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Fly6: Full review of camera and tail-light

The Fly6 is a video camera for cyclists, integrated into an LED taillight. It’s simple by design: you keep it charged and switch it on when you go for a ride, it records everything happening behind you, and if there’s an incident you’ll have video evidence.

More broadly, it’s an intersection of two trends: firstly, cycling is booming, both for fitness and transport. The growth in cycling seems to have been accompanied by an increase in traffic incidents and accidents, and many cyclists, frustrated by the apparent reluctance of police to prosecute motorists who cause accidents, are turning to technology as a solution.

There’s a herd-safety effect here too: perhaps if drivers think they’re being recorded they might improve their behaviour around cyclists.

Fly6 - rear-light and video camera

The Fly6 wants a piece of this market, and its weapons are aggressive pricing and fairly innovative design. The price is really good: $US135 (after a 15 per cent discount for an early pre-order) is a lot cheaper than other action cameras, although you do give up some functionality and quality.

Here’s where the second trend, the availability of cheap technology borrowed from smartphones, becomes important. The Fly6 is possible because of cheap and compact camera units, efficient video processing chips and memory technology, all originally developed for smartphones.

This stuff is now commodity hardware, which is great for us because it means small companies like Fly6 can build cool products, initially funded through crowd-sourcing, without having to develop all the components themselves.

It also means there’s very little annoying proprietary technology here: the memory card, USB jack and video format are completely standard and user-friendly.

Setup

The Fly6 has an impressively shallow learning curve. There’s no need to worry about settings, as there aren’t really any. Once the camera is installed, you just hold the record button until it switches on, and get riding.

There’s no hassle with deleting video or managing the space on your memory card either: when the memory card is full, it simply starts recording over the top of the oldest video. Of course, if you want to record more video you can buy a larger MicroSD card.

To take video from the camera, you simply plug it into your computer’s USB jack with the supplied mini-USB cable, switch it on, and treat it like an ordinary USB drive. Alternatively you can remove the 8GB MicroSD card and stick it in a card reader.

First impressions on opening the Fly6 safety camera are good: the camera and its fitting are well presented and protected in foam, in a satin box.

Fitting the camera is easy. The box includes two plastic brackets (so you can use the Fly6 on two bikes), some rubber spacers (choose the correct one based on your seatpost angle) and some rubber straps to hold the whole thing in place. Fitting took me all of five minutes, including reading the instructions, and shifting it to a different bike would take seconds.

I was worried the camera wouldn’t fit on my road bike’s aero seatpost, but the manufacturers are way ahead of me and included a rubber spacer for exactly this purpose.

Fly6 - rear-light and video camera

Fly6 - rear-light and video camera (Image: Tim Renowden/Techly)

Unfortunately, the requirement to attach the camera to your seatpost means that any substantial saddle bag is a non-starter, especially if you have the type that attaches to your seatpost, like I do on my commuting bike. This may also be a problem if you use a clip-on rear mudguard.

This is a shame, because commuters are arguably the prime customers for this camera, but the current design will be incompatible with many peoples’ commuting set-ups. Still, if you use a backpack or panniers, or travel light, the seatpost-mounted design is simple and effective.

Setting the time and date, which is displayed as a watermark on the video files, is the only thing I had a problem with. To do this, you have to manually edit a text document saved on the Fly6. Sounds easy enough, but I couldn’t get it to work. It would be far easier if Fly6 built a little utility to grab the time and date from your PC, or a server, or wherever.

Battery life is estimated at five hours from the lithium ion battery. I didn’t test this to exhaustion (I got exhausted first) but it’s more than enough for any commute, and most people’s recreational weekend rides. It charges via USB, so if you work near a computer you can plug it in during the day and be certain it’ll be charged for the ride home.

It’s not the most svelte piece of equipment, but it is intended to be seen and there is quite a lot of hardware inside the 105g unit. The red flashing LED light is more than adequately bright.

Video quality


Ultimately, the Fly6 will succeed or fail based on its video quality. Good design and keen pricing are all well and good, but the video output must be fit for purpose. The Fly6 needs to be able to reliably capture the details of accidents or incidents. Ideally, this means capturing the number plate of the car that hit (or buzzed) you, so you can provide the video to the police.

The version I tested records 1280×720 pixel video at 30fps, using H.264 encoding and .AVI format. Almost any video editing software will be able to ingest it, and you can upload directly to YouTube or other sharing sites.

More serious action cameras will record higher resolutions and higher framerates (1080P at 60fps is common) but there are compromises to be made: they cost a lot more, chew up memory faster, and battery life suffers.

The video files are divided into 15-minute chunks of about 820MB each, so it’s pretty easy to find a specific point in a ride.

The specifications all sound good and sensible, but how does the video actually look? Well, the results of my testing are a bit of a mixed bag.

On smooth roads in good daylight, video is smooth and has adequate if not outstanding detail. It’s definitely not as detailed or high-res as a GoPro camera, but then it’s less than half the price. Besides, you’re not buying a Fly6 to make totally maxtreme viral videos for an energy drink company.

Unfortunately (perhaps not), during my testing most drivers were very considerate, and gave me a wide berth. This made it difficult to see their number plates, as by the time they were close enough for the Fly6 to show enough detail, they were towards the edge of the 130-degree wide-angle lens’ frame. The optical distortion at the edge of the lens is often enough to prevent reading the plates.

If a car is going to hit you, it will be much closer to the centre of the frame, so this probably won’t be a problem, but I wasn’t willing to test it by swerving into traffic.

The Fly6 also tends to over-expose video, which may be a deliberate decision to make sure it captures events in the shadows, but it does result in overblown highlights, which obliterates detail on sunny days.

There is some occasional red flare from the LED light refracted through the housing, but this is at the edge of the frame and won’t interfere with recording accidents.

My other concern is that on anything less than billiard table-smooth bitumen, the road vibrations make reading a number plate difficult or even impossible. The Fly6 lacks image stabilisation, and that’s an important factor.

I took the camera on my usual training loops along Yarra Boulevard in Kew, and in the Dandenong Ranges. These are both popular roads with Melbourne’s cyclists, and the road surfaces are a representative sample of the conditions encountered by most Australian riders.

On the rougher roads of Yarra Boulevard and while descending at speed, video is choppy and there’s no way you can read a number plate. Ride over tram tracks or potholed roads and it’s even worse. You will be able to see the car’s make, model and trajectory, but not much else.

I did some comparisons with my own action camera (a JVC GC-XA2), which has stabilisation, and the difference is pretty stark. The JVC is more expensive (around double the price) and has worse battery life than the Fly6, but the video output is substantially better and the mounting options are far more flexible. The same is true for other brands of action camera.

The bottom line is without image stabilisation, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend the Fly6, because it can’t reliability capture number plates in the kind of conditions most people ride in. I would really like to see the next model include some sort of stabilisation, because if the video was cleaned up a little, the Fly6 would be a really handy little set-and-forget device.

At this stage, the Fly6 is a great idea with so-so execution.

Notes: Fly6 supplied a pre-sale prototype for evaluation, although apparently it’s not too far off the final hardware.

The good

● A really good idea to combine a tail-light and camera.
● Pricing is aggressive.
● Easy to fit.
● Versatile mounting kit makes it easy to switch between bikes.
● Standard USB cable, MicroSD card and video codec.
● Easy to charge and use with no hassles.

The bad

● Video quality could really be better.
● Lacks image stabilisation.
● Setting time and date is a pain.
● No good if you use a saddle bag.

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