I commute about fifty miles a day on my motorcycle, and often spend an hour and a half in the saddle. I see lots of weird stuff, from people rear-ending each other for no reason on the highway, to cars almost running me over.
I decided to record my commutes, with the eventual goal of narrating them and then posting a “how to commute on a bike” series on YouTube.
I knew I wanted 1080p recording capabilities, the ability to add an external microphone I’d nest in my helmet, and a rainproof enclosure. GoPro recently released the GoPro Hero 2, an updated version of the very popular albeit non-aerodynamic action camera. I also considered the Contour, which is known for being bulletproof and resilient, even underwater. However, I liked the streamlined look of the Drift HD Full 1080, and I was going to mount the camera on top of my helmet.
Appealing to my cheapskate side, the Drift HD Full 1080 was a little bit less expensive than the GoPro Hero 2, and quite a bit less expensive compared to the Contour I considered.
I ordered the Drift from Amazon, and had it in my hands two days later. I was glad to give the Drift HD a run, but even more glad to return it after two weeks of use. The camera has an extremely low battery life and a fundamental design problem that makes it less than ideal for top-of-helmet mounting. Plus, I think there are some quality control issues with the camera and the included mounts.
Features and Specifications
The Drift HD Full camera is an odd shape to describe. It’s about the size of a small, rectangular block of cheese. Yes, that makes absolutely no sense, but that’s how I’d describe its shape. In contrast to the GoPro Hero line, the Drift has a low profile and drew a lot less attention when in use. It also was less noticeable at highway speeds or windy conditions.
The Drift HD Full has a color LED display on top of the camera. While it’s too dim to be seen in bright daylight, it’s a very handy feature I wish other cameras would add.
All of the connectors for the Drift are in the back, protected by a threaded back plate that keeps water and debris from getting to them. The device stores video to a MicroSD card, and has a mini-HDMI output jack if you want to show your videos directly onto a modern television. There is also a jack for an external microphone, but getting to this is difficult — more on that later.
Despite the modern-ish mini-HDMI jack, the Drift HD Full uses a mini USB port for charging and data transfer. At the time, it was the only mini USB device I had left in service. All of my other devices, including three tablets, two mobile phones / media players, etc all use micro USB and it was a pain to keep track of one mini USB cable.
The battery is also kept safe and sound underneath the back plate.
One interesting feature of the Drift HD is the rotating camera lens. You can rotate the camera up to 180°. I thought I’d really like this feature, but it’s only partially implemented in my opinion — more on that later.
A nice feature on the Drift HD is the use of a standard 1/4″ x 20 screw mount at the bottom of the camera. This is the normal size for tripods and other mounts. Drift provides some mounts out of the box, but you may be able to get creative with stuff you already have around the house.
Lastly, the Drift HD has a remote control that starts or stops recording. Like the rotating lens, I was excited about this capability until I actually used it. It’s not especially useful, and according to Drift technical support may contribute to the dismal battery life of the camera.
Ease of Use
Set up and initial use was easy. The onboard color screen makes traversing the camera setup options simple. Instructions were marginally helpful but not necessary. I even updated the firmware on my camera without difficulty.
If you’ve ever attached a camera to a tripod before then you have all the skills necessary to attach the Drift HD to the provided mounts.
Speaking of the mounts, I put one of them on the top of my helmet. The adhesive appeared to be very strong, but the weight of the camera and the awkwardness of the mount shape contributed to the mount separating from my helmet after about a week of use.
Operating the remote was also a snap. Push the big-ass round button on the left side of the remote to start recording, push the square button on the right side to stop. I would make some changes to the remote, but we’ll talk about those in a second.
Usage and Performance
I really liked the Drift HD Full until I had to use it. Design problems were evident right away, and my experience degraded from there.
The Drift is meant to be mounted on its side, with the screen and controls pointing to the left. This might be okay for vehicle mounts or on bicycle helmets, but I wanted to mount the camera on the top center of my motorcycle helmet.
No worries though, right? Just rotate the lens and we’re good to go. Right?
Well, the problem with the rotating the lens is there isn’t a hard stop like there is in the 0° position. This means that it’s hard to find the exact 180° point, and a lot of my initial footage was off-centered. I finally got it all straight and then bumped the camera against the lid of my Givi topcase, which knocked it out of alignment again.
There were other drawbacks to the Drift, lens alignment aside. The remote was a neat concept, but ambiguous in use. There is no indicator light on the remote, and some times I wasn’t sure if I’d turned the camera on or not.
The mount started peeling away from my helmet — and itself. I began to get nervous that the camera would come loose while I was riding on the freeway.
I had to remove the standard back plate in order to use an external microphone. This did two things I didn’t like: exposed the connectors to the elements, and elongated the back plate so much that I couldn’t plug in the microphone jack all the way.
This is the extended door necessary to access the jacks on the back of the camera.
The back plate is so thick any movement of the cord would cause the jack to lose its connection.
On top of that, battery life was really really bad. I got a maximum of 90 minutes on the standard battery, which meant I had to charge the battery every day. I even had the camera die on me a few times when I was stuck in traffic. I tried recharging the camera via an “extra power” powered USB hub, but after eight hours of charging the battery still died during the commute home.
I wrote to Drift’s customer service group:
Battery life is about 70 – 80 minutes. Is this normal?
Six days later I got an answer:
Optimum battery life is 2hrs 20 mins. This is compromised by LCD and remote control usage. The remote can be disabled, and the LCD screen has an adjustable auto off function, to save battery life.
Six days is an eternity for an e-business these days, and the answer I got was: “turn off all the things that make the Drift unique and you should get longer battery life.”
With so many negatives, I returned the Drift to Amazon. They accepted my return without a single question, and I used the credit to purchase a GoPro Hero 2 HD. I like the GoPro a lot more (although it’s not without its problems), and I’ll do a review another time.
Here’s some test footage from the Drift. You can really see how fisheye the lens is, and if your eye is keen you can even notice it’s off center. I’m not particularly impressed with the contrast and saturation, but it’s a moot point now.