​Garmin VIRB XE first look

We take Garmin's sensor loaded action camera into the skies
​Garmin VIRB XE first look

Taking on GoPro's action camera hegemony isn't easy; the ubiquitous 4K camera has been a staple for extreme-sports enthusiasts and wannabes.

However, Garmin thinks it can do better. Its new VIRB XE action camera adds GPS and a bunch of extra sensors to go beyond simple recording.

Essential reading: Best action cameras

The Garmin VIRB XE will be available in June for $399 and the lesser Garmin VIRB X will land at a lesser $299.

But can its cam topple GoPro Hero 4 Black? And goes the GPS giant have the stones to make a go at cameras? We took to the skies with the Red Bull Air Race crew to find out.

Design and build

The Garmin VIRB XE does feature a far chunkier design than the GoPro, and the exterior is ruggedised in a rock-hard shell. It's not immediately loveable, but the pay-off is a dust-proof action camera that can dive to 50m underwater without a protective case – and that is frankly awesome.

Yes, it's heavy and chunky but it's been designed to get dirty, and nearly every feature comes back to its usefulness out in the real world. One of its niftiest is its ability to display the last known GPS co-ordinates in the app, should it drop off during high-octane action.

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Due to its extreme underwater credentials, charging and data is done by a proprietary magnetic clip on cable, and there's a rugged version of that too, so you can keep the VIRB charged while hooked up to your car or stunt plane.

The device opens up when you release the catch to expose a removable battery and microSD port, and the on/off switch and still photo buttons are all oversized, so they're easy to hit if the camera's mounted on your bike helmet.

There's also a small screen on top, which displays info on battery life, minutes of capacity left and information from the sensors.

One of the most impressive features was the Wi-Fi streaming to smartphone, which we saw working during a product demo. It was staggeringly free of lag, over a fairly mediocre network.

Sensors and tracking

Of course, while 1080p video recording is the headline feature, it's the sensors that Garmin believes will attract sports fans to its action camera.

The camera features a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and, naturally, GPS that tracks your performance, and gives users the chance to overlay data of their sports over their footage.

Unfortunately, in our early testing the software hadn't been finished, so we couldn't see stats on our plane ride (most disappointing) but the screen on top did display G forces in our hands-on testing.

Even more impressively, the VIRB XE can be plugged into pretty much any sensor to glean data, including your car's OBD port, for live speed and gear change information, for example. You can also pair up heart rate monitors and wearables such as the Garmin Fenix 3 by ANT+, which has the added benefit of not interrupting the connection to your phone.

The Fenix 3 can be used as a remote control for the VIRB camera, which means you can start the video rolling before your skiing descent without fumbling around on top of your helmet.

Video quality

Everything so far has played into Garmin's hands, and its heritage in rugged, wearable sports tech – but when it comes to wearable cameras, image quality matters as much as waterproofing.

While, the Garmin isn't 4K, like the GoPro Hero 4, it just records 1080p video at 60fps and can be boosted to 1440p if you drop the frame rate to 30fps. Still images are captured at 12MP.

We're not normally ones to slap companies on the back for playing it safe with image quality, but in reality, Garmin's point stands up. Most people don't want 4K recording: it's harder to share, takes up more room on the camera's memory which means less footage from your day out, and recording it destroys battery life. What's more, of course, most devices aren't even capable of playing it back in all its glory.

Take a look at the test footage from our time with the Garmin VIRB XE and make up your own mind. But for our money, the frame rate during extreme movement, stability, impressive handling of direct sunlight and detail make it more than capable for recording our adventures.

Early verdict

The Garmin VIRB XE is an impressively rugged action camera, and perfect for recording your adventures whether on land, water or air. However, without the sensor data overlays it's hard to say whether the added telemetry is a gimmick or the connected sports fan's dream come true.

What's safe to say, though, is that the VIRB XE has earned the right to challenge GoPro – so check back soon for our full review.

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