Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Garmin Virb Elite – BRUTAL review

Why review the Garmin Virb Elite?

The Garmin Virb Elite is not the ‘current’ or most up to date model in the popular Garmin cam range. So why are we reviewing an old model? Well I’m glad you asked. Although you probably didn’t ask did you? Most of the products we review here at VeloBalls are brand new, or at least current models, like the great Source Fuse hydration pack.

But buying brand new comes with a problem that a lot of people find a big issue. The price. If you buy the latest model of anything you’re going to pay a premium just because you’re buying the latest model. Whereas buying an older version can massively reduce the pain felt in your wallet. Fancy cycling gear that is unaffordable becomes affordable to all but the most modest budgets. I’m not even talking about buying second hand. There are some products I wouldn’t be too keen to buy second hand. Bibs for example. Grim. If you take a look at any massive marketplace like Ebay or Amazon you’ll find plenty of sellers flogging brand new, older model, cycling products.

I paid around £110 for my Garmin Virb Elite. This is not only much cheaper than the latest Garmin Virb model (the Virb Ultra), it’s also less than half the original list price for this camera. So by buying a very slightly older model I got a brand new cam at a price that was an absolute steal.
I’m not going to bore you with an exhaustive list of the technical differences between my older Virb model and the newest model. Instead I’m going to show you what is ultimately the most important aspect of any video camera – the quality of the footage. So watch a few moments of the video below and decide for yourself which camera shoots the best looking footage.

Garmin Virb Elite – a closer look

The Virb Elite is the last of the Garmin cameras to be build in the ‘bullet’ format. The Virb Elite is long and fat, like a cigar. The new Virb cameras follow same box of matches body style of the GoPro range of video cameras. I tried to find out the reason for the shift of shape but couldn’t reach a conclusion. I’ve owned (and killed) lots of cheap GoPro clones and the Virb Elite feels a hell of a lot better than any of them. I’ve destroyed so many cheap sports cameras that I’ve started to consider them almost disposable. Cheap video cameras feel cheap; the Virb Elite feels expensive. It might be a little on the heavy side but the heft it carries does make it feel very robust.

Weatherproof and robust, even when naked
While we’re talking about comparing the Virb Elite to GoPro cameras (genuine or otherwise), it’s worth pointing out that straight out of the box the Virb has a huge advantage over other cameras. The Garmin Virb Elite doesn’t need to be put in a case in order to make it waterproof. In my experience cheap cams come to grief more through the failings of the crappy waterproof cases you mount them in, rather than the actual camera being crap.

The Garmin Virb Elite is rated waterproof to the IPX7 standard. This means you can submerse the cam a metre underwater for up to thirty minutes without doing any harm.
I could waffle on forever about how good the Virb feels in my hands, but we’d both get bored. It’s sufficient to note that the buttons are solid and responsive, the rubberised body feels robust and considering how many times I’ve already dropped this camera it hasn’t been marked at all.

Marmite and soft-focus
I’ve dropped this thing on it’s lens, on a gravel path, and it’s still unscathed. I have no idea what the cover over the lens is coated with but it appears to be entirely resistant to fingerprinting. I consumed some Marmite on toast while writing this part of the review and the lens over even appears to be resistant to light ‘marmiting’. Perhaps not something Garmin deliberately designed in admittedly, but a good indicator of quality.

On every one of the cheapo clones I’ve used over the years the footage quality takes a massive dip once you put the camera inside the waterproof case that came with it. On some of the painfully cheap cams I’ve used the quality of the lens cover part of the case was incredibly poor. Everything I filmed looked like it was meant to be part of a soft-focus romance scene. The latest Garmin Virb comes with a separate waterproof case (like the GoPro clones). The fact my older Virb doesn’t need a case is a huge advantage.

Megapixel **nonsense**
The camera shoots full HD at up to 16mp. If you know anything about photography you’ll know that these megapixel figures mean very little of importance. As with pro digital cameras the quality of the lens and the quality of the sensor is much more important than the megapixel rating. This is why you can buy bewilderingly high megapixel cameras from Chinese websites for chuff all money. The quality will be poop. Megapixel ratings can be disregarded to a certain extent. The latest Garmin Virb, the Virb Ultra, is rated at up to 12mp. So 4mp lower than my older Virb. I very much doubt the Virb Ultra (which costs three times more than my Elite) will be worse quality.

Other stuffThis review is not exhaustive, and there’s little point in me listing all the teeny tiny details about this camera. If you want to know every, single, detail about the Virb Elite you can get that info from Garmin HERE…

One feature that is worth noting is that the Virb Elite is one of the Garmin cameras that can connect with ANT devices. So the Elite can record your heartbeat, cadence and a number of other bits of data. What’s super-cool is the fact that the Virb Elite can overlay this data in real time over the footage captured on it. This is done using the free ‘Virb Edit’ software that is accessible to all Virb owners. The software ain’t great if you’re into complex edits, but is perfect for exporting captured footage so that it can be edited in other software.

The Garmin Virb mount

The Garmin Virb Elite doesn’t need to be shoved in a little plastic box to make it weatherproof, but there is one downside to this fact. The way Garmin designed the system used to mount the camera is nothing short of bewildering. In fact I’d say the mount is probably the worst thing about the Virb Elite. The camera clips (very snuggly) into a cradle. Said cradle is then attached to a circular screw mount. I can see the need for a secure system for mounting the system, but fact the mount is different to my other Garmin devices (like my Edge GPS) is a huge pain in the bum.

Garmin Virb mounting cradle

The hinge that sits between the cradle and the screw mount is similar to the type used by GoPro. Very similar. But not quite. If it were the same then I could easily mount this camera anywhere using any one of the big box of GoPro mounts I have. But I guess I can see why Garmin made their hinge mount different, but it does come across a little bit like corporate spite. I tried shaving one of the GoPro clone mounts to see if I could use it with the Virb but the connection felt sketchy as hell.

What no handlebar mount?
The Virb Elite comes bundled with a modest set of mounts and a few sticky pads. These mounts appear designed for sticking the camera to a flat surface. Bicycles do not have an abundance of flat services. The fact that Garmin didn’t think to include a handlebar mount is most frustrating. I used one of the sticky pads to stick a cut-down GoPro hinge mount to the underside of my Edge handbar mount. I couldn’t tighten the Edge mount enough to stop it from being pulled down by the weight of the Virb. In fact I ended up snapping the mount. I was not happy. No only can I not mount the Virb on my handlebars, I now can’t use my trusty Edge.

DIY combined Garmin mount with destroyed thread. Grrrrrr!

So my hand was forced and I bought a third party combined mount. The new mount was designed to have the edge sit on the top, and the Virb underneath. Perfect. At least it would have been perfect it hadn’t turned out to be laughably poor on the road test. The third-party combined mount was about as stiff as freshly boiled spaghetti. The footage from the test ride was unwatchable. My only option now is to buy the official Garmin combined mount, which is surprisingly expensive.

The laughably cack third party combined Edge / Virb mount

But I didn’t have a chance to buy an official mount before the test ride for this review. I stuck the mounting cradle to my helmet instead. I was tempted to drill a few holes through the mount baseplate, so I could use some zip ties to doubly secure the cam, but in the interests of writing an honest review I decided against it. I put my faith entirely in the sticky pad that came in the box with the camera.

Garmin Virb sticky pad mount, stuck to the top of my MTB helmet

Getting at the SD card
The Virb Elite uses a micro SD card as storage. The SD card is stowed underneath the battery compartment. The battery compartment is secured by a tightly fitting plate on the underside of the camera, which is held shut by a small rotating d-ring. I can understand the need to keep the memory card safe in the inner guts of the camera, but it’s not easy to get at if you need to transfer footage by plugging the card directly into a computer. There’s no easy way to get the battery out of the compartment, other than thumping it against the palm of my hand till it falls out.
The preferred method of import for the Garmin Virb Edit software is via the USB port.

Virb Elite with battery removed. You can see the Micro SD card sitting in the secure mount.

There is a mini-USB port on the rear of the camera (protected by a thick rubber ‘bung’) if you don’t want to open the camera to transfer footage.

In addition to the USB port, there is a mini HDMI port

Garmin Virb Elite – the test ride
I like extreme tests. Fair weather tests don’t stress products enough for me to really learn about them. So the test ride for this review was done in the most extreme conditions I could think up. With the cam stuck to my helmet I headed to the Yorkshire Dales for low temperatures, heavy snow and persistent freezing rain. As an aside this was the same ride I used to test the Source Fuse Hydration Pack. Most of my cycling is done on a road bike, but I wanted a ride that would be much more brutal than some smooth, gentle gliding along on my old Bianchi. So I took the camera on a mountain biking stag weekend.

On the day of the test ride we had an unpleasant mix of thick, heavy snow and driving penetrating rain. The terrain was rough and while the bike I was on performed brilliantly by body was broken by the experience. Conditions were not as bad as they might be elsewhere in the world, but for the UK this ride was extreme.

One of the best features of the Virb is the huge slider switch on the side of the camera. Even with thick winter gloves and numb hands operating the ‘film now’ switch was very easy.
As I mentioned earlier in this review technical details are of little interest to me. Cameras like the Virb live or die by the quality of the footage they film. And rather than me try and explain the quality of the footage it would be best if you used your own eyes and watched the video below.

As you’ll see from the video there are gaps in the overlay data in the video. I added the overlay data using the Garmin Virb Edit software, but the editing functions are a bit limited. So I exported the whole video and imported into iMovie. This appears to be where the issue arose. Lacking data like this is an annoyance that’s worth noting. A bit of research on various cycling forums reveals that I’m not the only person having this problem.

It’s a shame so much of the snow stuck to the lens, but other than having a hydrophobic coating added to the lens cover I’m not sure how much Garmin could do to solve this problem. I was a little disappointed by how little the on-board microphone captured. But sound quality isn’t crucial with sports cameras. However, the sound was a lot better than on the GoPro clones I’ve used in the past. 

The cheap clones suffer from an infuriating muffled rattle on the soundtrack. So by default I mute sound when editing cam footage, but in the interests of transparency I’ve left the sound switched on for the review video.

Garmin claim that a fully charged Virb battery will last up to three hours when filming at 1080p. But the low temperatures of the test ride reduced the battery life to just over an hour. An hour was nearly long enough to capture the whole of the test ride, but a longer battery life would be appreciated. That being said, the Virb lasted longer than some of the riders on this stag do!

There are a few oddities that let down the Garmin Virb Elite a little bit, but none are major enough to stop be recommending this great little action camera. For example, the screen on the Virb is quite difficult to see in natural daylight, even on an overcast day. But how often do you really need to look at the screen? I set up the recording options in the comfort of my home and could see the screen perfectly. When being used for recording there’s a bit green light that turns red when the camera is recording. That’s really all I need.

The screen ain’t great, but does it really need to be?

For the price the Garmin Virb Elite is a great purchase. The price is more than buying a GoPro clone, but far less than buying the newest Virb model. I was pleased with the image quality and ease of use. Considering how little I paid for this cam I’m very pleased with my purchase. If I had of paid the full, original price I don’t think I would be quite as thrilled with the Garmin Virb Elite.

About the author
Andrew Culture is a professional writer and reviewer who has been writing about everything to do with bikes and cycling for many years. Andrew is also a musician and award-winning zine author.

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