Like many TUAW readers, I'm one of those people who has been drooling over the GoPro Hero4 Black action camera since it was recently released. But at US$500, it's a bit on the high side for someone who doesn't actually engage in a lot of activities that would would benefit from the high definition video - I don't skydive or scuba dive, and I'm not a snow or skateboarder. So I was fascinated to hear about a much less expensive Wi-Fi enabled action camera from Vivitar - the DVR794HD (US$99, £75.99), and quite happy when the venerable camera and accessory manufacturer offered to send a review unit, even when it's not available yet in the US. Read along to see how the DVR794HD works (or doesn't...) in the Apple ecosystem.
As with most of the action camera genre, the DVR794HD is tiny - just 2.44 x 1.57 x 1.26 inches (62 x 40 x 32 mm). With the battery installed, the bare camera weighs just 2.8 ounces (79.4 grams). It wouldn't be an action camera without being waterproof, so Vivitar ships it with a clear plastic waterproof housing. There's also a helmet mount for capturing your skydives and heliskiing, and a handlebar mount for those times where you're racing through the pines on your mountain bike.
They don't include one necessity - the MicroSD card that photos and videos are stored on. However, those are really quite inexpensive, with a 64 GB Class 10 MicroSD card selling now for as little as $25 online. Setting up the camera is simple and fast; you just pop the included battery pack into the back of the unit, plug the camera in until a small blue LED goes out, and then you're ready for action.
The waterproof case goes on easily, with a nice snap-on lock that keeps it securely shut. That case is good to 30 meters (about 100 feet), so it shouldn't have any issues with taking a dip in a swimming pool or going snorkeling.
Of course, the point of cameras like this is that they're supposed to shoot incredible video through a wide-angle lens. The DVR794HD uses a fixed focus 2.9 mm lens at F3.1, so it certainly fits the bill there.
The controls are fairly simple. On one side are a power button and a button for linking to the camera from your iOS device using Wi-Fi and the free Action Cam app. On top is a button to toggle between video and still photography, and also to start and stop video or take a still photo. The only display on the camera is a tiny LCD display that is almost worthless. It shows if the camera has turned on or is turning off, and has almost microscopically small icons to denote video/photo mode, battery capacity, and the remaining duration for the camera while filming. According to the app, at 64 GB microSD card should give me 11 hours and 3 minutes of filming capacity (although the battery won't last that long), but the display just showed 1:03.
By the way, on the other side of the camera is the microSD card slot, a port for an external microphone, a micro-USB port for charging, and an HDMI port for viewing your output directly from the device.
To power on the DVR794HD, you long-press on the power button. By long-pres, I mean about five seconds. A barely audible beep tells you that the camera is turned on, and the LCD shows "On". To link to the camera via Wi-Fi, you press the Wi-Fi button and it begins to blink on and off. Selecting the camera (ActioncamXXXXXXX) in Wi-Fi settings makes the Wi-Fi light go to a steady red glow. One interesting bug - being connected to the DVR794HD Wi-Fi, my iPhone 6 Plus didn't show the usual Wi-Fi icon.
However, opening the free Action Cam app showed a connection to the camera. Tapping on the button, I immediately received an image from the camera showing me what it was seeing. At the bottom of the screen are a toggle for video or photo mode, a large red record button, a time-remaining indicator, and some buttons to set rudimentary white balance and resolution settings.
I found the software to be relatively useless; yes, the app can be used as a remote control, but the Wi-Fi connection dropped out on a regular basis. About the only thing it would be useful for is setting the resolution, as the manual method of doing that involves pushing the power/mode button repeated times to bring up those miniscule icons on the LCD.
When Wi-Fi was turned on and actually working properly, the battery indicator on the camera would sometimes show a drained battery, even when it had just been charged. My suggestion? Don't use the Wi-Fi. There's just no point to it with the poor iOS app and connectivity issues.
About this point, I started seeing a number of other issues with the camera and the app. On occasion, the camera would totally lock up to the point that the battery pack had to be removed in order to reset everything. Sometimes the device would simply shut itself off. I would assume that it's an auto power saving mode, but there's no way to set the auto power-off time.
So the iOS app is pretty worthless, how about Mac software, AKA "The Vivitar Mobile Experience"? Well, the brilliant minds at Vivitar included an installation CD, which shows just how out of touch they are with the world of Apple. Most Macs haven't come with optical drives for years, and none of them can read the "mini-CD" that was included. A look at the Vivitar website was relatively useless as well - it doesn't even show the DVR794HD as a current model, and there's no software to be found in the scanty online support section. Even Google couldn't help, as most of the links to the Vivitar Experience Image Manager software for Mac actually went to Windows downloaders or to sites that were so questionable there was no way I was going to download anything from them. The app is available for iPad, but I chose not to download it just out of spite at this point.
Fortunately, there was a way to get the photos off of the camera - the microSD card had an adapter that could be used with my Mac. How does the DVR794HD stack up? To start with, all images - video or still - are going to be wildly distorted by the wide angle lens. That's understandable, since you're going to be using this device on a helmet or bike to get action videos, right? Still images on this camera are taken at 4000 x 3000 pixel resolution - a 12 MP image. iPhone 6 Plus images are done at 3264 x 2448 resolution, about 8 MP images.
Resolution isn't a guarantee of good photos. The DVR794HD images were grainy, colors were off, and the shutter speeds were so slow in some cases that handheld images were blurred. Here are segments of two images (scaled to fit the page, of course) of the same subject under identical lighting. First, the DVR794HD:
Now the iPhone 6 Plus:
Despite all of those extra pixels, the DVR794HD photo looks like something I shot with my first camera phone in the early 2000s.
What about the video? The following two short clips are taken from the same spot under similar lighting conditions. First, the DVR794HD:
Next, the iPhone 6 Plus:
Sure, the iPhone 6 Plus is not an "action cam". But as a video camera it's much, much better. There's less distortion, the iPhone 6 Plus handles changes in light intensity much quicker, and the colors are much more authentic compared to what was seen with the DVR794HD.
I've already wasted enough time, both mine and yours, reviewing this product. The Vivitar DVR794HD is yet another example of "You get what you pay for", and the $99 price tag on this action camera should not be an enticement to anyone to buy this, unless you want a digital lump of coal to put into someone's Christmas stocking.
Between poor image quality, bad Wi-Fi connectivity, an iOS app that has very limited utility even when Wi-Fi is working, a truly nonexistent Mac app, a tendency to lock up and/or shut down unexpectedly, and an on-device display that practically requires a magnifying glass to make any sense of, I cannot recommend the DVR794HD, even when it does finally make it to American shores.
I'll give it a half-star just for having bike and helmet mounts and an infrared remote, and because that waterproof case is kinda cool. But if you really want to shoot action video, get a GoPro and forget this Vivitar product. For $30 more, you can get the entry-level GoPro Hero and I can guarantee you'll much happier, even without Wi-Fi.