GoPro HD Hero2

It's not an over-exaggeration to say that the GoPro has changed the world of both amateur and professional video making. GoPros are used from cyclists and bikers in London to record the crazy near-accidents drivers cause around them. Skiers love them for hitting the slopes and surfers are sending home some awe-inspiring footage. And there's barely a TV production that hasn't made use of one of these little things recently, be it on-screen, or for shooting where other cameras fear to go.

But this isn't an expensive piece of kit. You can get the Hero2 for £300 or less online. That makes it one of the most powerful and versatile tools you can get for making video in the sort of conditions that would make a normal video camera cry with pain. And then stop working.

Design is unchanged, mostly

You'll feel one of two ways about the GoPro HD Hero2. Either you'll think it's perfectly built to do it's job, or you'll conclude that it's a squat, ugly box. We fall squarely into the former catagory. We love the GoPro for its practicality. We've used this camera for everything from swimming in Spain, to strapping around a Greyhound puppy for PoV video fun. Each time, it does a brilliant job, and the mounting options always give you a way to secure it to something.

There are two parts to the HD Hero. The camera, and the selection of waterproof and rugged housings. What you use will depend on what you're doing. For example, if you're recording sound, you can do so through the ventilated back that's supplied. This isn't waterproof. but it offers protection if you're out in light rain. Just don't submerge the camera in water. Sound can still be recorded through the sealed, fully waterproof housing, but it won't be as clear, as by virtue of the job it's doing, the waterproof case doesn't let much in.

The sort of thing you're shooting should have an impact on what you buy too. There are various mounts available and you can pick one that suits you when you buy the camera. GoPro sent us the helmet-mount, which allows you to wear this over your head while being very extreme. There is also a vehicle mount and a surf board pack too, which allow you to mount the cameras to any surface you might fancy. Some adhesive pads are included in all the packs too, so if you need a hard mount to something, you can achieve it without buying a whole new mounting pack.

On the surface of the camera, there are some cosmetic changes. The lens is a different style now, but it's a subtle difference. The new lens has a darker surround and a clearly different optical system. The LCD screen on the front has remained the same size and style, but the Hero2 has much more information available, which is very useful. The option button is the same size and location too, although it's a different colour now, in case that matters to you.

On the left-hand side of the camera, the changes have become more interesting. The SD card slot is in the same place, but the microphone has moved, and there's an HDMI ouput here now. This is very useful, and brings full HD outputs to the camera for the first time. Previously, there was component out, but that's analogue and doesn't offer the same quality as the all-digital HDMI does.

On the right side of the camera there's a standard definition video output, which is handled via a 3.5mm jack socket, which you can break-out to composite video to connect to your TV. The USB socket is still in the same place, but it's facing the opposite direction now. And where the old SD video out was on the original Hero, there's now a mic input. This is terrific, because it allows you to capture proper, high-quality audio on the camera, should you wish.

Also new are the tally-lights, which are located on the front, top, back and bottom of the camera. These tell you when the camera is recording, and having several of them is a really great idea. This comes in handy when you're mounting the camera somewhere odd, because you might not be able to see the front, and if the memory card fills up, or the battery runs out, you wouldn't want to surf that once-in-a-lifetime barrel wave with the camera not recording.

Modular

The big advantage of the GoPro HD Hero is that you can add accessories as you see fit. For example, there's an optional LCD clip-on monitor and battery pack that just attach to the rear of the camera. There will also, soon, be a Wi-Fi adaptor which will stream video wirelessly to your smartphone or via the Internet, which will also slot on to the back.

With each accessory like this you'll get extra rear-doors too, which enable you to keep the camera in its waterproof shell, even with an enlarged back. This is incredibly handy and a smart move. If you need compact, you can always switch back to the plain vanilla camera, which is much lighter and smaller than the extended system.

Better frame rates and sizes

Another major improvement comes with the way the camera handles its recording modes. As with the previous generation you have the option of choosing either "PAL" or "NTSC" these are legacy names, but have little relevance in an HD world. The difference is that NTSC gives you get higher frame rates.

For example, in US terms, 720p runs at 60fps, but in the UK it's 50fps. As long as you aren't planning to connect this camera to a really old CRT, you'll have no problem using the NTSC mode. Although, it's worth considering sticking with PAL if you aim to sell the footage to a broadcaster, although there's no problem converting such footage later.

The most exciting new mode is the WVGA 100fps (120fps in NTSC) that allows you to shoot standard definition video at high speed. This has two effects. Firstly, you'll see that footage has a very strange, hyper-real look to it. But more importantly, it allows you to slow footage down by 75%. That means you can shoot in-camera slow motion, which will play smoothly when tweaked in editing software later.

The 720p picture modes offer the same shooting rate up to 50fps (again, it's 60fps in NTSC). This gives you the chance to slow the action down by 50%, but still keep a glorious HD image.

We love these new modes, but we have to admit that we're a little sad there isn't a slightly higher frame rate for 1080p and 720p. It would be great to shoot 1080p at 50fps or perhaps at 720p75. Obviously, this is slightly more complicated as video standards haven't really evolved around these rates. If you're only looking for a slight slow down, then 50% is likely to keep you happy. And the presence of a 100fps mode is impressive enough, and it looks a lot better than many similar modes you find on other cameras.

As with the previous model, there's a 960 recording mode too, which gives you a taller image than you get with 720 or 1080 recording modes. Happily, there's now a 50/60fps record mode here too, whereas on the old camera it was limited to 25/30fps.

And, for those seeking the ultimate quality, the 1080p 25/30fps mode is present and correct. As you would hope.

It's also quite interesting to note that there are now three choices in the field of vision. On the old camera, it was fixed, but here, you can chose from either wide, medium or narrow. Below is a video that shows the difference between the "wide" and "narrow" modes. 

This gives you the option of shooting a vanilla 1080p frame, or having a fisheye lens effect and capturing more of what's happening. This is useful, because action footage will look amazing with a fisheye lens, but you might want a normal FoV for establishing shots or landscape stuff.

Impressive still images

Still images can also choose from several options. There's an 11-megapixel wide image, but you can drop to 5-megapixels for a narrow FoV too, or 8-megapixels for something in the middle. Most impressive though, is the ability to take 10 11-megapixel images in a single second. If you need to capture some action, and want a nice still image, then this is the way to do it.

Stills are much improved over the original camera too. There seems to be better detail in general, and the colour and white balance seems more natural.

Amazing video

It doesn't take too long on YouTube to find another amazing video shot by someone on a Go Pro HD Hero. We've shot loads of stuff with ours, but the fact is we don't have a nearby ocean with world-class surf. Nor do we have the finest snow and slopes in Europe. So take some time to investigate what other people are shooting with the Hero2 when they manage to get out and about.

Low light performance in video is also much improved. With the old camera, there was quite dreadful amounts of grain, and a generally unnatural looking image. With the Hero2, the images look more natural, and grain is significantly reduced. It is still an image that is the poor relation to stuff shot outdoors, or in very good inside light. It's far from a disaster though, and you'll get usable material.

The camera shines outside though. Picture are stuffed full of detail, and colour is shockingly vibrant, without ever over-cooking the picture. 720p at 50 or 60fps are well worth using, if you don't need full HD. The extra frame rate here gives a fluidity that's really rather pleasant, plus you can apply smooth slow motion later.

The WVGA mode, with 100fps shooting is a nice trick mode. It's the sort of thing you'd use for one or two shots in a video, but then switch off again to get back to proper HD. Video shot in this mode can look great slowed down, but there's a noticeable lack of definition, and there are some image sharpness and picture distortion issues. Nothing dreadful, but it does take us to mobile phone camera territory somewhat. Still, the amazing slow-mo makes up for that. And it's hard to find cameras that do slow motion at this rate without spending a lot of money.

Of course, there are still some occasional picture issues. For example, you will sometimes see a little shutter roll when a specific type of movement is applied to the camera. This is, for the most part, quite mild for a camera of this type.

We also noticed that there is quite a bit of distortion in the "wide" mode. Although the fisheye effect is expected around the edges, here it isn't a smooth distortion, but one that causes a ripple in stuff toward the edge of frame. You can see this to some extent in our test videos.

But for some minor problems, we still think the image quality here is second to none, especially at this price.

Sound

Sound is never a strong part of the HD Hero range. The microphones are small, and are very susceptible to handling noise from both the housing, and anything you might have mounted it to. Ours has spent a lot of time attached to a GoPro capable Steadicam, and we have noticed quite a bit of noise from that device.

Audio, even in an ideal situation is also quite tinny. Certainly, it's nowhere near as good as even a camera phone can manage. And normal, domestic camcorders blow it away with their Dolby Digital audio recording modes. The saving grace of the Hero2, is that it has a microphone input, so you can record audio if needed. You'll, of course, lose the waterproofing if you do decide to plug a mic in - you can get a housing that lets you plug stuff in to the camera, should you want to carry on using the mounts. It's fair to say though, for surfers and snowboarders, there's not likely to be much demand for great audio anyway. Anyone wanting to get audio, and preserve the waterproofing should just get an external recorder, and sync the sound to the picture in post-production.

Verdict

The HD Hero2 is unchanged in the important ways from the original camera. It's still got the best picture quality of any camera of its type, and it's one of the most usable sports and fitness cameras out there too.

The choice of housings and mounts mean that this will suit anyone who does any sort of outdoor activity and wants to record it. But it will also suit anyone who wants to get a camera where a traditional machine won't fit. The expandable accessories make this a camera that's also, to some extent, futureproof.

A lot of people might find it better value to pick up the original HD Hero. There are some key differences, and we love the new low-light performance of the Hero2. The slow motion modes of the new camera are nice, as is the new lens and all-around better picture quality. But, with all that said, you can save about £100 getting the older camera, and it's still totally amazing.

But for those who want a high-quality action camcorder, the HD Hero2 is spot on the money. It's a laugh to use, tough as old boots and can be used in everything from home movies through to professional TV crew kit. Impressive for a £300 camera.