You just surfed the best wave of your life, or completed an epic mountain bike ride. Naturally, you want to tell your friends about it. Recounting your adventures through words can recapture some of the excitement, but a video would be better, right?
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been testing two portable cameras that will do the trick: The Ion Air Pro WiFi and the GoPro HD Hero2 with the Wi-Fi BacPac and Remote. Unlike regular cameras or camcorders, these action cameras feature rugged designs for outdoor use, and allow you to capture video at unique angles from your surfboard, bike or other sports equipment. The option of Wi-Fi also lets you connect to your smartphone or tablet to instantly watch and share videos, and to use your devices as a remote control.
The $350 Ion Air Pro WiFi impresses with a streamlined design that makes it easy to start shooting right away. The GoPro is a bit more expensive: The camera alone costs $300, and if you want the WiFi BacPac, that’s another $60; you can get a combo kit with a remote for $100. Setup also takes a bit longer. Even so, the GoPro is the better choice, because when it comes to the most important feature — video quality — it’s the hands-down winner.
I attached both the GoPro and Ion to my bike’s handlebar and also shot a video of myself skateboarding, with the GoPro mounted to the front of my board and the Ion attached to my helmet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do a full water test, but the Ion is waterproof in up to thirty feet of water, while the GoPro is waterproof in up to 197 feet of water using the included waterproof case. Both worked fine when submerged in a bathtub.
Video quality on the Ion is okay. Videos shot at full 1080p resolution weren’t sharp, and colors were a bit dark. As a result, some of the finer details were lost. For example, when I did a side-by-side video comparison of the GoPro and the Ion, I was able to see such details as the leaves in the trees with the GoPro, but not so much on the Ion’s video. Also, while I adjusted the handlebar mount as tight as I could, videos were slightly shaky and wind noise can be a problem on the Ion.
The Ion can capture photos at up to five megapixels, but pictures suffer from the same problems as video. I also found it annoying that I had to connect the Ion to my computer to change the camera’s settings. Ion says a future update will allow you adjust the settings from the camera’s smartphone app.
The Ion is otherwise easy to use. The tube-shaped camera features two large buttons on top: A power/camera key and a slider switch that stops/starts video recording. The camera vibrates briefly to confirm it’s recording, which is nice.
The cool thing about the Ion camera is the company’s “podz” system. This is a disc in the back of the camera that contains the Wi-Fi radio and twists off so you can access the camera’s various ports. The company plans to offer other podz, such as one incorporating a bigger battery or a better microphone, so you can easily swap them out.
As for the Wi-Fi functionality, it’s a nice option if you want to be able to view and share videos right after you’re done. I downloaded the Ion Camera app to my iPhone (an Android version is coming) and connected to the camera. All my photos and videos appeared in the album section. You can share directly to Facebook, and you also get eight gigabytes of free cloud-based storage.
The GoPro HD Hero2 delivered excellent video quality. Videos shot at full 1080p resolution looked sharp and bright, with more accurate colors. It was better at image stabilization, and the waterproof housing helped block out wind noise. The camera also has a wider field of view than the Ion, so it was able to capture more of the scene.
The GoPro can take photos up to 11 megapixels and, unlike the Ion, you can change the settings right from the camera. Two buttons on the front and top of the small, rectangular camera help you navigate through the various menus, while a small LCD displays all your options.
I like the onscreen battery indicator. The Ion vibrates when low on battery, but I like a visual cue, too. Both cameras promise about 2.5 hours of battery life. In tests where I shot continuous 1080p video, both the GoPro and Ion delivered two hours and 40 minutes of battery life.
The GoPro requires housing in most instances, whereas the Ion works without one. The GoPro comes with a plastic case with two interchangeable back doors — one that’s waterproof and another with vents to capture more sound. Installation is easy, but if you want to add the WiFi BacPac, which attaches to the back of the camera via connector, that requires another door. It’s not a huge deal, but just know that the GoPro requires a little more planning and setup.
The WiFi Remote Control is a useful accessory. You can wear it on your wrist and take photos and video with the press of a button. It was great while skating, since I didn’t have to bend over and press the button every time, and I can imagine using it while surfing.
GoPro’s Wi-Fi app is due out in the fall for iOS and Android devices, but I got an early peek at the iPhone version. The interface looks simple, and provides a preview of the camera’s angle. You can also access all of the camera settings, and you’ll be able to view and share clips via social networks like the Ion app.
I had a lot of fun using both cameras, and though I like the Ion’s design better, I’m willing to deal with the extra setup of the GoPro for better video quality, and would recommend it to other outdoor enthusiasts who want to capture all their adventures.