The older version of Garmin’s action cam, the Virb X Elite, made a really good impression on us because of the richness of its sensors. This new version, called Virb Ultra 30 aims to be even more upscale, with its 4K video compatibility and its even more sensors. Sold 430 euros, it is clearly positioned in front of the Hero 5 Black. Let’s see if this novelty has the assets to compete with the high-end model of GoPro.
Aesthetically, the Virb Ultra 30 has nothing to envy to its rival Hero 5. The design is just as neat and, unless you swear by absolute sobriety, we find that the duo of red and black of the case brings a little cheerfulness compared to the entire black one of GoPro.
As for dimensions, this is played in a pocket-handkerchief … in favour of Garmin. In this case, its Virb Ultra measures 5.8 x 4.6 x 3.1 cm and weighs 88 grams (156 grams with box). The Hero 5 measures 6.2 x 4.4 x 3.3 cm and weighs 118 grams (166 grams with box).
On the back of its case, the Virb incorporates a screen of 4.4 cm diagonal (1.75 inches) against 5.08 cm for the Hero 5. As fashion is tactile, its configuration requires a succession of menus in which we navigate with a certain ease. Note that Garmin is strong on this touch screen since it works even when the camera is locked in its plastic case. The rear hatch is, in fact, conductive which allows the panel with capacitive technology to work, with – it is true – sometimes some slowness.
To finish with the design aspect, let’s note that Garmin delivers a robust and easy to handle proprietary fastening system. But of course, the housing attachment mechanism is compatible with other brands of media, including those from GoPro.
4K still lacks sharpness
If this Virb is called Ultra, it’s because it’s going to Ultra High Definition. This action-cam is, in this case, 4K compatible at 24 or even 30 frames per second. Unsurprisingly, the sharpness is not up to par with a film shot in Ultra High Definition. This is often the case on an action-cam. The rendering is clean, but not magic. In fact, in terms of 4K quality, the Ricoh WG-M2 has left us with better memories.
Below, this capture from a sequence filmed with the Virb during a very greying winter day is not very flattering (even taking into account the compression for the upload).
However, the Virb Ultra 30 remains a pleasant surprise. First of all because the high image flow (combined with a high-performance processor in particular) makes it possible to have a smooth video. Then, because Garmin always takes care to offer a lot of settings. Not only reserved for the 4K recording mode, the “professional parameters” notably allow to significantly improve the quality of the videos.
There is also the possibility of playing on colourimetry, exposure, white balance, sensitivity (in ISO) or forcing the central focus. What’s great is that these settings are not fake. Intervening in the exhibit can really save the user’s focus when shooting in difficult lighting conditions.
All these settings are accessible directly from the camera menus but to better perceive the impact of the changes, it is better to use the Garmin Virb application from a smartphone, the latter benefiting from video feedback.
In the screenshot below, we see that with the right settings, the dynamic range of the Virb Ultra is ultimately very good.
Ultra high definition also allows you to make beautiful videos in a more “calm” context. For example, it won’t be ridiculous to use the hand-held camera to film a birthday, for example. This is all the more valid since when the camera is not in its housing, the sound from the microphone is quite good. We will come back to it.
Intermediate definitions for more fluidity
During our reviews, we tended to prefer the 2.7K mode which allows going up to a flow of 60 images per second. Fluidity is further improved and the image quality largely sufficient for distribution on online services (YouTube, Facebook, etc.).
In addition, this model benefits from a stabilization whose effectiveness is significant. Another argument that may make you prefer a lower resolution: the size of the files. Besides the fact that you need a big microSD card to shoot in 4K, you also need a powerful PC to edit your videos. In 4K @ 30ips as in 2.7K @ 60 fps, the data rate is 60 Mbits / s, against 45 Mbits / s in Full HD.
Full HD videos are also stabilized and, most importantly, offer even more settings for both the field of view and the image stream. In 1080p, the video stream can go up to 120 fps, an ideal rate for achieving posterior slow motion. It is also possible to reduce the field of vision to reduce the “fish-eye” effect and therefore the distortion at the edges of the video.
Let’s quickly switch to photo mode where the photos from the 12 Mpixel sensors (4000 x 3000 pixels) are far from exceptional. If the colours are faithful enough, the strong smoothing of the photos completely drowns the sharpness of the image. The rendering has no frank flavour.
The good autonomy of the Virb Ultra 30 is a real asset that makes us appreciate it. In UHD, we measured an hour of recording, which is not at all ridiculous. In Full HD, probably the mode you will use the most, the battery takes about 1h45. What to see coming.
But beware, these autonomies can drop with the use of Wi-Fi and the GPS chip simultaneously.
As we said above, Wi-Fi allows you to control the settings and recording of the camera from your mobile and to have image feedback. The GPS circuit records information such as speed or the course of a route. The accelerometer, capable of measuring acceleration (expressed in G), like the compass and the altimeter, remain permanently active. This Virb Ultra 30 is really packed with sensors!
Finally good ideas for audio recording
We said above, when the camera is out of its housing, the microphone captures a good quality audio track. The sound is naturally muffled when the Virb Ultra 30 is in its case while remaining superior to that of a GoPro camera, for example. The reason is due to the design: Garmin has provided a small hole in the front that can record something understandable while retaining water resistance up to 40 meters.
It’s ingenious, but it’s not a miracle. For example, when riding a bicycle, the noise of the wind is very present.
Another function related to the microphone: like GoPro products, it is possible to trigger the recording of a photo or a video by voice. However, this only works with instructions in English. It is, therefore, necessary to pronounce “start recording, stop recording, take a photo” or even “remember that”. This last command allows you to place a marker on the video, to identify an important scene and return to it more easily, especially during editing.
And we save you the best for last. Still, regarding audio recording, it is important to note that the Virb Ultra 30 is Bluetooth compatible. It is, therefore, possible to use a headset, or even an earpiece to take quality sound recordings, including when the camera is in its protective case. This Bluetooth link can also be used to listen to recordings and to ensure that the sound is good. Another great idea!
Sensors that enrich videos
Garmin always offers its free Virb Edit software for editing, which makes the best use of the data measured by the GPS, accelerometer and altimeter. Note that it is even possible to couple a cardio belt or a pedalling sensor (via ANT + technology) to complete even more videos with fun, even important data from some professionals.
Garmin also offers several skins in its software to embed the data recorded by the sensors in the videos. It will therefore be necessary to delve a little to find what is best suited, choose its transition effects, add a title, an audio track … in short, edit it.