How’s Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 for your XC MTB rides?

How will you use an action cam?

Before you start reading this review, you should consider how you’re planing to use the action cam. Will you use it while mountain biking? Or running? Maybe hiking or paragliding? Only once you answer this question will you be able to establish the qualities you’re looking for in actions cam and compare different models accordingly. Unfortunatelly, there weren’t any action cam comparisons between GoPro 6 and Garmin VIRB Ultra 30, which would take into account specific needs of mountain bikers. Hence this review. I needed an action cam only for recording my XC MTB rides. As you probably know by now, I am an avid XC rider. I decided to set up a collection of the most beautiful XC MTB rides in Slovenia and thus help you explore the most beautiful XC trails in Slovenia. Beside a gpx file, which enables you to re-ride the exact trails I’ve also decided to provide you with a short video of ride highlights (instead of boring text). Based on my use case (XC MTB riding on a hardtail bike and camera mounted on chest harness) and experience, you should pay attention to the following:
  • battery should last a minimum of 6h and be able to record 1h of video and some photos in the meantime;
  • image stabilization should make the recorded video watchable without the use of gimbal;
  • action cam should be able to record GPS and connect to ANT+ sensors (as I figured out; it’s a nice to have but otherwise unimportant function);
  • action cam should be operated by voice controls (as I figured out; another nice to have but otherwise unimportant function. You can quickly start/stop recording a video by a single switch of a button, which turns on the camera and simultaneously starts recording/stops recording and simultaneously shuts down the camera).
I imagine that most of you are deciding between the GoPro 6 (or 7) and Garmin VIRB Ultra 30. Supposedly the GoPro 7 is great at image stabilization, but I cannot attest about that. Again, this is a very general statement. If you google about it you’ll soon find out that users who use GoPro 7 for mountain-biking like its image stabilization qualities. But the videos still require gimbal (and post-processing) to completely remove shaking. When I was making my purchasing decision, the GoPro 7 was not out yet and I haven’t yet known the importance of image stabilization. Hence, I was really only comparing the GoPro 6 and Garmin VIRB Ultra 30. I would have otherwise at least considered the Sony action cams, which I’ve heard are great at image stabilization. I’ve based my purchasing decision on DC Rainmaker’s review of both devices. If you’re considering buying any of those devices, I urge you to read the review of DC Rainmaker Based on DC Rainmaker’s review there aren’t any major differences between the two, so I opted for Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 for two reasons (figured out through real world use case both of them are unimportant):
  • the ability to connect with ANT+ sensors (and supposedly user friendly integration of sensor data into a video);
  • voice controls on Garmin supposedly work better.
While I completely agree with the DC Rainmaker’s review, I must say that the review is not written with specific needs of XC MTB rider in mind (It is not DCR’s fault. It’s impossible to cover all different use cases in a single review).

Don’t expect miracles from action cam!

Before we delve into a Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 review, I’d like to point out something very important. Something that refers to every action cam and that I didn’t know until I bought an action cam myself. Something that all of you, who already own an action cam and use it to record MTB rides already know.
Irrespective of the model you choose (yes, even if it’s the GoPro 7), out of the box video quality is going to be far from the best YouTube videos.
I don’t want to discourage you but after using an action cam for a few months, I am convinced that the best quality videos:
  1. are recorded with a gimbal,
  2. are recorded with manual (not auto!) video settings, being changed for current conditions,
  3. use external mic or fluffy mic cover (out of the box voice is terrible!),
  4. include a heavy amount of post-processing (to extract the best colors and diminish the remaining shaking).
That being said, don’t expect miracles from your action cam and be ready to make further investments in equipment (gimbal, mic cover), video editing software and especially time. Yes, time! It takes a lot of time to learn to edit the video and make it immersing for your audience even if it’s recorded with the best settings and gear.

Cold shower

I decided to use action cam with a chest harness (chesty) for a few reasons. First reason was safety. The camera mounted on your chest does not catch any branches, as it once happened to me when I had a camera mounted on top of my helmet. Second is the stability (compared to handlebar mount) of images. And the third is the video itself, which looks the most interesting/immersing for your audience. Nevertheless, it only took a two rides and editing of a single video to uncover all the cons of Garmin (and GoPro for that matter). First, a video even with electronic stabilization enabled is so shaky that it’s unusable for YouTube purposes. Every potential YouTube subscriber is going to run far away once he lands on your channel :/ After I’ve seen how shaky the video is after the first ride, I figured that the only thing that could have gone wrong was to loosely tightened chesty. I tightened it as far as I could for the next ride, hoping that this would solve the issue. It didn’t. Chesty tightened so hard that I could barely breathe didn’t solve a problem. Unfortunatelly this was not the only unpleasant revelation of the second ride. There were 2 more. First, on a sunny September day with temperature around 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) Garmin ran out of battery after only 1 hours and 40 minutes!. Far from “required” 6 hours for my usual long MTB rides. With GPS enabled and ANT+ sensor connectivity turned on I only managed to record 25 min of video in the meantime. The situation wasn’t much better on a third ride: with GPS OFF, sensors connectivity OFF and voice controls on, I managed to squeeze 2h 10min, but I only managed to record 17 minutes of video. The reason is that if you have a voice controls enabled, the mic on the camera constantly records voices and thus drains the battery really fast. This hit me hard because the ability to use action cam to record GPS position and record sensor data was from my point of view the main advantage of Garmin compared to GoPro. (As it later “luckily” turned out, the overlay of sensor data (e.g. speed, HR, location) in a video is for most MTB riders nothing more than a great selling point without much practical value. More often than not the data overlay doesn’t provide any practical value and does not improve immersement of the viewers and is more often than not distracting. But, consider your needs and if you need sensor data overlay, buy several spare batteries.).
Recorded video 35min 17 min 1h 5min
1h 40min 2h 10min (Will update, when I run out)
The second nail in the coffin was terrible voice control functioning (or lack thereof). I must say that I expected the camera to recognize a great majority of my “requests”. As it turned out, the camera recognizes most requests when you’re riding on a paved road with not much noise and when you’re able to talk to the front part of the camera, where the mic is located (or at least in the direction thereof). The situation is completely different once you hit a rough terrain. Not only is the silence gone. You’re often unable to face the front part of the camera or direction thereof for the duration of speaking out the whole command and checking if Garmin blinked, confirming that it understood your command. The whole process easily only takes 3-5 seconds, which might not sound like a lot. But going downhill 50 km/h passing trees by an inch, I prefer centering my look in the direction of travel. For those of you considering GoPro, keep in mind that that Garmin is (according to DCR) better than GoPro in this regard. So, if you’re a mountain biker, assume both devices lack voice control functionality. But as I mentioned, you don’t really need it, because a simple switch of a button does the job well. When I finally returned home, I was eager to edit my first video. I was really curious to overlay video with sensor data. For those of you, who really believe that the sensor data overlay is something you can’t live without, I can calm you down that Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 and Garmin Edit software make overlaying the video with sensor data of your choice (they call it G-metrix data) piece of cake. However, this only applies if your ride was shorter than 3 hours. If you did a longer ride, the process will remain simple, but it will get time consuming. Why? Because you will not be able to use G-metrix data from your action cam but from your Garmin GPS computer. While the process is very straightforward, you should note that Garmin VIRB Edit software only allows you to add G-metrix data from a .fit file to each single clip you recorded. So, if you recorded numerous video clips during your ride (I usually record between 50 and 100 clips during my long MTB rides), you will have to repeat this process 50-100 times for a single video (this problem is known for almost 2 years, but still hasn’t been addressed). This is the reason why I reconsidered adding G-metrix to my future videos and figured out I don’t really need it for the reasons above. I also don’t want to forget the limitations of the Garmin VIRB Edit software. VIRB Edit is great software for casual video editing. But, I would say that if you want to make a video capable of attracting broader YouTube audiences, you should try out something more powerful. Why? You cannot:
  • choose a background music and mute it when you wish
  • color correct videos
  • add text overlay to videos
  • blur part of the video
  • make split screen videos (side by side videos) etc.
At this time I can’t give you any advice as to the best video editing software as I’m still in the process of reviewing several video editors, but I’ll update this post when I find it. Also consider that if you’ll want to use a voice in your videos, you’ll have to buy a noise cover for your action cam. Otherwise your audience is going to hear nothing more than a wind noise.

Final words

Based on the above words you’re probably thinking that I am really disappointed with my Garmin and that I would like to throw it against the wall and hit it with a hammer a few more times. But that’s not the case. I think it’s very impressive that a device so small manages to record such high quality video, connect to sensors etc. But I would be glad if somebody told me beforehand that the initial investment would increase for at least 250 EUR (USD) for a proper gimbal. I would say that if you use Garmin with a gimbal, you can record impressive videos, which are suitable for broader audiences. Still, if you want your videos to look professional (I am not saying that mine do!), you should still post-process them. Even if you don’t buy a gimbal you can still make some good shots. The solution I’ve been employing for quite some time was the following. For situations, which didn’t include much shaking, I mounted the cam on my chest. If there was a lot of shaking involved (e.g. a downhill or rough uphill), I put the action cam in my mouth. I know it’s not an elegant solution, but it gets the job done (here’s an example of such video). The solution to the messiness might be the GoPro bite mount, but I have yet to test it out. I will keep you posted. Another positive thing about Garmin is that it uses the same mounts as GoPro. So, almost any accessory that fits GoPro will also fit Garmin. Even the battery life is very good if you’re tuning the camera on only for the duration of making a video. I have yet to make a ride to run out of battery in case I employ this tactic. And as explained, turning the device on and the beginning of recording is combined into a single button switch, which is simple to do. To sum up, I am very happy with the purchase of Garmin VIRB Ultra 30. I’ve exposed the mayor drawbacks I’ve found, which might help you make the purchasing decision. I believe that there is no big difference between Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 and GoPro 6. The marketing department of GoPro is trying to convince us that 7 makes the gimbal obsolete. I would  suggest you to search for YouTube videos of the GoPro 7 on a mountain bike (not made by GoPro!) first, before you buy into this claim. If it’s true, then I believe we have a winner. If not, every action cam (GoPro 6, 7 or VIRB Ultra 30) in combination with a wearable gimbal will do the job. Oh and before you go, I’ve found that the following settings work best for me when recording a MTB ride:
  • Camera mode: Wideview
  • Field of view: Wide (Although tall might look better, I found that Electronic image stabilization does a much better job in Wide view)
  • 1080p
  • 24fps
  • Various: backlight: 10s (energy saving), screen brightness: 40% (energy saving)
Thanks for reading! And don’t forget to share this post with friends that might benefit from it.

Written by marko