Garmin VIRB “action” camera, also great on a slow boat

Garmin_VIRB_Edit_software_test_cPanbo.jpgI think that Garmin hit a home run with the VIRB action cameras they began shipping last fall. I’ve been testing the regular model since late September and the Elite model since mid December, and I can picture all sorts of enjoyable ways to use either camera around a boat. I’m documenting a minor cruising adventure in the scene above, but could be remote controlling the camera to film my crew and me while playing a big fish or rounding a racing mark. However, I’ve also come to think of the entire “action camera” concept as a bit of a misnomer… 

When you check out the video above — and I hope you’ll try the full screen HD (1080p) version, if you have the bandwidth and display — notice how rock steady the image is. Yes, the Virb camera is securely suction mounted to Gizmo’s fly bridge windshield and the conditions are flat calm, but there’s something else going on here. The genius of the GoPro camera design that started the “action camera” craze is largely a very wide angle lens, which makes it easy to point it more or less in the right direction and also naturally stablizes the video.
  Garmin added a digital stabilization option to the mix; you can see a comparison in this well done video, but actually, I think some of my Gizmo flat water cruising clips demonstrate the effect even better. There’s an almost otherworldly serenity to the videos that is nearly the opposite of the frenetic action scenes you’ll see in all the marketing, but doesn’t it emphasize the joy that is smooth water boating?

Garmin_VIRB_Edit_software_test_Gauges_cPanbo.JPGBut stabilization is just one small aspect of what Garmin brought to the action camera game. As I wrote last August, the Virb immediately joined Garmin’s ecology of handheld GPS devices and activity sensors, not to mention its vast software resources. In the first video, for instance, I’m using a quatix watch as a remote control, which was easy to set up and works fine, and there are various other Garmin devices that will do the job, plus smartphone apps for the Elite (which has WiFi).
  A key element, though, is the new Virb Edit software for PC and Mac that seems to be getting a feature update every week or so. You can edit Virb MPG4 files in any video program, but with Virb Edit it’s super easy to throw together some clips and post a finished video to YouTube. It’s also where you’ll see Garmin’s strategy of combining GPS and other sensor data with film. Note in the top screen, for instance, that when you watch a video in Virb Edit it can have a track-on-map overlay. Unfortunately, the map overlay is not included in finished videos — copyright issue perhaps? — but I’m hoping that will change eventually. In the meantime, the edit screen just above shows how you can custom overlay all sorts of data (aside from maps) on the videos you can make now. And note that you can do this with free Virb Edit using any MPG4 file and any GPX data file (at least in my limited testing). Thanks, Garmin!

Garmin_VIRB_vs_GoPro_Hero2_gear_cPanbo.jpgOne reason that it took me a while to write up this review is that the mounting accessory aspect is complicated, and I also wanted to compare the Virb to the GoPro Hero2 camera that I’ve owned for a couple of years. The prospect seemed daunting, but then lucky me discovered the amazingly detailed Virb review at DCRainmaker. The dynamo proprietor of that site, Ray Maker, has perhaps set a new standard for accurate and thoroughly researched reviews — along with a deep knowledge of the competitive gadget universe around his various sports passions — and there’s no need to repeat his excellent work (I’m also half hoping he never gets into marine electronics :-).
   At any rate, while highly recommending DCRainmaker for in-depth detail, I do have few comments on the collection of GoPro and Virb stuff pictured above. While the suction mount, handlebar mount, and headband mount were all designed for the GoPro, I’ve been able to use them fine with the Virb cameras because Garmin thoughtfully included an adapter (1). This also means I can use third-party mounting accessories like that RAM GoPro adapter (2). Note, too, the “Chroma” displays on the Virbs — one showing a live video preview and the other a handy level, because it’s Elite and it can — as compared to the sad little LCD on the Hero2…

Garmin_VIRB_vs_GoPro_Hero2_interface_cPanbo.jpgNot only does the Hero2 have less display room for settings information, but you only get two buttons to manage the menus underneath. I found that interface really difficult to use and was tickled by Garmin’s 5 button system, which also uses plainer language like “Slow Mo HD” in addition to the resolution and frames-per-second figures. But maybe the newer model GoPros are different, and besides, I’m not really here to tear that brand down anyway. The bigger picture is that the Hero2 was an enormous success even with a difficult interface; doesn’t that suggest that an easier-to-use Virb might be for you? 

So how does Slow Mo HD perform? I haven’t used it around the boat yet, but this quick clip showed us that our 4-year-old granddaughter is getting some moves from her ballet lessons. And I mean quick. Slide the Virb’s big flashlight-style button to turn on camera and start video recording while pointing camera in general direction of subject. Later plug camera into home PC with USB cable and use Virb Edit, which starts automatically, to download and trim video and post on private YouTube site for sharing with family. A few minutes quick.

Virb Edit got a music overlay feature recently, and I hope I haven’t offended Bob Marley’s ghost by using a bit of his work to liven up the handlebar cam video above of a bike ride down the hill into Camden. The edit software still doesn’t support titles or smooth transitions between clips (as you’ll see at the end), but I imagine they’re coming. You could also use another video program for that sort of thing, but I thought I’d only post review videos that were made by Virb and Virb edit.

This one is a joke with a purpose. I did get Gizmo up to 16 knots, and the lack of camera vibration is striking, but the overlay speed, heading and altitude were collected by a BadElf Pro during an airplane flight. You can not only pair any GPX file with any film clip in Virb Edit (so far in my experience), but you can visually sync the two by sliding the start point along a track line overlaid on a map. Slick.

This video shows how well the Virb can do when handheld and will also be of interest to people to hear and see underway the Torqeedo 1003 electric outboard I’ve been long testing. The camera’s little microphone is on the back and doesn’t work too well for sounds from elsewhere, but I’m looking forward to trying a remote mic with the USB adaptor cable that’s among the many available accessories (you’ll see listed at DCRainmaker, where your purchases support the site).

Garmin_HomePort_showing_VIRB_Elite_tracks_n_photos_cPanbo.jpgNow this was a nice surprise. Plug the Virb Elite into a PC running Garmin Homeport and not only are the GPS track files easily accessible, but the still photos are automatically shown where they were taken. The same is true in Garmin’s free BaseCamp software, except that BaseCamp can’t show the LakeVu HD chart card I had inserted in the PC above. Incidentally, the photos and tracks above came from my Humminbird visit, which you’ll hear more about soon, with video. (I’ll cover the bridge repair, too.) 

Garmin_VIRB_camera_Android_app_cPanbo.jpgI’ve just started to use the Android and iOS apps that can connect to the Virb Elite via WiFi. What they do works fine, but so far they don’t let you see what’s in frame while you’re recording video, nor can they capture video or stills to the mobile device, all of which is apparently possible with a GoPro these days. But obviously, that could change overnight.

Garmin_Virb_integration_w_Pilot_app.jpgAnd if Garmin can integrate Virb viewing and control into its Pilot iPad app, why not BlueChart Mobile (reviewed here)? I could mount a Virb at the masthead and use it as a lookout and cruise highlight recorder. Or maybe Garmin will incorporate some of these developements into fixed boat camera systems? It all sounds good to me, but I must observe that Garmin’s massive Virb development push has so far left out boaters a bit (even if the marine media guy is quite enthused). For instance, there are no Virb Edit data overlay templates geared to boating yet, and you can’t overlay speed in knots. Garmin could even support the depth and water temp data that’s included in GPX files generated with their marine displays (and easily managed with Homeport).

But I quibble. The Virb, especially the Elite, is a wonderfully easy-to-use and versatile “action” camera that also does a splendid job of capturing a slow harbor cruise. In fact, I set this video at double speed. The musical accompaniment is Charlie Byrd playing Indian Summer. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I do: 

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

17 Responses

  1. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    PS One way to get Garmin to make Virb Edit more boater friendly is to make some noise about it here on Panbo.
    Would anyone else like to have (and share) some boat videos like even my early attempts?
    Let’s also note that other manufacturers like Raymarine — which has already enabled video recording and playback on their MFDs using IP boat cams — might be able to match those recordings to boat data files.
    It wouldn’t seem fair to use Raymarine video and data files in Virb Edit but can any other video edit software integrate them?

  2. Jeff says:

    Any Live feed?

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Sort of, assuming you mean by WiFi from the Virb Elite to one of the apps. You see what the camera sees when it’s not recording, with very little lag, but the picture stops when you hit record. I suspect that will change, and also hope that video capture on the phone or tablet becomes possible.
    I know when I first tried the WiFi back and app for the GoPro Hero2 (six months after it was supposed to come out!) the long lag made it almost unusable. But I gather that’s fixed now with the newer Hero models.

  4. Tom says:

    Nice review Ben. The VIRB should be an intriguing device for boaters and anglers. I think they can succeed if they have a more reliable device than their competition.
    A quick search will reveal many, many frustrated GoPro owners, myself included. My issues included overheating, a short battery life, and one day my Hero2 decided it wasn’t going to take a charge or power on anymore (to be fair they replaced it under warranty).
    Anyways, if Garmin can put enough marketing money towards the VIRB, and if they have a reliable device, I think they can do very well with it.

  5. Ben,
    here are two clips I’ve made with Virb (standard) tied to my byboat paddle, used as remote stick for changing recordinc angle.
    Underwater segments was made without dive case. Note how the lens coating drive away water easily when getting back on surface…
    Day clip was made on Danube, night one on Sava river in Belgrade, Serbia…

  6. Ben – Your blog today has a bunch of blank spaces, where I think are supposed to be screenshot links to video files? Not sure if others are having this issue – I’m using IE10 and haven’t had this problem before with Panbo. The VIRB seems really affordable for all it can do!

  7. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Grant, the blanks you’re seeing are probably the YouTube videos embedded in those spaces. They show up fine on the two PC’s I’ve tried and you’re the first complaint. Suggest you try another browser?

  8. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Embedded YouTube videos (which use iFrames) working on iPad at Miami airport.
    I’m almost at Navico press event in Keys. 12 demo boats I hear 😉

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Ben,
    Looking for a camera that I can troll behind my boat and have hooked into my Simrad NSS12 so that I can watch what’s underwater chasing my lures….at real time…. many applications for Go Pro, Contour or Sony via Troll Pro… but all via SD card, post-production so to speak.… Looking for a waterproof, strain proof HDMI connection… Wifi on GO pro does not work underwater from what I’ve been told… this seems like a nice design.
    thanks Ben,

  10. Peter C. says:

    Jeff ,
    There are waterproof video cameras with long cables ,plug right into the back of my NSE,standard composite output RCA jack.
    Available out of China.
    Designed to hang down but you could devise a sled for it.
    See Security Cameras 2000.

  11. Jeff says:

    thanks pete

  12. Bill Large says:

    We’ve been using video on our boat for years, probably because we’re in the video business. We began with some fairly old equipment and slowly graduated to forward- (bridge mounted) and aft-facing cams that are really the equivalent of “point & shoot” level equipment. We use RAM railing mounts and Sima Quickonnects (See Amazon) that allow us to remove the cams when not in use or for downloading the video to our workstation.
    To make the boat video really attractive, you do need some editing software and there is lots of inexpensive stuff available. Being able to dissolve between shots (useful to shorten a no wake zone to keep it interesting) and fading to black (which tells the viewer that some time or the location has changed) also can make a boat video look very professional.
    To make the investment worthwhile, we’ve found that we have to edit the video files fairly soon after shooting it to avoid building up an seemingly impossible backlog. Besides, it’s fun to look at and can’t be beat for viewing on long winter afternoons here in New England.
    A word about background music. You Tube can get cranky about using copyrighted music. An easy work-around is to download from the You Tube Audio Library. It has a good and growing selection of high quality music and it is rights-free.

  13. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Thanks, Bill! I enjoyed some time on your blog and may try the Sima Quickonnect. I’ll be more careful about background music too 😉

  14. Bill says:

    I am very disappointed to discover the display is not backlit. Very difficult/impossible to read in anything but bright light.

  15. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Sorry about your disappointment, Bill, and guess I wasn’t much help in my review. But the DCRainmaker review I suggested for more detail is very clear about the limits of the VIRB “Chroma” display. It is not bright or color rich.
    I do find the menus and bold data screens readable in most daylight conditions and the live video view can usually be used at least to see if the camera is aimed correctly. And for people like me who began with a GoPro, the Virb screen at virtually no extra dollar or battery cost is a serious upgrade.

  16. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Garmin is running something called the VIRB Ultimate Adventure Contest with some serious travel prizes. The emphasis is on “heart-stopping action” (though I think the camera is also great at slow cruising) and the final voting will done by the public.
    Only a week to enter:

  17. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Nice! Garmin’s excellent Homeport software for PC and Mac just became a free download:
    (Thanks to Brent B for tip!)

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *