A week with the incredible GoPro Hero3
15th May 2013 | 13:18
How much fun can you have in five days with GoPro's latest sports camera?
GoPro's puny but preposterously powerful Hero3 action and sports camera has been out since the end of last year. It's not news to home movie buffs or pro videographers.
They know all about the stupendous frame rates and resolutions, the new Wi-Fi and smartphone app functionality, including the ability to control as many as five GoPros with a single phone or tablet. Nice.
But for everyone else, understanding what the fuss is about this little camera, the incredible fun you can have with it and why it's popping up in cars, attached to helmets, on bikes and in boats – if you can think of it, there's probably a GoPro stuck to it – may not be obvious.
So we've decided to spend a week putting the Hero3 through its paces. We've reviewed the Hero3 already, of course. And a very handy guide to its objective features, capabilities and performance that is, too.
Before we get started, check out our footage from the week here:
Wth a device a bit special like the GoPro Hero3, racking up some quality man-and-machine time gives you a handle on the subjectives – how will the Hero3 fit into and perhaps even change your life?
The twist here is that your erstwhile correspondent isn't a regular camera reviewer. Cars and tech are my occupational bag and the latter half doesn't typically involve camera technology. Nor would I rate myself as a serious camera or video buff in an amateur capacity. I dabble for work and play, but that's about it.
So the experiences I've had and the footage I captured is real-world stuff from my day-to-day life, albeit much of it from the slightly unreal world of journalism and product launches. Odds are you'll be able to do the same – and run up against the same little niggles, not all of them down the GoPro Hero3.
While we're at it, let's put the latest Hero3 model into its historical and technological context. The background to both camera and company, not to mention the immense leaps in technology it's made over generations, is intriguing little story in itself.
GoPro's is a classic start up story driven by a passion to do something better. For GoPro's founder Nick Woodman, that something was capturing surfing photos. A few years and lots of late nights later the first GoPro was born.
It was a 28mm film-based camera worn on a wrist strap. Woodman's next lightbulb moment was using the camera on mounts in racing cars. Thus began a cottage industry of mounts and harnesses that has exploded into a plethora of contraptions enabling you to stick a GoPro to anything that moves.
By 2010, GoPro had rolled out its first HD video camera. Today, less than 10 years after the launch of that first celluoid-toting stills effort, the top Hero3 Black Edition is capable full motion video at resolutions up 1,920 by 1,440 pixels and full-HD video at HFR rates of 60 frames per second.
Even by the standards of the tech industry, that's explosive development. The result is a camera that's smaller and lighter than ever and not only capable of staggering image quality but also remarkably idiot proof to use. This thing just works. Well, nearly all the time.
If you're a first time user, you'll find the camera itself an unfamiliar but pretty unremarkable little thing, about the size and shape of a box of matches. Only the a lens redolent of Hal 9000's all-seeing eye gives the game away.
It's once you pop it into the clear plastic casing that it becomes recognisable as the device you increasingly see strapped to everything. Various options are available, some are water proof, others allow for better sound recording. Some even enable two Hero3's to run side by side for the creation of 3D video.
Older GoPro's were a bit fiddly and hit and miss to use. The need to keep things simple on the camera itself meant you only had a couple of buttons to control everything and that was a recipe for cycling through endless menus.
There was also no view finder as standard, so getting the right shot required experience or the addition of an optional extra. With the Hero3, the combination of Wi-Fi connectivity and a smartphone app means you can use your phone as a viewfinder and also changes settings in a jiffy.
Not that you really need to know what you're doing. It's most a case of choosing what resolution and frame rate you want and maybe what orientation the camera is located (ie up or down). And that's about it.
There's no focus to fiddle with or exposure settings to worry about (well, there is the spot exposure option, but it's hardly complicated). Just hit record and you're good to go.
But for my videos I didn't fiddle with anything apart from resolution and frame rate settings and was rewarded with very consistent results. It's incredibly easy to use.
Probably the most impressive aspect is the way it handles exposures in different lighting scenarios. I joined GoPro for the Winter X Games in Tignes and got lucky with a day on the slopes in stunning sunshine.
As you can see from my video, the Hero3 has no problem with the sun shining directly into the lens. And the sun doesn't get much brighter than when it's shining through thin mountain air.
Visiting the Winter X Games also gave us a chance to hook up with some pro snowboarders including Tom Wallish, Bobby Brown, Eric Willett and Sage Kotsenburg. Plastered in GoPros, they hurled themselves down the hill to snag some course previews for the host broadcaster, which gives you an idea of the quality the output. It's good enough for broadcast with little to no polishing.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I went skiing, drove cars, sauntered across runways, played tennis, the works. For a week I took the Hero3 pretty much everywhere. The Hero3 captured it all in immaculate HD. And I really didn't know what I was doing.
Now for the niggles
If you're wondering whether there must be at least some downsides, the first problem is the direct flip side of the Hero3's mega spec. This thing pumps out immense quantities of ridiculously high bit-rate video.
Just dumping the content on a PC is a phaff when you're cranking out a gigabyte or more of video every five minutes.
That high bit rate makes editing an issue, too. As a tech journalist, I'm lucky enough to have access to some serious encoding kit. I used an eight-core, 16-thread Xeon.
But it still felt like I was spending most of my time sitting around waiting for encodes to finish so that I could check my handy work. And I was only knocking out a three-minute short. Putting out a longer video and doing it on a normal PC must be simply hideous.
And the thing is, you'll want to use the highest settings and capture the best video possible. It's what the camera can do and it's a real shame to crush the quality just to make the editing process go a bit quicker.
More generally editing video is a bit of an issue. Apart from the performance issues, if you're not an experienced video editor you find a steep learning curve and some additional cost. You want to buy some decent video editing software.
That said, GoPro is addressing the latter problem by bringing out its own editing software that you'll get for free with a GoPro. As the GoPro Hero3 becomes a more mainstream device, that will be an extremely welcome addition to the overall package.
Of course, once you've made you video, you'll want to share it with all and sundry. And that typically means shunting it up to cloud, another time consuming process thanks to the quality and size of the video kicked out by the Hero3.
It's not GoPro's fault, of course. But in this era of instant gratification, the time it takes to get video off a Hero3, edit it and then upload it to the cloud, especially compared with the ease and speed of sharing still images, will be a shock for video novices.
Sound and battery blues
Another tricky issue is sound quality. It's the nature of the beast that wind noise will be an issue for a sport and action biased camera. But the sound quality the standard camera captures, for instance, inside a car is car is disappointing.
The bottom line is that if you want the sound to match the immense image quality, you'll need to add some specialised microphones to the shopping list. In some scenarios, notably when using it with cars, it's best to treat the GoPro Hero3 as a video-only device. If you want sound, you'll need additional kit.
Then there's the whole battery life thing. Like previous GoPro's the Hero3 has a swappable battery. You'll quickly realise that's crucial, because the Hero3 chews through its charge pretty fast, especially with Wi-Fi enabled.
It's certainly not a switch-on and forget device. Running out of battery at a key moment is a constant worry. Of course, storage space isn't infinite, so even if the battery life was all-day, when you're generating a gigabyte of data every five minutes, you can't just leave the thing running.
Those niggles aside, the main thing GoPro newbies will experience is a sudden desire to take it everywhere, strap it to anything and record everything in glorious, pin-sharp HD. It's definitely one of those life-changing devices. Once you've gone GoPro, you won't want to go back.