Garmin has announced a completely redesigned version of its Virb action camera. It’s called the Virb Ultra 30, and it packs a number of features that are rare and even unique in the action camera space, like 3-axis optical image stabilization, voice controls, and some limited live-streaming capabilities. And, of course, it shoots 4K UHD video. The Virb Ultra 30 is available starting today for $499 on Garmin’s website.
Much like its former navigation tech rival TomTom, Garmin has shifted in recent years to other markets like fitness trackers and action cameras. While Garmin is not necessarily a household name when it comes to cameras, the last version of the Virb, released in early 2015, was a really good camera that held its own against the competition from GoPro and Sony. The thing is, GoPro and Sony have laid fairly low ever since then. GoPro hasn’t released a flagship camera since the fall of 2014, and Sony’s 4K Action Cam is far from perfect.
The Virb Ultra 30 has features other action cameras don't
The new Virb Ultra 30 is a clear shot across the bows of that competition. Garmin has taken the best things about the previous Virb — like the ability to capture and overlay data like speed or altitude onto your footage — and translated those features into a new camera the size of a Hero 4, all while adding in new functionality. I’ve been testing a Virb Ultra 30 for the last few days, and it’s already clear that it has a chance to help set a new bar for what action cameras are capable of.
The biggest addition is the electronic 3-axis image stabilization — even if it is digital, not optical. Nothing is worse than shooting crazy (or even mundane, really) action only to have the footage turn out too shaky to decipher. But Garmin has gone a long way toward solving it with the Virb Ultra 30’s stabilization. It works in almost every mode, too, like 4K, and at 1080p up to 60 frames per second. It will drain the battery faster (about an hour as opposed to closer to two hours without it), but with the stabilization on you can hand-hold this camera and come away with smooth footage. That’s essentially impossible with other action cameras.
The stabilization lets you get away with hand-holding the camera
There is definitely a tolerance, as is the case with any stabilization. If the camera shakes a little too much, the stabilized footage will take on a sort of "jelly" effect. But if the camera is relatively steady — which it should be when you have it mounted somewhere — the benefit of the stabilization can be huge.
A more curious addition is voice control. It’s a feature that is rumored to be in the forthcoming GoPro Hero 5, but Garmin is alone in offering it for now. The camera has to be on for it to work, but it works well even at a distance. You just shout "okay Garmin," the lights on the camera will blink, and then you can tell it to do things like start or stop recording, or take a photo. It even works through the camera’s waterproof case, though you have to yell a bit louder. It’s a nice addition, because action cameras often wind up in tough spots. For example, when I stuck the Virb under a skateboard and forgot to hit record, all I had to do was yell at the camera.
Lastly, the Virb Ultra 30 has some live-streaming capabilities, but they're limited and I wasn't able to test them out. According to Garmin, you'll either have to use an iPhone or iPad for the data connection (or be hooked onto the same Wi-Fi), you can only stream to YouTube at launch, and the stream is capped at 720p. It's not ideal, but with so many camera companies and platforms pushing live video these days, it's an unsurprising step for Garmin to take.
Garmin also the more standard action camera features covered with the Virb Ultra 30. There’s a touchscreen LCD on the back that is relatively responsive, and you can even use it when the camera is in the waterproof housing — a big advantage over the touchscreen on the GoPro Hero 4 Silver. There’s an iPhone and Android app that lets you see a live view, chage settings, and download footage. The Virb Ultra 30 can shoot UHD 4K footage at 30 frames per second, and it can also shoot in 2.7K at up to 60fps, 1080p at up to 120fps, and 720p at 240fps. And there are a bunch of "pro" settings that users can tinker with, too.
One of the only drawbacks in my short experience with the Virb Ultra 30 is the image quality can be inconsistent, especially in dynamic light. In those settings, the (12-megapixel) photos and videos can wind up looking blown out. Otherwise, the image and video quality is good, even all the way up to 4K.
Much like the case is with smartphones, the ecosystem around an action camera is becoming increasingly important. You’re just better off if it comes with a deep ecosystem of mounts and accessories, and it helps if the company’s software isn’t awful, too. Garmin has some accessories, but the clever thing is they all use the same type of connector that GoPros use. That means you already have Virb-compatible mounts if you own any GoPro accessories. Garmin’s new mobile app is good enough for transferring files to your phone and playing around with the data overlays, and the company’s desktop app will get you by. But neither are as polished as what you get with GoPro.
I’m really excited to see what people capture with the Virb Ultra 30. With such a long wait for the Hero 5, people have increasingly turned to other action camera companies to see what they have to offer. The Virb Ultra 30 brings a lot of new ideas to the table, and for the first time in a long time it looks possible for companies like Garmin to take a big bite out of GoPro’s lead.
Correction: Garmin has clarified that the stabilization is electronic, not mechanical. This post has been updated.