So, we've discussed the chassis and we've explained that it's easy to use, but what sort of video and photos can you expect to get out of this camera?
Like the Hero1, the HD Hero2 features a wide range of video and photo modes to chose from. Where moving images are concerned, the HD Hero2's highest recording resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels (1080p for short) Full HD video at 30 frames per second (fps) with a wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio. Users can also select a 1,280x720-pixel (720p) wide-screen mode with options to capture at 30 or 60 fps. There's also 1,280x960-pixel Tall HD mode that records at a 4:3 aspect ratio with options to capture at either 30 or 48 fps. Finally, there are the 800Ã—480-pixel (480p or WVGA) modes that capture relatively low-resolution video but at high 60 or 120 fps speeds, which can be slowed down using software to create slow-motion video.
Most video modes capture at the lens' full 170-degree wide-angle field of view (FOV), but users can choose to step down to medium 128-degree or narrow 90-degree FOVs. To my eye, 1080p video captured at these narrower FOVs appears to be grainier with visible pixelation, which leads me to believe that GoPro is using some sort of digital zoom technology to compensate for the lens' fixed focal length. This likely won't bother many, particularly at the medium FOV, but I couldn't unsee the image degradations once I'd noticed them and stuck with the full wide FOV for most videos captured after the official testing had concluded.
Still photos are captured at a maximum of 11MP with space-saving 8MP and 5 MP modes also available. Like the video mode, still photos take advantage of the full 170-degree FOV, but can be set to capture at a medium 128-degree FOV. (The narrow FOV is unavailable for still photos, presumably because the digital zoom artifacts would be too visible in a still shot, but that's just speculation.) Photos taken outdoors at the full resolution with full FOV are sharp and pleasing. The wide angle makes framing shots easy, but without the aid of the optional LCD BacPac, shot composition is a bit of a guess-and-check affair.
When shooting still photos, there are a few trigger modes to choose from. The first is a single shot. Press the button, capture a photo. It's the simplest of the available modes. Next is a self-time mode that captures a single shot after a 10-second delay. The next mode is one of my favorites: Time-lapse mode continuously captures a still photo at timed 60s, 30s, 10s, 5s, 2s, 1s, and 0.5s intervals. (Note: The fastest interval of 0.5s requires a high-speed Class 10 SD card to keep up.) Users can then stitch those photos together into a cool time-lapse video that compresses hours of actions into minutes of video.
Finally, the HD Hero2 gains a new trick made possible by its new faster digital image processor called Photo Burst Mode. In this mode, the camera can capture 10 full-resolution 11MP photos within the span of a single second. Personally, I found timing the Burst to be tricky, particularly because there's a few seconds of lag after a burst is captured while the HD Hero2 writes the contents of its buffer to the SD card. However, with practice this could be another cool tool in your GoPro toolbox.
About the only think that I didn't like about the previous-generation GoPro HD Hero was that maddeningly difficult interface. And while in my opinion GoPro still hasn't perfected its menu structure and usability, it's gotten pretty damn close within its self-imposed constraints (two-button interface, maintaining compatibility with older hardware). GoPro also states that its low-light image quality has been improved between the two generations, which you can see yourself by comparing the indoor photos below. There's no question in my mind that this is the best GoPro camera yet.
Ease of use is a tie. Both camera systems excel here in different ways. The Contour camera's supersimple slide-and-record interface and laser-pointer aiming makes it easier for first-time users to pick up and shoot with. However, the GoPro HD Hero2 excels where on-device flexibility is concerned. If you're, for example, trackside with the Hero2 and you want to switch capture modes, every still and video setting is available right there on the device itself. The ContourGPS features two user presets that can be selected with the flip of a switch, but if neither of those is what you need at the moment, then you'll need to fire up the Contour smartphone app or bust out your laptop to pick a new preset. Additionally, the Contour cameras give no visual indication of what mode they're in, where the GoPro always displays its capture mode on a display. Trust me, there's nothing worse than getting back from a full day of recording with an SD card full of photos when you wanted videos. To the point, users who enjoy constantly fiddling with settings on the fly will prefer the GoPro, but if you're the kind of person who sets up the camera once and never changes modes, perhaps the Contour cameras are a better fit.
One place where Contour has the GoPro system beaten is where applications are concerned. Contour's included desktop editing and uploading software makes it easy to cut the good part out of a long video. Conversely, GoPro's experience is a B.Y.O.-software affair. Contour's top-tier models also capture GPS position, speed, and elevation data that can then be displayed alongside an uploaded video. GoPro does not, but if you don't mind spending a few extra bucks, the GoPro system can be upgraded with longer battery life, an LCD display, or the ability to capture 3D video thanks to its BacPac system.
The GoPro has the Contour cameras flatly beat on ruggedness. The Contour+ and ContourGPS require an additional purchase of a waterproof housing to match the GoPro in the wet. The entry-level ContourRoam is waterproof out of the box, but not nearly to the same depth as the GoPro. And if the HD Hero2 and the ContourGPS fell off of the same car at speed, the GoPro camera would definitely fare better. When you're talking about action cameras, durability is a top-tier attribute.
Deciding which camera system is best is truly a tough decision, and depending on your particular needs, you may disagree with me. At $299, the GoPro HD Hero2 is a slightly better buy than the ContourGPS, which is the same price--provided that the collection of GPS metadata isn't one of your top priorities. The learning curve is slightly steeper (and only just barely thanks to the upgraded interface), but once you're over it, the GoPro HD Hero2 is a much more flexible and durable device.