HTC RE camera

This grippy little guy is fun to use, but the $199 price may have many thinking twice

The idea behind a handheld, standalone camera isn't exactly new. I can remember sporting a Flip camera back in the day, a (relatively) affordable, easy-to-use digital video camera. It was quickly killed off as smartphone cameras took over.

And the idea of the auxiliary camera, tied to a smartphone, has been done before. Sony rolled out its quite-good QX line in Berlin in 2013. And while they weren't cheap definitely had a bit of a Borg feeling to them, they never really took off. (Kodak has its own clone as well.)

And today we have the new RE camera from HTC — a small, sleek, nicely designed handheld camera (yes, it looks a lot like a tiny periscope, or perhaps an upside-down asthma inhaler — that works on its own, or connects to an Android or iOS device. It's $199 retail, and will be available in the U.S. in the coming weeks, with other markets to follow.

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We've spent a little time with the RE camera this week in New York City. Don't look for the future of HTC to be found in this singular product. But it is a fun little accessory.

Let's take a closer look. Here's our hands-on with the HTC RE camera.

HTC RE camera

Two things stand out when you first pick up the RE Camera. First is its diminutive size. It really is reminiscent of an upside-down inhaler, or maybe a 1-inch piece of PVC pipe (we can hear HTC's designers cringing at that one, but we've changed a sprinkler or two in our day) and no thicker than those cylindrical extra battery banks we've got.

Press the big silver button to take a photo. Hold it down to start shooting video. It's as easy as that.

The whole thing's just short of 4 inches or so long, takes a 90-degree turn for the business end, then faces forward about an inch. Just enough in the body to grip on to — though the glossy finish worries us a tad. (You'll definitely want to grab the lanyard attachment.) There's a big silver button for your thumb to hit on the posterior side of the 90-degree turn, a smaller, more subtle button on the inside of the grip, and a few pinholes for speakers, microphones and LEDs.

All in all, it's a pretty intuitive device. Press the big silver button to take a still picture. Hold it down for a couple seconds to start shooting video. It's as easy as that.

HTC RE camera

What's always been a little more difficult with these devices is hooking them up to your phone. We're used prerelease units with prerelease software — and with a whole bunch of them in a room at one time, so we definitely experienced some connection issues. We'll have to wait for production units and less ridiculously congested settings to make a definitive judgement on how easy it is to connect to a phone. But on the other hand, you don't ever actually have to hook the RE camera up to a phone if you really don't want to. It's got a microSD card slot in the base, and you can pop the card straight in a computer or phone to get to your pics, if that's how you roll. Or better yet, just plug it in and watch the RE camera mount like any other external storage.

A couple caveats on our hands-on time — again, we were using prerelease firmware. So we're absolutely hoping for an improvement in the shutter lag (the time between pressing the button and the picture firing), as well as in image quality. So what you'll see in our examples here may well improve upon release, and we'll take another look in a few weeks when we get final units.

It takes a little getting used to trusting your hand-eye coordination since there's no viewfinder.

Shooting with the RE camera by itself is simple enough. It takes a little getting used to trusting your hand-eye coordination since there's no viewfinder. There's no on/off switch or anything, too, so when you first press the shutter button the RE will wake up, then shoot the picture, adding to the lag time. That also caused us to shot a lot wasted images — pockets, hands, ceilings — as we were still getting the feel of the device. Chances are if the RE's living in a purse when not in use, you'll get a lot of dark shots of that habitat as well. The 16-megapixel Sony DSC sensor appeared to be decent. But, again, we're going to hold off final judgment until we get a proper retail release.

The RE app — it'll be available for Android 4.3 and up, and on iOS 7 and iOS 8 — adds a bit of functionality. You can have photos automatically sync over to the device, preview the photos you've taken, use the phone or tablet as a live viewfinder, and you'll need the app if you want to shoot in time-lapse mode. (We weren't allowed to film the RE app in its early, early form; we'll update this post with more video from the announcement event.)

HTC RE camera

All in all it's a fun little device. But we quickly found ourself questioning the cost — $199 — when you consider that you've likely got a phone in your pocket that will almost certainly provide a better result. But the RE gives you more options for shooting — certainly you can do GoPro-style mounted shots, and there are a number of accessories that will make things more fun, too.

HTC will quickly say that it's not trying to compete with GoPro, even though it's very much in the same space. But it's also true that if you're going for some serious mounted camera action, you're probably going to go with a GoPro; RE camera is much more a consumer play. And as HTC's first foray into this sort of extra-mobile space, it's an interesting play. It's also just the beginning of the RE line. There will be more to come.

The HTC RE camera will launch in the U.S. through Best Buy and HTC's own online store. It'll also land on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and "in time for the holidays," the company says.

HTC RE camera accessories

HTC also revealed a line of add-ons for the RE camera, including clips, mounts, suction cups and charging accessories.