Hands on: GoPro HD Hero3 Black review

GoPro has arguably already redefined digital video cameras. As more traditional digital camcorder sales slip down the ranks, the mountable point-of-view Hero video camera makes sense for the generation of today, which is exactly what the latest GoPro HD Hero3 is all about. But is it a landmark upgrade compared to its predecessor, the HD Hero2?

To put this mountable mini to the test Pocket-lint plonked the Hero3 on to an Audi R8 and sped around Sonoma race course, California, before upping the ante in a 130mph superbike pillion ride. It's all in a day's work for the 'Lint.

4K resolution realised

The GoPro HD Hero3 is a small, light and mountable HD video camera that comes with a waterproof casing and, new to this model, built-in Wi-Fi.

It caters for not only 1080p at 60 or 50 frames per second (fps), but can capture 720p at 120fps and, in rather spectacular fashion the "Black" version - which is the sole focus of this hands-on review - can record 2.7K at 30/25fps and even 4K resolution at 15, 12.5 or 12fps. There's even 1440p 4:3 HD that can be captured at 48fps.

Is the 4K worth it? Not really. The half frame rate's too low for smooth playback, and while it could arguably be used for stop motion there's a 12-megapixel stills capture complete with an interval timer that ticks that box with the ability to shoot 30 frames in a single second. There aren't many stills cameras that can do that, so the Hero3 sure does make its mark.

Design & Controls

Here's something that Hero2 owners will like the sound of: the Hero3 is some 30 per cent thinner and 20 per cent lighter than its predecessor, which makes it even easier to squeeze into those quirky places for great video footage.

According to a GoPro representative at the launch event the wide-angle lens is a 35mm equivalent, though it seems wider to us. There's no specific information on the spec sheets to clarify this however.

"Normal" and "narrow" options are also available in the 1080p and lower resolutions where the camera uses less of the sensor area for a longer effective focal length. Very useful indeed.

The Hero3's overall design is effective - if not more functional than attractive - and has a flat-fronted lens casing that, we must say, does look more appealing than the bubble-domed version of the Hero2.

The camera's menu system is simplistic though and, although workable with a little bit of patience, the whole "one button to select and one button to cycle through options" is tiresome at best. It feels like a digital camera from some years back, and is definitely an area that the company needs to work on to bring it up to speed.

Battery life & Accessories

The slimmer Hero3 body also means less space to squeeze the battery in. Although GoPro claims this hasn't had an issue on the battery's life, we were only able to record around 50 minutes of final footage. That included a battery change-over to keep this baby running, which is a definite area of concern.

The battery's "three bar" system will quickly dip to two bars, so assessing how much use is left is tricky. A percentage system that would project remaining life based on the current resolution settings would be particularly useful, especially if you're jumping off a cliff, skiing down a mountain or biking through the woods where there are limited opportunities to stop and shoot more than one take. Long clips will inevitably eat away at the battery.

It is possible to buy a larger battery pack, which comes with a thicker housing too, and we'd definitely recommend doing so - though this will increase the cost of the purchase.

Another essential accessory is the latest BacPac, a touchscreen LCD that clips into the back of the Hero3 for preview, playback and far quicker selection of options. The touch-enabled panel is definitely welcome, though we did find some sensitivity issues towards the outermost edges of the screen - a couple of presses and you'll get there though.

Bigger virtual buttons on this screen would also make more sense for glove-wearing sportsters, and the screen's lack of a built-in battery only worsens the Hero3's already stretched lifespan per charge. That's probably why this model doesn't come with the LCD built in as standard, which is what we had originally anticipated.

Built in Wi-Fi

The Hero3 also comes with built-in Wi-Fi and a wireless controller in the box but, unfortunately, the firmware v1.2 that our sample was running isn't the version that the camera will ship with from 26 October. By then a new version will have updated the Hero3's ability to talk to the wireless remote and GoPro iPhone app.

The Hero2's add-on Wi-Fi accessory is available and already functional, however, so we assume there will be no difference in functionality with the Hero3. Again, however, the Wi-Fi will have an impact on battery life so we'd recommend switching it off by pressing and holding the dedicated Wi-Fi button.

The footage

Take a peek at the embedded video at the top of the page for a mini montage of our Sonoma Raceway adventures, shown in glorious 1080p if you head over to view on the YouTube page.

Let's cut to the chase; the good part. The Hero3's HD footage is awesome. This is best-in-class stuff right here. Just take a look at the breathtaking Hero3 promotional video that GoPro released to the world on its YouTube channel and you'll quickly get an idea of what's possible - if, of course, you're enough of a mad adrenaline junky with plenty of mounts, accessories and friends to help out.

The camera is able to deliver smooth motion which is, for the most part, absent of excess wobble (and we don't mean on account of the cars and bikes, we're talking about that in-scene skewed effect). Hurtling around a track at over 100mph did introduce some, of course, but there's no excess wobble or sheer effect - so it's streets ahead of a stills camera with a video mode in this department.

What's most spectacular though is the auto exposure and white balance. The camera will continually adjust exposure, but there's enough dynamic range to avoid silhouettes or "off" exposures and the smooth transition means no flicker as exposure adjusts. Even direct-to-sun shots maintain good foreground exposure.

For what it's designed for, the exposures we got were looking mighty fine and, if you need an extra push, then there's a Spot metering mode in the menu. There is no further full-manual control however.

Although the spec sheet claims that the Hero3 is twice the performer in low light, this is still one of the camera's shortcomings. It's dark and noisy if there's not a decent light source, so don't expect a vast improvement over the predecessor.

In good light, however, the 45mbps bitrate is knocking on the door of broadcast quality and looks great. We also think that the 120/100fps available at 720p is far more an exciting prospect than the higher resolution options. Imagine the quarter time slowdown that you can get with that in post production, and quality will still be top-notch.

Sound is also said to be less impacted by wind noise at speed, thanks to an updated algorithm but we found that the fast pace on the road led to that inevitable “tearing” sound. There is some salvation though: the touchscreen BacPac has a 3.5mm microphone jack that, used creatively, could host a socked mic or wireless transmitter for more experimental use.

Pro specs

It's clear that the GoPro HD Hero3 can be picked up by anyone and used handheld, mounted on to pretty much anything, or used creatively by more demanding production companies.

The clues here are the 2.7k 30fps capture using Pro Tune for a neutral capture that can be graded in post-production. Manual white balance control, including Raw WB and Kelvin temperature settings, is also available.

And how much for this top spec kit? £359 in the UK, or $400 in the USA. It's not cheap, but for what it can do it can't fail but impress.

Gnarly, dude

GoPro isn't the kind of company whose execs will be found brainstorming around a grand oak desk wearing neat-cut designer suits.

Oh no, these (often) long-haired dudes don baseball caps and slip words like "gnarly" and "sick" into casual conversation. It's this image that not only separates it from the rest of the competition, but also reflects in its product, in a fresh, fun and relevant way.

And it's not as though the technical stuff's been ignored. This company knows what it's doing, or does for the most part.

Saying that, we'd still like to see the Hero3's battery life and clunky menu system tidied up, and if 4K at 24fps makes it into the next release then, well, this little box of tricks will be a true professional, broadcast quality solution.

Right now it's oh so very close to that, but is more than enough for what most will want from it. It's onwards and upwards for GoPro and we're sure current fans of the previous products will love this latest addition as much as we do.