There was once a time when YouTube was little more than a place to watch movie trailers and gameplay videos. Now there’s nothing you can’t watch there, courtesy of anyone with access to a video camera. GoPro had a lot to do with this, as it unlocked a world of possibilities for people to film their outdoor adventures. But as much as YouTube has changed, so has the action-camera landscape. A dozen or more GoPro alternatives exist now, including the feature-rich Garmin VIRB Ultra 30.
The VIRB Ultra 30 fills a stat sheet faster than Russell Westbrook. It shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second. It shoots 1080p at 120fps, enabling you to grab some sick slow-motion shots. It has a 1.75″ touchscreen display that works through the waterproof case. It has three-axis video stabilization, voice controls and is waterproof up to 40m when enclosed in the case. But where the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 really separates itself is in its presentation of speed, locational, altitude and other metrics via video overlays.
Action cameras don’t come a dime a dozen, but the number of high-quality ones is increasingly slim. GoPro’s Hero 5 Black upped the game this year, and the Intova HD2 action camera performed well so long as you don’t care about audio capture. Most of the rest of the action-cam landscape is focused on the price-point war, so the features aren’t as robust. That’s not the case with the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and perhaps a video speaks 10 thousand. If that’s true, then Garmin’s flagship offers closer to 11 thousand. Garmin, you may recall, got its start as the king of GPS devices. If there was data to track, Garmin’s products would track it. That pedigree is completely intact with the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 through “G-Metrix” technology.
The VIRB Ultra 30 has internal sensors to track data such as speed, distance traveled and altitude, and its Bluetooth connectivity allows you to track additional data from any number of heart-rate monitors, temperature gauges and other external devices. It’s one thing to show your snowboarding stunt or trip kayaking down some rapids. It’s a whole other thing to show that same video with various metrics shown or graphed-out on top of that video to show just how extreme the run really was.
Garmin’s action-cam also lets you live-stream directly to YouTube HD if you have an iPhone and the VIRB app. I have a Samsung Galaxy S7 and wasn’t able to test this functionality, but the potential is there if you’re interested.
Let’s face it, metric tracking and live-streaming are cool bells and whistles, but an action camera lives and dies by its recording capability. The Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 most definitely lives.
As I mentioned above, the big selling point this year is the 4K filming functionality. No, the VIRB Ultra 30 isn’t alone in that regard, but it does it very well. To say 4K video is crisp would be like saying the surface of the sun is hot. But crisp, bright, contrast-y and color-balanced is the holy foursome, and the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 nails it. In fact, the video-capture actually seems a bit better on the 4K setting than it does on any of the others (2.7k/60fps, 1080p/120fps, 720p/240fps, 480p/300fps), so if you have the memory card to support it, I’d recommend shooting in 4K whenever possible.
The Ultra 30’s audio capture is good too, which was frankly my biggest concern. I’m not generally one to put my video to music, and watching a video with non-existent audio is excruciating. I dig natural sounds (OK, maybe not so much the constant wind effect), and I want to capture them alongside the visual experience. The VIRB camera has a pretty sensitive microphone, and its case has a special area that aligns with the mic to promote better audio capture. There’s a bit of dampening when you capture audio through the case, but nothing near what I expected. And while the audio’s a tad muffled compared to the Hero 5 Black, it doesn’t have the same whistle or background noise of GoPro’s camera. It’s a bit of a tradeoff, I suppose, but one I didn’t mind.
If you’re concerned about weight, the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 has an advantage too. At just 3.1 ounces with battery, the VIRB’s an ounce lighter than the Hero 5 Black, and it’s same weight as a Hero 4 Black without its housing. That’s probably a good consideration if you’re going to use a helmet mount, as you don’t want to weigh down your noggin.
Battery life is a bit lower than I’d expected, though. The Ultra 30’s rechargeable 1250mAh battery is the biggest of Garmin’s VIRB cameras, and it’s billed at supporting 2 hours 15 minutes shooting at 1080/30fps, or up to 1 hour 15 minutes shooting at 4K/30fps. I figured the estimates would be conservative with a battery that size, but I in fact experienced just a hair under that.
Still, they’re called “action cameras” for a reason: they capture action. And as extreme as we all think we may be, the truth is that we’re not “all action, all the time.” It takes more time to setup a run or plan a snowshoeing trip than it does to actually take it, so the battery life shouldn’t be much of a hindrance so long as you can charge the battery for a few hours while you plan your next adventure.
Other reviewers have talked about the menu system, but I personally found it really easy to navigate. It does require a bit of back and forth sometimes, but it’s not bad by any stretch. Ditto with the size: some people have said it’s a bit larger or less streamlined than they like. Personally I didn’t mind it, especially since the weight’s so minimized, though from a strictly fashion sense it’d be neat to see a more svelte version in the future. Still, if you’re looking for a GoPro alternative, and if 4K video and good audio are your things, you should have zero reservations about packing the VIRB Ultra 30 for your next outing.
The Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 was provided for review. All opinions and words are my own and honest, and the article contains no affiliate links.
Garmin VIRB Ultra 30
- Great video quality on the 4K setting
- Tracks, or allows tracking of, all sorts of trip-supporting data
- Free video-editing software
- Nice audio capture even through the case
- Very lightweight for all you helmet-mounters out there
- Sub-4K video settings aren't quite as vibrant for some reason
- Touchscreen can struggle a bit through the case when it's wet
- Battery life isn't as long as I expected considering its size