GoPro HD Helmet HERO Review

I’ve got something to share with you: I’m a camera junkie. New or old, I love ’em. It seems I have a camera to match whatever mood I’m in. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll dust off my 1956 Rolleiflex medium format camera. If I feel the pull towards the little things in life, I’ll bring my Canon 40D with a macro lens. And if I feel adventurous and want to capture what it’s like to hike, I’ll bring my new GoPro HD Helmet HERO camera.

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GoPro HD HERO

I learned about the GoPro about a year ago when the first generation was released. The small camera the size of three boxes of matches was made for the adventurous enthusiast who wanted to record themselves doing action sports like surfing, skateboarding or sky diving. The reviews called the camera amazing, yet flawed. Although users of this first-generation camera loved the water/shock-proof housing and the quality the camera offered compared to others of its type, they also complained that the small LED display icons were hard to understand, how it ate batteries like they were nothing, didn’t have an external memory card slot, and was weak recording low-light conditions. Despite the flaws, I loved the notion of an action camera. I reluctantly passed on the purchase, hoping that the next generation of the GoPro would be worthwhile.

Well, my friends, the new generation is out and – oh boy! – is it a rockin’ little camera! I bought the GoPro HD Helmet HERO in early January and have spent every weekend since testing it out. Here is my review.

Design

The GoPro HD is much smaller and lighter than I thought it would be. It measures 1.6” x 2.4” x 1.2” (42mm x 60mm x 30mm) and weighs just 3.3 ounces (94g). It’s basically the size of three boxes of matches stacked on top of each other.  The most noticeable feature on the camera is its glass fixed-focus lens, capturing the surroundings in high-definition . It has two buttons, one on the front (menu) and one on the top (shutter). It has slots for USB 2.0 (data connection and battery charging), HDTV Out (component cable included), and audio/video out. One of the upgrades from the first generation is the slot for an SD memory card (up to 32 GB SDHC).

Positives:

  • The camera is small enough – even in its housing  – to slip into a jacket pocket.
  • The housing offers both a waterproof and a non-waterproof hinged lid.  Why switch to a non-waterproof lid? So the microphone can pick up you and your surroundings while recording a video.
  • Within the housing, the camera is still very lightweight – 5.9 ounces (167g) and allows access to the menu and shutter buttons.
  • The lens seems to be scratch resistant, but if it happens to get damaged, it can be replaced for a reasonable price.
  • When using the “polycarbonate exoskeletal” housing, the camera becomes “shockproof, bombproof, and waterproof up to 180 feet.” (I assume that it is only waterproof up to 180 feet.  Don’t know how deep it can get with the shockproof and bombproof aspects.)

Negatives:

  • I found it frustrating to change options on the camera.  The reaction time of the buttons are slow and painstaking.  To change the video size from one HD video resolution mode to another took about ten steps and a good recollection of the menu terminology as explained in detail in the manual.
  • I’m no fan of audible sounds from a camera (other than a shutter on an SLR).  I learned a long time ago that you can save on battery life by turning off all the beeps and whistles on a camera. With the GoPro, there’s an audible and visual options that can be turned off (a positive) : a simple beep and a red flashing light on the front of the camera.  If the audio is turned off, the only way to see if the camera is taking photos/video is to look for the flashing light on the FRONT of the camera.  Not the best placement of the light since quite often I’d find that the first photo of the set was of me looking to see if the camera was taking photos or not.
  • Due to its size , there isn’t a LCD screen for viewing photos. You just have to trust that the camera got the shot.

Storage Capacity & Battery Life

With the purchase of the camera, you get a specialized rechargeable Li-Ion battery.  The battery provides about 2.5 hours of recording time  – more than enough for a day hike.  The camera can take both photos and video.  The 5-megabyte photos are captured in different modes: single shot, 3 photo burst, self-timer, or photos every 2,5,10,30 or 60 seconds.  Videos can be captured in five different HD video resolution modes:

  • 1080p = 1920×1080 pixels (16:9), 30 fps, 15 Mbit/s data rate
  • 960p = 1280×960 pixels (4:3), 30 fps, 12 Mbit/s data rate
  • 720p = 1280×720 pixels (16:9), 60 fps, 15 Mbit/s data rate
  • 720p = 1280×720 pixels (16:9), 30 fps, 8 Mbit/s data rate
  • WVGA = 848×480 pixels (16:9), 60 fps, 8 Mbit/s data rate

Positives:

  • You can use a memory card with a capacity up to 32GB, but the 16GB has worked well for me.  In fact, I’ve taken 162 videos (ranging anywhere from twenty seconds to 8 minutes long) as well as 194 photos on a dozen outings and have yet to empty the card!
  • Have you ever tested the limits of your car by continuing to drive your car as the fuel light flashes?  I tried this for the GoPro’s rechargeable Li-Ion battery but never found myself on the proverbial side of the road, hitching a ride to the nearest gas station.  I did a weekend in the Mojave and never found myself with a dead battery. The battery 4-bar meter never dropped below two bars.
  • Extra I also purchased an extra rechargeable Li-Ion battery ($20 from their site).

Negatives:

  • The camera does not come with a memory card.  Having a couple extra 16GB SDHC cards ($45 from Amazon.com) will be useful on multi-day backpacking trips.
  • My computer didn’t recognize the camera when plugging it in using the provided USB cable, so I used a separate card reader (I recommend this one.)
  • Connecting the camera via USB is the only way to charge the battery.  For trips, I recommend a USB Car Charger and a USB Wall Charger (The HD Hero will work best with a 1000 mA wall charger.)
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GoPro HD HERO in housing on head strap mount

Data Quality

The GoPro HD offers HD resolution in five video modes (see above).  I tested the camera in two of those modes, 1080p (16:9) and 960p (4:3). In camera mode, all photos are 2592×1944 pixels. The built-in microphone captures 48 kHz mono sound with an automatic gain control.

Positives:

  • The exposure options allow for center-weighted average or spot-metering. (not tested).  I kept the exposure on auto mode and it did fine at adjusting on the fly.
  • With a fixed focus set at f/2.8 aperture, the glass optics capture everything more than 2 feet from the lens in HD quality. No need to focus.
  • The ultra-wide (170 degrees) and wide angle (127 degrees) insures that the camera will get the shot as long as you point it in the general direction of the action.
  • The audio is excellent when using the “open back” housing lid. I could hear birds chirping and the babbling of the streams I crossed while recording hikes.

Negatives:

  • Because of the deep depth of field and almost fish-eye angle, it is hard to capture the sense of distance between objects. (See the Whitney Canyon video below)
  • The still-shots come out under-saturated and dull.
  • For still-shots, shutter speed is hard to gauge.
  • Barrel distortion is evident in every shot, but that comes along with the wide angle of the shot.
  • Audio is muffled when using water-proof housing (as expected).  I had to yell into the camera for it to register my voice in the recording of a video.
  • Because of the automatic gain control, the microphone is very sensitive when the camera is in the water-proof housing.  Your voice might sound muffled, but clicking the buttons or touching the housing are captured at relatively louder recording levels than when not in the housing.  Rain drops sound like pop rocks.

Video Examples

Here are a few videos I took over the last two months.

Bouldering in Joshua Tree
– In this video, I’m using the head strap mount (sold separately for $14 or with the HD Helmet HERO). The ledge I’m on is 40 feet tall, but due to the vast depth of field and barrel distortion, it’s hard to tell. Captured in 960p resolution. 1280×960 pixels (4:3), 30 fps, 12 Mbit/s data rate.

Sandstone Peak – Hand-held shot. Some hot spots in the clouds (over exposure), but not bad all around. Captured in 960p resolution. 1280×960 pixels (4:3), 30 fps, 12 Mbit/s data rate. Waterproof hinged lid is muffling the audio.

Exploring A Lava Tube in The Mojave – I’ve attached the camera to my hiking pole using the roll bar mount (sold separately for $29.99) and crawled through the lava tube while wearing a head lamp. The low-light scene was a little too much for the sensor (1/2.5″ HD CMOS), but it did manage to pick up my face and the opening in the background. Captured in 1080p resolution. 1920×1080 pixels (16:9), 30 fps, 15 Mbit/s data rate. Waterproof housing is muffling the audio.

Whitney Canyon – In this video, I’m again using the head strap mount and the non-waterproof lid on the housing, which allows for better audio recording. Captured in 960p resolution. 1280×960 pixels (4:3), 30 fps, 12 Mbit/s data rate.

Big Dalton Canyon – A very wet day of hiking and the GoPro held up like a pro. Waterproof housing insured the camera wouldn’t be harmed, but the audio was a casualty of the rain (as you will hear). Even though I was constantly moving the camera from my head to my jacked pocket, the casing did not fog up. (I can’t say the same for my Canon 40D SLR or my Canon PowerShot 990 – both had lens fogging problems). Captured in 960p resolution. 1280×960 pixels (4:3), 30 fps, 12 Mbit/s data rate. Both hand held and head mounted.

Photo Examples

Here are a few photos I took over the last two months. Photos have been slightly processed in Adobe Lightroom, mainly to adjust contrast (+5/10), exposure (-0.29), and vibrance (+15/25).  Original size of these photos was 2592×1944 pixels.

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Attached to my trekking pole with the roll bar mount (sold separately)

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Pretty good quality considering the low light levels in the cave.

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Didn't do so well with the extreme contrast from this shallow cave.

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I tried to capture the moon's corona. Very grainy.

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The camera does well in balanced lighting, as seen here in Joshua Tree. Only a little hot spot around the sun.

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This was, in fact, a mistake photo. I was looking to see if I had activated the camera to take photos every 2 seconds.

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Notice how the drops of water on the waterproof housing caused a few blur spots. Otherwise, pretty good results while shooting in a downpour.

I give the camera 4 out of 5 stars. Despite the fact that the on-camera menu isn’t intuitive, this small camera packs a punch with quality video recordings. The still images aren’t too shabby, either. I recommend the camera to anyone who enjoys outdoor activities. For more information, go to goprocamera.com.

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