Just over a year ago GoPro unveiled the Hero3, a dinky mountable camcorder-like device that - and just like its earlier Hero models - made waves among its users. But as if that wasn’t good enough, the company has refreshed the model in the form of the Hero3+.
The all-important plus symbol, what’s that all about then? GoPro claims the Hero3 Plus will deliver a boost in battery life performance, output sharper results, and comes with a new waterproof housing that trims the fat by some 15 per cent compared to its predecessor.
But do all these minor tweaks amass to make the GoPro HD Hero3+ the go-to action camera? We’ve been testing out the latest model to see what we make of it.
Everything is different… everything is the same
Despite the adjustments, let’s be clear: the Hero3+, minus its exterior housing, is the very same design as the earlier Hero3. There’s no external difference between the two.
In some respects that’s good as accessories are still cross-compatible and the overall design is small. Like, really small. We say "camcorder" but to look at it’s not the first thing that jumps to mind - the term "action cam" is a common association.
The new housing is less bulky due to less excessive protrusions which is a nicety, but we can’t say it was ever something that hugely bothered us in the predecessor. One other touch we do rather like is the new lock-clamp - it shuts tight and, to us, felt more intuitive to release and seal back up.
On the other side of the coin we’re sure users will have wanted a little more, like a Hero4. The clunky menu system, for example, remains the very same as it was before. Once you’re set up with the desired capture frame-rate and resolution it’s fine - you’ll just click and go. But if you do start to dig into the menus it feels fussy to say the least. Its dependency on symbols and numbers in the small front-facing display panel isn't always easy to navigate. If it's dark then it's almost impossible to see too.
The core GoPro stuff remains in place: including the bespoke GoPro mount system that you’ll need to be on board with to get the most out of where the camera can be placed. There’s a standard mount and two "stickies" included in the box - perfect for mounting up on a protective helmet, for example.
Go one step further by investing in additional kit and it’s that variety of accessories and clamps that you can get particularly playful with. We’ve used the earlier GoPro model on motorcycles, MTB downhill bikes, race cars, kayaks - and the Hero3+ is just as versatile for mounting pretty much wherever you want. Go get creative.
One must-have accessory is the touchscreen BacPac - a clip-on mini LCD screen that sits to the back of the main Hero3+ unit. It not only provides a live preview and playback option - an essential really that otherwise lacks and you’ll be working blind - but the touchscreen element makes cutting through options far simpler. Like we say it’s an extra not included in the box, though, so you’ll need to budget for it in your purchase.
The Hero3+ Black Edition doesn’t bring a new sensor to the series, but there a new lens, and this in combination with new processing brings cleaner, sharper results. It looks to us as though the company has spent some time refining how the camera deals with the footage that it captures through the lens - whether for still or moving images.
The footage from the Hero3+ is certainly similar to the earlier model, but contrast appears higher and white balance genuinely looks to be improved too. It’s just more natural direct from the camera. However, blown-out highlights aren’t uncommon given the way the camera exposes - but then it makes perfect sense for the typical usage scenarios that the device would be used in, so we wouldn’t change it.
Just like the earlier model, the Hero3+ brings resolutions aplenty, but it's the frame rates that will really appeal: 1080p at 50 or 60fps; 720p at 100 or 120fps; and 1440p at 48fps. To show off a little more there are also both 2.7K at 25 or 30fps, and 4K at a less-than-impressive 12.5 or 15fps. A shame there’s no 24fps for the last.
But less not focus on the "peacocking" stuff, as it’s the 720p capture that impresses us the most because messing around in the edit can produce super-smooth results at half or even quarter time. Brilliant.
Low-light, low expectations
The Hero3+ also adds in a new "low light" option within video capture too. It shows that GoPro is listening to customer feedback and is attempting to improve the end result - we like the sentiment.
What we can’t vouch for, however, are these end results. As we had touched upon in our Hero3 review, the camera just isn’t that great in low light. A step above the Hero2, yes, but not the saviour of low-light conditions.
With this low-light mode activated in the Hero3+ we also found that a scene comprised of relative silhouette "bumped" up the exposure a few seconds into capture which, in turn, bumped up the worst of the visible image noise too. Our example clip isn’t exactly mind-blowing stuff, and it’s very dark, but it gives an approximate idea. So if you’re a Hero3 user wondering how much better the Hero3+ is then, sorry fans, you can let go of that held breath for now as it’s not an upgrade feature in our view.
But we can’t get too hung up about it. We understand that deep sea divers are the most likely users to want to see a significant bump in low-light performance, whereas the daylight users - or even those under ample artificial light, such as lit-up half-pipes - aren’t going to complain. Low-light, low expectations. But daylight? - the Hero3+ succeeds in big delivery.
Wi-Fi and battery
The Hero3+ Black Edition comes with a Wi-Fi remote to fire up the camera to capture. Using the latest app it’s possible to see a live preview of the image on your smartphone. Which is amazing for getting some killer shots.
READ: GoPro App v2.0 hands-on
But there’s a problem. With the Hero3, as much as we love the concept of the remote view feature, there’s a delay of around six seconds from action on the ground to the preview you see. It’s not blink and you’ll miss it, it’s blink a dozen times and it won’t have happened yet.
In the Hero3+ GoPro has vastly improved this lag. The company claims it’s four times faster, but we reckon it’s about three times faster. Using a stopwatch we were counting around a two second lag from action to preview. Still a delay, and it’s not instant, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Battery life, too, has allegedly been pushed for the better. Although we struggled to feel it when out in the field, we must say. The apparent 30 per cent gain in life per charge in the Hero3+ compared to the earlier Hero3 model just didn’t really feel that much different to us. We weren’t scientifically testing it, we were just using the device like any normal user, and when the battery died sooner than expected we weren’t best pleased because we were in a gondola on a rainforest tour - with no way of charging up. Instead we ended up shooting handheld on our smartphone instead.
In short battery life is still the biggest GoPro shortcoming. You’ll want spares, you’ll want the battery pack accessory, and you’d do well to carry remote chargers around to juice-up between whatever activities you’re doing too.
There’s no doubt that the GoPro HD Hero3+ Black Edition is the best GoPro action camera yet. It’s an enabling device, one where you’ll be capturing amazing shots in no time. But it’s a subtle push compared to the earlier Hero3 model, not a giant leap forward.
Upgraders asking the big questions: there’s less lag in Wi-Fi preview, but there is still lag; battery is marginally better, but it’s still far from good enough; and the new low-light mode shows GoPro is listening but it’s not a magical "cure" - dark scenes are still full of image noise.
That’s us being hyper critical though. We like the Hero3+ for its smaller waterproof housing and the redesigned lock switch. And let’s not lose sight of what GoPro is all about: fun. It’s used by pro sports personalities and even Hollywood filmmakers these days because the footage, in the right conditions, is great - and now better than ever thanks to the Plus.
GoPro is the brand to pay attention to when it comes to action cameras and the Hero3+ is great if you want something small, light and versatile to capture those memorable moments.