something wrong with it because my temporary memory card must have been corrupted. The screen kept locking up. Not a big surprise as it was just an unknown card that I had laying around, and who knows how old or in what condition it had been in. Once I put in another spare 4 gig card the Virb worked perfectly fine. Possibly the old 4 gig card was too slow also.
The next issue was a non-issue. I thought that the screen was messed up as it was no where as colorful as the promo shots of the Virb seemed to show it being, both on the box and online. The box as well as Garmin’s online screenshots must be shot under the absolute best conditions as the actual display isn’t quite as bright and colorful as the promotional shots show.
But in lighter and outdoor conditions I was relieved to see that the display works quite nicely and is real easy to see, but it is no where the bright colorful display that Garmin seems to shows.
Inside a darker room the display is harder to see as it is fairly dark, but it is an action camera so you’re not exactly going to be using it inside all that much I suppose. Though as an experiment I did take some video and stills and, outside of the display being made for the outside, the actual footage itself is quite nice and crisp and colorful, even in somewhat lower light conditions.
Getting it outside makes all the difference in seeing the display, though don’t be disappointed that it isn’t extremely colorful and bright as the ads show, as I said. It is very usable and works quite nicely both as a viewfinder as well as a preview of what was recorded. So it does have a foot up on the GoPro series in that aspect for sure, though you can of course buy an addon touchscreen ‘Bacpac’.
The display LCD is small but is large enough to see what needs to be seen, and it certainly is better than not having one at all (a little tip here – get some universal protective film and cut it to protect the display – I do this for all of my devices). It is a preview/viewfinder, letting you see the photos and videos that you have taken as well as giving you access to the settings. There’s also the Dashboard, which will display everything from speed to Gee force, courtesy of the built-in GPS, as well as data from any external ANT+ devices. If you are biking or doing other things where you need a bit of an instrument panel along with your camera this is a damn nice feature. When biking I switch it to recording mode (in high quality HD) and then use the Dashboard to display my speed, distance, altitude, and a compass while it’s recording.
A quick press of the button on the side snaps a fairly high rez 16 MP still photo with no interruption to the HD video recording.
The menu for settings and navigating the options is also fairly easy to figure out and use, once you get the button sequence down. Even under cloudy and dreary outdoor conditions the menu was easy to see, much easier than inside, and it functioned well and was fairly intuitive with a bit of getting used to what buttons do what – like using the power button for selecting options.
There are really many different options available. There are settings for accessing options for external ANT+ devices for cadence, power, heart rate, etc and for the Virb remote control as well as system settings for language, turning the recording light on and off (I have mine off), and the ability to turn off GPS. The WiFi settings are here also, for changing things like the password. There are a number of recording options including full HD, a lower rez economy HD mode (for saving space on your memory card perhaps), and a few others. There’s slow motion mode, and a very sweet super slow mo with 120 fps, but quite a cut in rez. Rounding out the video options is a time-lapse mode, customization and other options for Field of View that let you go from a very wide-angle for getting a lot of the action in to a narrower view, video looping, an automatic recording mode for turning on recording only when you are on the move (maybe for saving memory card space for long recordings), a ski mode for recording only when you are going downhill (good for downhill biking too maybe), and microphone on and off. The photo options allow you to change MP resolution, turn on burst mode, use a self timer and time/date stamping, and 2, 5, 10, 30 and 60 second interval for the self-timer mode. An advanced settings mode gives you lens correction for the various fisheye modes of the Virb, image stabilization and the ability to flip the camera’s recording in case you are mounting it upside down.
There are also some other accessories specifically for the Virb (like the dive case and the gel protective case) as well as general Garmin accessories that work with it, like some ANT+ devices. Lots and lots of things.
While the Virb Elite can not do 4k HD as some of the GoPro’s model’s can do, it does record full 1080p HD very nicely, in various wide to narrow angle modes. The video itself seems to be on par with GoPro’s, there is a slight contrast difference but quality seems to be about the same. See the demo video at the end of this review. The quality is really high quality.
For battery life I haven’t been able to get near that three hour battery life that Garmin mentions in the specs, and neither has anyone else that I have run across – even when adjusting things like recording quality and turning off the GPS. With some tweaking it’s better though. And it’s really easy to add an external battery, even while using it on a bike. Any battery pack can be used on pretty much any vehicle or free-hand. See my posting “Garmin Virb Aero-Bar Mount” for a bit more about using external batteries with it – and external battery gives you almost unlimited life (if you have enough batteries).
I’ve got a few good shots and videos as time has went on, and expect that I will get many more, including a nice series from the Ride for Dignity (a great ride for a great cause). A couple of examples below – note; these are cropped screen captures from the HD video and not examples of actual still photos taken with the Virb – which shows the excellent quality of the HD video recording.
I also got a partial video of a dog coming in for the attack and biting me one day, I fortunately didn’t need to use it to show the evidence as the county dog control was happy to take my report and confront the person about it – but it was nice to know that I had the video just in case. Surprisingly the lady who’s dog bit me was also recording it on her cellphone; instead of making sure the dog didn’t get me; apparently being more interested in recording it then stopping it. Exactly one of the reasons why I want an action cam recording all of the time.
A few mentions to wrap this up…
Again, for more about adding another battery as well as mixing GoPro and Virb mounts you can also check out my blog entry “Garmin Virb Aero-Bar Mount“.
If you find yourself interested in the Virb and want to know even more, head on over to DC Rainmaker’s excellent review of the Garmin Virb Elite. You’ll find much more technical information and stats on the Virb Elite on the DCRainmaker blog. Check it out, and also check out his other reviews – have a fitness device you want to find a review on, DCRainmaker blog is the person to go to.
Also, of note here – my friend over at Solargravity.com has some good info on shooting video and mounting tips and tricks for the GoPro which can be applied to the Virb.
So, in conclusion – if you are looking for an alternative to the GoPro or other action cameras check out the Garmin Virb Elite. The quality is phenomenal and the action-oriented abilities of the Virb are hard to find integrated on any other action camera. While there are a few nitpicky things I can complain about the Virb is a great camera to have, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed to pick one up for yourself.
Addendum 2016; new bike, new mounting method.
My aerobars would not fit on my new Kona Esatto and I decided not to get new aerobars at this point. So it was much easier (and made for a much steadier mounting surface) to attach the Virb directly to the handlebars. I used this handlebar mount (listed as “V1” and same one here sold by another company) and the mounting adapter that came with the Virb – the latter to both marry the cradle’s slightly different attachment point to the above-mentioned mount as well as to drop the Virb slightly down between the handlebars for a little more protection. It also makes it less visibility to others, is easier line-of-sight from my riding position, and is much more visible while down on the drop bars. It’s quite steady, more so than the aerobar mount. The road sound still is fairly overpowering of any other sounds, which seems to be fairly common with action cams on a road bike.
Specs (from Garmin’s website);
- Unit size (HxWxD): 32 mm x 53 mm x 111 mm
- Display size: 1.4″ (205 x 148)
- Unit weight:
- Without battery and battery door: 4.40 oz
- Without battery: 4.79 oz
- With battery: 6.26 oz
- With battery and cradle: 7.16 oz
- With battery, cradle and flat mount assembly: 8.31 oz
- Image sensor: 16 MP, 1/2.3″ CMOS
- File Type: .mp4
- 1080p HD video: 1920 × 1080; 30 fps
- 960p HD video: 1280 × 960; 48 fps
- 720p HD video: 1280 × 720; 30, 60 fps
- WVGA (slow motion): 848 × 480; 120 fps
- Still photo resolution: 16 MP (4664*3496); 12 MP (4664*2632); 8 MP (3264*2448)
- Photo burst: 3/s@16, 5/s@12 or 10/s@8
- Video time lapse (seconds): 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, 60
- Internal microphone: Yes
- External microphone: Optional USB to 3.5 mm stereo mic adapter
- Bluetooth®: No
- ANT+® compatible: Yes (remote)
- Interface: USB 2.0
- HDMI output: micro HDMI
- Wi-Fi streaming: Yes
- GPS: Yes
- Temperature range: -15° to 60° C (5° to 140° F)
- Memory: microSD™ card (up to 64 GB); card not included
- Accelerometer: NYes
- Altimeter: Yes
- Water rating: IPX7
- Image stabilization: Yes (digital)
- Lens distortion correction: Yes
- Battery type: Removable Li-ion
- Battery capacity: 2000 mAh
- Battery life: 1080p (30 fps), up to 3 hrs