Yes, it's action cam season. Sony's entered the market, Contour has updated its line with the Contour+2. But what about the latest from the brand that's come to define the category—the Kleenex of action cams, if you will?
We've been putting GoPro's highly anticipated Hero 3 Black edition through some rigorous testing. And it seems pretty safe to say it's still at the top of a very rugged mountain.
Disclaimer: The software on the Hero 3 was not yet final. Some features were missing, and the smartphone apps were not yet available for testing. Its rating is subject to change.
GoPro's most feature-packed action camera to date.
Boarders of all types, skiers, bikers, drivers, divers, base jumpers; you get the picture. Basically anyone who spends time outside, and wants to share it with the world.
From the front, the Hero 3 looks a hell of a lot like the old Hero 2, with a larger, slightly higher-up lens. Peep it from the side, though, and you'll see it's way thinner and lighter, with a case that's waterproof to 197 feet and has a more-secure locking mechanism, a Wi-Fi remote control, and several mounting options. The Hero now uses Micro SD cards (up to 64GB) instead of full-sized. There's a built-in 3.5mm mic jack.
If you've used a GoPro before, it's very familiar. There are two main buttons: one on top for start/stop/record, and one on the front for navigating menus, which display on a tiny (not backlit) LCD screen. Shooting modes include Movie, Still, Timelapse, and Burst. There are a million options in the menus. There's also a third button for turning Wi-Fi on and off.
Image quality. The Hero 3 is capable of truly beautiful shots. In daylight—which is when action cameras are most often used—it's hands down better than the rest of the field. Images are super sharp (especially in Protune mode, which we'll talk about in a second).
It's unfinished. As we said, software was not yet final, but there are some very strange anomalies. Sometimes it handles contrast impeccably, sometimes it crushes shadows. Auto white balance performance is very inconsistent. Loop mode is not yet enabled, and the iOS and Android apps (which pack a lot of functionality) won't launch until December. We got some weird errors in testing the timelapse feature, where suddenly we would get 20 frame that were just green, then it'd come back to life. Worst of all, occasionally it completely froze for no reason and we had to do a battery pull. Again, the believe these are beta issues, but we wouldn't buy it until they're fixed.
It shoots 4K video at 15 frames per second. Basically nobody (except suuuuuuper rich people) has a 4K TV or monitor yet, so there's nothing you can watch it on in all its glory. Sure you could crop way in and make it 1080p, but they you lose the wide angle. And the footage is gorgeous—until something moves in the frame, then it's unbearably choppy. It's not a flaw, it's just a pointless feature.
- The Hero has by far the most mounting options of any action cam. It's hard to imagine an activity you couldn't use it for.
- There are so. Many. Options. That's good for extremely detailed level of control over how your shot looks. But it also makes navigating deep into the menus (which still are not totally intuitive) a pain in the ass.
- Footage from the Hero 3 is sharper than any action camera we've tested, ousting the previous champ (the Contour+2) and easily besting the Hero 2 and the Sony.
- You can tilt the Hero 3 up and down when surfing, whereas the Contour+2 and Sony Action Cam were locked in place and shooting too low on my surfboard. The only problem is that you can't truly lock its position; when I duckdived through a big wave it would get pushed down and I'd have to readjust.
- It has Protune! What the hell is that? The Hero 3 makes a lot of adjustments on the fly for contrast, sharpness, and colour when you're shooting in Basic mode. At first glance they're prettier, but you sacrifice image quality—a lot of detail gets lost in shadows. Shooting in Protune not only opens up other framerates and resolutions, but it boosts the bitrate and doesn't do any compensation. The resulting footage has a flatter, but far more detailed look. It basically gives you raw video which you can really tweak in editing. Pros and semi-pros will love this feature (as we do).
- Battery life is about on par with the Hero 2, which isn't fantastic. It was mostly depleted after an hour of shooting, which raises another point. The battery meter uses three bars to tell you how much juice you have left. Not nearly enough info. A percentage reader would be much better.
- The Hero 3 isn't compatible with the old waterproof cases because of the slightly different layout, so you have to use the case it comes with. Thankfully, the new case is compatible with all previous mounts (for bikes, boards, helmets, etc).
- There are mini USB and Micro HDMI ports. If you shoot at 120fps and play back via HDMI to a TV, it will look like regular speed. You have to slow it down with software on a computer. Also, the cover for these ports does not attach, and you will most definitely lose it. But you don't really need it, so whatever.
- The included, wearable, waterproof (to 10 feet) Wi-Fi remote can change modes and start/stop recording from as far as 600 feet away. By comparison, the smartphone apps for the Contour and Sony which connect via Bluetooth max out at about 15-20 feet. GoPro claims the remote can control up to 50 cameras at once, though we weren't able to test that.
- Low-light footage is a bit of a disappointment. As you can see in the bike tests (one done at dusk and one at night), the Hero 3 gains up to brighten the image, but it adds a lot of noise. In the night shot, the Sony is the clear winner.
- Overcranking for slow-motion works really well. Shooting 1080p at 60fps then slowing it down to 24fps (it's 30fps in the video) looks great and you don't lose any detail. Shooting at 720p at 120fps then slowing it to 24fps (again, the video shows 30fps) produces buttery 5x slow motion and it still looks great even on a 1080p TV. There are so many resolution/frame-rate combinations, you could get lost in them.
- Of the three cameras, it is by far the most comfortable to wear, thanks to its lightness and smaller footprint.
- You can flip the video if you're mounting the camera upside down, but that's it. A rotating lens, like the Contours have, would be a welcome improvement.
- You can get various BacPacs for the camera, including the Battery BakPak which should double your battery life, and the LCD Touch BacPac which lets you frame your shots, review your footage, and makes navigating the menus slightly less painful.
It's already the best action camera we've used, but there are too many software glitches right now to give it our highest rating. If those get fixed, this will be a must-buy. But even if they don't, you should still seriously consider it.
The only thing other reason to hesitate is the price; £360 ain't cheap, and you could get the Hero 3 Silver or White editions for £280 or £200, respectively. That said, we think the image quality is worth the £360. It's a great gadget. [GoPro]
GoPro Hero 3 Black Specs
Field of View: 170° or 120°
Storage: up to 64 GB microSD
Frame Rates: 4K (16:9 and 17:9) @ 12, 12.5, 15fps; 2.7K (16:9 and 17:9) @ 30, 25, 24fps; 1440p (4:3) @ 48, 30, 25, 24fps; 1080p (16:9) @ 60, 50, 48, 25, 24fps; 960p (16:9) @ 100, 48fps; 720p (16:9) @ 120, 100, 60, 50fps; WVGA (16:9) @ 240fps
Dimensions: 2.30 x 1.55 x 0.08 inches