There’s little doubt that the revolution in sports action cameras will continue to gain pace. The ease of use and quality of the images from these tiny waterproof units make them an attractive prospect for those wishing to document their surf sessions. It allows us to share experiences usually reserved for the confines of our memory banks.
I’ve struggled slightly to embrace this revolution. I find the self-importance of taking a camera into the lineup a little hard to swallow. Add this to the fact that these cameras are rarely deployed by the best or most modest surfers in the water and it all leaves me feeling just a little uneasy.
But, as much as it pains me to say it, I’m slowly coming round to the benefits of mounting a digital device to my board. The more I use one, the more I enjoy capturing, watching and editing the footage I’ve taken. In testing 2 different cameras for this article, an average surf session became much more enjoyable. Even in pretty rubbish small onshore surf (albeit in tropical water) I had a blast. For a while I tapped into my inner John John Florence (just without the surfing ability) and filmed wave after wave. It helped that I had the water to myself, so feeling self-conscious wasn’t an option, but I think I might nearly be ready to paddle out amongst other surfers with a camera carefully positioned on the front of my surfboard. Nearly.
My biggest gripe with the original GoPro has always been the price. It’s eye-wateringly expensive. And it’s not like you’re buying it and wrapping it up in cotton wool, taking extra care over your newest prized possession. It’s being flung into a plastic waterproof housing and then precariously strapped to the front of a surfboard. The fixings are strong. It feels secure. But then so are surfboards. And they have an annoying habit of snapping. When I rise to the surface after going down on a wave I breathe a little sigh of relief when I see that the camera has survived the fall and is still sitting proudly in its housing. I almost don’t feel like I own the cameras in my possession, rather I’m leasing them until they decide it’s time to retire to the seabed.
Which is why I was interested to see what genuine competition there was to the GoPro. Was there something a bit cheaper that wouldn’t matter quite as much if it were involuntarily donated to the fishes? As is often the way when a product takes the marketplace by storm, a string of copycat products trail in their wake, attempting to cash in on the popularity of the superior market leader. I wanted to know if any of these cheaper sports cameras could really offer themselves as genuine alternatives to the GoPro itself, or would the old adage of “buy cheap, buy twice” prove its worth once again?
It was important to try and select the right camera to pitch against the GoPro. There are hundreds of options to choose between. From bargain basement low-resolution waterproof digital devices, to 4K HD fully loaded offerings, the choice is almost endless. Most of the alternatives can’t touch the functionality or quality of the GoPro, and there’s a lot of tat to sift through, but I’ve tried to choose a camera that closely resembles everybody’s favourite extreme sports camera in specification, functionality and feel. I eventually landed on the snappily named the SJCAM SJ5000X. And you know what, it gives the GoPro a pretty good run for its money.
The price is the obvious starting point. The GoPro Hero 4 Silver is nearly $400 (£280 GBP) from their official online shop. The SJ5000X is $120 (£80 GBP) from online retailer Gearbest. Both cameras have 1080p HD recording, 12MP burst photo capability and WiFi options for remote operation. The spec sheets are remarkably similar. And the visual similarities are pretty obvious too. The SJ5000X is not trying particularly hard to hide the origin of its styling cues. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and all that.
Out of the box both cameras look and feel good. They each come with a plethora of mounts, casings and attachments, if anything, the SJCAM is slightly more generous with the accessories that come as standard. The GoPro is slightly heavier, and has a more solid feel, but the cheaper alternative doesn’t feel cheap. At this early stage the $280 price gulf isn’t apparent in any shape or form. Also of note is that attachments for both cameras are interchangeable. The bolts and fixings for the SJ5000X are the same as those on the GoPro meaning that official GoPro accessories can be used with the non-official camera. Both cameras have similar sized screens for handheld shooting and reviewing footage. The GoPro does benefit from a touch screen that makes navigation of options and playback a little more convenient.
So, to the water – and this is where the differences start to become more prominent. From the off, the GoPro is easy to use. Even when pitching around in choppy waters it is simple to switch the camera on and off. The buttons on the GoPro’s waterproof housing are solid, and there is little doubt as to whether you’ve successfully started the record function. This is backed up by a clear bright red light and a loud beep (which you can clearly hear in the water) to indicate live action is being captured. In contrast, the SJ5000X is not quite so user friendly. The buttons are less satisfying to press and you’re not always sure if the function has been engaged. The camera has a blue light to show it is switched on, and this same light then flashes when it’s in record mode, but it’s quite a slow flash and in the split second you have to check the camera is operational this is can be a bit confusing. But the most frustrating feature of the SJ5000X is the camera’s sleep mode. If the GoPro goes into standby, it takes only one single click to simultaneously wake it up and begin recording. The budget camera requires one click to stir it back into life, and then another to begin recording. It sounds a minor issue but used back to back with the GoPro it became incredibly annoying.
Another benefit of the GoPro is the small front facing LCD screen indicating how many film clips or photos you’ve taken, the remaining space on the memory card, and how much battery life is left. To see this on the SJ5000X you need to be looking at the screen on the rear of the camera, which you obviously can’t do while face down paddling a surfboard.
While these things are a setback, they can be forgiven if the device lives up to its expectations as a waterproof digital camera. And you know what, it delivers pretty highly in this respect. The footage is crystal clear, the HD video captures beading water spraying from the wave, even when the video is slowed right down there’s no blurring of the picture, it remains sharp. The colours are bright and vivid, perhaps even more so than the GoPro, and the film is is smooth and steady. In terms of video quality the SJ5000X easily keeps pace with its more expensive rival.
Unfortunately, there is one major draw back. And that’s the range of the wide-angle lens. I had the camera positioned at the front of my board. Not the shortest of boards available, but at just over 6 foot, not particularly long either. The GoPro gives a lovely panoramic shot capturing the wave, the board and the surfer. Mounted in exactly the same position the SJCAM just didn’t have the field of vision, chopping off the top half of the surfer’s body and leaving a fraction of the picture missing. You could probably reposition the camera to account for this, and if you were holding the camera in your hand it would be less of an issue, but solo surfers may find themselves missing a bit of their picture.
So, is this cheaper camera a viable option as a substitute for the more expensive GoPro? Yes, probably. It all depends on what you’re going to be using the camera for. If you’re after something to capture the odd surf session with friends, to be used as a novelty once in a while, then you’ll find the SJ5000X more than satisfactory. Its major strength is the quality of its video, which to be honest is where you want a sports camera to deliver the most. And for $120, you could have little complaint about its extensive features and even forgive its few minor misgivings. If you’re a bit more serious about what you want to record, then you’ll probably be happier opting for the GoPro. The ease of use and quality of the lens really keep it out in front of its rivals. If you part with the cash for a GoPro, you can still be confident you’ve invested in the best sports action camera currently on the market.
For more information on either of the two cameras tested follow the links below: