Review: Belkin LiveAction Camera Grip for iPod + iPhone 4
Though it was once known mostly for its cables and computer peripherals, Belkin has spent the better part of the last decade creating useful accessories for Apple's devices, at one point partnering with Apple to create the first camera-related attachments for the iPod. So there's little doubt that Belkin had its finger on the pulse of what Cupertino had in mind back then -- and that it's spent a lot of time thinking about the accessories Apple users are looking for today. After a long absence from camera-ready add-ons, Belkin has returned with the LiveAction Camera Grip ($50), which adds separate photo and video buttons to an iPhone 4/4S or iPod touch. If the idea seems to have been pre-empted by iOS 5's addition of a volume button-triggered shutter release, it's not, exactly, but there's no doubt that this accessory consequently isn't as vital as it might have been a year ago.
Made almost entirely from various types of black plastic—a soft touch rubber-covered frame with semi-glossy sides that expand to accommodate some iPhone and iPod touch cases, plus an interior rubber pad—the LiveAction Camera Grip does have two metal parts: a Dock Connector plug, and a screw thread for attaching a self-supplied tripod. The idea is that you attach the accessory to your iPhone or iPod touch’s bottom, adding a larger glossy black shutter button and a smaller red recording button to its lower right corner. You then spin the iPhone or iPod into a position where these buttons face upwards, and hold it with a finger grip that bulges into your hand.
As tempting as it would be to dismiss LiveAction Camera Grip’s approach as inferior to what Apple accomplished by letting the volume up button snap the camera’s shutter, Belkin’s hardware design is actually better. The button placement winds up situating the iPhone or iPod rear camera in a natural upright position, rather than the lower and more easily obstructed position it takes when you’re using the volume button as a shutter, and after a little while, the grip starts to feel pretty natural in your hand.
Thanks to the tripod grip, which enables you to stabilize either iPhones or iPod touches for video or photo recording, there’s another reason to like and carry around the accessory—most of the tripod screw mounts released before have been built into clumsy, underprotective cases. With LiveAction Camera Grip, you can use whatever case you like, pop this accessory on as needed at the same time as you pull out your tripod, and then pull it off right away. We were able to use the Camera Grip along with Speck’s highly protective CandyShell Flip even without pulling the bottom flap open; the extended Dock Connector plug makes case compatibility broader than many accessories we’ve tested.
Given how positive the hardware details are above, there’s only one explanation for LiveAction Camera Grip’s lower rating, and that’s the software. Belkin’s accessory doesn’t work with iOS 5’s built-in Camera application—or most third party camera apps. The buttons won’t even trigger the shutter, which means that the only features you’ll benefit from there are the grip and the tripod. If you want to use everything, you’ll need to load Belkin’s own Belkin LiveAction app, a free download from the App Store. And not surprisingly, this app lacks a lot of features you’ll find in Apple’s Camera, let alone the dozens of other features found in other apps.
Rather than presenting you with a still/video camera switch, LiveAction starts from a somewhat weird presumption: it assumes that you’ll generally want to be shooting videos. As a result, the on-screen viewfinder begins by displaying the iPhone’s cropped video view, bizarrely auto-shifting to the uncropped and wider still photo view—then re-focusing—before it snaps a still image. It then presumes you’re going to be snapping stills, going through the same process in reverse if you hit the video recording button. Because of this, Belkin’s app has lag and initial focusing issues that you won’t see in Apple’s Camera app, or most third-party alternatives. It’s also more limited in other features: you can tap on the screen at any time to set the white balance and focus points together, but you can’t access HDR, a grid, or even your regular photo library; this app maintains its own gallery, and can save images to your gallery on a one-at-a-time basis.
Thankfully, there’s one good thing to offset the LiveAction app’s problems, and that’s a feature enabled by the dual-button accessory: simultaneous video and photo recording. When the app’s in the middle of creating a video, you can tap the photo shutter button to snap an image, and the only video evidence of the interruption will be whatever sound you make when the button’s being depressed. Still photos shot during videos are capped at 1920x1080 from the rear camera, or 580x436 from the front camera. It’s sort of like taking a single-image capture from the live camera feed, but not quite; in any case, it’s easier and quieter than snapping a conventional screen shot during video recording.
Overall, Belkin’s LiveAction Camera Grip is worthy of a limited recommendation. While the accessory is well-designed in its own right, and arguably better than all of the competing case-style options we’ve previously covered, the current state of the LiveAction application isn’t very good. An update to the Belkin app to remove the video recording presumption would speed it up quite a bit and reduce initial focus issues, but what’s really needed is broader support for the accessory within other, more capable apps. Until and unless that happens, the LiveAction Camera Grip will live in a small niche as a thoughtful and somewhat useful but also slightly overpriced and substantially limited add-on; it has a lot more potential than is currently apparent.