GoPro and Contour have an established history in ‘action’ video cameras — small, durable video recorders with basic controls and wide-angle lenses. Swann is not a name you’d associate with these products — they’re a security camera company — but the Freestyle HD is nevertheless a genuine competitor when it comes to recording decent quality video in a miniature package. See Group test: what's the best digital camcorder?
Swann Freestyle HD: Design, accessories and features
When you compare it to the swathe of GoPro and Contour video cameras available, the Freestyle HD isn’t especially good looking. It’s a squat rectangular box that mimics the GoPro HD Hero, with a central lens, a smattering of buttons and switches on top, and a tripod screw socket on the bottom. See also: Group test: what's the best compact camera?
Just above the lens, there are two LEDs — one shows when the camera is recording, and the other shines a laser that shows you the centre of the camera’s field of view. This can be enabled or disabled in the camera’s menu system. Visit GoPro HD Hero 2 review and Kodak PlaySport Zx3 review.
The top panel of the camera is logically and sensibly laid out. There’s a switch to toggle power, a very small liquid crystal display that has indicators for power, battery, storage, and recording or snapshot mode, separate buttons for video and photo recording, and an interesting ‘vox’ switch — this enables sound-activated video recording, which starts the camera and begins capturing video if it detects a loud noise (above 65dB).
The rear of the camera is, at first glance, uninteresting — it’s where the battery compartment is. There’s a small data port on the rear left of the camera, though, which can clip in the Freestyle HD’s bundled 1.5in LCD screen. The LCD screen attachment, which is a reasonably high-resolution but very small screen, also includes some navigational buttons — usefully, since it’s also got a menu button to let you change some of the Freestyle HD’s more advanced settings. The buttons aren’t very responsive to input — we had to hit a couple of them twice to get through menus — but they do work with a little effort.
The accessories that come with the Freestyle HD put any Contour or GoPro to shame. The 20m-rated waterproof case is free, the remote control is free, the LCD screen is free, and inside the packaging you’ll also find a carry pouch, three different mounts, extra adhesive pads for mounting, a permanent clip-in, clip-out mounting bracket, a wrist strap, as well as power and USB cables.
Swann Freestyle HD: Video quality, audio quality and performance
The Freestyle HD can record in a variety of resolutions and quality settings, with a few extra features that can be toggled. Video can be captured at 1080p at 30 frames per second, 720p at 60fps, 720p at 30fps, and WVGA (848x480p) at 30fps. Two quality settings are available for each video capture resolution and frame rate — 12Mbps or 6Mbps for 1080p, and 8Mbps or 4Mbps for the other modes.
You can enable the alignment laser in the menu system, as well as an audio-only recording option. Beyond that, there’s a separate menu for the photo-capturing Snapshot mode, with options to select single or triple photo, continuous capture every 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 30 or 60 seconds, a self-timer option (which works with continuous capture as well), and resolution options of 3, 5, or 8 megapixels.
The Freestyle HD’s lens captures a 135-degree field of view in the full-quality 1080p mode, and an even wider 170-degree FOV in 720p mode (including 60fps) and for photo captures. In practice, even the 135-degree FOV was more than enough in our testing, with minimal distortion around the centre of the video. Distortion at the edges and corners of video is more evident in 720p mode, but it is still bearable and generally well-controlled.
Here are some samples of 1080p, 720p, and WVGA video from the Swann Freestyle HD:
Here are some photos taken at 3, 5, and 8 megapixels:
The Swann Freestyle HD snapshot at 8 megapixels.
The Swann Freestyle HD snapshot at 5 megapixels.
The Swann Freestyle HD snapshot at 3 megapixels.
We think the Freestyle HD has comparable video quality to the GoPros and Contours that it’s competing with at 1080p 12Mbps, and the lower quality modes do a good job of cutting down on file sizes and extending recording times. The Freestyle HD shows good quality in bright day-light and moderate light settings, although it does tend to slightly under-expose video and there’s no option to make adjustments. It is not great at night-time, with noisy video that lacks detail and the same propensity to underexpose.
What we dislike most is the quality of the internal microphone. Whenever there was a sound that was anything above moderate volume levels — going over a pothole, or turning the music up even slightly on our test drives — the Freestyle HD’s microphone distorted and introduced annoying popping noises. There’s also no way to change the gain of the microphone, and no way to turn it off during recordings. To solve this problem, we’d probably just cover the microphone port of the Freestyle HD with sticky tape to muffle it and prevent the pops from occuring.
Battery life is good but not great — we were able to wrangle just under three hours of battery recording 1080p 12Mbps video from a full charge. The camera charges over USB, although an AC power adapter is also included, and the camera can be charged while recording is taking place (except via computer).
The Swann Freestyle HD is generally quick to respond to button commands, although it takes around ten seconds to turn on fully. Starting and stopping recordings happens within half a second of pressing the button, and taking a photo is a quick process, although you’ll need to be aware that the photo is captured when yourelease the snapshot button rather than when you press it.
Swann Freestyle HD: Conclusion
The Swann Freestyle HD is a small video recorder that comes bundled with an impressive range of accessories. Its video quality modes are diverse, with the best quality (daylight, 1080p, 12Mbps) rivalling the Contour ROAM. Its microphone isn’t particularly good, and its buttons aren’t great, but it is a good price.