Sena Prism Camera test | GIZMO REVIEW
The best dedicated bike camcorder on the market?
Street Price: Around £200
Form factor and mounting system
To begin with, in my opinion, the Sena Prism has the appropriate form factor for two-wheeled use. It is small 63x44x23mm and weighs just 125g including battery. A long device with a small frontal area (Prism or Drift) mounted on to your crash helmet obviously suffers less wind drag than wide and boxy (GoPro et al).
The Prism’s excellently engineered side-mount, ball joint, clip-in helmet bracket, also means you don’t have to look like a failed Teletubby with a stupid protrusion sticking out of the top of your head. For me, that’s a big factor. My excessive height means fitting below door-frames is already a struggle, so adding another 10cm of action camera to the top of the helmet does me no favours. The Prism kit does also include adhesive mounts if you insist on helmet top nonsense, and these can also be used to side mount the Prism on the few helmets that may not accept the clamp bracket.
GoPro fans will no doubt now be shouting at their tablets/ mobile phones/ laptops that their cameras can also be mounted onto the side of a helmet, but this is a massive ungainly carbuncle on a big arm rather than a slim solution like the Prism or Drift.
Of course they can duly point out that the horizontal box (e.g. GoPro) format is actually better for chest-mount shooting, which can be more immersive and revealing than helmet mount for extreme riding, but restricts you to forward-only shooting.
Something worth bearing in mind – no matter what type of video camera you choose – is to be aware that if you mount on your body or your helmet then you are potentially compromising your safety in an accident. Most race organisations ban the use of rider-mounted cameras for that reason. Still, if you wanted to live in a cotton-wool-enclosed protective bubble you probably wouldn’t ride a scooter. In the same way, it is also your choice whether or not to wear a camera.
Protruding only a little way from your helmet, the clamp-mounted Prism does not unbalance things or snag on your shoulder when looking behind yourself. In wide-view setting a little bit of my full-face Shoei helmet was just visible in shot, but I prefer that effect to a totally unhindered view because it gives the viewer a clear rider perspective.
One aspect of the Prism I liked was being able to leave one of the QRM (Quick Release Mount) wedges screwed to the underside of the camera, even when it was clipped into the helmet mount. This means that while riding I could reach around, carefully unclip the camera from the helmet and slot it into a QRM-equipped ball mount fixed to the scooter; which I set up previously to record alternative angles. Even if pulling over briefly to do this, this quick and simple task offers flexibility that puts all rival mount systems in the shade.
Now once you’ve watched helmet-cam footage for more than five minutes you’ll realise the importance of changing shooting angles. You must do this to maintain interest without the viewer drifting off into a tedious road-trip induced coma. The key here is to remember that long sections of uncut Point-Of-View (POV) filming are best reserved for moments of extremely high drama, or pornography. Not 20 monotonous miles of the M6 motorway.
A great advantage of the full Prism kit rather than buying a camera alone is that it comes with a massive and superbly well-designed selection of mounts, although there are perhaps too many for the average scooter rider. In fact I left many at home simply because being able to swap from helmet to alternative, adjustable mounts front and rear of the scooter was enough. Take my word for it; whatever you need, from clamps to suction mounts, they will probably be in the kit.
Another advantage of the Prism over most rivals in that it doesn’t require a waterproof case for slight inclemency. Sena claim it can handle 1-metre submersion without its clear plastic case, although that will depend on how securely you fitted its push-in rubber rear USB cover. On the few occasions it did rain when I had the camera fitted I suffered no water ingress problems. Having said that, I’ve read other reviews where owners claimed enough moisture managed to get inside the Prism while raining to fog the lens. The tip to remove any fogging is to leave the camera in a bag of uncooked rice overnight and let Uncle Ben suck the badness out. For my part it simply made more sense to put the camera away when it was pouring down because rain riding footage is usually about as clear and interesting as a muddy puddle. Unless you record yourself falling over into said muddy puddle that is.
My test Prism did come with a waterproof plastic case but since I didn’t plan to go under the sea, I left it at home. Also, the waterproof case does not clip into the side clamp-on helmet bracket like the bare camera does; which restricts its usefulness because you either become a Teletubby for helmet action, or must fix it to the scooter.
For most adventure situations I reckon you could ride using the camera without its waterproof case, except perhaps falling off in a river. In which case you’ve got other things to worry about anyway…
Now we arrive at what I consider to be the Prism’s killer feature. While straight helmet camera footage with a built-in microphone will almost always require some sort of over-dubbing in post-production (due to wind noise and engine drone) the Prism can take audio from Sena (or rival) Bluetooth headsets.
The massive advantage of Bluetooth audio is that it allows you to narrate directly onto the video as you ride. I constantly used the Prism as a method of taking video notes about things I saw, or thought, while I was riding.
A Bluetooth connection also allows you to commentate live during moments of action. This feature alone is fantastic in that it allows you to create footage that is far more interesting and immersive without any need for post-editing. Or rather, that would be the case if I could train myself not to be such a potty-mouth. Also worth remembering is that anyone else on your Sena intercom network can also add commentary, so you need to warn them in advance or you could end up with all sorts of observations recorded for posterity!
I should also offer kudos here to the absolute mastery that Sena have over the noise-cancelling effects of their intercom system. My Prism was paired to their 20S helmet-to-helmet intercom which builds on the many of the clever features offered by high-end rivals such as phone, FM radio and MP3 player integration.
I was pleasantly shocked at the 20S microphone’s aptitude at cutting out wind and engine noise compared to voice frequencies. During a European jaunt I had a perfectly clear phone conversation with a friend who was also using a Sena system while riding his scooter in England and I was riding a noisy scooter at something like 70mph in Spain.
The call quality was completely unimpeded by distance or mode of transport. Remarkable.
When using this Bluetooth audio on the video clips the voice clarity is almost spooky, with other traffic and even the scooter engine note being a faint buzz in the background. The only negative-side of this microphone efficiency is that if you position the boom too far from your lips then even your narration can drop to a whisper, however there are multiple options to adjust sensitivity and even mix microphone inputs. Only once back home did I read in the manual that you can feed the microphone output in your earphones; which does help to set a voice volume.
Of course studying user-manuals is not really the done thing for an alpha male, but the fact I soon worked out most functions without thorough instruction proved that the Prism operating system is fairly logical. This is helped by another advantage of Bluetooth Headset integration in that the camera speaks to you to tell you what it’s doing. A female voice also tells you what mode the camera is in or if the battery is low, giving you sufficient notification to swap another battery. It’s a brilliant feature, removing all the guesswork associated with other brands of non-connected camcorder.
Continuing with the simplicity of the Prism, the camera itself has only two rubberised buttons (Mode and Shot) which makes it very easy to operate, even with a gloved hand. Make a selection and the lady in your ear tells you what you’ve done, especially useful when you can’t actually see the camera. You can also control the camera from the buttons on the Intercom system but I personally found it more natural to reach for the camera although this does however mean that all of my clips tend to start with a large gloved clutch-hand briefly obscuring the lens. Maybe that’s just me, as others I know work their’s exclusively from their Sena intercom unit.
Conversely, working through the settings menu with only two buttons and a tiny screen to guide you is clunky. Of course Sena have thought of that too and their handy Prism Camera app allows you to make settings adjustments direct from your Smartphone screen. It’s simple and works really well. One useful setting offered is ‘upside down’ for moments when you’ve mounted the camera in an inverted position, saving the need to flip the picture in post-production. Just remember to change the setting when mounting the camera upright again…
Sena state a battery life for the Prism of two hours filming with a live Bluetooth connection. From experience, with the camera switched off for stops I could usually get a day’s use from three batteries with recording limited to notes and interesting riding sections. If you record every part of your ride you will chew through data cards (32GB microSD is maximum accepted) and produce so much boring footage that editing will be a nightmare. Don’t worry, you soon get the hang of what roads are worth recording and what are not.
A top tip here is to buy a universal 12-volt to 3.7v battery charger because this will allow you to charge spare phone or camera batteries from the bike while you ride.
Sorry, what’s that? You’ve bought an action camera / posh phone with just one permanently fixed battery? That wasn’t so clever. Swappable batteries are still the way to go…
The Sean Prism offers a choice of two shooting angles: normal and 140-degree wide angle. It shoots in full HD (1080p) at 30 frames per second or 720p at 30/60 fps in MP4 format, and in my view the video output from the bright F2.0 lens is very good, with realistic colours and decent transition times from bright to dark scenes. Another bonus feature in addition to video recording is that the camera can shoot 3.5 megapixel stills or bursts. It will also take time-lapse recordings either as separate Jpeg images or as Benny Hill style videos. Take time to experiment with it and the Prism actually offers a fine array of options to record your next scooter adventure.
If you really want the ultimate in picture quality and a plethora of visual adjustment options then I still reckon the latest GoPros are ahead. But do you really need 4K cinema quality from a helmet cam if you don’t have a 4K TV?
I suspect that the vast majority of sports-cam users will be happy to find a setting that they like and leave the camera recording at 1080p. If you are the sort that rarely wants to mess with settings, and can’t afford to waste too much time post-editing then the Prism is a real contender.
Speaking of post-editing, GoPro – with its bundled software package – still has a major advantage over the Prism (and its peers) which does not include software for video editing.
Flies on the Lens
Of course, nothing is perfect, and the Prism does have a number of small niggles. However, they’re not major and in theory Sena could potentially fix some of them in future firmware or hardware updates.
The most annoying of these niggles is probably that there is no simple way to check footage or frame filming ‘in the field’ since the Prism does not feature an integrated screen. This was also a problem with earlier GoPros, but newer models with Wi-Fi connectivity mean that you can now view clips (or live-view) direct from the camera to a Smartphone screen. If Sena could add this feature then it would be a massive boon.
From an imaging point of view I do like the fact that the camera lens is not obstructed by another lens within a waterproof case. However the camera glass is not replaceable and therefore vulnerable unless the rubber lens cover is fitted. Incidentally, the footage takes on an eerie feel if you forget to remove the lens cap…
For me however, the most irritating and potentially destructive problem was that each memory card you install resets the file numbering sequence to zero. That way you can end up with several cards all with the same file names (e.g. PRSM0001.MP4) for different clips. This means if you are not careful when you back-up your cards then you can end up overwriting one lot of files with identically-named ones and accidentally losing your original clips. The Prism badly needs an option for the file numbering to continue sequentially from one card to the next, just like my main digital camera does. Hopefully Sena can make a small adjustment to future firmware releases to resolve this.
As with other modern day gadgets, the action camera market is still in a state of rapid development, with new and improved models coming along all the time. For this reason there will never be a ‘best’ action camera, at least not for long. Therefore there comes a point where you simply have to make a decision and join in.
Of those cameras I have tested to date – from cheap unfamiliar products to high end well-known brands – for me the Prism offers the right combination of worthwhile features and output quality for what I want to do with my videos, particularly since live voice recording is a massive time-saving feature. Pixel-peepers who demand the highest video quality may still be better off looking at other brands such as GoPro. However, I want to spend my time riding, not editing endless Gigabytes of video in a darkened room so the Prism is perfect for my needs.
Perhaps the largest incentive is that Sena massively reduced the price of the full Prism camera kit from a-bit-too-expensive ($399) to very competitive ($249) in the summer of 2015. The new price translates to €269 or around £200. There is also a basic Prism camera option for €199 but that seems a bit pointless since the versatile mounting kit is certainly one of the camera’s main strengths.
The Bluetooth voice-over feature will require you to own a helmet intercom of any brand. Sena’s all-singing 20S retails for a hefty $299 but offers improved integration compared to other systems, and of course its wonderful background noise cancelling.
In 2015 Sena also released an all-in-one camera and Bluetooth intercom unit called the 10C which I originally thought would be an ideal integrated solution for touring. However, having sampled the positioning flexibility and ease of battery swapping that comes with the Prism and separate Bluetooth headset solution, the latter still seems to me to be the ideal set-up for touring.