FrontRow Camera review: A nice toy, but no game-changer

Taking pictures while at an event is always a little hit-and-miss. Either you’re clutching your phone the whole time to make sure you don’t miss a second, or you’re scrambling to get it out of your pocket/purse/whatever when the moment arises. The FrontRow camera seeks to change that, providing an easily accessible camera that can capture your whole night in the form of a time-lapse “Story” or individual instants or moments in time via photo or video.

Build & Design

Said camera is a stopwatch-sized smart device with an anodized aluminum body, sandwiched between two glass faces, and two cameras. This body features an integrated speaker, mic, and two buttons – one Power, one Capture. The top of the device also has a toothed clip to mount accessories (detailed below).

Its bottom features a Type-C USB port which, if you’ve read any of my accessory reviews in the past, you know is a favorite of mine. Type-C is the future, and it’s great to see an accessory manufacturer recognize that. In-hand, the FrontRow camera feels exceedingly premium; it’s hefty, and every detail of the device has been considered thoughtfully.

The front face of the FrontRow camera is glossy black and covered in glass, with a centered, reflective FrontRow logo and a camera sensor mounted above the face. This camera is an 8MP, f2.2 aperture sensor with a 148°±3° Field of View, resulting in an almost fish-eye view of the world. Live video can capture from 1080p to 2.7k (30fps), with OIS (Optical Image Stabilization).

On the flip-side, the rear face serves as the primary interface of the FrontRow with a 1.96″ LTPS LCD touchscreen. At 640 x 572 pixels (327ppi), this display is surprisingly crisp for such a small device. The high (though not quite HD) resolution makes viewing pictures and videos a joy.

It should be noted, though that you can rarely see the entire picture you’ve taken due to the circular nature of the device and the rectangular nature of the pictures it takes. There’s another camera mounted on the rear face, a 5MP, f2.0 aperture sensor with a 85° Field of View.

In Theory

For a little piece of hardware, the FrontRow camera offers surprisingly robust specs under the hood. It features 2/32GB RAM/ROM and a quad-core processor (though what brand or speed, we don’t know) that’s pretty snappy. Battery size isn’t listed, but, according to the FrontRow documentation it’ll last 50 hours on standby, 10 hours in “Story” mode, or 2 of video/live streaming.

To me, the more impressive aspect of the battery is how fast it charges via Type-C; just twenty minutes for a full charge, in my experience. This makes it extremely viable to charge via external battery on the go.

In terms of connectivity, the FrontRow camera is a bit of a mixed bag. The Type-C USB port is a big win for the accessories industry – too many accessories still use the outdated MicroUSB standard – and 802.11ac is the current WiFi standard, but a lack of Bluetooth 5 (FrontRow only uses the 4.1 standard) stings a bit. And while the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth are nice, the FrontRow really struggles to stay connected to its companion app when running in the background.

In Practice

As great as the FrontRow’s concept is – who wouldn’t want a camera that can capture every moment of an event in stunning detail? – it stumbles a little in execution. While the prospect of having a standalone camera is an enticing one, the fact of the matter is that most modern smartphone cameras feature a significantly higher megapixel count than FrontRow’s 8. And while megapixels aren’t everything – far from it – it does provide a sort of baseline governing what you should expect from a device.

There are three different Modes to choose from when using the FrontRow: Video (Live or Recording), Photo, and Story. The first two are fairly straight forward, but the last one is where the FrontRow sets itself apart. In Story mode, the camera will take a picture at set intervals and, once you end the Story, will stitch them together to form a time-lapse video summary. This mode is significantly less power intensive when compared to video (10 hours of story vs. 2 hours of video) and adequately summarizes your experience, providing a unique take on an event.

Samples

These videos end up being rather large. One of my stories came close to half a gig uncompressed, but with a little editing and compression they’re pretty shareable. It compressed a four hour game of Mansions of Madness into just over 15 minutes, and a few quick edits to resolution, speed and trimming cut that down to a trim 3 minutes.

Unfortunately, the FrontRow isn’t nearly as crisp and clean when it’s being worn, instead of stationary. The following clip is from the same night with the FrontRow clipped to my sweatshirt instead of placed. As you’ll see, the footage is rather disorienting – it bounces around a lot, and rarely provides a good view of what’s going on.

Still shots are adequate, but not anything game-changing. As you can see, the rear camera really bends photos with that 148° field of view.

There is one thing I did note that was particularly impressive: My FrontRow camera ran out of juice right in the middle of compiling my story after I stopped it. I was concerned that it would corrupt the video, but after charging and rebooting, that fear turned out to be unfounded. The Story resumed compilation right where it left off, and turned out fine.

Accessories Not Sold Separately

I’m truly impressed with how much FrontRow chose to include in the box with the camera. There are three different mounts – necklace, stand and lanyard – included in the box, with more on the way. There’s also a braided USB Cable (Type-C to Type-C) that has a Type-A adapter attached to one end. The lanyard and the USB cable match, to the point it’s almost plausible to build the cable into the lanyard – which would be amazing. Regardless, it’s nice to see FrontRow put as much effort into its accessories as it does into its main product.

OS

The FrontRow Camera OS appears to be based on Android Wear, though that isn’t confirmed anywhere in the included materials. As with all Android-based devices, the Home Screen features your choice of wallpaper. At the bottom of the screen is a carousel of apps, including Livestreaming (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Custom RTMP are all supported), Gallery, Spotify, and Stopwatch. From this carousel you also access the various shooting modes of the FrontRow, including Camera and Story mode.

The interface is largely gesture-based, though there is a Home button to take you back to the main screen. DropBox uploading is supported – and while that’s very much appreciated given the non-expandable 32GB storage, I would have loved to see Google Drive or Google Photos support baked into the device.

A fun toy, but no game-changer

In a world where smartphones are taking photos that rival those taken by high-end DSLRs, you’d expect to have a device that only functions as a camera to take photos at least that good. Unfortunately, the FrontRow doesn’t. It just doesn’t have a robust enough sensor to compete with the iPhone X, Pixel 2, or Samsung Galaxy S9. And at $399 MSRP – half the cost of a phone – it becomes a hard purchase to justify.

The FrontRow camera is available from many retailers, including from the source and from B&H. The cheapest price at the time of publication was from Amazon, at $322.99.

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