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Down Periscope: HTC RE Camera hands-on (video)

Every once in a while a product comes along that redefines a category. A singular life-altering piece of technology that overhauls how we think about everything that came before it.

The HTC RE Camera is not that kind of product.

Instead, it is a $199 USD 16MP ultra-simple fixed-focus camera that communicates wirelessly with an Android or iOS smartphone. The metal chassis weighs just under 66 grams, half that of a typical smartphone, and despite the glossy finish it is comfortable to grip in one hand without causing fatigue.

We were able to test a pre-release version of the hardware and software, but came away relatively disappointed with the camera’s capabilities. Thanks to an ultra-wide 146-degree field of view, RE’s fixed-focus lens captures a lot, perhaps at the expense of an explicit subject. A smartphone can act as a live viewfinder for photos, videos and timelapse compilations, but your Android or iOS device is best left as triage and for post-shoot culling and editing.

Instead, HTC encourages users to merely point and shoot, even more blindly than one would have using a 35mm film camera, since there is no optical viewfinder for frame reference. As a result, shots were often wildly miscued, oriented sideways or emerging penuriously blurry.

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Indeed, the best shots I took were accidental, the result of random clicks at random subjects that captured a moment in time.

HTC evidently limited the lens to a single focal distance both for cost and practicality reasons, but as a result anything less than three feet in front of the lens is going to end up in the blurry foreground. RE is best utilized for taking vistas, or 1080p videos from moving cars.

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Because it will come with a number of accessories, for mounting to a bicycle or for use in more extreme conditions, HTC envisions RE being thrown in a bag alongside one’s phone and keys, used by skateboarders, parents and hikers alike.

It is IP57 water and dust resistant out of the box, and IPX8 with the optional water cap, but HTC is not marketing the product as a GoPro competitor. It is for casual fun, “living in the moment” as the company reasserted throughout its presentation.

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It is true that using one’s phone to capture spur-of-the-moment interactions is occasionally frustrating: one must hold it high, defying both gravity and, often, social conduct. RE Camera solves that by utilizing a single shutter button on the curved top to shoot from the hip, both figuratively and literally. Like Sony’s more fully-realized QX line of smartphone camera accessories, RE neither looks like a regular point-and-shoot, nor is it limited by the environmental constraints of a smartphone.

It can peek around corners or through grates; it can be held up high or, perhaps dangerously, perched from below. It spurns regular photographic convention, which is both its greatest strength and potential marketing weakness. On the eve of HTC unveiling another imaging-heavy product, how can the RE Camera effect market change?

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The Basics

At its core, RE is a camera with two buttons. Lacking in NFC, it pairs with Bluetooth and then transmits data via WiFi Direct. It supports Android 4.3 and iOS 7 or later through a free app in their respective portals.

While it will function without a smartphone, users will want to at least explore the app before beginning to shoot, both to familiarize themselves with the vertical orientation — the early software we used didn’t auto-flip photos taken at a 90-degree angle — and to make adjustments to resolution.

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RE uses microSD for storage, and comes with an 8GB card out of the box, with support for up to 128GB. Its 820mAh internal battery is rated for 1,200 16MP photos or nearly two hours of 1080p video capture.

There is no power button: a sensor on the grip detects when it is being used and turns it on. It goes idle when set down for a period of time. It also has stereo microphones and a single speaker for playback.

In addition to the top-located shutter button, which performs the dual function of beginning video capture when held for a second, there is a small button on the front of the device, underneath the lens, which enables slow-motion mode when filming video.

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Slow motion is limited to 720p at 120fps, and enabling it will end the current 1080p capture.

There are also several LED lights that function as both friend and enemy depending on whether the software is cooperating (in our case, it was furiously uncooperative).

Using the product is dead simple but simply vexing. When it works, RE is wondrous and a seeming must-have product (until one reflects on the $199 price); when it fails, most often in low light or while moving in abstract motion, the results are wasteful. And because there is no immediate feedback, and no way to remove bad photos without syncing, triage tends to take longer than we’d like.

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But does it work?

There is a tripod mount on the RE’s bottom, next to the flap for the microSD slot, and the product works best when it is stationary, capturing motion around it. To that end, the timelapse feature (seen briefly in the video above) shows RE’s true highs.

Timelapses can be modified to take photos in intervals of 2-30 seconds, and can continue for as long as the device has either storage or battery. The ease-of-use is laudable, and HTC’s software makes it easy to frame the scene and make various decisions regarding settings.

Video, too, was of excellent quality, and we can see RE being used to film concerts, soccer games and anything outdoors. Its wide-angle lens isn’t really suited to capturing an intimate gathering, and the almost barrel-like effect makes people look somewhat distorted. Thankfully, HTC’s ultra-wide mode automatically removes the fisheye effect from the wide-angle lens (though fisheye is an occasionally great feature).

This is even truer when viewing still photos, which still need a lot of work before being market-ready (and that’s one reason HTC is holding off on the release until the end of October). It’s easy to capture good photos, but more easy to capture poor ones.

Despite the 1/2.3″ sensor and f/2.8 lens, we didn’t find the quality, even when RE was stabilized and light plentiful, to be significantly better than the output of an average smartphone. Considering HTC is marketing this as a convenient, simple, high-end camera, output quality is of utmost importance, and is almost as essential as its ease-of-use.

That said, we captured some awe-inspiring landscape shots, and some lovely well-framed portraits, and can imagine growing comfortable shooting blind with the RE Camera after a few days.

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Who is it for?

At $199 USD, we’re not entirely sure who the RE Camera is for. The photos, videos and timelapses can be easily shared with Zoe, HTC’s new video highlights social network (coming out of beta today), but the cost is prohibitive to those who just want a good point-and-shoot.

It may appeal to creatives, people who want to carry a stylish piece of technology with which to perform acts of surreptitious street photography, but as stated the wide-angle lens doesn’t lend itself well to portraiture.

RE is also potentially good for outdoor adventures, but HTC stresses that it is not trying to out-Go GoPro, either. It can withstand water and dust, but not too much, and while its metal frame is both sturdy and portable, it is yet one more device to lug around along with an already-capable smartphone.

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Why a camera?

What does HTC have to gain by introducing a strange product in an unexplored category? Well, its device business, despite maintaining meagre profitability, is struggling, and the high-end smartphone game is quickly maturing, with companies like Nokia, Sony, Motorola and Samsung racing to the bottom. Margins are razor-thin at the low end and HTC isn’t having much luck at the top.

RE Camera is a wild experiment for the company, both from a design and distribution perspective. It will likely be discounted with the purchase of an HTC phone, but this is the first time we’ll see the Taiwanese company sell products at retail.

It also helps HTC get away from the Android OEM me-too projection of selling a smartwatch or fitness band (which the company will certainly do in the future) by focusing on a completely different segment of the market.

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Availability

RE Camera is coming to Canada in mid-to-late November at a currently-unknown price. It will likely be sold in Best Buy and Future Shop, along with certain carrier stores.

HTC plans to heavily promote RE, with a marketing push inside big-box stores and a heavy bundle play at the carrier level. It wouldn’t be surprising to see it discounted to $99 with the sale of an HTC smartphone on contract.

The RE Camera is going to be available in four colours, including white, blue, teal and orange.

The Future

HTC has some ambitious plans for RE Camera, from partnerships with YouTube for live broadcasting, to releasing a number of accessories that make it easier to use it in various challenging environments.

We’ll have lots more on the RE, including a review, when it becomes available.

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