Cameras are absolutely essential to our lives these days. After all, what would we do without our Snapchat Stories and Instagram selfies? How else would we communicate with the outside world? There's a reason why cameras have been crammed into everything from smartwatches to quadcopters; the ability to capture our memories so easily and in such great detail, then share them with anyone we'd like to, is simply amazing.
Ubiquiti Networks, a company most famous for its WiFi equipment, thinks so too. Nearly two months ago, it debuted the FrontRow, a camera that you wear on your body so that you can capture great moments without compromising your own live experience. However, at a rather steep $399, is it worth it? I've had a FrontRow for a couple of weeks now, and while it is a very cool piece of hardware, I'd have to say no.
|SoC||unnamed quad-core processor|
|Display||1.96-inch 640x572 LTPS|
|Camera||8MP f/2.2 w/ OIS, 5MP f/2.0|
|Measurements||59.8 x 70.3 x 12.1mm, 55g|
|Connectivity||USB Type-C, Bluetooth 4.1 LE, 802.11ac WiFi|
The FrontRow is, without a doubt, an eye-catching little device. Its teardrop shape makes it look like a super futuristic stopwatch (which it can function as, by the way). Front and center is a circular LTPS display, albeit with a "flat tire" on the bottom, and it boasts a not-unimpressive 327ppi. This screen may not be noteworthy aside from its odd shape, but it's not terrible either. Viewing angles are decent, and you can still see it at maximum brightness should you be underneath the sun. Right below that display lies a capacitive home button, and above it is the secondary 5MP camera.
Turn the FrontRow over and you'll see its pride and joy: an 8MP wide-angle camera with an aperture of f/2.2 and optical image stabilization aboard. The back is covered by a nice, round piece of glass with the FrontRow crown logo in the middle. And while you're staring at the camera, you might notice that it's encased within a metal piece that continues upwards into what holds the lanyard.
To attach the lanyard, the magnetic clip, or any future accessories that FrontRow makes, you use this nifty connector. To install the attachment, just push it into the holes on the top until you hear a click; to release it, just hit the small button on the front. It's a simple and strong way to make sure the FrontRow doesn't leave you. The lanyard is adjustable, so fear not if you have an abnormally-sized head or neck.
The rest of the body is aluminum as well. On the top left, you'll find a little blue LED that indicates when the camera is being used, as well as when the device is charging. Move your eyes down a bit, and you'll see a speaker cutout. This speaker is mostly used to beep the "3, 2, 1" countdown when you start recording, and it's effective at doing so. On the right, you'll see your power button and a media button, and on the bottom, you'll find a USB Type-C connector. There's actually a handy USB-C cable included in the box that acts as both a USB-C to USB-C cable (for charging the FrontRow from your phone) or a USB-C to USB-A when you put the adapter on, which I found useful.
The power button is, well, a power button; you push it to wake the device and put it to sleep, as well as turn it on and off. Pretty standard stuff. The media button, however, is something you won't see on most other devices. Push it once, even when the screen is off, and it'll take a picture. Push it twice, and it'll begin recording a Story. Hold it down, and it'll begin recording a video. It's a great idea, with the only problem being that the button is easy to accidentally press.
The device was in great condition throughout my use, save for some minuscule scratches on the rear glass. But a few days ago, I managed to conduct an impromptu drop test. While I had the FrontRow around my neck and I was outside moving boxes, I accidentally hit the release with a box and the device dropped straight onto the asphalt below. The front and rear glass stayed intact, but there was a scuff under the power button, a small dent on the edge of the frame, and some chips around the connector. Nothing major at all.
This is legitimately one of the nicest pieces of hardware I've used in a long time. The teardrop shape fits into the hand perfectly, and the glass-metal sandwich build makes it a joy to hold. Ubiquiti really nailed this; the FrontRow looks and feels expensive. But then again, I'd expect nothing less given its $399 price point.
The FrontRow runs on "FROS" (FrontRow OS) atop Android, although it's not specified what version of Android it is anywhere. As you use it, you can definitely see Google's software, with the familiar-looking quick settings and settings lurking underneath. You can even secure the device with a pattern, though I don't imagine many people using it since the thing is always going to be around your neck or in your shirt pocket.
FROS is a joy to use. I'm impressed with how well-done it is for a first product. The launcher is a horizontally scrolling list of circular app icons, with quick toggles for your camera and gallery on the right and left, respectively. Pull down from the top, and you'll see your quick settings, where you can adjust the volume and brightness, connect to WiFi, enable power-saving mode, see how much of your storage is used up, turn the recording light on and off, and open the full settings app. I also found it nice how the battery percentage went up by thousandths when charging; it's unnecessary, of course, but I just found it fun to watch the numbers slowly rise.
Front and center in the launcher is the camera. Here, you can take regular photos and video, and even choose to disable the microphone while shooting video. You can also use the front-facing camera here, but I don't really see why you would; you'll definitely get a better selfie out of your phone's camera, and if you try taking a selfie with it while it's hanging around your neck, you'll have a bunch of lanyard in your picture. There was really no need for a camera on the front.
Scroll to the right, and you'll see Facebook Live, Twitter Live, and YouTube Live. These are all pretty straightforward; after your initial sign-in process with each of them, you'll be able to start a livestream with the tap of a button. As this is one of the main selling points of the FrontRow, it's good that they work as well as they do. I'll go more in-depth on this soon.
Keep scrolling, and you'll get to two features that were added in a recent update: Translator and Stopwatch. I'm a fan of these, as they're both suitable for the FrontRow's form factor. Translator supports 17 languages, and after playing with it a bit, I've found it to be pretty good. Obviously, it doesn't get the translations exactly right, but it's enough so that someone who speaks another language will be able to understand you.
It's hard to get a stopwatch app wrong, and thankfully, FrontRow doesn't. The company clearly realized the device's resemblance to an actual stopwatch, and took advantage of this by utilizing the whole screen for an analog timer. Swipe to the left, and you'll find a timer. The reason I like both of these incredibly simple apps so much is the media button; when you're in the app, it turns into a start/stop button, which was a smart idea. Clicking it actually makes it feel like you're using a stopwatch. I think I may be getting too excited about this.
The last two options in the list are Gallery and Story. Gallery is pretty self-explanatory, and it doesn't really do anything special. Story, however, is one of FrontRow's highlight features. Basically, when you start recording, FrontRow will take a photo every few seconds and combine them to make a timelapse. It's an interesting idea, but for reasons that can't be blamed on the app, it doesn't work very well. I'll get into this in a little bit.
The companion app, which can be found on the Play Store, acts as an enlarged version of the FrontRow. There's a scrollable list of apps, as well as an instantly accessible gallery. You can also choose to download pictures and videos straight to your phone if you'd like to save them. Here, you can also change your wallpaper, update firmware, and tweak other settings. Like the rest of the software, it's well-designed and easy to navigate.
One small note: I found that the keyboard was exactly as you'd expect a keyboard on such a small screen to be - a little difficult to use with larger hands. This is only really used to enter WiFi passwords, so it's not a huge deal. But aside from that, I've really had no complaints with the software. I'd like to see more apps, but given the limited market for this device, I'm not sure that'll ever happen.
The exterior and software are both top-notch, which might lead you to think that using the FrontRow would be fantastic. Unfortunately, it's not, and for a unique reason: the device's form factor. When you hang a heavy object from something, the object tends to dangle. After all, that's the concept behind baby mobiles and pendulums. So as you might imagine, putting a camera in the same position isn't the greatest idea.
Ubiquiti is clearly intending for FrontRow to be used with the lanyard most of the time, given all the promotional pictures. But when you're walking, the natural laws of physics cause it to move back and forth, and back and forth. Yes, the main camera has optical image stabilization, but it's not nearly enough to combat how much the entire device shakes as you walk. You might notice that the audio isn't great either; I'm a little sick at the moment, but I'm nowhere near as muffled as I sound in the video. It seems like the microphone focused all its attention on the sounds of my footsteps instead of my actual voice.
Even when you're just standing or sitting, it doesn't really make sense to wear a camera around your neck. Say you're at a concert; if you're sitting behind any people, you can forget about FrontRow capturing anything other than the heads of the people sitting in front of you. And even if you're in the front row (ha, get it?), the camera will still be aimed at the performers' feet. Using the pocket clip might alleviate both issues slightly, but people aren't always wearing shirts with pockets. Even when you're just out and about, the FrontRow's position on your chest will give an unsightly look at your peers from an unnaturally low view.
Onto the camera quality: it's not great either. The shots don't have much detail thanks to their 8MP resolution, and they're grainy as well. Plus, I've found that it's extremely easy to get your fingers in shots, thanks to just how small the FrontRow is. Granted, I was in wide-angle mode for most of the time, but normal shots yielded similar results. Pressing the media button to take pictures may solve this issue, but I like to see what I'm actually getting in the shot on-screen before hitting the shutter.
Story Mode is a good idea, but the final product isn't as cool as it sounds because of just how much the unit rocks around. In fact, watching the video below actually gave me a bit of a headache. Note that I'm walking normally and that there isn't any wind blowing outside; it really does just move around that much. Watch at your own risk, I guess.
Livestreaming is fine, as long as you have a good connection. I initially tested it out on some slow WiFi, and there were some dropped frames. But when I did it again through my phone, there were no issues to report - the picture was fairly smooth and audio was fine. The setup was streamlined, and it only needs to be done once (per social media service).
Two hours of video recording and 16 hours of Story Mode are quoted for battery life. I wasn't able to test that 16 hour Story Mode claim since I'm just not that interesting of a person to have a camera rolling for 16 hours, but I did shoot several clips adding up to about an hour and a half that used up the charge. After completely draining the battery, I clocked a full recharge from 0-100% while it was off, and it took almost exactly an hour.
There are a lot of good things about the FrontRow, but its idea is fundamentally flawed. The neck just isn't the right place for a camera to dangle from; not only does it capture others at some unflattering angles, but it also produces some superb shakycam footage. And the fact that the camera, the lifeblood of the device, is subpar doesn't help.
Let's not forget that this thing is a whopping $400. For that money, you could buy about seven Yi cameras that will get roughly the same thing done, or even a used Galaxy S7 with some change to spare. And if you're trying to vlog, you could get a point-and-shoot that's more maneuverable and churns out much better results. No, they're not of the same form factor, but my point is that the FrontRow's form factor just isn't a good idea. You can't have a camera flopping around - period.