Portable action sports cameras have been wildly popular in the last few years, creating a niche of sports videographers given to documenting their snowboarding, skydiving, surfing and BMX bike riding exploits.
GoPro is the current market leader in this category, and we’ve lived with its HD Hero2 for some time, using it as the benchmark against which to measure similar devices. So just how does the new Swann Freestyle HD compare to our reference portable sports action camera?
The Swann Freestyle HD is packaged with pretty much everything you could possibly need for capturing most types of action sports.
Included is an LCD screen attachment for playback of footage, a wireless remote for long distance control, a waterproof casing, and a grab bag of mounting attachments for your sports gear, plus cables to cater for various video-out options.
Price-wise, the Swann Freestyle and the GoPro HD Hero2 are identical, at AU$399. With the Freestyle, though, that buys a lot of extra-value trimmings. The surfeit of accessories provided here contrasts with the GoPro Hero2 pack, which certainly comes with the essentials but not the really useful LCD and wireless remote. Most other accessories are an expensive, extra-cost option, but with the Swann, you’re fully loaded out of the box.
The Swann is very similar in design to the GoPro HD Hero2, so cosmetics won’t be a point of difference you’ll need to base a buying decision on. The Freestyle is a fair bit lighter than the GoPro however, which can be good or bad depending if you like to feel some weight in your camera gear. When it’s strapped to your head for a long period of time, this is certainly a plus though.
The raison d’etre of any video camera device is to capture good-quality moving images, and the GoPro and Swann are fairly evenly matched here.
On a base level, the colours are rich and have something of a glow to them, which we found appealing, but may not be to everyone’s taste. The Freestyle also achieved a good balance between extreme light and dark areas, with bright skies and shady pathways in the same scene exposed nicely.
The Swann’s weakness is low-light performance, especially when set to 1080p capture. Most sports action you’re likely to want to capture won’t occur in the dark, of course, but there are other activities, such as bumper cars and late night roller coasters, that would benefit from better capability here.
We would have liked the option of higher frame rate (aka slow motion) capture too. As it is, you’re stuck with 30 frames per second, which means you forfeit the ability to capture bursts of arty slo-mo skateboard, bungee jump or surf riding sequences.
The resolution of still images peaks at 8 megapixels, which is 3 megapixels shy of the GoPro HD Hero2. The Freestyle HD, however, compensates for these shortcomings with some really neat features.
There’s a laser beam, for instance, for helping you see where you’ve aimed the lens. We found this really useful, as the compact lens often made it hard to know exactly where the framing of the shot lay. And there’s just something just plain cool about having a laser warning sticker on your camera. Totally bad-ass.
The included detachable LCD screen is also a huge help for reviewing footage and simply navigating the menus. For those wanting to capture something more than a recreational video it’s a genuine asset, and being included in the box is a real bonus.
Be aware, though, that you can’t navigate a lot of the menu unless the LCD is attached – so make sure your settings are correct before ‘Swann’ diving out of that plane, lest you miss your moment. The camera does, however, have a sound activation function that will awaken the camera and record once noise passes 60 decibels – a handy feature if you’re unable to initiate capture with your hands.
GoPro has a long heritage in portable sports action cameras, and with its higher frame rates and wide range of (extra cost) attachable mounts, just trumps the Swann for versatility.
The Freestyle is, however, incredible value and, with its user-friendly features and laser beam coolness, a tad more enjoyable to use than the Hero.
As a first foray into GoPro’s domain, Swann’s Freestyle HD is a fine effort and outstanding value. It’s a balanced, well-made camera that includes everything you’ll want to keep a visual record of having a great time.