HTC Re Camera review

HTC's little handheld camera … thing

HTC's dabbled in non-smartphone electronics before, primarily speakers, but the HTC RE Camera is without a doubt one of the weirdest and most beyond HTC's comfort zone. This is the HTC that famously put just a 4-megapixel camera in its flagship HTC One M8 smartphone, so a little handheld camera with a 16MP sensor? That's different.

The Camera

Let's talk a bit about the design here. Our review unit was the white model, but all colors are made of the same slick and glossy plastic. The overall design is that of a tube that's bent on one end, slightly narrower than a roll of quarters (and notably lighter). That bent tube design evoked plenty of comments, from "What is that" to "I didn't know you had asthma" (assumed it was an inhaler) to "That's a weird crack pipe, bro." The easiest way to describe it was "it's like a GoPro." (Which, by the way, is precisely what HTC would prefer you not say.) That GoPro comparison reminded me of when the first non-iPhone capacitive-touch phones came out, or the first post-iPad tablets. "It's like a GoPro" isn't the most fair comparison, but it's the easiest.

The design of the RE Camera does make holding it and walking around with it a lot easier. It just fits right into your hand with the lens peaking up over the top of your grip like it's no big deal at all. It's a lot more inconspicuous that way too, certainly more so than the blocky GoPro.

That fitting right into your hand is actually one of the ways you can turn the thing on. Embedded into the main shaft is a grip sensor, and merely picking up the RE is enough to turn it on, and a light hidden in the big silver button on the top will flash green to confirm that it's awakened. From there, just tap that big silver button to take a photo, or press and hold to start a video (and tap to stop). It'll chirp and beep and click to confirm whatever you're doing. The only other control is a small white button under the lens — press and hold it to switch to slo-mo for the next video you record.

Videos and photos are recorded onto a microSD card that slots in on the base of the device. As this is a waterproof (up to 1 meter) camera, the card is underneath a sealing flap you'll need to use a fingernail to pull out. Dead center on the bottom is a standard 1/4-inch 20-thread tripod screw socket, flanked on the opposite side by a Micro USB port.

You'll be plugging into that Micro USB port often to recharge — HTC quotes 1 hour 50 minutes of battery life for the 820mAh battery if you're recording 1080p video, though if you're running your phone as a viewfinder (more on that below), you'll see a quite considerable drop in battery performance. Alas, that charging port is right next to the screw socket, so it's quite difficult to use both at once.

The App

All of that is fine and dandy, but some of the cooler things happen when you hook it up to your Android smartphone or iPhone using the RE Camera app. Both apps work the same way, pairing with the camera over Bluetooth to act as a live viewfinder for whatever's on the display, as well as letting you remotely control the camera.

The apps are a straightforward affair, as we want for something of this nature. There are, in essence, three views for the app: a gallery of photos and videos you've already taken, controlling the camera, and settings for both the app and the camera. The gallery view lets you, well, review photos and videos on the camera in a gallery, giving you the option to immediately share, save them to your phone, or delete them entirely from the camera's microSD card.

In the settings you can toggle if and to where you automatically back-up photos from the camera (choices being onto the phone or up to Dropbox or Google Drive). You can also manage the recording resolution for videos (1080p or 720p, both at 30fps) and photos (16MP 4:3, 12MP 16:9, or 8.3MP 16:9), toggle the camera viewing angle to an ultra-wide 146°, control how loud of a sound the camera makes (we frankly could barely tell a difference between the soft and loud), set automatic location data from the phone, and turn on or off video stabilization and other little bits.

The camera button is where the magic happens, though. In portrait mode you get a live preview from the RE camera at the top with buttons to switch between photos, video, and time lapse below and a large capture/record button. There aren't any additional options for photos, but for video you can toggle whether to record in slow-motion.

Time lapse gives you many more options after tapping on the time button at the bottom — options that include how often to capture a frame (default 10 seconds), how long to run (default 90 minutes), how to set the video to play back (default "smooth" 30fps, with options of 10fps or 1fps). From the app is, as best as we could tell, the only way to trigger a time lapse. Considering a time lapse is the a pretty deliberate thing and something I'd want properly framed, that's an acceptable user interface choice.

You can also plug the RE Camera into your computer and it'll mount that microSD card as a card on the computer. Transfer speeds certainly aren't blisteringly fast, but it's good enough.

The Shots

The HTC RE takes relatively mediocre photos. They're large, sure, owing to the 4592x3456 pixel resolution of the sensor. But they're also seriously grainy and exhibit depressing JPG artifacting, and it has trouble dealing with color and lighting balance.

Moreover, the Re Camera is just plain awkward as a photo camera. I often had difficulty keeping it steady enough to take a photo that didn't exhibit motion blur of some form or another. And taking photos in the dark? Forget about it. For as big as the lens is and presumably the sensor as well, it's frustrating that the low-light performance is so poor.

When it comes to photos, you're probably better off using your smartphone — it has a built-in viewfinder, after all. Unless you're going underwater, then maybe you should consider the Re (or a smartphone that's actually waterproof).

When it comes to video, however, the RE is a better beast, though not exactly overwhelmingly impressive. Videos were generally clear and bright, even in the darkness, and exhibited much less of the noise and artifacts seen from the larger photos (no doubt thanks to scaling down the noise of the larger image overall). Audio was also at least decent, captured from a small hole on top of the camera.

Videos weren't exactly sharp, however. For all its chunky design and block aesthetic, the GoPro series still captures generally crisp videos. The RE isn't so sharp, although with the kind of video you can record with a compact handheld camera like this, that's not always terribly noticeable. Where you see that most, though, is in slow-motion recording. There's no audio and the quality takes a noticeable drop to 720p at a choppy 120fps. And you won't really want to use the ultra-wide mode for anything close-up — the 146-degree angle is in fact quite wide, but anything near the frame's edge gets noticeably distorted.

HTC Re Camera: The Bottom Line

For HTC's first big foray out of their touchscreen-driven comfort zone, the HTC Re is a decent effort. It's quirky, looks fun, and is honestly kind of fun to use. It's comfortable to hold, easy to control, and the companion apps significantly boost its capability and usefulness.

But despite all that, it all boils down to image quality, and here the Re simply doesn't impress. It's not horrible by any means, but when you consider what the competition is capable of producing, and that as a camera this device has just one job, and that's to take decent photos and videos, it's a bit disappointing.

At $199.99, this isn't a cheap toy. And for the Re to be truly useful and versatile, there's a whole contingent of accessories, including a bar mount for strapping to a bike of a scooter ($19.99), a clip mount for, well, clipping ($14.99), a suction mount ($24.99), and a charging stand ($39.99). Alas, there's no head-strap or helmet mount as of yet (I was able to capture some head-mounted video by slotting it down in the corner of my glasses, though that's certainly not optimal).

HTC's brought some innovation to the action, sorry, the "lifestyle" camera game. Though to what extent this is more a "lifestyle" camera than our always-on-us smartphones that typically take better photos and videos anyway, I'm not certain. As it stands now, the Re's a neat little device, though for the price I'm disappointed by the quality. Maybe a software update will improve things, or maybe the Re Camera 2 will feature improved image quality.

There are some really neat tricks up the RE Camera's little cylindrical body. But we're not certain they're really enough to garner HTC's tag line of being "A remarkable little camera."