We have tested the new Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 underwater and can confirm that Garmin has finally become a serious competitor to GoPro.
We tested the VIRB XE a year ago, and it didn´t impress us much. It had no LCD screen and we concluded that our GoPro Hero 4 Silver had the best image quality.
With the new VIRB Ultra 30, Garmin has improved all parts of the camera and the image quality is in many of our test shoots better than our Hero 4 Silver. We specially noticed more contrast and often more natural colors on the Garmin footage.
The Garmin can film in 4K, but we made all our test shots in 1080p resolution. At this resolution, there is an impressive slow motion feature. You can shoot at 120 frames per second, which means that you can slow the movie down to approx. 20% speed without any reduction in image quality. This feature is however available in the Hero 4 Black and the Hero 5, but we miss it on our Hero 4 Silver.
The Garmin camera is almost identical to the GoPro Hero 4 Silver when it comes to size and shape. The only difference is that all the buttons are on top of the Garmin. It is much easier to switch between film and photos on the Garmin. Just flick the record button forward to record, and press the shutter to take pictures. On the GoPro, you need to change mode first, before recording or photographing.
The Garmin camera is doing micro adjustments of the white balance too frequently. This is very obvious on the test footage when we use videolights and the scene is changing in front of the camera. The background color will then change back and forth between green and blue very quickly. This is a bit annoying and it is recommended to use manual white balance underwater.
The battery life of the GoPro was significantly better than the Garmin. The Garmin camera had already died when we tried to set up a timelaps scene at the end of the test. The GoPro had at that point probably 1/3 of the battery capacity left.
Minimum focus distance
Both the Garmin and the GoPro have fixed-focus lenses. The super wide fisheye lens make the image sharp from the minimum focus distance until infinity. The minimum focus distance seems to be as large as 50 cm for the Garmin, while the GoPro is less (exact distance not stated by GoPro). Unfortunately we didn´t check this on the Garmin before we started filming. It is very hard to see if the image is sharp on the little LCD screen. When we went through the footage on the computer after the dive, we noticed that many of our video clips with close-up of marine life was unsharp.
The image quality may be a little bit better on the Garmin, but there are some weaker points when it comes to white balance, minimum focus distance and battery life. We will not trade in our Hero 4 Silver with the Garmin, but the Garmin has become an impressive camera. There are tons of features inside this little camera which we have not discussed as they are of minor relevance underwater: Voice activation, better sound, GPS and live streaming. If you are looking for a versatile action camera, you should check out the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 to see if it is the right camera for you.
We would like to thank Maritim Båtutstyr Stavanger for letting us test the Garmin camera.