Verbing the action cam: Garmin debuts impressive VIRB camera line with features like no other


posted Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 5:30 PM EDT

We're all familiar with verbs, the words that indicate actions and states of being. They're all around us, and through the oft-mocked act of verbing, we add to their roster almost on a daily basis. Now, GPS maker Garmin has gotten in on the game with its cleverly-named VIRB action camera line, and it will doubtless be hoping to find its brand verbed in the not-too-distant future.

The VIRB line makes its debut with two models: the standard VIRB, and the VIRB Elite. Both feature the rugged aesthetic you'd expect in an action camera, and are waterproof to 3.3 feet (1m) for 30 minutes without the need for an additional housing. Should you want to go deeper -- or actually operate the camera underwater intentionally, because Garmin says this built-in waterproofing is intended only for accidental immersion -- then a 164-foot (50m) underwater housing will also be available. The VIRB cameras are also freezeproof to 5°F / -15°C.

Promotional video for Garmin's VIRB camera series.

The VIRB cameras can both capture Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixel) video and 16-megapixel stills. At Full HD resolution, you're limited to a rate of 30 frames per second, but a 60 fps rate is unlocked for 960p (1280 x 960) and 720p (1280 x 720) videos. Switch to the WVGA (858 x 480) mode, and you can manage 4x slow motion thanks to a maximum capture rate of 120 fps. Audio is recorded either with an internal microphone, or via a USB to 3.5mm mic jack adapter. Burst still shooting is possible at unspecified resolution with a rate of 6 fps, and there's also an interval timer function.

Garmin doesn't state a focal length or even a field of view for the VIRB cameras' shared lens. It carries WideVü branding, suggesting a wide-angle optic much like the majority of action-camera models on the market. Both cameras include in-camera lens correction and digital image stabilization functions.

The duo also include color LCD monitors -- albeit tiny 1.4-inch types, and with a twist. To save battery, their monitors are reflective, something we've not seen in a digital camera for quite some time. Reflective displays don't feature a power-hungry backlight; instead, ambient light is reflected off the back of the screen. In low light conditions, the screen will hence be difficult or impossible to see unless you shine a flashlight on it, but it should be easy to see in daylight.

Garmin's VIRB cameras -- especially the VIRB Elite -- offer features not seen in an action camera before, including ANT+ networking, reflective LCDs and location-aware auto recording.

So, how do the two models differ? Not surprisingly given Garmin's roots in mapping, the VIRB Elite adds a GPS receiver. Cleverly, this can be used to start and stop recording automatically with various presets. For example, the GPS can differentiate between the quick, downhill motion of skiing and the slower uphill motion of the ski lift, then automatically record just your ski runs in Ski mode.

It also has an accelerometer, barometric altimeter (which allows much greater precision than determining altitude solely using the GPS receiver), and Wi-Fi wireless networking connectivity. Free apps for Android and iOS will allow you to interface your smart devices with the VIRB Elite.

Despite these feature differences, Garmin lists the precise same size and weight for both variants -- 2.1 x 1.3 x 4.4 inches (53 x 32 x 111mm), and 6.26 ounces (177g). This latter figure is measured with the camera's 2,000 mAh removable lithium-ion battery pack in place. Garmin says that up to three hour battery life can be expected.

The VIRB cameras' chunky record switch should be easy to operate with gloved hands.

And although only the Elite model includes Wi-Fi, both regular and Elite variants include Garmin's own proprietary ANT+ wireless networking tech, which has been licensed by companies including Adidas, Microsoft, Sony Ericsson, Texas Instruments and Timex. This allows not only interoperability with other ANT+ devices -- fitness aids being a particularly common use for the tech -- but also allow multiple VIRB or VIRB Elite cameras to be triggered simultaneously, right out of the box. You can also use other ANT+ devices such as watches to start and stop recording.

If your VIRB is receiving data from other ANT+ gadgets, it can embed this info in your videos. That means you can record your heart rate or body temperature, for example, alongside metadata from the camera and location-aware sensors.

As you'd expect for an action camera, a variety of mounting options are available. Both versions ship from September 2013, priced at US$300 for the standard model, and US$400 for the Elite model.

Garmin wants you to get your VIRB dirty, living -- and recording -- life on the edge.

The action camera market has really been heating up over the last year or so. Once almost the sole domain of GoPro, there are now many challengers. Some focus on name brands and thoughtful designs; others compete largely on affordability. The Garmin VIRB series -- and especially the VIRB Elite -- look to offer something truly different, with features we can't recall seeing in rivals, not even in the much-vaunted GoPro. The Garmin brand is not one the public associates with imaging, though. It will be interesting to see how its market debut is received, and whether the VIRB brand can change those perceptions.

If so, VIRBing your extreme activities could be all the rage for outdoors types in years to come, and lexicographers could find themselves arguing over the verbing of VIRB. We're sure Garmin has its hopes -- and its product branding -- set on just that eventuality.