The portable sports-camera market is a hotly contested battleground with dozens of contenders entering and leaving the fray every year. However, there are but two major competitors at the top of the heap: GoPro and Contour.
Contour's latest HD camcorder, the Contour+, is a professional-level bullet camera that packs in every trick in Contour's book, including GPS location technology, smartphone connectivity via Bluetooth, and an established rail-mounting system. It also brings a few new tricks in the form of an HDMI output, a microphone input, and a higher-quality, superwide-angle lens. But is all of this worth the premium price that Contour places on the Contour+?
At first glance, the Contour+ under its new brushed-aluminum chassis appears to be identical in its hardware to previous-generation Contour sports cameras like the ContourHD. However, closer inspection reveals that there are more changes to be found.
At the business end, for example, the ContourHD's dual aiming lasers have been omitted to make room for the larger lens and premium optics of the Contour+. Additionally, where the ContourHD models featured a recessed lens, the Contour+ has glass that is mounted flush with the bezel. Perhaps this is to better accommodate the new F 2.8, 170-degree superwide-angle lens (up from the old 170-degree FOV) without vignetting. However, we felt that the flush glass was now more vulnerable to scratches than the old recessed glass. Fortunately the Contour+ ships with a rubber lens cap. Also, where the rotating lens assembly on previous ContourHD models only allowed 180 degrees of twisting articulation, the Contour+ spins 270 degrees. This means you can mount the camera in almost any orientation, even upside down, and be able to twist the lens to level.
The Contour+ also gains some new connectivity technology, some of which debuted on the ContourGPS. On the unit's top edge, the record switch now features a large hump that houses a GPS receiver for recording the unit's latitude, longitude, elevation, and speed, as well as a Bluetooth receiver that can be used to connect to a smartphone.
Along the lower edge of the unit, there's a new 2.5mm input for an external microphone. This is useful for recording commentary, interviews, or just more specific sound than the Contour's omnidirectional microphone normally captures. The microphone input is hidden beneath a rubber cap when not in use to preserve the unit's water resistance. A short 2-inch microphone extension cable ships with the device.
On the back, there are a few new inputs as well. Joining the standard Mini-USB connection is a new Micro-HDMI connection that allows the Contour+ to output video to a display or external capture device via an included HDMI connection cable. The unit cannot, as far as we can tell, play back recorded video through this connection. Further differentiating the Contour+ from its predecessors is a new mechanical rear door hinge that replaces the old soft rubber flaps that were prone to tearing off. The rear door also gains a pair of removable rubber caps for the HDMI and USB connections, so you won't have to completely open the back of the camera to access them. The rear power button and indicator lights for battery and storage status are unchanged.
Behind the new door is the same microSD card slot (a 2GB card is included) and removable lithium ion rechargeable battery. There's also a mode switch for choosing between two user-configurable modes. Contour's Connect View iOS interface card is included with the Contour+ and preinstalled. (For the ContourGPS model, this card was a separate purchase.)
The Contour+ features the same rail-mounting system as the rest of the lineup, so it is compatible with all of Contour's mounting accessories for helmets, handlebars, suction cups, rollbars, and surfboards. There's even a Picatinny mount for attaching the camera to an assault rifle (or paintball gun). In the box, the Contour+ ships with two adhesive rotating mounts and one adhesive low-profile mount.
Storyteller software and smartphone Connect View
The Contour+ has four video recording modes, a still photo capture mode, and an array of options for each.
Full HD mode captures 1080p (1,920x1,080-pixel resolution) video at 30 frames per second. Tall HD captures at an odd 960p (1,280x960-pixel resolution), also at 30fps. Original HD steps down to 720p (1,280x720 pixels) at 30fps. Finally, Action HD also captures 720p but at 60fps. All of these modes are for the NTSC standard, but the Contour+ can also be set to record PAL video in 25fps and 50fps increments.
Each recording mode also has three quality settings (high, low, and medium), automatic or user-set white balance; three metering modes (center, average, and spot), and adjustable contrast, exposure, and sharpness settings. Microphone sensitivity can be adjusted and GPS power and capture intervals can be set. GPS data is embedded in the MOV file that the Contour+ produces, so you won't need to keep track of a separate metadata file if you want to archive your videos.
Still photos are captured at 5MP (2,592x1,944 pixels) at intervals of 3, 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds.
Recording modes and settings are all adjusted using Contour's Storyteller software, which is a free download from Contour's Web site. Aside from tweaking settings and updating camera firmware, the Storyteller software can be used to download and edit captured video from the connected Contour+ unit. You can trim the beginning and end from a video, keeping just the good parts, by tapping the new Awesome button at the best part of your video to initiate the trimming mode. On the video's timeline, selection handles will appear around the point where the button was pressed. Simply drag the handles to the points where you'd like the clip to begin and end and Storyteller will automatically crop the video for you. When GPS capture is enabled, Storyteller can also parse and display that data on a Google Map with an elevation graph.
Once the video is edited, you can post it (or just the awesome part) to Contour's video-sharing community for online playback via Contour's player with GPS map and speed data intact. You can also export your edited movie as an MOV file for posting to other video-sharing sites like YouTube or Vimeo. GPS data can also be exported separately as a GPX, CSV, or TXT file for use with external GPS software.
Earlier we mentioned that the Contour+ lacks the aiming lasers that made the previous Contour models so easy to use without a viewfinder. However, the Contour+ has a new trick that's even more useful and accurate for framing shots. After pairing the Contour+ with an iPhone via Bluetooth, you can install and launch a Contour application that turns the iPhone's screen into a viewfinder. This connection is not full-resolution and the frame rate is more akin to a slideshow than a video feed, but it's good enough to use for a few seconds at a time to make sure that the Contour+ is pointed and oriented the way you want it before recording.
From the Contour app, you can also adjust the settings of the two user modes and select one or the other on the fly. At the time of this review, Connect View is only compatible with iOS devices (iPhone 4, iPod Touch), but the company says an Android app is being developed.
So, the Contour+ offers upgraded hardware, but at an MSRP of $499.99, is it worth the $120 premium that it carries over the ContourGPS ($349.99) with a Connect View card ($29.99)? Looking at specs alone, probably not. The only real advantages that the Contour+ offers are a wider-angle lens, 90 degrees more articulation on its rotating lens, and a microphone input and an HDMI output that we're guessing the average consumer will never use. Professionals interested in adding an inexpensive camera to their current setup, on the other hand, will likely find the HDMI output indispensable for connecting the Contour+ to, for example, some sort of wireless video capture box that sends the video to live editing hardware for broadcasts. Don't be surprised if you started seeing little silver Contour+ units attached to the helmets of contestants in next year's X Games or to the bumpers of a few cars at a broadcast racing event.
Looking past the specs to the video quality, we noticed an improvement in the exposure and noise levels of captured video compared with the ContourHD 1080p that we normally use to capture video for the Car Tech Live podcast. Audio quality is the same slightly muffled capture that we're used to from a Contour device's internal pinhole microphone, but that can be improved using an external microphone. At the very least, an adjustable microphone level will allow slightly better recording quality. However, the improvements in video quality aren't so stark that most users would be able to tell the difference between video from the Contour+ and the GPS or 1080p models with the latest firmware. The main advantage of the Contour+ is that its iPhone app enables you to adjust settings on the fly.
However, while the Contour+ may not have a decisive advantage over its predecessors for many users, it definitely has one over its competitors, our current Editors' Choice GoPro HD Hero and the recently reviewed POV.HD. The Contour+ is more compact than the bulky POV.HD, making it easier to use and to set up. With the addition of still-photo capture modes to Contour's firmware, the Contour+ matches the GoPro HD Hero's levels of functionality, and embedded GPS data takes it a step beyond. Contour's smartphone and desktop software makes the Contour+ easier to use than the GoPro with its archaic interface. The GoPro is about $200 less expensive than the Contour+ and it comes with more mounting options in its box--including a waterproof, shockproof case that can take a serious beating. However, when the time came for us to go record in-car footage, the Contour+ was the camera that we most often reached for during our month of testing. The video captured was simply better and it took much less effort to get the shot we needed. It would appear that we have a new favorite action camera and a new Editors' Choice.