Review: HTC's RE camera

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HTC's peculiar-looking RE camera is designed to fit snugly in the palm of your hand (Photo: Nick Lavars/Gizmag.com)

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High-end smartphones sure can snap a pretty picture these days. This fact alone means it won't be easy for HTC to win over mobile photographers with its pocket-size RE camera. Billed as an easy-to-grip device that shoots photos and video with a new level of convenience, HTC is looking to cater to those times when a memory is begging to be captured but your smartphone is out of arms reach or buried in your bag. We've spent the last month playing around with the RE, and though it won't be for everyone, its quirky design and well-rounded capabilities certainly offer a different kind of shooting experience.

Shaped like a cross between a submarine's periscope and an asthma inhaler that has been flipped on its head, the peculiar-looking RE is designed to fit snugly in the palm of your hand. And fit snugly in the palm of your hand it does. Weighing just 66.5 g (2.35 oz) and measuring 96.7 x 26.5 mm (3.8 x 1.04 in), the waterproof camera is compact and lightweight enough to be carried around without being a burden, puzzled stares from passersby notwithstanding.

How do I work this thing?

The camera can be operated in two ways. The first speaks to its simplicity and the emphasis on convenience, doing away with a power button and instead relying on a grip sensor that switches the camera on as you pick it up. A large silver button on its back serves as the shutter, a single press of which with your thumb will take a photo, while holding it down will start recording video. There is also a smaller button on the front that can be pressed with the index finger to capture slow-motion video.

While this is certainly a more straightforward way to start shooting than yanking out your smartphone and fumbling around for an app, the lack of viewfinder takes a bit of getting used to. There's also no way of tracking how much of the 8 GB storage you have used up. The other option for operating the RE, and the one that feels a little more natural for smartphone snappers, is to connect the RE with an Android or iOS device over Bluetooth 4.0.

From here, the companion RE app offers a little more control and functionality, while also allowing you to use your phone as a viewfinder. You can easily switch between photo, video and time-lapse mode, and also dive into advanced camera settings to adjust resolution, aspect ratio and select ultra-wide angle, which bumps the width of the lens from 100 up to 146 degrees.

The camera runs on a 820 mAh battery that is recharged via a micro USB port in its base. HTC says each charge should allow for one hour and forty minutes of continuous video recording, or 1,200 16-megapixel photos. We found this claim to more or less check out, while our two hour time-lapses saw around 10 percent of the battery leftover.

Image quality

Small, super-light and ergonomic it may be, but the RE camera is still an extra device that you will need to carry around in addition to your smartphone. And it will cost you US$199 (or $249 in Australia). So what can it do that your smartphone can't?

Equipped with a f2.8 wide angle lens and a 1/2.3 in CMOS sensor, RE snaps photos at 16-megapixels at an aspect ratio of 4:3, 12-megapixels at 16:9 and 8.3-megapixels at 16:9. We used it to take photos in a range of lighting conditions, both indoors and outdoors, and found the photo quality to be crisp, but not a marked improvement on what you can capture with a flagship smartphone. There's also a fair degree of distortion when using the wide-angle lens.

Video resolution is either 1080p or 720p, both taken at 30 fps. Much like photos the video quality is pretty indistinguishable from that of a decent smartphone. Slow-motion mode is certainly impressive, but this is also feature that can be found on the iPhone 5s or later. Taken at 720p and 4x slow-motion, the footage when viewed on the smartphone screen is sharp and compelling, but the quality becomes rather questionable when moved to a larger screen. See my high-intensity action hero roll below.

And Gizmag's Loz Blain trying to hydrate himself. If only he was as good at drinking out of a water bottle as he is at riding motorbikes.

The camera is waterproof and can be submerged in up to 1 m (3.3 ft) of water. An attachable cap that screws into the bottom offers a little further protection and enables immersion as deep as 3 m (9.8 ft) for as long as 120 minutes. So while you shouldn't have any problems taking the RE for a little dip in a backyard pool, using it as a full-blown action camera on a surfing trip is probably out of the question. Photos taken underwater are reasonably clear, as seen in the below sample.

The pros

The design of the RE camera is definitely a strong point. It's super comfortable in-hand and can be carried inconspicuously, making it simple to point and shoot. Because it is so light and slim, you'll barely notice it if thrown in your bag, or even carried in your pocket.

We are also big fans of the time-lapse feature, a process that if done on a more professional scale involves setting up tripod with cumbersome camera equipment. The RE offers a highly accessible alternative for amateurs, with the capture able to be easily configured through the app. You can choose how many seconds apart to space each photo, how many hours you want to capture in total and also calculate exactly how long the resulting movie will be.

The base of the RE is flat, so you can simply place it on any flat surface, adjust the settings, forget all about it in the meantime and have a fun little video at the end. As with video and photo, the quality is sharp enough on the screen of a smartphone, but isn't great when displayed on a larger screen. See the sample below.

The cons

While packaged into a neat, user-friendly device in a way we haven't really seen before, there's really nothing that the RE camera is capable of that can't be achieved with the right smartphone. There are
waterproof mobile phones and apps to create time-lapses. There's 16-megapixel cameras in
iPhone 6 is one of the best smartphone shooters around. And further to forking out the cash, it is another device that you will need to lug around with you.

Wrapping up

So there are a few reasons that spending up on the RE camera might be worth you while, but the image quality is unlikely to one of them. It seems that HTC is aiming for a very particular kind of mobile photographer with this device, one that is a heavy user of their smartphone's camera. So much so, that there's enough value in having a camera of comparable quality in-hand to warrant the expense and extra luggage.

With that said, the camera can always be used on its own as a mini-camcorder completely independent of your smartphone. So there may be times when using the waterproof RE on a hike, boat trip or other outdoor adventure is a better option than your phone. And it will open doors for you to get more experimental with your photography, whether it be making fun time-lapses or getting snap-happy when you're out on a walk.

Product page: HTC

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