Sony HDR-AZ1 Action Cam Mini Review
Every Hero needs a villain.
Action cameras have been on the rise in recent years thanks, in large part, to the popularity of GoPro. Now every manufacturer wants a piece of the pie. Sony is no exception, bringing multiple action cams to the market over the past couple years, including its latest: the 4K-shooting Sony X1000V.
However, not everyone is ready to step up to 4K just yet. Sony's addressing this with the new HDR-AZ1 (MSRP $249.99). The HDR-AZ1–or Action Cam Mini–is a stripped down version of the HDR-AS100, ditching a few features to provide similar performance for less money.
While many manufacturers are throwing their hat into the action cam ring, none have been able to pose a real threat to GoPro. But with Sony's superb track record in the camcorder market, does it actually stand a chance?
Design & Usability
In the action cam genre, smaller and lighter is always better, as it opens up mounting and portability options while preserving durability. The HDR-AZ1 takes the design from the other Sony action cams and scales it down substantially. Sony shaved about 15 total millimeters off the previous design's height and length, shedding about 1/3rd of the weight in the process.
The smaller size and weight instantly make the AZ1 favorable for mounting and handling over the AS100. There are no drawbacks in handling, as the AZ1 is about as light as a camera can get. This is perfect for mounting on helmets, bikes, or drones without throwing off their balance.
As you can see in the photos above, the AZ1 only features a few buttons. While simplicity is nice, the design is almost too simple. With only three buttons to control the power, the WiFi, and recording, some sort of accessory is required if you want to get the most out of the camera.
The buttons themselves are a bit too easy to activate and I found myself powering off the camera by mistake multiple times. This makes it easier to start recording in tough spots such as underwater, but the chances of it powering down accidentally while filming something isn't worth the trade off. It's not like action shots are easily replicated, after all.
Sony seems to agree, as it encourages you to get the wireless Sony live view remote. You'll need the remote if you want to change any settings, though you can accomplish the same thing with your smartphone and Sony's PlayMemories app.
The live-view remote can control multiple cameras at once and mounts to your wrist, but it has a few flaws. We found that connecting it to the camera can be inconsistent, and sometimes requires rebooting both once you've lost connection. The range of the WiFi signal also leaves a bit to be desired, resulting in choppy images and dropped connections. The remote is a steep $150 by itself, but you can get it for $100 bundled with the camcorder.
If you want to live dangerously, you can just buy the Action Cam Mini and rely on your phone to control the camcorder. For that you'll need the PlayMemories app, which is basic, but gets the job done. It allows you to use your phone as a viewfinder, change settings, and review your work. I actually preferred this to the live view remote, as my phone had a far more consistent connection—even if it did drain my battery.
The HDR-AZ1 is powered by the Bionz X image processor and a 1/2.3-inch Exmor R CMOS Sensor. It records 1080/60p and 720/120p videos, while capturing 11.9 megapixel stills with its wide-angle lens. All the specs are there for a solid action cam, but we found it is a bit weak in key areas when compared to others in its class.
First off, the sharpness of the AZ1 is far lower than what a dedicated camcorder can manage. Like all action cams the lens has a very wide angle of view. This captures a lot of the world around you, but it heavily distorts it and loses fine detail. When shooting 1080/60p we measured resolution of merely 450 line pairs per picture height vertically and 425 horizontally—on par with most smartphones. If you look at the example, almost all detail is lost and the image is extremely soft.
Noise and low-light performance aren't much better. Most action cams have trouble in low light due to the small sensors, but other cameras have improved this over time. The AZ1 took a little more than twice as much light to produce a usable image than the GoPro Hero 4 Silver edition, which has plenty of issues of its own in dim lighting.
Battery life was also quite poor, though to be expected given the camera's small size. While recording at 1080/60p with just the camera–no WiFi or live-view remote–we only got 60 minutes of continuous shooting. To contrast, the GoPro Hero (2014), got three times as much shooting out of one charge.
And once you activate the WiFi and connect to your smartphone or live-view remote, the battery life can be quite unpredictable. There were times where we would be able to shoot just 15 minutes of footage, and others, 30 minutes. One thing is for certain: The battery life plummets once it's paired with any device via WiFi. This is unfortunate, as the WiFi is required to change any camera settings or shooting modes.
The battery is at least replaceable, with spares going for less than $20 online. However, it's a hassle to stop shooting, remove the case, replace the battery, replace the case, remount, reconnect the WiFi, and start shooting again every 20-30 minutes.
Action cams often lack for features, as they're designed to be simple and durable. Like most action cams, the AZ1 is dustproof, shockproof, and waterproof. However, it is only waterproof up to 16 feet underwater. This isn't very impressive for an action cam, as the GoPro is waterproof down to 131 feet of water in the standard housing. That said, even without the case, the camera can stand up to showers, spray, and snow thanks to its IPX4-class rating.
The AZ1 can shoot in 1080p, 720p, and even 480p across a variety of bit rates–depending on the type of memory you use. You can use Memory Stick Micro, Micro SD/SDHC/SDXC Memory Cards, or XAVC S with a Micro SDXC Memory Card. One thing to note, the hybrid slot can be a bit tedious to insert memory cards into sometimes. As far as high framerate video goes, you have one choice, 720/120p. Strangely 480p video is only 30fps instead of offering a 240 fps mode like you can shoot with the competition.
Unlike GoPro, the AZ1 does have electronic stabilization, but it comes at a cost to the field of view. Basically it does the same thing that you can do in a program like After Effects by cropping into the image to reduce shake. This could be a pro or con depending on the user, but if you're looking for the widest shooting angle possible, you'll want to keep this feature disabled.
In the stills department, the AZ1 captures 11.9 megapixel JPEG files in single or burst mode. This is useful for grabbing high-res photos when video isn't needed or wanted. However, if using the "Interval Photo Recording Mode" it produces images at only 2.1 megapixels–enough for a 1080p timelapse, but not
WiFi is built-in on the AZ1 and as we mentioned earlier and it's basically required to use the camera effectively. All settings and mode changes have to be done via the WiFi connection with a smartphone or the live-view remote. This might be tolerable if the battery life while using the WiFi wasn't so lackluster. We can't stress enough how poor the battery life is while using the WiFi. If you don't have to use it, don't.
For streaming junkies, like myself, Sony has also partnered up with UStream, which is one of the more popular streaming services online (even NASA uses it for the ISS). This offers a bit more reach for getting your live footage to a larger online viewer base than GoPro, who partners with the less popular Livestream.
Overall we like the smaller design of the AZ1 over many action cams, but the downgrade in performance that comes with it isn't worth the cut in size. Even simply as an action cam, the fact that it only goes 16 feet underwater—compared to 131 feet with any GoPro—is off-putting. We hope this is remedied in future case designs, as divers are a significant part of the action cam market.
The HDR-AZ1 is also a tough sell for people who are just looking for a simple action cam. The battery only lasts an hour under the best conditions. And if you want to even see what you're shooting you have to spring for the live view remote or use your smartphone, deal with iffy WiFi connectivity, and lose half your battery life in the exchange.
There are simply too many key areas that the Action Cam Mini comes up short when compared to other action cams on the market. We have high hopes for Sony's impending 4K Action Cam, however. And given Sony's generally excellent camcorder offerings, we're not counting it out just yet.
But for the time being, if you want an action cam, GoPro is still the way to go.
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