There's a new top-end action camera from Garmin, and it has 4K video at 30 frames per second. What's more, the Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 has a touch screen, voice control ("Remember that!"), a faster GPS chip and live broadcasting.
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We spotted the Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 at the Eurobike 2016 show just hours before it was announced, and have since been testing it for a solid month. We reckon it’s a great action camera, but not without one or two niggles.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: design
Let’s start with its appearance. The Garmin Virb Ultra 30 eschews the super-rugged design aesthetic of its predecessor the Virb XE, going instead for a protective, waterproof case that’s rated to a depth of 40m.
There’s no avoiding the comparison – on its own, it looks a lot like the GoPro Hero 4 Black. The layout is similar, and the dimensions are almost identical. Its weight identical to the Hero 4 Black at 88g. Given that the Hero 4 is one of the most successful action cameras ever, that’s not a bad starting point.
You’ll definitely want to keep the Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 in its waterproof case at all times when riding, particularly as the case is where you’ll mount it onto your handlebars or chest. The case is excellent, though, so that’s no bad thing – it has a nice mechanical switch for pressing record, which actuates on the camera via magnets, meaning fewer moving parts on the camera, and less chance of anything breaking.
The case also includes an audio waffle built in, made from soft rubber. The grille does pick up dirt, unfortunately, but this doesn’t seem to affect performance, as audio is superb. We wonder if the audio waffle might also act as a heat sink, as the camera does get very hot after filming for a while. One thing to note is that this camera might be a bit heavy for a road race, as it's a chunky old unit.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: user interface
You can use the 1.75” rear touchscreen when it’s inside the waterproof case: it’s not quite as responsive as it would be without the case, but it definitely works, and it saves you faffing around with the app on your phone to change settings.
The user interface of that menu is excellent, too. With simple, clear colourful icons, you know exactly where you need to go. It's all super simple and intuitive. it's definitely one of the better camera menus we’ve used, a huge improvement from its predecessor the ViRB XE. Video playback is good, too.
It’s also got a quick menu that’s accessible by swiping from left to right on the touchscreen, where you can change settings like frame rate, resolution, WiFi etc. It's got four quick modes – video, slow-mo (up to quarter speed at 120fps 1080p = 30fps slow-mo), time-lapse and expansive, which changes the aspect ratio to make it a bit more square.
We did find an occasional glitch with the smartphone app: you try to connect it and there's just a black screen - no preview - although you can still change the camera settings. Now we don't know if that's a bug in the software, and the camera has only just been released, so hopefully it will be fixed in a firmware update.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: specs and features
For us, the standout feature of this action camera is the quality of its footage: it records 4K resolution at 30 frames per second, and we think the footage is considerably better, sharper and more detailed than the GoPro Hero 4 Black. In fact, we think it blows it out of the water – see the screenshot above that compares them side-by-side.
The Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 also has voice control, which actually works pretty well. You may feel a little self-conscious talking to a camera though, saying things like "OK Garmin start recording" or "OK Garmin remember that" for tagging highlights. We also found that it’s possible for riding buddies to get your camera to start recording.
We didn’t get on so well with the digital image stabilisation feature until we updated the camera software from version 2.20 to 2.70. After speaking to Garmin, it looks like the company made improvements to the image stabilisation feature in software version 2.60. Now it works solidly, whether you’re running the camera on your handlebars or chest mount; footage is noticeably smoother, even when hammering the bike out of the saddle or over rough terrain.
The Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 has lots of wireless connectivity for sensors like heart rate, and GPS, and you can control it on your Fenix 3 watch or Garmin Edge computer if you’d like. We might do that if the camera is out of reach, but it’s not a feature that we couldn’t live without.
You can stream live footage to a YouTube channel via the Garmin app on your smartphone. We tried it and it does work, though we did find that it takes a few attempts to work, and we tended to lose patience with it. But if you persevere, it could be quite a fun feature in a cyclocross race, for example.
The desktop editing package Garmin ViRB Edit is a really nice, responsive bit of software. The G-Metrix overlays work really well, so you add metrics like speed, distance and heart rate to your video edits – good for race footage.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: battery life
We measured the Garmin ViRB Ultra 30’s battery life with the camera set at 1080p/30fps, and with GPS on, and it lasted 1:31hrs. You could certainly get more battery life with the GPS switched off. Garmin claims that battery life when recording at 1080p/30fps is 2h15mins of battery life – a big difference from what we got.
We also tried running it from a full charge at 1080p on 25fps, with no GPS or additional connectivity, and got 1h51mins, which is still a bit disappointing.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: price and availability
The Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 price now is £369 / $399 / AU$699, which is pretty good value for money when you consider that it’s absolutely at the top of the market at the moment. Of course, that’s not the same thing as affordability – many people will find its list of features overwhelming, and go for the Hero 5 Session (£249 / US$299 /AU$469) instead. Both cameras are available right now.
Garmin ViRB Ultra 30: summary
The ViRB Ultra 30 is a superb action camera for those people wanting sharp, detailed 4K footage of their cycling. While it’s not perfect – the battery life could be better – it’s one of the best action cameras out there at the moment.
It’s probably overkill for sticking on your helmet and riding around town, but if you are that way inclined, it does have a video loop mode for recording a set period of time before writing over the already recorded footage – useful for commuting.
The Garmin ViRB Ultra 30 isn’t the only action camera out there: as already mentioned, the GoPro Hero 4 Black is the closest in terms of spec and physical dimensions to the ViRB Ultra 30. However, GoPro just released its new Hero 5 Black camera, which improves substantially on its predecessor at least on paper.
In addition to 4K footage at 30fps, and the ability to shoot 12mp RAW or WDR (wide dynamic range) still images, the Hero 5 Black is also waterproof out of the box, and features voice control, a built-in GPS chip and digital image stabilisation. Price is £349 / US$399 /AU$569, and it’s on sale now. We’ll be posting a review of the Hero 5 Black very soon.
Nikon also launched its KeyMission action cameras last month, with the KeyMission 170 looking like a good bet for cyclists. It captures 170-degree wide angle 4K/30p ultra-HD footage or up to 1080/60p or 720/240p for smooth slow motion, and is waterproof to 10m. Price for the KeyMission 170 is £300 / US$370 /AU$530, and it goes on sale this month.