For years, if you wanted an action camera you would buy GoPro by default. And for good reason! Sony has caught up in a hurry, though. Its newest entry into the increasingly crowded field looks like it might be one of the first legitimate GoPro alternatives. It just depends on which compromises you're willing to make.
What Is It?
The Sony Action Cam HDR-AS100V (real catchy name, guys) is Sony's latest answer to the GoPro. As you might expect, it's a lightweight, rough-and-tumble, wearable camera for recording your various adventures. It can shoot video at up to 1080p at 60 frames per second (or 720p at 120fps), and at a bitrate of up to 50Mbps.
Why Does It Matter?
GoPro needs some competition, and no one's positioned better to provide it than Sony.
It's been a while since I studied geometry, but I'm pretty sure there isn't a word for the AS100V's shape. It's an extended oval if you look at it head-on, and it's a rectangle if you look at it from the side. Up front is a just Zeiss lens and stereo microphones. On the side is a small LCD screen and two buttons that allow for navigating up and down through various menus and settings.
On the back is the record start/stop button and a switch to lock the record button, so you don't accidentally start or stop filming. Pull another switch, and the back door opens up, exposing the battery and micro SD card ports. On the bottom are two panels that cover ports to the micro USB port and to the micro HDMI port and microphone in. There's also what looks like a hole for a tripod screw, but in fact it's a smaller screw-hole so you can mount an accessory that allows you to mount a tripod. They should have just used a normal, 1/4-inch tripod screw hole.
Why all the port covers? Because the AS100V is "splashproof" without a case on it. You can't swim with it or anything, but it should survive a drizzle. The package does include a waterproof case, but it's a big step backwards from last year. Sony's old waterproof case (on the AS15) had you protected up to a depth of 197 feet. Now? 16 feet. Forget SCUBA; I routinely dive deeper than that when I snorkel. Sony wanted to cut the bulk down, but it's way too big of a compromise. GoPro slimmed down its case, too, but it's still waterproof to 131 feet.
In addition to having built-in Wi-Fi, the AS100V also has GPS (something GoPro doesn't currently offer) and NFC for easier pairing with an Android phone.
First, a little about our testing methodology. For this review we did some exhaustive comparison against the GoPro Hero 3+ Black, the winner of our recent Action Cam Battlemodo, and the all-around leader in this category. We strapped both cameras to the nose of our surfboard, we looked at how the cameras handle motion (both when the camera itself is in motion, and when it's recording moving objects). We shot under an array of outdoor conditions, evaluated audio quality and low-light capabilities. Oh, we also took them to NASA for a zero gravity test.
Both cameras have a ton of settings, and we compared analogous settings/modes where we could, and highlighted the differences where we couldn't. We also evaluated for usability, accessories, and really pretty much everything else we could think of.
Gizmodo's Senior Photo/Video Editor Michael Hession and I agree that image quality is extremely close between these two, and it could be called for either side. But while the Sony produced sharper images on occasion, more often than not GoPro's images were just a bit crisper (look at the detail on my face and in the wrinkles on my shirt during the audio test above, starting at 2:27).
Sony has the option of a couple different color modes, but the default is Vivid, which is what we used for our testing. The Sony really saturates colors a lot and skews pretty cool, which makes the blues in the sky pop. Mike and I both prefer the slightly warmer GoPro, which looks a little more natural, but ultimately, it boils down to personal preference, and you may gravitate toward vibrancy.
Compared to the Sony, the GoPro has a tendency to blow out the highlights, but it also tends to retain better detail in the shadows. The biggest ding against to Sony on image quality is lens distortion. It's really, really bad. Both cameras claim a 170-degree viewing angle (at their widest setting), but Sony's seems a bit narrower (my face always looks a bit bigger on the Sony), and the GoPro's aspherical lens doesn't suffer from the fish-eye effect nearly as badly. If you're looking at a big screen and Sony pans, you actually get a little woozy. Look how bent and squeezed the red brick building looks in the still above. Definitely room for improvement.
In low-light, however, the AS100V is the clear winner. It offers much better color, exposure, and noise reduction in dark conditions. Overall, image quality is very, very close between the two. It's just a matter of which limitations you're prepared to live with.
Mounts and Housings
This one is an absolute blowout for the GoPro. For starters, Sony's waterproof housing pales in comparison to the GoPro's. Sixteen feet is not enough, plain and simple. But what's worse is that water droplets stick to Sony's housing like glue (see the surf shots at the beginning of the video above). I don't know if it's the rounded shape of the lens covering or the quality of the plastic, but the lens covering on the GoPro sheds water far, far more easily. I had a lot of shots on the Sony ruined by giant blobs of water that wouldn't go away.
Also, Sony's surf mount is an abject failure. In the first few moments that I surfed with it I duck-dived through a small wave, the camera popped out. I swear my catch that saved it should have been on SportsCenter. I had to spend the rest of my session with it tucked down the neck of my wetsuit. The next time I went, I had it tethered to my board, and that little string saved it seven or eight times during the course of that session. Even pressing the record button was liable to dislodge it. Sony is aware that this is a problem and they said they're working on it, but not timeline was given for a fix.
To Sony's credit, it offers a very wide array of other mounting options, but to be honest, most of them don't feel as sturdy as GoPro's, and it still lags behind in variety. Many of the basic mounts lack the ability to change the tilt angle, which limits how you can use it. Even the simple head-strap is uncomfortable, awkward, and it's tough to get it at a good angle without filling half the frame with your eyebrow (full disclosure: I have big eyebrows). It's also less secure and is subject to much more wobble. Thankfully most of Sony's mounts have a tripod screw hole (the camera itself has a mini-tripod screw hole, but you aren't likely to find anything that will work with it), which opens the door for more secure options.
Sony's menu system is just a bit more intuitively laid out than GoPro's, and it's way easier to navigate because Sony has two navigation buttons (up and down) to the GoPro's one. That makes a pretty big difference. Unfortunately, the advantages end there.
The record button on the Sony is much tougher to press than it is on the GoPro. And because the recording indicator light is on top of the camera, if you're looking at the Sony straight on (which you will be if you're surfing, or doing anything where it's pointed back at you), it is impossible to tell whether it's rolling. Even if you can get a top-down view, the light is so dim that you can't tell if it's on or not in daylight (even on an overcast day!), and Sony's record sound is too quiet to be heard through the waterproof case in most environments. This proved to be a major problem. Sometimes the camera wasn't rolling when it should have been, and sometimes I stopping shooting when I thought I was starting. Very annoying.
The Sony also has some major software issues. I got constant media card errors with no discernible reason for them. Not only could I not record, but I had to fully reformat the card before it would work again. Thrice! If I didn't have a means to transfer my footage right then and there, I would have been screwed. Hopefully this will be fixed with some software updates.
Sony all the way. GoPro definitely got better with the upgraded mic in the Hero 3+, but it's still nowhere near Sony's audio quality. Sony is much louder and much more clear, giving you a far greater sense of the surrounding environment, making the resulting footage more immersive. At times it can peak a bit, and sometimes it lets in a little too much ambient noise, but it's still the hands down winner for sound.
Both cameras offer Pro modes which shoot at a higher bitrate, but they approach them very differently. GoPro's Protune mode brings the bitrate up to 35Mbps really flattens everything out. Basically, it's a mode for professional users who are willing and able to take the time and do some advanced grading of the footage. It's the mode GoPro uses for pretty much all of their ads, so obviously the footage can look amazing in the right hands, but not everybody has those skills or that kind of time.
Sony's Pro Mode brings the bitrate up to 50Mbps and it retains the image correction that the camera does in its basic mode (so you can still shoot with colors in Vivid mode, and you don't have to manually sharpen the footage later). Sounds like the Sony would clearly win, right? But here's the thing; we couldn't detect any perceptible difference between having Pro Mode on and off for the Sony. Not even when grading the footage in Adobe Premiere. It eats up a lot of space on your card, though, and tears through the battery, so we don't think it's worth it.
Also, Sony's Pro Mode is only available if you're using a SDXC-level micro SD card, which are way more expensive and less readily available. In contrast, the GoPro can shoot in Protune with a more standard micro SD card (tested using Sandisk and Lexar cards, both Class 10).
Ultimately, most home users should just leave the camera in their normal mode. For professionals, either camera will work, though we recommend switching the Sony out of Vivid and into a Flat color mode if you're going to be grading it.
Stabilization and Shooting Modes
One of the things the AS100V offers that the GoPro doesn't is image stabilization. In previous versions, Sony achieved that by cropping the image, which greatly reduced quality. Now it simply narrows the angle, so everything is just as sharp. That said, it's digital image stabilization, not optical, and it just doesn't work all that well. As you can see in the stabilization test at the end of the video, it reduces vertical bounce a bit, but side to side shake is almost worse, and ultimately it doesn't look much (if any) better than the GoPro, which I was holding in the same hand at the same time.
The GoPro doesn't offer any built-in stabilization, but it does have the capability to shoot at higher resolutions, such as 2.7K at 30fps. This means you can use stabilization software (included in both Apple's FinalCut and Adobe Premiere), which will make it look extremely smooth, and you can still get a lossless 1080p shot. It takes a bit more doing, but the end result is far superior.
This leads us into shooting modes, where GoPro has far more options. It can shoot in wide, extra-wide, as well as squarer dimensions, and at a ton of different frame rates. For surf shots (or really anything where you're shooting back at yourself from a short distance), the GoPro can shoot in Super Mode, which basically shoots a taller image and then squishes it down into 1080p or 720p (your choice), somehow without making it look warped. It just gets way more of you into the shot compared to the Sony. Also its narrow and medium FOV modes all but eliminate image distortion (fisheye) completely, which again, is a major problem on the Sony.
The Sony, meanwhile, is much more limited. It maxes out at 1080p at 60fps or 720p at 120fps. If you want to shoot in 24fps (my personal favorite, for a more cinematic look), you can only do that in Pro Mode (again, requiring a higher-end micro SD card). There are none of the squarer shooting modes (or a Super mode analog), so you're more likely to have your head or feet cut off. The modes it has are probably enough for most consumers, but if you really want to tailor your shots to the thing you're shooting, GoPro offers more flexibility.
Remote Controls and Other
Both cameras offer options for Wi-Fi-based remote controls (and both work with smartphone apps). GoPro includes a remote with the Hero 3+ Black, and Sony offers its LiveView remote either separately, or in a package (which brings the cost up to $370).
At a glance, Sony's live view remote is far superior. It has a full-color screen that allows you to view what you're shooting while you're shooting (and change basic settings) with very little latency. GoPro's option simply mirrors the GoPro's LCD screen. Further, Sony's remote comes with a cushy (albeit chubby) wrist mount, whereas GoPro's is a small remote with no obvious way to attach it to yourself, and it needs an annoying proprietary charging cable.
Sony really did a good job with this in a lot of ways. It has a few problems, though. The largest: Do you see that tiny red dot in the bottom left corner of the screen on Sony's remote? That is literally the only way you can tell whether you're recording or not. That's it. That photo was taken in a shadow as the sun was setting, but in bright daylight it's impossible to see. In fact, the whole screen is hard to see in daylight. It's supposed to allow you to control up to five cameras at once and Sony sent us three so we could test it, but we were never able to get it to pair with more than one at a time.
GoPro's remote, in contrast, is very utilitarian. We hate that it's not really wearable, but it beeps loudly and flashes when you're rolling. Because it's an exact mirror of the GoPro's screen, it gives you a very clear indication of what mode you're in and how much footage you've shot. Plus, Sony's remote started getting very laggy and buggy at about 30 feet away. GoPro's was still working very solidly (and quickly) at 60 feet. Factor in the $70 extra the Sony remote costs, and it's kind of a toss-up.
Both cameras have smartphone apps which allow for live-viewing, playback, record, and mode-switching, but Sony's (above) doesn't have nearly as many options. GoPro's app allows you really dive in deep and easily tweak advanced settings (color, exposure, etc.) and ultimately it's just a faster, smoother app to use.
We have to say, though, that we love that Sony has put GPS into this little camera. This enables you to put an overlay on your footage that includes fun stuff like trail info, miles per hour, and distance, though you have to use Sony's PlayMemories software to do it. We loved that feature on the Garmin VIRB Elite when we tested it in our Battlemodo, and we love it here, too. Very fun for mountain biking, snowboarding, and stuff like that.
The Sony's image quality is generally excellent, and more or less comparable to the GoPro Hero 3+ Black. Many people will prefer the punchier colors out of the box. Battery life is fan-freakin-tastic, coming in at two hours and forty minutes of consecutive shooting (in 1080p 30fps with Wi-Fi and GPS turned off), compared to the GoPro's two hours and nine minutes. Audio quality is fantastic, as is its far superior low-light performance. Splashproof is nice. Built-in GPS, is terrific and Wi-Fi generally works quickly and with less lag than the GoPro. The menus are a bit easier to navigate, and the LiveView remote is really convenient at close range.
I experienced major software issues with constant card failures. The waterproof housing is only waterproof to 16 feet, which is ridiculous, and water really sticks to the lens. The surf mount is totally unusable, and a sure recipe for losing your camera. The lens distortion is really quite bad, leading to seasick-inducing images (especially with camera motion). Pro Mode only works with a SDXC micro SD card, and despite the much larger file sizes there doesn't seem to be any noticeable gains in quality, but if you don't use Pro Mode you can't shoot in the more cinematic-looking 24 frames per second.
Should You Buy It?
The real question is "Should you buy it over the Hero 3+ Black?" Based on performance alone, we would say no, but the cost factor may sway you. The standard kit the Action Cam AS100V comes in is only $270—a full hundred and thirty bucks cheaper than the Hero 3+ Black kit. That said, the Hero 3+ kit includes the remote control, and Sony's doesn't. If you want it, then it's a much closer $370.
Ultimately, we still lean toward the GoPro. Image quality is more or less comparable (each has its strengths), and while audio quality isn't as good on the GoPro, it's still really quite good. More to the point, though, is that the GoPro is far more waterproof, has more (and better) mounting options, more (and better) shooting modes, and is simply easier to use in the field. You want to push that button once and know you're recording, and the Sony simply doesn't provide that.
Ultimately, it may depend on how you're going to use the camera; if you value GPS more than waterproofing, the Sony should be your pick. Overall, though, the GoPro offers more versatility, more reliability, and just slightly better quality (Sony's fisheye drives me nuts). GoPro's still on top. But it's finally got some legitimate competition. [Sony]
Sony Action Cam HDR-AS100V Specs