GoPro had a hit on its hands with the first-generation GoPro Hero. The small camera combined decent video quality and rugged reliability in a small package that was easy to use in action-based scenarios. However, the Hero wasn't without its flaws. Finicky battery choices that often cut recording sessions short with poor power usage combined with mere standard-definition video quality created a package that was at times less than optimal, particularly when faced with competition from the ContourHD.
So GoPro did what any good tech company would do: innovate. Enter the GoPro HD Hero.
The HD Hero seeks to not only increase video resolution, but also video quality. Other improvements come in the form of a rechargeable battery pack and the addition of the HeroBUS add-on port, which allows users to upgrade the functionalities and performance with BacPak modules.
Let's take a look at the Motorsports variant of the HD Hero to see how it stacks up against its older sibling and the competition.
The new center of the GoPro universe is the HD Hero camera, which is quite similar to the previous generation Hero 5 camera. The unit uses a similar 170-degree ultra-wide-angle lens, features the same two-button interface (mode select and shutter), and displays data on the same 1-inch monochromatic LCD display.
This tiny camera measures 1.6 inches by 2.4 inches by 1.2 inches, which is a slight increase in every direction over the previous-generation Hero.
Part of the reason for the increase in size is apparent when you take a look at the back of the camera, where you'll find a large 1100mAh lithium ion rechargeable battery behind a removable door. Battery life has been boosted to approximately 2.5 hours thanks to this larger, more reliable cell. The battery charges through a Mini-USB cable (which is included) in about 2 hours when connected to a computer or other powered USB port. Purchasing an optional power adapter slashes the charge time to 1 hour.
Connecting to a computer is also how you download photos and videos stored on the HD Hero's SD card media (not included). The unit supports SDHC card at capacities up to 32GB, which is important for recording videos at the highest resolution. Record times on a card that size will vary depending on video format, but range from a little over 4 hours to about 8 hours, which you'll notice is longer than the battery life. For continuous shooting, the GoPro can be used while connected to a power source.
Users wanting to connect directly to a television are given the choice of using standard-definition connections for composite video and stereo audio or component video for high definition. The unit ships with both sets of cables with RCA connections for your television on one end and 3.5mm mini jack connectors that connect to the HD Hero on the other.
One notable change is the omission of the previous model's tiny optical viewfinder. This useless plastic window won't be missed. In its place, the HD Hero gains the HERO Bus, an expansion port that allows the addition of optional Bakpac units that expand the functionality of the camera. No Bakpacs are available at the time of this review, but GoPro has an LCD Bakpac for preview and playback and a Battery Bakpac for double battery life slated for early 2010 release, with the promise of more to come. Each Bakpac will ship with a replacement door to allow it to fit within the confines of the waterproof housing.
The HD Hero features a wide variety of shooting modes for both video and still photography.
Starting with video, there are five modes from which to choose. Full HD 1080p (1,920x1,080 pixels) video captured at 30fps is the maximum resolution the HD Hero offers, however, in this mode the video is cropped to only a 127-degree viewing angle.
Users wanting to utilize the full 170-degree wide angle can choose either 720p capture (1,280x720 pixels) in either 30fps or 60fps, a 960p (1,280x960) "tall HD" mode (which is the HD Hero's only 4:3 aspect ratio), or the lowest resolution WVGA mode (848x480 pixels) at 60fps.
Regardless of resolution, all videos are saved with H.264 and compressed as MPEG4 files. Although the HD Hero supports stereo audio output, it only captures monaural audio from its single microphone, which is run through AAC compression and rolled into the MPEG4 video.
For still photography, there is only one resolution and that is 5 megapixels with 24-bit color depth. However, there are multiple shooting modes: single-shot mode captures one photo per shutter press; Per Second mode captures photos at user defined intervals from 2 to 60 seconds; burst mode captures three photos in rapid succession; and a self timer mode delays the capture of a single shot.
Mounting and accessories
While the HD Hero itself is a fairly neat--if not slightly crude--bit of kit, the true appeal of the GoPro line of cameras is the wide range of relatively cheap mounting accessories.
We'll start with the waterproof housing that ships with every GoPro camera. This polycarbonate shell is custom fitted to the HD Hero and seals with a strong plastic clamp. Once shut, the HD Hero is waterproof to 180 feet and shockproof.
Being shockproof is a great feature to have when mounting the HD Hero to the exterior of a vehicle using the PanaVise suction cup mount that is included in the HD Hero Motorsports kit. This is the same great suction cup mount that is included in the GoPro Hero 5 Motorsports kit and the ContourHD vehicle mount kit and has allowed us to capture miles of worry-free footage. Just make sure the attachment surface is clean, as dirt can weaken the suction.
The HD Hero Motorsports kit also ships with an assortment of flat and curved adhesive mounts for semi-permanent attachment to helmets and other surfaces, a pair of quick release buckles for connecting to the adhesive mounts, and a three-way pivoting arm for aiming and positioning, which gives users a fairly wide variety of mounting options out of the box.
The HD Hero can also be purchased as part of the HD Helmet Hero package (which includes a pair of helmet straps, in place of the suction cup mount), the HD Surf Hero package (which subs an FCS Plug-compatible mount for surfboards), or simply as the HD Hero Naked without any special mounting accessories. Additionally, any of the specialized mounts or straps, articulating arms, and replacement waterproof housings and lenses can be purchased separately for easy repairs or expansion.
We expected the HD Hero to produce higher quality video than the older Hero 5 thanks to its higher resolution and increased lo- light sensitivity, and we weren't disappointed.
Recording in-vehicle videos is usually a tricky affair with inexpensive mountable camcorders because of the large differences in ambient light outside of the vehicle and available light in the cabin. The HD Hero side steps this issue by offering a spot metering setting that exposes photography for the center of the frame, allowing you to keep your subject more evenly exposed. However, this isn't a magic bullet solution and care must be taken to properly aim the HD Hero to ensure that you're metering for the right subject when in spot metering mode.
While the HD Hero does sport increased low-light sensitivity, make no mistake that this is a camera that is best utilized in daylight. When capturing video at dusk, there are noticeable amounts of visual noise in the video. When used indoors, video and still photos were clear and detailed but the color took on a yellowish tint. Perhaps this is something that can be tuned out with future firmware updates to the camera's automatic white balance.
One area that we didn't expect to notice a dramatic improvement was in audio quality. The HD Hero does a good job of capturing engine noises while blocking wind noise when mounted outside of a vehicle, but it can also capture clear dialog when mounted inside of a vehicle's cabin.
While the HD Hero represents a huge jump in video and audio quality, it hasn't done much to increase its user friendliness. Sure, the addition of an idiot-proof lithium ion battery pack has made it easier to keep the Hero juiced and ready to go, but the user interface is still a nightmare.
The small LCD display features darn near microscopic icons representing the camera's various modes of operation and functions, many of which aren't obvious without first checking the user's manual and some of which are so similar it's still difficult to tell them apart. Resolution is represented by a single-digit number in the lower left corner, for example 2 is 720p at 30fps. There's no way you'd know that unless you checked or memorized the manual.
Plunge into the settings menu and you're greeted with even odder three-letter abbreviations of functions, for example selecting ALL formats the SD card--something that you really don't want to accidentally do after a day of shooting.
The GoPro may just be too complex a device for its two-button interface. Its microscopic icons and cryptic menu structure just can't match the ease of the ContourHD's no-setup interface. The menu system isn't impossible to navigate and there really aren't that many commands to memorize, but the first couple of outings with the HD Hero will most likely result in a few head scratcher moments. It's better to set up the camera at home and then just stay out of the menus.
Oddly, the upside down shooting mode--which flips the video capture for those times when you must mount the HD Hero upside down--has gone missing for the Hero's launch. GoPro tells us that it should be added back in a future firmware update.
The GoPro HD Hero addresses most--but not all--of the issues that we had the old Hero 5 model, while keeping everything that we loved intact. The included rechargeable battery is a godsend that should save current GoPro users a good deal of money in replacement batteries.
Compared with the competition from the ContourHD, the GoPro HD Hero Motorsports offers users much more flexibility of video resolution, exposure controls, and still photography that hasn't been matched by any mountable camera system that we've tested.
Additionally, the GoPro system's polycarbonate shell makes it a much more rugged unit, able to take knocks in stride and be used under water. If the unit goes flying off of your car, it's not the end of the world, just order a new lens ($20) or shell ($40) and you're ready to record again.
If the HD Hero's interface were less of a chore, it would be a contender for our Editors' Choice award, but the oddball menu system lowers its design score and, consequently, its overall score.