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Skiing showdown: Helmet cams go head-to-head

CNET reporter Jay Greene, an avid skier, recently took two helmet cams up the mountain. See which one took his trophy for best job recording powdery pursuits: the GoPro HD Hero 2 Outdoor Edition or the Contour Roam.

You might think the 200 marked runs at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia would be enough for most skiers.

But just before Christmas, my two teenage boys, a friend and his two teenage sons, and I scoped out a largely untouched stash of snow in an area called Flute Bowl. No chairlifts scaled that part of the mountain, so we hit the slopes early, made our way over to Flute Bowl, kicked off our skis, and hiked 45 minutes to the top.

It was a cloudless day, and on the ridge, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Coast Mountain range. Then we got to ski the wide open bowl, and the remains of powder that had fallen a few days earlier, all to ourselves. It was one of those moments worth capturing.

So we did. The boys, my buddy, and I fastened two helmet cams--the GoPro HD Hero 2 Outdoor Edition and the Contour Roam--on our lids and tested them to figure out which one we liked best.

Here's footage from Flute Bowl shot with the GoPro:

Both cameras provide amazingly vivid video. In my unscientific review after five days of skiing with the cams, the GoPro produced crisper footage with sharper colors in bright light, while the Contour came up with much clearer video in low light.

Both have an ultrawide 170-degree field of view. And both have a full high-definition mode that captures 1080p (1,920x1,080-pixel resolution) video at 30 frames per second. The GoPro offers a few more flavors of HD than the Contour, shooting more frames per second in some settings. It can also capture footage in a wider variety of aspect ratios.

The GoPro also lets users switch quickly from shooting video to snapping pictures, in sizes up to 11 megapixels. And it has a setting that lets users shoot 10 photos in 1 second, as well as a time-lapse setting that snaps a series of pictures in intervals ranging from a half-second to 60 seconds.

However, it took a more than a few seconds to switch to camera mode to capture the vista from the top of Flute Bowl. One of my friend's boys had the GoPro on his helmet and struggled to fiddle with the settings until his brother came over to look at the camera and make sure it was set to picture mode.

The view down from Whistler's Peak 2 Peak Gondola, 1,400 feet off the valley floor, shot with the GoPro Hero 2. Jay Greene/CNET

Pictures on the Contour, though, are even more challenging, as users can only take pictures on it if they've previously set the camera to photo mode while it's connected to their PC. It's mostly an afterthought of a feature. Those limitations are a big reason the Contour lists for $200, $100 less than the GoPro.

But the funny thing is that I really didn't care about shooting still images while I was on the mountain. I had my mobile phone for that. I really just wanted a video camera to collect footage of my runs. And there was plenty of great footage to be shot.

The boys took on a double black diamond pitch that's a bit of a legend in my family. The run, called Couloir Extreme, starts with a cornice that all of them jumped over far more gracefully than I did. From there, we each landed a quick turn to avoid a pile of rocks and a cliff on the other side. Those are the kind of runs helmet cams are made for.

Here's footage from Flute Bowl shot with the Contour:

I should pause and offer a caveat to would-be ski videographers. You might get some great footage. And if you're a skilled skier or snowboarder, you might have some epic runs to remember. You can even huck yourself off a 20-foot cliff and land it flawlessly. But one helmet cam will never let you shoot footage like ski-film legend Warren Miller or the folks at Matchstick Productions.

That's because their films use multiple cameras, and never stick with a single point of view for more than a few seconds. The footage you collect with your sole helmet cam starts getting pretty boring after more than 20 or 30 seconds--no matter how impressive your skiing.

That said, just like shooting video of your child's first steps or collecting footage of a preschool graduation, brief video snips from helmet cams offer a terrific way to remember some special moments. Like hiking up and skiing down Flute Bowl.

And for that, I prefer the Contour Roam. What I like most about the camera is its simplicity. Turns out I really don't need to shoot time-lapse pictures or collect video in a 4:3 aspect ratio. I just want to remember some great ski runs.

Contour Roam Josh Miller/CNET

What's more, the Contour is a snap to operate. The barrel-shaped camera has a slider on top to turn on and off the camera. Just move it forward to start shooting, and slide it back to stop. In cold weather, that matters. A few days after our run down Flute Bowl, I skied in a snowstorm complete with whipping winds. The last thing I wanted to do was take off my glove to mess with a camera.

With the GoPro, I didn't need to take my gloves off. But when I skied on my own, I sometimes needed to take my helmet off to see if the camera was on. That's because the GoPro's on/off button rests on the top of its rectangular body.

There were times when I wasn't quite sure if I pushed the button enough to start filming. The camera emits a beep when filming starts. But on a windy day, it's not always easy to hear. I have plenty of footage that begins with one of my kids staring at the camera saying, "Yep, it's on."

The Contour is also waterproof to a depth of 1 meter. That means it doesn't need a protective case for skiing. Just mount it to your helmet and go.

The GoPro, though, requires a waterproof housing. The company has built a mounting system into that case. It adds bulk to the system, and, quite honestly, looks goofy. Skiers with GoPro's mounted to their helmet bear a vague resemblance to one of the Teletubbies. The kids never seemed to care about the look, though. I think that's because there are so many GoPros at ski resorts these days.

GoPro Hero 2 Josh Miller/CNET

The GoPro, however, does best the Contour in one area, for my tastes. It has a far wider range of mounts. The camera comes with a selection that includes two curved-surface mounts, two flat-surface ones, and straps that you can latch onto your helmet without adhesive. You can also spring for additional mounts that attach the camera to everything from a chest harness to your ski pole. That gives the GoPro the widest variety of points of view from which to shoot.

The Contour comes with only two mounts, though users can pick up a few others in the aftermarket. But the offerings are slight.

The wider mounting selection, variety of film and photo modes, and an aggressive marketing effort have helped make the GoPro the market leader. And in my unscientific survey, three out of four teenagers prefer the GoPro, citing the wider variety of features. Go figure.

For me, the Contour is the helmet cam of choice. It shoots terrific video, is simple to operate, doesn't protrude from your helmet, and costs $100 less than the GoPro Hero 2 Outdoor Edition (though GoPro does make less expensive and less functional models). And that $100 is just about the same price as another lift ticket and lunch at Whistler. That's another chance to make my way over to Flute Bowl.

Here's footage shot on a low-light day with the GoPro:

Here's footage shot at the same time with the Contour: