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GoPro Hero3 review: GoPro bets big on its Hero3 Black Edition

GoPro's latest generation of sports cameras is its best yet, offering tremendous flexibility, proven durability, and some of the highest available resolutions and frame rates in the business.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
7 min read

Editors' note: The GoPro Hero3 product line, released in 2012, was replaced by the GoPro Hero3+ line as of October 2013. See our reviews of the $399 Hero3+ Black Edition and the $299 Hero3+ Silver Edition. The $199 Hero3+ White Edition is also available.

The Good

The <b>GoPro Hero3</b> is smaller, lighter, and features built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. The Black Edition offers a number of ultra-high-resolution capture modes and high frame rates for standard HD resolutions; burst speeds for still photos has been greatly improved.

The Bad

GoPro's control scheme has a longer learning curve than the simpler slide-n-go setup of the Contour cameras. Only 15fps on 4K video renders this selling point mostly moot for action videography.

The Bottom Line

The GoPro Hero3 Silver and White editions are strong contenders in the sports camera market, but the faster, more powerful Black Edition is head and shoulders the best sports camera on the market today.

Lighter, smaller, sharper
The GoPro Hero3 is 25 percent lighter than the previous-generation Hero 2's camera. It's also 30 percent smaller. However, all of that reduction manifests in reduced thickness with a new depth of only 20mm. The height and width (42mm by 60mm) are unchanged to maintain compatibility with GoPro's line of BacPac add-on modules and rear doors for the clear plastic shell.

On the front panel, you'll find the new f/2.8, six-element aspherical lens that is supposed to offer twice the image sharpness and reduce the amount of barrel distortion at the extremes of its 170-degree field of view. However, the characteristic fish-eye look of the video and photos captured by the Hero3 hasn't been totally removed, as it's sort of a hallmark of the action-camera style, adding a bit of drama to scenery as it speeds by.

The Hero3 uses the same improved LCD of the Hero 2, with its monochromatic dot-matrix display. I found the screen to be easy enough to navigate using the GoPro's combination mode/power button to change modes and the shutter release to make selections. However, there is a bit of a learning curve. Expect to spend a bit of time on your first outing just looping through the menus and getting used to where the options are. I also found the LCD to be a bit difficult to read in direct sunlight.

GoPro lineage
The Hero3 (right) is the smallest GoPro camera ever, edging out the previous Hero 2 (middle) and the old-school Digital Hero 5 (left). Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The front panel is also home to two indicator lights: one red to indicate that the Hero is recording and one blue that blinks to indicate that Wi-Fi is active. There are also smaller red indicator lights on the top, back, and bottom panels that are visible from most angles.

On the back panel, you'll find the removable cover for the 1,050mAh lithium ion battery. Swappable batteries are a good idea if you plan on being out shooting all day. Next to the battery door, you'll find the proprietary BacPac connection where the accessory BacPacs, such as the LCD and Battery BacPacs, connect.

On the right side of the unit (when viewed from the front), you'll find the Wi-Fi button that activates and deactivates the wireless connectivity with the GoPro app for smartphones or the Wi-Fi remote (which is included with the Hero3 Black Edition, but not the Silver or White editions). The details of how the Wi-Fi remote works have already been detailed as part of our review of the GoPro WiFi BacPac. However, this built-in Wi-Fi functionality renders the WiFi BacPac itself obsolete for this new generation -- although you'll still need it if you have a few older Hero 2s kicking around.

On the left side, behind a removable plastic panel, you'll find the Hero3's greatly simplified bank of connections. There's a Micro-HDMI output, shrunken down from the Mini-HDMI of the previous generation, and a microSD card slot, shrunken down from a full-size SD card slot for space savings. The Hero3 doesn't come with a microSD card, but supports cards with capacities up to 64GB. Finally, there's a Mini-USB port, which makes a return appearance, that is used for charging and syncing. However, with the aid of optional adapter cables, this Mini-USB port can also double as a 3.5 mm microphone input or an analog video output. I like to see GoPro doing more with less space here, but this connection scheme pretty much locks you into only using GoPro's first-party adapters, which may not be too big a deal for some users.

GoPro Hero3 card slot
The Hero3 consolidates the previous generation's inputs and outputs down to two ports and a card slot. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On either side of the Hero3, you'll find a small pinhole microphone for audio recording alongside your video. GoPro claims that its wind reduction algorithms have been improved for this generation. Like the previous generation, the camera comes with a swappable Skeleton back panel for its clear plastic case that can be used to further improve audio quality at speeds below 100 mph at the expense of waterproofing.

Rough and tumble shell
The Hero3's clear plastic shell is as much a part of the GoPro system as the camera itself and has received an update as well to match the smaller Hero3 chassis. Now thinner than before, the Hero3's shell also offers three waterproof buttons that pass your inputs through to the power/mode select button, the shutter release, and the new Wi-Fi button.

The back panel is still removable to allow replacement, for example, with the aforementioned Skeleton door or deeper doors that accommodate the BacPac add-ons. The door also features a new two-stage lock that that requires a tab to be pushed to the side before the locking mechanism can be lifted and rotated out of place. This adds a bit of extra security, keeping the camera sealed in its case, but I never really had any issues with the old, single-stage lock, so this new, sometimes incredibly difficult-to-open lock seems a bit unnecessary. Users who often submerge their GoPro cameras might not think so.

Finally, the Hero3's new shell features a new, flat lens that is supposed to work better with the new lens' reduced distortion and offer better underwater image quality.

Like every generation of Hero shell before it, the Hero3's clear shell is completely user-serviceable with the ability to replace any component from the lens to the door to the body itself independently. It also retains compatibility with GoPro's entire catalog of mounting options.

Improved video processor
Next, we come to the improved image processor: the component of the Hero3 that most differentiates the Black, White, and Silver editions.

The Black Edition has the newest, fastest processor of the bunch, packing twice the pixel-crunching horsepower of the Hero 2 that we loved so much. In addition to delivering video that is claimed to be twice as sharp as the Hero 2's with improved low-light performance, the Black Edition is able to capture 1080p full-HD video at up to 60fps, 960p Tall HD video (4:3 aspect ratio) at up to 100fps, 720p HD at up to 120fps, and WVGA 480p video at up to 240fps, making it good for slow-motion video.

Users wanting to capture more pixels also have the option of capturing video at 1440p (4:3 aspect ratio) at up to 48fps, 4K Cinema at 12fps, or 2.7K Cinema at up to 30fps. These ultra high resolutions are too pixel dense to be displayed on anything but the most cutting-edge monitors and the 15fps cap of 4K Cinema almost renders it useless for anything but slow, panning establishing shots, but I can see the 2.7K and 1440p resolutions being useful for users who want to have some extra pixels for image stabilization or cropping software to work with.

The Black Edition can also capture still photos at up to 12MP (with 7MP and 5MP modes available) in four different modes: single-shot, time-lapse, burst, and continuous. Time-lapse intervals can be set increments ranging from every half-second to a shot every 60 seconds. Burst modes range from 3fps for one second to 30fps for a 3-second burst, snapping off 90 shots with one button press. The Black Edition also has the unique ability to simultaneously capture still photos while it's recording video with intervals ranging from every 5 to 60 seconds.

The Hero3 Silver Edition uses essentially the same processor as the Hero 2's, so it lacks the Protune mode and its 4K, 2.7K, and 1440p video resolutions. Additionally, its 1080p video caps at 30fps, 960p at 48fps, 720p at 60fps, and WVGA at 120fps. Still photos max out at 11MP with a maximum burst rate of 10fps over 2 seconds. The Silver Edition also lacks the ability to simultaneously capture photos while recording video.

Finally, the White Edition uses an even lower-capped processor. It's HD video caps out at 30fps for 1080p and 960p and 60fps for 720p and WVGA. Still photos are captured at only 5MP with a maximum burst of 3fps over a single second.

Video samples: Black Edition

Note: Be sure to play back the sample in full-screen and in YouTube's HD mode to view the full-resolution video.

In sum
The $399.99 flagship GoPro Hero3 Black Edition goes head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the top of line Contour+2, which retails for the same price. Both cameras offer great HD video quality and both cameras ship with waterproof, ruggedized plastic shells to protect your investment. Both feature built-in wireless connectivity with smartphone apps: GoPro uses Wi-Fi; Contour uses Bluetooth. The Contour+2 wins a round with its ability to record and embed GPS elevation and speed data into its videos and the fact that it ships with video editing software, while the GoPro offers neither. I've also noted on many occasions that the Contour is easier for novices to use, with its slide and record control scheme.

GoPro Hero3 Black Edition
The GoPro Hero3 Black Edition (pictured) is the best sports camera yet, but the Silver and White editions are great value alternatives. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, the Hero3's smaller chassis, on-device display and controls, and superior resolutions and available frame rates make it the obvious winner in a spec battle. If you're a semi-professional or prosumer sports camera enthusiast, taking an extra day to figure out the Hero3's more complex control scheme is totally worth the greater amount of on-device flexibility of shooting modes.

However, at about four Benjamins, the Hero3 Black Edition may be too much camera for your average consumer who only occasionally hits the slopes or is only uploading to YouTube or Facebook. For those who don't need 4K video or want to hold off on buying the Wi-Fi remote, the $299.99 Silver Edition and $199.99 White Edition meet the right price points, but come into competition with the newly announced ContourRoam 2.


GoPro Hero3

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 9