GoPro's HD Hero promises high‑definition footage in the most inhospitable of conditions, so how does it hold up to punishment, and is it right for other video capture tasks too?
HD video capture is becoming ever less expensive, meaning it's appearing in smaller and smaller form factors. Plenty of phones, including Apple's new iPhone 4, include 720p video capture, and it certainly won't be long before 1080p capture appears in equally compact devices. Mobiles and pocket recorders, however, aren't usually the most robust creations, meaning that choosing to shoot at a packed venue or underwater would be risky or impossible, respectively.
The founder of GoPro wanted to create a camera suitable for making surf videos, and started out selling an early version of the GoPro Hero from the back of his van, with great success! Since then the cameras have become very popular and the latest version, the HD Hero, is the first of the range to offer up to 1080p resolution video.
Because it's intended for extreme conditions, the HD Hero is designed to remain in the included housing during shooting. The body of the camera itself, minus the housing, is very compact and light, and the construction feels wonderfully solid. The controls are simple, with only two buttons commanding all functions: a shutter-release button on top, which doubles as a select button, and a menu button on the front, which also acts as a power button. An LCD screen on the front gives setting information and menus, and a red LED light gives indication of still image exposure and other functions. An SD card slot on the right-hand side recognises cards up to 32GB SDHC, giving large potential shooting capacities. Class 4 or higher‑speed cards are required. On the back there's a handy printed reminder of which shooting mode setting (r1 to r5) corresponds to each available resolution. For a breakdown of the modes, see the 'Shooting Modes' box on page 177. There's also an expansion slot which will be used by forthcoming accessories known as BacPacs. These will include an LCD viewfinder screen and extended‑life battery pack.
The included housing has two different interchangeable backs. The solid back is waterproof down to 60 metres (about 180 feet) meaning you can go surfing, swimming, or filming in the rain and be confident of the camera's survival. The second back is open, and allows the case some breathing room to prevent misting. Small text on the back of the camera also informs us that when travelling slower than 100mph the open back should be used, and above this speed the waterproof housing should be used, this being important for achieving the best possible wind rejection.
The camera can shoot a variety of picture modes, and although only NTSC frame rates (30fps and 60fps) are currently available, a firmware update is promised soon to enable PAL rates. There are two 2.5mm mini-jack TV outputs on the left side of the camera body: a component HD and a composite SD A/V output. The mini USB connection serves to charge the camera, as well as providing a way to transfer footage to a computer without an SD card reader.
The tiny, fixed lens has a maximum aperture of f2.8, giving good low-light performance when compared to other cameras of its size. The HD Hero is currently only available with a wide-angle lens (SD models come with either wide or standard lens) and the angle of view varies depending on the shooting mode. Shooting in anything from WVGA (848x480) to 960p (1280x960) gives the camera 170-degree field of view, while selecting the 1080p 16:9 mode gives you a 127-degree field of view. All modes exhibit stylistic 'fish eye'-style distortion. The sensor is also capable of still photography at 5MP, and can be configured to take single shots or photos every two, five, 10, 30 or 60 seconds, making it useful for time‑lapse photography.
While most mini video devices have a single automatic exposure mode, the HD Hero allows you a choice of two automatic exposure modes. The default is 'centre weighted', which sets exposure by looking at the entire scene, but gives priority to the centre of the image. The second mode is 'spot meter', which adjusts exposure for the precise centre of the image. Spot metering is useful if you wish to correctly expose, for example, a driver's face without surrounding bright windows causing the exposure to drop. White balance is automatic, but pretty accurate. Both metering modes function quickly and efficiently, though as with all automatic systems, you won't be able to lock exposure to suit a particular lighting situation.
Fitting plenty of options into such a small device with only a tiny front‑mounted monochrome LCD screen has a down side. There are a few preset symbols, which are easily understandable, but the three‑character numeric portion of the display that is used to show menu abbreviations can be a little cryptic. The menu names are not the most logical, and it's easy to get lost on your first few tries. It's well worth packing a print‑out of the PDF manual from the web site, otherwise you may end up, like I did once or twice, staring with a puzzled expression, too afraid to press anything! As with all such systems it's just a matter of familiarity, and after a while you'll be used to the idiosyncratic menu. Once you've set up the camera for the first time, operation is simple. Switch it on (you can choose the mode it starts in), and press the shutter release to start recording. Press it again to stop. Simple!
The GoPro HD Hero records sound with a built‑in mono microphone, using 128kbps AAC compression at 48kHz sample rate. The protective case is extremely effective at reducing wind noise, and the sound recording itself remains impressive even when the unit is put through some pretty rough treatment! The rumble of roads and wind is still there, but other contextual sounds can be heard clearly above it. As well insulated as the mic is, the audio compression undoes the good work with a grating, sharp-edged distortion, the kind of 'aliasing' associated with playing back an audio file at the wrong sample rate. The audio encoding could definitely be much smoother, and hopefully this is something that can be fixed via a firmware update. This won't be a problem for those using other location sound or music in their final piece, but it should be noted.
During my time with the camera it was subjected to a fair few rigorous activities including go-karting, skateboarding, skiing, horse riding, running and some on‑guitar action! The model SOS received for review was the HD Helmet Hero, which comes with accessories designed to fit it to a sports helmet. I found it wasn't too hard to adapt this kit to several purposes.
The camera casing is robust, and I'd trust it to take quite a brutal battering without splitting. The plastic clasp that holds the case together grips extremely tightly, and takes a confidence‑inspiring amount of force to attach. Cleverly, GoPro have designed the optical-glass portion of the case that covers the lens to be removable, meaning that if it takes a significant scratch you can buy a replacement lens cover from the web site for $19.99 (you get two glass covers and two seals, a set of screws and a screwdriver in one kit) and carry out the simple repair yourself.
Still photography is nice and sharp, picking up much more detail than an equivalent mobile phone camera, though of course like all models with small sensors the camera performs best with plenty of light. The interval mode is particularly fun, and as the HD Hero is waterproof, one could capture an amazing time-lapse landscape in winter without fear of the camera succumbing to the elements.
The battery life is good and the 3.7V 1100mAh unit, which resembles a mobile phone battery, promises two and a half hours of continuous shooting. A menu setting allows you to set the sleep time for the camera, a function that greatly extends battery life, especially if — like me — you have trouble remembering to switch things off manually. It's great to get so much shooting time out of the camera, especially given how thirsty most video devices are. As long as you charge the unit via USB before taking it out, you'll have plenty of time. Extra batteries and a power adaptor are available to buy from the GoPro web site.
As the GoPro HD Hero uses a CMOS sensor, it is subject to rolling shutter issues, also known as the 'jello' effect. CMOS sensors tend to give much better battery life when compared to their CCD counterparts, but conventional wisdom suggests that CMOS sensors aren't best for video that includes motion or vibration. Once in its casing, the camera is pretty resistant to 'jello' issues, though the go-kart's lack of suspension, and the fact that the camera wasn't attached using the specially designed Motorsports Hero kit made that specific footage a little too juddery. The housing serves to stabilise the unit well, however, and when used as it is intended, the HD Hero's 'jello' is relatively limited compared to most small CMOS units.
Footage is sharp, though the data rates aren't tremendously high. The 1080p footage, especially, looks best downscaled a little, which it will usually be when finally viewed on-line.
Shooting at night, a pretty harsh test for any small camera, reveals a very noisy picture, so plenty of light is advised. Of course, being designed as an extreme sports camera, the HD Hero is intended for outdoor daytime use, and here it delivers a nice, sharp picture for the cost, especially given its size and the violent conditions it will be subjected to!
Having been designed with a specific purpose in mind — sports video — the GoPro HD Hero is perfect for such a task. If you're looking to film any kind of sports video from the participant's point of view then look no further: there's nothing quite like the GoPro HD Hero. The freedom to travel underwater, at high speed, and to be as reckless as you like without having to fear too much for your camera's safety is great and will be a Godsend for those wishing to document their moments of sporting madness! Thinking outside of the unit's intended market, it could also serve as a useful weapon in the cinematographer's arsenal: a way of capturing interesting B‑roll and cutaway footage without endangering more expensive equipment.
There are a couple of down sides to the HD Hero, primarily the limited‑quality sound recording, which is highly compressed from the off, and secondly the fixed wide‑angle lens. The intelligent insulation of the mic is somewhat scuppered by the poor audio compression, and although most users won't be using the on‑board sound, it'd be nice if the audio were less aggressive-sounding. The wide lens is very much suited to genre footage, but it's a shame that no standard-lens version of the HD Hero is available yet. Some kind of adaptor system would be ideal, though perhaps not technically viable!
As a portable HD camera for specific purpose the HD Hero is hard to fault, and it's hard to think of many alternatives. Although it won't find a place in everyone's gear arsenal, the camera is absolutely excellent if you need to capture HD footage in extreme conditions, or if you want to throw some interesting point-of-view footage into your edit.
The GoPro HD Hero comes in a variety of packages with different mounts. The Helmet Hero includes strapping to attach the camera and housing to a helmet, while the Motorsports Hero includes a suction cup and five stick‑on mounts, into which the camera can be clipped. The Surf Hero kit includes a mounting disc for attaching the camera to a surfboard, and although I wasn't testing this kit, there's some wonderful slow‑motion footage available on the GoPro web site, which demonstrates this setup in action.
Additional mounts are available (as well as those included with different kits), allowing you to choose the Helmet Hero, for example, and add a suction cup later on. Extra mounts that aren't found in the above kits include a handlebar and seat‑post mount for bikes, a chest harness and a wrist housing. At the time of writing the wrist housing only fits the SD version of the Hero, but will soon be updated for the Hero HD.
The Go Pro HD Hero can shoot video in five different modes, each with differing combinations of resolution and frame rate. Here's a breakdown of what the different modes offer.
Setting Dimensions Frame rate Data rate Field of view
r1 WVGA = 848x480 pixels (16:9) 60fps 8Mbps 170 degrees
r2 1280x720 pixels (16:9) 30fps 8Mbps 170 degrees
r3 1280x720 pixels (16:9) 60fps 15Mbps 170 degrees
r4 1280x960 pixels (4:3) 30fps 12Mbps 170 degrees
r5 1920x1080 pixels (16:9) 30fps 15Mbps 127 degrees