PC Mag: Ion Air Pro WiFi
A nascent-but-growing category, helmet-mountable video cameras like the GoPro HD Hero2 Outdoor Edition ($299.99, 4 stars) capture your adventures while keeping your hands free for, well, adventuring. The Ion Air Pro WiFi ($349.99) is the latest contender, offering a lightweight and waterproof construction reminiscent of the feature-rich, but overpriced Contour+ ($499.99, 3 stars). These camcorders offer full 1080p HD video, fixed wide-angle lenses, and the ability to shoot at 60 frames per second for smooth action at full speed or fun slow-motion shots. The Ion Air Pro WiFi splits the difference between the Hero2 and the Contour+ (Best Deal: $499.99 at Quill), delivering solid HD video, a waterproof body that doesn’t require a separate housing, mounting accessories galore, and wireless connectivity.
Pricing, Design, and Features
There are a couple of package options for the Ion Air Pro. The camera and mini tripod only costs $229.99. The Ion Air Pro Plus (the camera and mounting kit) will run you $289.99. The subject of this review, the WiFi model, includes the Ion Air Pro camera, the complete mounting kit (including bike handle bar mount), and the Wi-Fi pod. While it’s more expensive than the Hero2, it offers a lot more bang for your buck than the similarly equipped Contour+, though that camera includes GPS. The mounting accessory choices are similar between the Hero2 Outdoor Edition and the Ion Air Pro Plus, but the latter includes a handlebar mount while GoPro requires a separate mount for $19.99.
With an aerodynamic tube-like design, the Ion Air Pro WiFi looks a lot sleeker than the boxy Hero2. At 4.21 inches long, 1.46 inches in diameter, and 4.5 ounces, it’s slightly larger than the similarly shaped Contour+, but lighter. The two-tone brushed aluminum frame has a solid, substantial feel, with a lens bubble protruding at one end and a removable cap at the other. The whole package is waterproof to 30 feet right out of the box, giving the Ion Air Pro an advantage over the Hero2 and Contour+, which both require separate housings to withstand the elements—though the Hero2’s housing lets it go down as far as 197 feet. The controls couldn’t be simpler, with a single Power/Shutter button and recording slider on top. Untwist the back cap to reveal the Video Mode switch, a microSD card slot (that accepts cards up to 32GB), a microUSB port, mini HDMI out, AV out, and an expansion bay for Ion’s PODZ system of accessories.
Instead of a blinking red light to indicate recording status, like on the Hero2, the Ion Air Pro uses vibration feedback to let you know when it’s recording. Move the slider to the REC position and you’ll feel two quick vibrations. Press the Shutter button and you’ll feel a single vibration that indicates a still image has been captured. There is also a single LED on top that glows either green (standby) or red (recording). The controls are easy to find and the vibrations are better suited for a camera strapped to your head, where you likely won’t be able to see the blinking red light.
Shooting mode is the only thing you can control on the camera itself. The switch toggles between FHD (Full HD) or HD modes, which can be customized when connected to a computer. The default is 1080p30 or 720p60, and the other options are 960p30 Tall HD or 720p30. The still image shutter can be adjusted via computer, for single, burst, or time lapse (at 5, 10, 30, and 60-second intervals) modes. Video uses H.264 compression and is saved as MP4 files. A lower-resolution WQVGA file is saved simultaneously for faster online uploading. Unlike the Hero2, all settings must be tweaked while the Ion Air Pro is connected to a computer. However, changing settings on the fly isn’t exactly a user friendly affair on the Hero2, as cycling through somewhat confusing menus with two buttons can be very cumbersome—especially while you’re moving.
Video Quality, Still Images, and Wi-Fi
The beauty of action sports cameras lies in the ability to shoot smooth, high-definition video at a wide enough angle to catch all the action. The Ion Air Pro largely delivers on that expectation, with clear full HD video and the ability to step up to 60 frames per second for smooth action shots and slow-motion effects. The field of view changes based on video settings, with 127 degrees for 1080p30, 170 degrees at 960p30, and 150 degrees at 720p30 or 720p60. It’s slightly less versatile than the Hero2, which can cycle between 170, 127, and 90 degrees at 1080p30. But the narrower angles on the Ion Air Pro make for less pronounced barrel distortion, especially in tight quarters.
The 1080p30 video captured by the Ion Air Pro looked good in my tests, with mostly clear detail, pleasantly saturated color, and accurate white balance. The results were largely comparable with footage captured by the Hero2, but the latter has a very slight edge in terms of sharpness and video clarity. The Ion Air Pro uses a 2.2-megapixel 1/2.5-inch CMOS sensor versus the 11-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor in the Hero2. Resolution isn’t everything, and the 2.2 megapixels of the Ion Air Pro are plenty for full 1080p video. The main issue I noticed with the Ion Air Pro was some visible compression that gave the video a grainier quality, with some minor loss of sharpness to finer details. Image noise was minimal even in low indoor lighting. The Ion Air Pro’s video showed greater contrast and richer color than the Hero2, which looked slightly washed out. When using the Ion Air Pro handheld I noticed a very mild rolling shutter effect, giving the bumps and shakes a jelly-like quality.
The Ion Air Pro can capture still images at 5-megapixel resolution. Barrel distortion is far more pronounced in stills, but the fisheye effect might be desirable for some. Image quality is good, with sharp detail and relatively low image noise in outdoor lighting situations. Indoors, noise becomes an issue and darker spots look a bit too dark, but this camera isn’t really meant to be used indoors or for its still images. The burst mode worked well, capturing five pictures in a 1-second burst. The time-lapse mode is slightly less versatile on the Ion Air Pro, with 5, 10, 30, and 60-second intervals versus 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, and 60-second intervals on the Hero2.
There is a built-in microphone, but audio quality isn’t very good. You’ll hear a lot of the bumps and jostling of the camera, as well as some wind interference, but that’s par for the course with this type of camera. There is no microphone input like on the Hero2, but Ion is working on a remote microphone for better audio quality.
The Wi-Fi pod is a useful addition that streamlines the review and sharing process. The pod creates an ad-hoc network between the camera and iOS devices, and you setup a connection the same way you would connect to any other Wi-Fi device. The Ion Camera app for iOS worked fine on an iPhone 4 and an iPad 2, allowing me to view videos on the camera’s microSD card and also email videos or upload them to Facebook. The app also has a remote mode, which gives you a live-preview on your device’s screen. However, you cannot record video while connected via Wi-Fi, making the live-preview more of a framing tool than actual viewfinder or wireless remote for starting and stopping recordings. The real benefit is the ability to upload and share videos without lugging around a computer on your outdoor excursions. Ion also includes 8GB of lifetime cloud storage for your videos and still images.
The Ion Air Pro WiFi strikes a nice balance between performance, features, and price, positioning itself somewhere between the GoPro and Contour line of action cameras. It streamlines a lot of features found in other cameras, with a simple two-button interface with vibration feedback and a native waterproof construction that requires no extra accessories or setup. Video quality is slightly lower than the GoPro HD Hero2 in terms of sharpness and clarity, but still looks very good in outdoor settings with bright light. The Wi-Fi pod is a nice addition for uploading your videos on the go, matching the connectivity of the more-expensive Contour+.