Thermal optics are amazing. Using a part of the light spectrum that we can’t see, they can turn a pitch black night into virtual daytime, showing us a completely new level of detail. The downside: they cost an astronomical amount of money if you want to use them on your gun. The cheapest option available right now clocks in at $3,500, not a small sum for those who might just want to use that tech once or twice a year for hunting. Thankfully there have been a number of companies bringing consumer-grade thermal optics devices to the market. One of the more interesting is the $250 Seek Thermal camera, designed for smart phones . . .
The idea behind the Seek Thermal camera is pretty slick. Since most people already have a tiny computer with a great display in their pockets (a smart phone), all you really need is to find a way to get the thermal sensor attached to the phone and the rest can be accomplished using an app on the phone itself. The more expensive bits of the thermal camera are already a sunk cost (namely the phone), so the sensor is the only bit you really need to buy. That means the camera can be smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce.
Why, you ask, is a consumer grade thermal imaging sensor being reviewed on a firearms website? Hunting, my friend. As anyone who has spent some time in the woods with a rifle will tell you, those delicious furry critters have developed some pretty effective camouflage over the centuries. Finding a motionless whitetail standing in a field of tall autumn grass is like finding an original Luger with a $200 price tag — it happens, but not often and not very easily.
The one thing that these creatures haven’t been able to hide is their heat signature, and that’s something that a thermal imaging sensor can detect no matter if the sun is shining or not. Its a definite advantage to the hunter. If it works.
The Seek Thermal camera is designed to attach to the USB (or Apple’s equivalent) port in your smartphone. In theory, it should point forward and allow you to use your phone as a window on the thermal world. It does indeed function as designed, but there’s a problem.
USB ports aren’t symmetrical — devices only fit if you plug them in a certain way. For some phones this works fine, but for others (like the Nexus line) the plug is aligned ‘backwards’ and the camera becomes a $250 thermal selfie machine. To combat this, you can buy a small extension cord for about $1 that lets you swivel the camera independently of the phone.
The camera works with a free app you install on your phone that offers some cool functionality. You can set the color palette to use different gradients for visualizing the data (from a thermal-y rainbow to the more traditional white hot or black hot visuals). It even sports an option to have it measure the heat of a specific spot on the image or simply let you know the temperature of the hottest and coldest points. That’s handy for monitoring cooking temperatures, I suppose. You can also snap pictures directly from the app and even record video.
Using the camera with an Android phone is remarkably easy. As soon as you plug in the camera, the phone launches the relevant app. Navigating the app and getting it to do what you want is similarly simple, and everything is laid out in a logical manner. It seemed very well polished to me.
Let’s talk for a moment about the difference between “detection” and “identification.” When a thermal optic says it can “detect” something at up to 1,000 feet, what they are really saying is that “one single pixel will change color.” You will detect…something. But what exactly that something is will be impossible to determine. Seek Thermal says that their “identification” range for this camera is 150 feet. In other words, you can positively identify what that single pixel represents when you are 150 feet — or 50 yards — away from the object.
Even close up, the resolution on the camera isn’t the greatest. You can kinda see what’s going on, but identifying hard edges of shapes is difficult. The live video stream is grainy, and there are frequent pauses while the sensor re-calibrates. In short, it isn’t ideal — but it works.
Out in the field, the camera isn’t really suited for finding delicious furry critters. The temperature spread between the ground and the animal isn’t sufficient to make it stand out during the day, and the low identification distance means that your footsteps will scare off your prey before you get close enough at night. That is, if the giant glowing display in front of you hasn’t done the job already.
In the end, the Seek Thermal camera is a mixed bag. The price and ease of use mean that almost anyone can now pick one up and try it out without too big an investment, but the trade-off for that low price is low resolution and an inability to recognize objects at much of a distance. For tech nerds, the camera is amazing — the ability to watch your gun as it heats up and see which parts get hottest is really cool. But for hunting, the camera leaves a lot to be desired. You get what you pay for, and for some situations that might not be enough.
Specifications: Seek Thermal Camera for Smartphones
Ratings (Out of five stars):
Finish: * * * * *
Great packaging, excellent app, and a slick design.
Function: * *
Low resolution and only one direction available for the USB orientation leaves something to be desired.
Overall: * * *
For general farting around with thermal images, this is the tops. But if you want to actually use the camera to go hunting, you’re probably going to want to spend the money on a FLIR. Worth the money, but when an “okay” optic clocks in at $3,000 that might not be saying much.