Review | Garmin VIRB Elite

Small, affordable, high-quality cameras have changed the way content is recorded and distributed. Videography was once reserved for those with the experience and funding to utilize expensive equipment. Raising the barrier to entry even farther in the action sports industry, it was very difficult to haul equipment into exotic locations and capture moments. Today however, anyone can pick up an action camera, mount it to their handlebar and become the next Steven Spielberg. As the Internet continues to fill with amateur video content, companies scramble to grab a chunk of the growing market share by offering smaller, lighter and more feature filled products.

Garmin has released their first action camera, the VIRB. I have to admit, for a company that just entered the market; they offer a competitive product that offers a lot of features not seen with any competitors. We tested the VIRB Elite, the top of the line model that adds connectivity features like GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth over the base model. The video quality is the same between the two models, so your decision depends on how you want to use it.

Right from the start we noted how intuitive the VIRB is to use. There are four buttons on the right side of the camera: power/mode, select/shutter, up menu and down menu. A larger slider on the left side of the camera can be drawn forward to begin recording. I like the design of the recording slider because it is very easy to tell if the device is recording. Even when mounted on top of a helmet, simply running your finger over the switch is sufficient to determine what position the switch is in.

The 1.4” color display makes using the device extremely easy; displaying a viewfinder, playback of recorded footage, various gauges including speed and elevation, and a settings menu. While some cameras are best used with a smartphone app, I felt right at home navigating the Garmin VIRB menus. Although I downloaded the VIRB smartphone app, I found that I did not need to use it. Use of the app will be strictly personal preference for basic use and could be advantageous for using multiple cameras and setting up remote recording. The app is just as straightforward to use as the camera interface. The VIRB can also be controlled from other Garmin devices including Forerunner watches and Edge cycling computers, though control on these devices is limited to taking pictures as well as starting and stopping recording.

Shimano’s Sport Camera and a few other action cameras on the market utilize the same mounting system as the ubiquitous GoPro Hero. This mounting arrangement grants access to the multitude of aftermarket mounts already available for the GoPro. Garmin however, decided to introduce a proprietary mounting system. Thankfully Garmin already has a full line of mounts comparable to GoPro’s.

Shooting 1080p at 30 frames per sec, the VIRB produces crisp, focused footage. I was pleased with quality and the camera worked well in the shadows and other low light situations. The Elite model automatically creates GPS ride data to attach to the video during recording. In order to use this data, it is necessary to use the Garmin VIRB Edit software. A free download link can be found here for Mac or Windows. The software automatically detects the VIRB camera and the interface allows you to import all or select clips from the camera. It took a few minutes to import over an hour of HD footage before allowing me to start editing. I noticed VIRB Edit automatically splits footage into shorter segments if the clips are longer than it desires. I had about an hour of continuous footage, and after import, there were 4 separate files.  Working with the editing software was fairly straightforward. After adding the footage to the timeline, it was easy to split or trim the clips into shorter segments. Though the software has editing capabilities including adding transitions, music and titles, the real advantage is the ability to overlay gauges onto the footage. There are numerous predefined gauge layouts for cycling, aviation, automotive, adventure and general categories or you can customize the screen by dragging gauges onto the video. A map also displays GPS data, allowing you to sync up data, if for some reason the location data is wrong.

My main issue with the software is the discontinuities in GPS data if you clip the footage and just show highlights. Overall distance and the trail map are incomplete if you clip the footage. My recommended fix could possibly be to overlay the gauges onto the footage, and then export the video without trimming clips, adding effects or titles. Then import the footage with overlaid graphics into a more robust editing program and trim it from there. After trimming, I couldn’t get some of the GPS data to line up properly, though unclipped footage worked perfectly without any changes.

In addition to these minor issues, I noticed the editing software doesn’t have very good compression algorithms. At 1080p quality, even three minutes of footage was several hundred megabytes. Longer clips were over a gigabyte in size. Using different editing software will allow you to compress the footage more. I don’t see these minor setbacks as big issues, I’m sure the software will improve with time, and I think it is a very good editing package considering it is free. Riders with more advanced video editing skills will definitely want to work with the footage in different software.

Below is an image from a clip I recorded during a lunch ride. I overlaid a few different gauges to give you an idea of the capabilities. If you have other ANT+ devices, then gauges can be added for power, cadence, heart rate and whatever else you could possibly desire.

Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 4.23.21 PM

Being a longtime GoPro user, I am very impressed with the product. It offers a lot of powerful features that are particularly useful for cyclists. The gauges offer an added layer of perspective and excitement for video viewers. Sometimes it is hard to tell how fast someone is going or how hard they are working in videos, but with gauges, it can really put things in perspective for aggressive descents or other action footage.

If purchasing an action camera today, I would choose the VIRB. It is competitively priced and offers more cycling specific features than other action cameras. As it gains more traction and popularity, I look forward to aftermarket mounts and more flexibility with editing software. Considering this is a first generation product, the VIRB is a pretty solid contender in the sport camera market.