No, this isn’t a tech-head’s asthma inhaler – the RE is HTC’s first standalone camera and was introduced with the HTC Desire EYE selfie phone last year.
This is far from a conventional camera; it has more similarities with Sony’s Lens cameras or action cams. But you're not meant to use it like those. No, the RE is a wide-angle companion camera. It’s a description we were initially dubious about when HTC coined the term, but in the month or so we’ve been using the RE, it’s been just that. This is a product you need to live with for a while before you understand what it offers.
The RE is a small and simple compact camera that you begin to use without having to think about. There’s no need to unlock your phone and fire up an app. Just point and shoot. You feel like James Bond just holding it.
HTC’s gadget is a niche product, but one that’s fun to use and serves a purpose. Is it necessary? Absolutely not. But it is fun to use and achieves results that, while not better than some of the best flagship phones, offer something a little different.
If you think the RE looks odd, you’re right, but the periscope-ish design makes a lot of sense once you start using it. This isn’t an action camera – it won’t replace your GoPro, even though the body is IPX7 water-resistant.
The strange shape is well suited to one-handed use – the body fits neatly into your palm while the lens points outwards. That leaves your second hand free to use for other tasks, unlike with a traditional camera or phone. The shutter button rests on the curve in perfect line with your thumb. Press once to take a shot, hold for two seconds for video, or push a small button on the front to video in slow motion.
That’s it. The RE camera doesn’t even have a power button; it just turns on when you pick it up via a sensor in the grip.
The design works well when taking snaps. Despite not having a viewfinder it’s easy to keep an object in the centre of the frame and straight. That’s something we struggled to do with our Sony QX10 Lens camera.
It is surprising just how accurate you can be with it. Because the HTC RE camera feels a bit like a pistol in your hand, you can aim it like one. Unless you're an Imperial Storm Trooper you should be able to take straight, in-frame photos.
You won’t be able to apply the rule of thirds to perfection with this camera, but you will get a decent shot if you’re holding it high at a gig. The total lack of awkwardness also means you stay right in the moment, rather than looking at a screen and trying to press a tricky soft button using both hands.
It does take a little getting used to. It’s all too easy to press the button for a fraction too long and start shooting video when all you want is a beautiful shot of the landscape. It’s particularly apparent when you ask someone else to take a photo for you. Aside from having to explain what the RE is every time, you also need to give your helper a crash course to stop them videoing. And because it’s so easy to activate that big button we found ourselves with long videos of the inside of a pocket after a night out.
The flat base of the RE lets you plonk it on a level surface and take shots or video remotely using a smartphone via an app. This makes it a lot easier to frame your picture and ensure a blur-free image. There’s also a ¼-inch tripod mount.
The microSD slot – 8GB card included, up to 128GB accepted – and the Micro USB charging port are also at the bottom. This makes it tricky to charge while the RE is on a tripod or flat surface. Considering the RE app has a timelapse feature, this is a bit of a problem – if you want a long-term lapse, that is.
Barring a metal ring around the lens, the RE is plastic. It’s a good-quality, hardy plastic that has managed to remain scratch-free in spite of often getting tossed in a bag or pocket. This is a well-made little product – all the more useful thanks to its water resistance.
The RE can stay under up to 1m of water for no more than 30 minutes. You won’t go scuba diving with HTC’s camera, but you can feel safe using it on the beach or a typically muddy Glastonbury Festival. There’s no cover on the Micro USB port, but the microSD remains free of the wet stuff thanks to a rubber-sealed flap.
If you do want to see what you’re shooting, or to take a shot remotely, you need to use the built-in Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi to connect it to your phone. This isn’t a camera designed just with HTC mobiles in mind, though. The RE's mobile app is available for iOS and Android, so you can use it with the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5, just not Windows or Blackberry ones.
Connecting to the RE can be tricky, but the app works well once you're in
You need to first open the RE app, which connects your phone to the RE via Bluetooth, then you need to access your Wi-Fi settings to find the RE. There’s no Wi-Fi pass through, which means you’ll have use your mobile data connection for live streaming or backing up online. The whole process is a little convoluted and irksome.
Connection isn’t guaranteed, either. We found we had to constantly connect our RE as a new device, adding a password with annoying regularity on both iOS and Android. A firmware update has improved stability significantly, but it still sometimes happens. Not ideal when you’re having a party and everyone has to wait while you set up for a group shot.
There’s lag between what you seen on screen and where you’re pointing the RE, too. It’s OK if you make slow movements, but anything more than that and you have to wait a few seconds on a frozen frame while the phone catches up. It’s no different to our experience with the Sony Lens camera or a phone-connected GoPro, but it just makes it that bit harder to get the shot you want.
The app can straighten wide-angle photos. It's fast and results good
The app provides various other tweaks and settings, including the resolution of photos – 8.3, 12 and 16-megapixel – and videos, and a wide-angle lens toggle. Advanced settings include digital video stabilisation and firmware updates. This is where you should update the RE if you’re having the connection issues we experienced.
Oddly these firmware updates can only be downloaded while connected to the RE. They’re only a few megabytes in size, but we’d still prefer not to have our mobile data leached for this task.
The app gallery lets you upload images to your favourite social media outlet and straighten the fish-eye effect caused by the wide-angle lens. The RE app uses software to do this, but it’s fast and you wouldn’t notice a photo’s been straightened. Very clever indeed.
The 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor on the RE isn’t too far off the specs of the Galaxy Note 4’s camera. There’s no optical zoom or optical image stabilisation (OIS).
The lack of OIS is a bit of a problem. For a camera meant to be used on the go and to capture moments as they happen, the RE doesn't cope well with movement. If your hand is moving more than a little when you take a picture, the result will be a blurry mess. When we first got the RE the ease with which you can take pics made us a bit blase. We’d swing our arms around or walk and take a pic. Suffice to say this doesn't work. You still need to treat the RE like a camera – you need to frame your shot and stand still.
So what’s the point of having the RE if you’ve already got a top smartphone with a decent snapper? Aside from the convenience and ease with which you can use the RE, it also has a 146-degree wide-angle lens that lets you take in a whole lot more of the scenery.
The proof is in the pictures, though, so we took the RE out to Las Vegas to get some shots as you would on holiday. When we got back to London we also tested it against two of the best camera phones on the market right now – the iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
That wide-angle lens lets you get more of the scenery in the frame than you can with a traditional smartphone camera. If you’re at a football match you can even get the whole pitch in a shot. Something’s got to give when a camera takes so much in, and in the case of the RE that thing is detail.
In general photos look good, if a little muted. There’s none of the warmth of the iPhone or the detail of the Galaxy Note 4, but we found ourselves taking a lot more photos with the RE than we do with a phone simply because it is so unobtrusive to do so.
We took this picture underwater to test the RE's water-resistance
We took the same photos – standing in the same place and taken within seconds of each other – with the RE, iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4 to see how they compare. We left HDR mode off the phones to keep the test like for like.
Before we go into detail, we should look at just how much more the RE fits in frame.
The RE captures more of the scenery. Photos taken from the same location. Note 4 picture inset
In the following test we digitally zoomed in and cropped a section of each photo to see how much detail the camera managed to capture.
St Paul’s Cathedral dome, shot over the river Thames, is noisy and there’s a massive difference between the Note 4’s sharpness and the RE’s fuzzy crop.
In lower light, things don’t get much better, as this photo of a statue in a dark room shows. The HTC RE just can’t compete with these top phones. The RE’s photos aren't bad, it’s just that these phones take better photos under a variety of conditions.
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The RE doesn’t shine on the video front either. It struggles with changes in brightness and shows some signs of stuttering as we moved and shot. The 120fps 720p video works well enough, but suffers from the same issues normal Full HD video does.
Audio capture comes courtesy of a single mic, so it’s mono. It’s not bad, but you might be disappointed if you want a cheeky memento of your favourite song sung live at a gig.
Watch the test video of the HTC RE:
The 820mAh battery charges lasts for 1200 full-res photos or an hour and 40 minutes of Full HD video, according to HTC. That’s pretty close to what we achieved, with 700 odd photos and several short videos being taken before we had to tie the RE down to a plug socket.
Unfortunately the ease with which you can take video also led us to holster the RE while it was still shooting. Pulling it out of your pocket to take a beautiful landscape shot only to realise you’ve killed the battery is a real disappointment.
The good thing is that it charges in less than two hours and you can use a portable power pack to top it up on the go. Using the RE also means that you won’t be draining your phone’s battery.
This isn’t a product for everyone, and neither is it cheap enough to buy on a whim or as a stocking filler. However, the RE is perfect for those happy snappers who want to take pictures or video without detaching themselves from what’s going on there and then.
There are similarly priced, or cheaper, action cams that can withstand more abuse (and water) than the RE, but that’s missing the point. This isn’t an action cam; it’s more akin to a compact camera before the age of the smartphone. The Sony Lens camera is the RE’s closest rival. While we prefer the shots the Sony takes, and its optical zoom, it doesn’t have the immediacy and ease of use of HTC’s camera.
If you have a top-end phone with a good camera on it then the RE makes little sense. It’s not that much more difficult to take out your phone and take a picture, and the result will be better. It’s a bit like the current swathe of smartwatches. Yes you can read a text message without taking your phone out of your pocket, but does that functionality warrant the cost? In our eyes it doesn’t. That said, the wide-angle lens allows you to take better selfies and get more into a picture than any phone camera we’ve used.
Where the RE makes a lot of sense is if you have a budget smartphone. Many of these, like the Moto G2 or Sony Xperia M2, provide great phone experiences, but sacrifice camera performance. Pair one of these with the RE and you almost get the best of both worlds at half the cost of a flagship. It’s also a useful camera to take to a music festival or event where you might not want to take an expensive and fragile smartphone.
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Despite the fact that our phones take better pictures, we keep finding ourselves using the RE to take quick snaps instead. If HTC can improve the image and video quality in a sequel then it could be a real winner.
Limitations and software niggles aside, the RE is a great camera companion to a budget smartphone.