Snoppa M1, First Take: Crowdfunded smartphone stabiliser off to a shaky start

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The Snoppa M1 is a three-axis stabiliser for smartphones which uses similar technology to that employed in drones to deliver professional-looking steadycam video recordings.

Well that's the idea. If you buy one expecting magically smooth, 'magic carpet' recordings as you walk down the street, akin to what you get from a gimbal-stabilised drone, you're going to be disappointed. It doesn't dampen your walking, so you'll still have the image bobbing up and down.

But disappointment seems to dog the Snoppa M1. As an Indiegogo project it ran late: the campaign ran in October 2016, with a scheduled delivery date of December 2016. Mine arrived last week -- although in reality that's pretty good going for a crowdfunded hardware project, most of which never ship. Newcomers to hardware don't understand the implications of production engineering, so even going from a fully working prototype to bulk shipments takes many months, and Snoppa had issues with the first factory it contracted. The delays led to a lot of angry comments on the project page.

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To stabilise your smartphone, the Snoppa M1 has three motors. It talks to the companion (iOS or Android) app via Bluetooth, charges in 90 minutes and runs for about 4 hours.

Image: Snoppa Technology

First impressions

Now that the devices are shipping, backers have something new to complain about: the software. It's flaky with some Android devices, and Bluetooth pairing sometimes fails.

What isn't disappointing is how it feels. The packaging looks smart, with a tear-off strip to open the box. You'll need to find the manual, hidden in a small white box that looks like packaging, which tells you things that the enclosed quick-start guide doesn't. Like where the power switch is: once it's on and glowing or flashing it's easy enough to find, but you have to get it into that state. After reading the manual, go and watch some YouTube videos that will prepare you for getting started.

The device feels like a high-quality torch. The plastics, fit and finish are all good, there's a nice heft to it, and the parts that flip and slide all do so smoothly.

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The Android Snoppa app can be flaky on some devices, but iPhone users report a better experience with the iOS version.

Image: Snoppa Technology

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The first job is to get the phone balanced. Initially I tried a Kodak Ektra Android phone, for its 21-megapixel camera, 4k video and optical image stabilisation. Unfortunately this wouldn't work because it's more camera-shaped than most phones and has a poking-out lens. The Snoppa needs the phone positioned in the middle of the bracket and the Ektra's lens got in the way. There is a solution in that you can put the phone in the bracket the other way around -- something Snoppa also recommends for phones that are too thick for the bracket but have curved edges. The Ektra repeatedly asked me to download a Snoppa firmware upgrade even though it already had the latest version, and the wrong-way round solution didn't work.

A second problem with the Ektra, which other phones suffer from, is that the bracket squeezed the power button and switched the phone off. In the end I gave up on Kodak's device -- a shame because it's a great camera-phone -- and used a Huawei P8.

This had considerable problems with Bluetooth pairing, although Snoppa says a fix is days away. The balancing uses a selection of counterweights so that the motors in the M1 only have to stabilise, not hold the weight of the phone.

Once it's working you have three tracking modes: Lock, which keeps the camera pointing in the same direction; Pan track, which allows you to pan left and right; and Omni Track, which gives pan and tilt.

The phone can be in either landscape or portrait mode, although when filming all alert messages are shown assuming the phone is in portrait mode. Messages don't stay on-screen for long, so I usually missed them by failing to pivot my head 90 degrees in time.

It was about this time, when I'd got the device working, with the phone balanced and the Bluetooth connected, that it ran flat. There is no indication of the Snoppa charge in the app. The device takes about 90 minutes to charge and lasts a claimed four hours.

Inside the app you can choose the resolution, although when I was trying with the Kodak Ektra it wouldn't do the full 4k. There is a fix for this in that you can use the Snoppa M1 without Bluetooth active, whereupon it just runs in whatever track mode you last chose. This means you can use the native filming app and not rely on the Snoppa software. When using the Snoppa App you get a decent selection of controls including timelapse (albeit with limited settings), ISO and white balance control. Recordings do not automatically go into the standard Android gallery though.

Preliminary verdict

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Image: Snoppa Technology

I had planned to use the Snoppa M1 to make videos for my company Fuss Free Phones, filming little old ladies walking down the street while talking on their mobiles. Unfortunately the lack of the vertical damping put paid to that: exceptionally rapid movements will cause the Snoppa M1 to give up and the phone just hangs. It certainly doesn't have the incredible speed and snap seen on the gimbals attached to a drone.

But you have to bear in mind that this is a sub-£100 device and the results are significantly better than you get holding a phone normally. Looking online, iPhone users seem to be a lot happier with the software than Android users, and Snoppa has said that it found the sheer variety of Android devices made development a lot harder.

If you set up your shots to avoid walking you could get the 'magic carpet' effect -- perhaps I should borrow a Segway to film my little old ladies.

The European distributor for the Snoppa M1 is Baader Planetarium, which seems to be doing an excellent job of quelling the backlash over the late delivery. Responses to emails are well-written and prompt, and the company has a good reputation in astronomy circles. There's no European pricing yet -- indeed, the Snoppa M1 is not yet on the website as Baader is still clearing the Indiegogo backlog and doesn't want to be accused of selling ahead of backers receiving their devices.

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Topics: Hardware, Reviews, Smartphones

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