GoPro HD Hero3 Black edition review

4 out of 5
£360

For

Quality results in variety of conditions, crop-in options for different angles of view (up to 1080p only), small size, Pro Tune recording options, Wi-Fi enabled

Against

Battery life too short per charge, user interface none too friendly, 4K frame rate too low for use, needs extra accessories to make the most out of it, Wi-Fi is an added battery killer

Think "GoPro" and images of exuberant bikers, 'boarders, insane wingsuit fliers and speeding race cars tend to spring to mind. The company's promotional video for the HD Hero3 Black edition - shown below to showcase what this miniature yet tough and waterproof HD "camcorder" can do in the right hands - was enough to instill those images to the brain permanently.

But that's not all: the HD Hero3 is being used for all sorts of TV and movie production too, by highly respected directors and producers.

Two clear marketing endorsements, but is the HD Hero3 - now complete with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity and a cut-frame-rate 4K Ultra-HD capture option - still up to the challenge, and, as many potential upgraders will be wondering, does it right its predecessor's wrongs?

Overview & Design

The third iteration of the Hero series is, just like its predecessors, essentially an HD camcorder wrapped up in a small body. And it's really small - some 30 per cent thinner and 20 per cent lighter than the Hero2 model.

READ: GoPro HD Hero2 review

The size is a huge part of the Hero3's appeal and as its waterproof housing comes complete with a mount which makes it possible to fix the camera to all manner of surfaces. The mount isn't a standard coldshoe, however, so specific accessories may be required for more adventurous positioning.

The simplistic design may look like little more than a small box, but then that's the fundamental of what a camera is. It doesn't need to be held in the hand, so there's little to moan about from an ergonomic point of view, plus it's now better looking than its predecessors.

The menu system, however, is a lot easier to moan about. It's not the most user-friendly of user interfaces, and 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. Once settings are set up the way they should be we doubt that you'll ever want to change them again.

The solution - at least in part - is the new 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 for some - but the touchscreen element makes cutting through options far simpler. However, the soft buttons aren't that large, and the sensitivity towards the edges of the screen isn't so hot, so accuracy among glove-toting climbers and the like won't be ideal, although you can use the mode button instead, which is a decent size.

Resolution & Quality

The Hero3 Black edition is built around a new sensor which, GoPro claims, is twice as proficient in low-light conditions compared to its predecessor. There are also Silver and White models - but these use the HD Hero2 and original HD Hero's sensors respectively, hence their more budget price points.

The thing is, the HD Hero3 still isn't that great in low light. It's definitely an improvement compared to its predecessor, but doesn't feel like a "double" improvement to our eyes. A quick test shows that blacks hold out well, but it's the detail revealed by low light that reveals flickering grain (image noise).

When conditions get dark we don't expect that a camera should be able to shoot as if it were a specialist night-vision bit of kit, and the Hero3, just like any other camera, will benefit from the introduction of an additional light source to help keep it from over-amplifying the poor signal that results from dim conditions. Still, that's explanation enough to say that if it's dark then don't expect great things.

That's the bad news. Here's the good news: take the Hero3 outside and, should the sun be a-shining, the camera will shine with equal fervour. Shots are well exposed in almost any condition, there's plenty of detail and vibrant colours prevail. We had bags of fun with it at Sonoma raceway in California, as seen below:

Resolutions come aplenty, but it's the frame rates that will really appeal. The main staples of 1080p at 50 or 60fps, 720p at 100 or 120fps, 1440p at 48fps are all good enough to run at half speed playback with excellent results.

The Hero3 tries to show off a little more by including both 2.7K at 25 or 30fps, and 4K at a less-than-impressive 12.5 or 15fps. The 4K offering is just, well, pointless really; it's a "because we can" kind of feature, or perhaps more of a nod as to what the expect from the "Hero4" in a few years' time.

In The Edit: Pro Features

A quick rewind: the fact that 720p capture can be played back at 25 per cent speed without dipping below the standard frames per second threshold is nothing short of incredible. That opens up a whole bank of coolness for video editing. It's not hard to see why extreme sports and the Hero3 go hand in hand.

There are other features to praise too. The "Pro Tune" feature provides a neutral capture that's ideal for grading in post-production.

Add manual white balance control, including a raw WB and adjustable Kelvin temperature, and there's little missing in terms of raw video capture.

As well as the ultra-wide-angle lens - there is no provided equivalent field of view, however, but it's very wide, like an 10mm non-circular fish-eye - the 1080p mode offers both "medium" and "narrow" crops. This is achieved by using a smaller portion of the sensor, but without sacrifice to resolution. It's not possible in the Ultra-HD resolutions with any crop because there's not enough leftover sensor space to accommodate a narrower view. As 1080p will likely be the most popular mode on the Hero3, this trio of crop-in options will definitely come in handy when the widest setting is just that bit too much, or too distorted for the look you're going for.

File output is as MP4 only, which is handled by the H.264 codec. The option to shoot in other formats may have been a "nice to have", but for a video-length-to-size compression ratio, as well as widely accepted format for use with all the major consumer software and hardware, MP4 seems like a wise choice.

Battery Life & Accessories

The slimmer Hero3 body also means less space in which to squeeze the battery. Although GoPro claims this hasn't had an issue on the battery's life, we were able to record only around 50 minutes of final footage, less at the higher frame rates and resolutions, and less again with Wi-Fi and the BacPac being used. That can limit battery to around 30 minutes, which is poor.

The battery also uses a three bar display system which we found dipped down to two bars rapidly. It's hard to judge the remaining time from such a display - something like a percentage system would be preferable; one that could adjust a "time remaining" display depending on the selected resolution and frame rate.

It is possible to buy a larger battery pack accessory, and we'd definitely recommend doing so. Alternatively spare batteries come in at £20 a pop which, all things considered, isn't too bad. If you anticipate a full day on the slopes/in the sky/wherever you happen to be then power is the last thing that you'll want to worry about when making unavoidably lengthy recordings over multiple runs. But for some - say deep-sea scuba divers - there won't be the chance to change the battery, so its limitations become your limitations.

Other accessories, some of which we've mentioned previously, include the touschreen BacPac, priced at £80, which we consider another essential to get the most out of the user interface, as well as preview and playback.

But what quickly becomes apparent is how all this tots up to a lot more than the £360 outlay. It's more like £500 for a more complete and workable package, and that's before buying into a bunch of extra mount adapters.

Wi-Fi & App Control

When we first saw the GoPro HD Hero3 Black edition the firmware wasn't quite up to scratch to deal with its built-in Wi-Fi feature.

With the latest version now ready to roll and a smartphone handy with the GoPro app downloaded it's easy to pair the two devices. Head to your smartphone's Wi-Fi settings and locate the GoPro camera, though ensure that the Wi-Fi mode is switched on, as confirmed by a blinking blue light on the front of the camera.

From within the app it's then possible to adjust settings, including resolution, crop, frame rate and plenty more. In fact it makes much lighter work of the not-so-pleasing GoPro device's own menu system. The camera - whether video, stills or an intervolator-like time lapse set - can then be fired off from the smartphone device.

If you happen to own multiple GoPro units then you can control up to 50 of them via the application. Yes, that's fifty. Very clever.

However, the live preview didn't work in our app, and any attempt to enlarge the smartphone-based preview screen - even if just by accident - resulted in a crash. So it's not all plain sailing.

No smartphone? No problem. Included in the GoPro HD Hero3 Black edition's box is a Wi-Fi remote. It's complete with a keyring clip and about the same size as the camera itself. The mode and record buttons offer much the same in terms of settings adjustment and recording as the camera itself.

Then, of course, there's the obvious impact on the already poor battery life. Using Wi-Fi makes it yet worse, which is a shame. It's the single biggest obstacle that the Hero3 has in its path.

Verdict

There's no doubt that the GoPro HD Hero3 Black edition improves upon its predecessor, often by big margins.

It's not to do with the 4K gimmickry or even really the built-in Wi-Fi. Nope, it's down to the core capture: the inclusion of 1080p 25/30fps capture at 45mbps and a 720p at 100/120fps are incredibly useful settings, the likes of which are hard to come by. Even harder to come by in such a teeny-tiny package. The Pro Tune settings will also render excellent results for those more professionally inclined editors.

Ticks in plenty of boxes, but there are some sizeable crosses to be aware of. We can accept the Hero3's less-than-friendly user interface - it's just like the Hero2's - as you won't need to spend much time in there, and we aren't surprised by the so-so low-light performance - which is slightly better than its predecessor - but the poor battery life per-charge will be a killer for some prospective buyers. Team that up with the built-in Wi-Fi and should the battery-less touchscreen BacPac accessory be attached too then it cuts back yet further on the operating life per charge.

For what it does the HD Hero3 is a mini knockout, just like its predecessors were at the time of their respective releases. It's smaller, it's lighter, the optional touchscreen BacPac improves the user experience and the usual waterproof, rugged housing is an essential. All round it's just better.

But for an on-the-go product that needs to be versatile when out and about and you'll want to consider a larger budget to ensure that all the necessary back-up batteries and accessories also make it into your bag. With a full kit of accessories and there's no doubt that the HD Hero3 Black edition is stunning and we'll all be seeing a lot of them scattered around at events and gigs or attached to the craziest of places in the not-too-distant future.