For better or worse, Youtube has sparked video exhibitionism to an unparalled and unimaginable degree. That, in turn, has spawned a huge market for digital video cameras. In the action sports category, GoPro's Hero camera has been the most well-known, and for good reason. It hit the market with a low price point and provided the right combination of ruggedness, small size, and a wide field of view which is necessary for first-person point-of-view filming. But today, they're facing competitors that are upping the ante on price vs. performance and features. We were introduced to this fact by Matt from LaunchHelmetCams.ca. He supplied us with Drift Innovation's X170 action camera. For less than the cost of a similarly equipped GoPro, it still has two features the GoPro can't provide: remote control, and live viewing.
Since getting our GoPro, the thing that has really bugged us is the fact that it has no viewing or playback LCD. Framing a shot is basically a hit or miss affair unless you have a laptop handy that can read the GoPro's SD card. Admittedly, the fact that these types of cameras typically use very wide angle lenses means that you'll likely get what you need in the frame. But a level horizon or accurate framing is, nonetheless, not easy to do when you can't see what you're doing. With the Drift X170, we had a "well, it's about time!" moment when we read its spec sheet. The Drift has a small, colour LCD that lets us accurately frame the shot, as well as watch the recorded video clips. This is a huge convenience.
Drift X170 mounted on our Cherokee's windshield.
The other significant feature is its wireless remote control. This lets you mount the X170 on the outside of your vehicle and turn it off and on without having to stop and exit the vehicle. This means you don't use up the battery or card space nearly as fast.
So what did we think of the X170? It's a mixed bag but our overall impression is that it's a good deal and despite its shortcomings, it's a worthy competitor to the GoPro, and I would recommend it over the GoPro for most users.
First, that colour LCD is the X170's killer advantage over the GoPro. I could recommend the X170 purely on that point alone. It's hard to see in bright light but it's still better than not having an LCD at all.
The remote control was also nice to have, although my compulsive nature meant that I was always wondering if the remote control actually worked. The problem, you see, is that there's no indicator on the remote that shows if it has successfully turned on or off the camera. It'd be like like using your car's remote control without the car's honking or flashing of lights to confirm that something was done. You'd feel compelled to walk over and actually see if the doors locked, right? With the X170, there is a small, green LED that turns red when it is in record mode, but it's virtually impossible to see during the daytime, assuming, of course, that that light is even in your field of vision. But like the LCD, it's still better to have the remote control than to not have it at all.
I have standardized my gear on AA batteries. That means that whenever possible, my purchasing decision will hinge on whether the device uses AA batteries versus some other size. I'm also against the use of proprietary batteries. So I was quite pleased to see that the X170 uses a pair of AA's. If it ever runs out of power, I can scavenge AA's from my GPS, head lamp, flash light, FRS radios, or some other battery-powered device I have at hand. That's the up side. The down side is that the X170 sucks power like college student at an open bar wedding reception. Be kind to the planet and only use high capacity, rechargeable NiMH batteries, or better yet, rechargeable lithium batteries.
Our X170 was packaged with a generous number of accessories. In the box was a handle bar grip mount, a goggle mount, a head strap (to be used with the goggle mount if you aren't wearing goggles), a helmet mount, a universal clip to mount the Drift to those previously mentioned mounts, and a wrist strap to attach the remote control to your arm. Also included were power (USB) and AV cables. We purchased a suction cup mount so we could attach it to windshields. We mostly used the suction cup mount and, occassionally, the head strap mount. No complaints with either, although I think the suction cup mount would have been more useful if it had a longer arm.
Useability / Design
I like that the X170 is a single unit, unlike the GoPro which consists of a camera within a protective housing. I think the GoPro is more rugged but for fourwheeling, the X170 is definitely strong enough. It's not like your average 4x4 falls over as often as, say, your average skateboarder or mountain biker. The same opinion holds for its size. I could see the size and weight being an issue for someone who is going to wear the camera attached to a helmet, but for fourwheeling, it's not an issue at all.
Setting options on the X170 is a joy compared to the GoPro. Unless you use it every other day, the GoPro's terse (some would say encrypted) menu options make it a necessity to have the instruction manual at hand. With the X170, the menu names and settings are understandable without having to read the manual.
The shape of the X170, and the location of its screen and controls make it easy to assume that when it's laid flat, it will be filming in landscape mode. At least that's what we assumed, and we were wrong. In fact, for the camera to be in landscape mode, the raised mark on its lens collar must be pointing up. In its default configuration, that means the camera must be standing on edge. The alternative is to rotate the lens collar which basically rotates the lens and sensor package. Of course, none of this would be a surprise if we simply read the instructions, first. But I know many of you are of the play first, read later mentality, so I put that out there for your benefit.
On the subject of image quality, I'm going to have to give the GoPro the edge. It seems to do a better job of exposure and capturing wider tonal ranges than the X170. In particular, the X170's exposure metering seems overly sensitive to bright spots in the scene. I know this is a typical issue when you're filming with a super wide angle lens, but I get the impression that Drift Innovations didn't do a very good job of writing its exposure program to account for that fact. Another thing you could do is to aim the camera downwards to reduce the amount of sky in the scene. In any case, it's not a show stopper. Because the Drift allows you to review your video clips, you can do a test shoot and use its exposure adjustment menu setting to improve the exposure.
The X170 supports two video formats, MP4 or MJPEG AVI. Both formats provide 720x480 pixel resolution but MP4 mode is more efficient, allowing for greater data compression and a smaller file size. Unfortunately, Sony Vegas Video, Windows Movie Maker, and Apple's iMovie9 couldn't open the MP4 movies (note: an earlier version of iMovie was able to open the files). I was able to play the video without difficulty, using VLC (I highly recommend it, btw, and it's freeware), but being able to edit video is an absolute requirement for me. So after running into difficulty with MP4, I recorded the rest of the video clips using MJPEG AVI. It meant for larger files but they were read, without a hitch, by my video editing programs.
I was able to use the MP4 video clips with Sony Vegas Video but I first had to run them through VirtualDub and re-encode them into another format. That takes time...one minute of video takes one minute to re-dub, so doing a whole day's shooting can be time consuming.
A fast-forward video clip from the Drift X170.
A video tour of the Drift X170 camera.
The X170 isn't perfect, by any means, but its LCD screen and remote control give it enough of an edge over the GoPro that I would recommend it to most fourwheelers. For people who are quite picky about exposure or image quality, I would recommend comparing the video output between the two cameras, first.
Drift Innovation just announced their new HD170 Action Camera. It features 1080p High Definition recording, an external microphone jack, and night mode for low light shooting. You can find more information at their website: www.driftinnovation.com.
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