With action camera juggernaut GoPro making moves to muscle in on DJI's multicopter dominance, DJI is fighting back with a portable action camera of its own, and one that can do things no GoPro can do yet.

The Osmo is a hand-held 4K action camera on a stick. It's got a choice of different camera attachments, and each comes with a Zenmuse three-axis stabilizing gimbal. Effectively, it's a miniature stabilizing rig capable of smoothing out shakes and wobbles that can easily ruin action cam footage.

This is a new and unique filmmaking tool that puts steadicam-style footage in the reach of the average user. Professional steadicam rigs are enormous and expensive, even DJI's own Ronin system for larger cameras is a big old chunk of kit to carry about, and a serious risk of back injury if you've got to shoot for any length of time. Unpowered alternatives like the Flycam Nano and its ilk are extremely fiddly and take quite a bit of experience to set up and take good footage with. The Osmo might just sit in the sweet spot of portability, usability, quality and ease of use.

We had the chance to test drive one over the weekend, so while this is far from a comprehensive review, we did get a chance to form some opinions.

Our test unit came with the X3 camera, basically the original camera from the Inspire One drone, but with a few differences to make it a better hand held camera. The main thing you'll notice is the locking system. The camera head and tilt arm can be twisted into a locking position, and the rotating arm has a switch that allows it to lock into place for safe storage and transport.

The Osmo can also be used with the X5 and X5R cameras off the new Inspire Pro drone, giving you a larger micro four thirds sensor, interchangeable lenses and in the X5R's case, the ability to record high bitrate RAW video footage for professional use, making the Osmo a pretty formidable piece of gear. To use either of these bigger cameras with the Osmo, you'll need an adapter.

If you've flown a Phantom 3 Professional or Inspire One, you'll know the smaller X3 is a capable action camera that takes good quality stills and handles video well. Compared directly with a GoPro 4 it'd come in a close second, but its low-distortion, slightly narrower lens also offers its own advantages.

Setting the Osmo up out of its travel case is a bit fiddly. You've got to unlock three parts of the gimbal arm (but not the fourth, which detaches the camera altogether), then power it up. From there, you're good to go if you don't mind shooting blind.

If you want to see what you're doing – and you really do, if you want anything decent – you'll need to attach your phone. This is done by folding out corner tabs on a nifty spring-loaded clamp and snapping your phone into place. Then you've got to log in to the Osmo's Wi-Fi network and start up your DJI Go app, clear a couple of screens and finally get to the camera view. As I say, a bit fiddly. But not much more annoying than using the Wi-Fi view on a GoPro.

While there's a thumbswitch that lets you pan and tilt the camera on the fly, I got my best results letting the Osmo do the thinking for me. Using the thumbswitch, it's hard to control the speed of a pan or tilt movement and you tend to get jerky transitions, but if you just move the Osmo around it does a pretty good job of working out when you're wanting it to pan or tilt, and smoothing those motions out. It doesn't keep up as well if your subject is close and fast moving, but at least the movements are smooth. Here's some very random sample footage I shot:

The trigger on the front is fun. Holding it down locks and stabilizes your current shot as best it can, and then releasing it allows the Osmo to start its auto-follow function again. Clicking it twice re-centers the camera facing forward, and three times swivels the Osmo back around into "selfie mode" facing the operator. This is gonna be a great way for a one-man reporting team to catch footage of themselves as well as the location they're in.

Video footage comes out looking great, and for situations where the auto exposure doesn't do the job, you've got manual control over the camera as well. The sound? Unusable. I'm going to assume the Osmo's built-in mic struggles because of the motion of the gimbal motors, but either way it's rubbish. Luckily there's a 3.5mm jack you can use to attach an external mic, which again will be very handy for solo reporters.

Battery life will be a problem. Running a camera, a Wi-Wi connection and a mechanical gimbal takes its toll. The battery lasts about 60 minutes.

I didn't have time to play with the Osmo's auto-panorama mode, or long-exposure low light stills, or remote control. I didn't get a chance to hang it out of a moving vehicle or see what it'll do attached to a motorcycle. But what I did find was a simple and user-friendly solution to the common problem of shaky action cam footage, a device that could democratize the steadicam in the way that DJI's camera drones are democratizing aerial footage.

The Osmo is intuitive, compact, light, reasonably sturdy and very capable. At AU$1,099 (or US$649) it's not a cheap piece of kit, but you can pick one up for less than half that price if you already own a DJI Inspire One or Inspire Pro and wish to use the camera from either.

I can see this being an important product for DJI, and I can see the GoPro team scrambling to get a competing stabilized camera out there as quickly as they can. I'm looking forward to taking the Osmo for a longer test drive.

Product page: DJI Osmo

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