Sony bungee-jumped into the sports camcorder market recently with two Action Cam models, one with and one without Wi-Fi. I've been shooting with the Wi-Fi model (HDR-AS15, $270) for a while. In short, if I ever work up the courage to go helicopter skiing or skydiving, the Sony Action Cam could certainly capture the video on my way down.
Although sports camcorders, like the GoPro Hero line have been used mostly by extreme sports enthusiasts, their small size and easy-to-use controls have earned them a lot of popularity among average consumers, too.
Here's what I found using the Sony Action Cam.
Interface, features, and accessories. You don't want a bulky device when you're moving fast. So like most sports camcorders, the Sony Action Cam is small and compact—about half as long as most pocket camcorders but somewhat thicker (just under an inch). And like most other models, it lacks a live-view LCD, which is one reason these camcorders can be so small.
The Action Cam has a tiny 1-inch display that lets you scroll through various commands. In the Setup section, for example, you can select video-resolution settings, turn image stabilization on and off, and set up a time-lapse feature. The display is similar to what you'll find on GoPro's Hero model; it's less intuitive than displays on almost any full-size or pocket model.
To start recording, you simply press the one big button on the back of the unit. It stores video on either a micro SD/SDHC card or Sony's Memory Stick Micro (Mark2) card. But pay attention when you insert the card, because both types of cards will fit, but each will work only in one orientation. If the card is not oriented correctly, a card icon with a line through it appears at the top of the display.
The package we bought for this Action Cam also included some valuable accessories, including a rugged and waterproof case and mounting brackets for attaching the camcorder to a helmet or other object; just be sure the bracket is securely fastened before you start recording. Mounting the camcorder lets you get some dramatic video, since you're shooting from your own point of view.
Wi-Fi and apps. One way Sony has sought to distinguish Action Cams from other sports camcorders is to make a wireless model. (There are one or two other wireless models on the market from lesser-known brands, and GoPro recently announced a wireless model.) This means you can transfer your videos wirelessly to social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook.
You use the camcorder's Wi-Fi feature in conjunction with either a smart phone or tablet, to which you download Sony's PlayMemories Mobile app. Once the app is downloaded, go into your device's Wi-Fi settings and select the Action Cam's Wi-Fi signal (a password is included in the package).
Once you're connected, select the Send section on the Action Cam's display. When the display says Ready, open the app on your device, and you'll be able to see all your video clips. Select the video you want to transfer and press Copy, and the video is sent to your device.
I was able to wirelessly transfer videos via my iPad (3rd generation, iOS 6.0.1); it appeared in the thumbnails of the Photos app. I then uploaded the video to YouTube without a hitch (you can view it embedded below).
Video quality and settings. In addition to being able to capture video in 1080p, you can also shoot slow-motion video in 720p—that's still high definition, which can make for some very dramatic video. Even most full-size camcorders can't do that! You can set the camcorder to capture time-lapse shots as well.
When I compared the quality of the video to clips I've shot on most full-size camcorders, the Action Cam's video looked jittery to me (although Sony claims the Action Cam has image stabilization, which should counteract this). I also thought the footage was noisy, particularly in low light. But I thought the video was on a par with what GoPro's camcorder shot.
Bottom line. Although I found the quality of the video to be somewhat below that of even most pocket models and far below full-size models, it looked on par with what I've seen on other sports camcorders. I also found it quite easy to insert the model into the waterproof case, attach the mounting brackets to a helmet, and lock the Action Cam onto my helmet.