GoPro currently rules the roost when it comes to action cameras. The little silver boxes are being put to use by broadcasters and extreme sports enthusiasts in places where normal video cameras just wouldn't survive.
Capable of shooting high-quality, ultra wide-angle footage at 1080p, the HD Hero 2 is one of the best action cameras out there. Just read our review. As of now, little of the competition has anything on it. Apart from that is, the Ion Air Pro, which shoots the same 1080p video but adds a few extras on top. So who is best? We have put the pair through their paces to find out.
Who is tougher?
This might seem like a slightly silly question, as both you would hope are capable of withstanding all sorts of jolts and bumps. The GoPro famously was lost at sea, turning up months later on a beach, still fully functioning. Unfortunately we didn't have access to a white sandy beach at the time we wrote this, so instead decided to drop the pair of cameras off the back of our bicycle.
The good news is that neither broke. In fact neither showed even the slightest sign of damage. This is because both the GoPro and the Ion are designed to be splashed, submerged and bashed about in all sorts of ways. Interestingly, the Ion can manage only 30 metres underwater, the GoPro can do 60 metres.
This difference in waterproofing is directly connected with both cameras' build. The Ion, unlike the HD Hero 2, doesn't have any sort of housing around it. It is a much more compact piece of kit and feels slightly sturdier in the hand. The GoPro relies on a plastic case, which can either fully waterproof the camera or, if you use the skeleton case, give more access to the built in microphone. Personally we never use the skeleton case as the mic sounds terrible both ways. Incidentally the Ion's is a snip better, but we will talk about that later.
We really like the way the Ion is one complete solid unit. The Podz idea is also great. A sort of pop-off back, which allows you to add various accessories to the device, hides all the connections for the camera. The GoPro requires you to take it out of the case if you want to link the thing up. It is also a bit more conspicuous and heavy, at 172g to the Ion's 123g. This is important for those who want to add the least weight possible to whatever it is they are doing.
In reality, both cameras are absurdly tough and will withstand whatever you throw at them. We have used the GoPro in some fairly testing situations and not once has it failed us. Many might prefer the more lightweight and compact approach of the Ion, but the difference is so negligible, it's hard to notice.
What grabs the Ion the real brownie points in the build department is the way the camera attaches to various mounts. The GoPro uses a sort of screw-on attachment which can take a minute or two to sort out. Whereas the Ion is a sturdy ball and socket joint, so you can switch mounts nearly instantly. This we definitely liked.
You know what they say: a decent action cam is only as good as its accessories. Thankfully both the HD Hero 2 and Ion come with plenty attachments, enough to ensure you can pretty much stick them wherever you like. We don't see the point of having much more than just the standard attachments, as the stickers included are so strong you can pretty much paste the cams to any surface.
Ion keeps it simple, coming in either the Air Pro, Pro Plus, the latter coming with a helmet and bike mount. Then there are accessories like the Wi-Fi Pod, which allows you to send a video feed straight from your camera to an iOS device, as well as transfer files.
GoPro is a bit more complex. There are things like the Surf Edition or Motorsports Edition, all of which include accessories geared towards whatever you will be using it for. You can also pick up bike mounts and even something called the Chesty, which is a bit like a chest-mounted steadycam. On its own, the GoPro comes just with a stick mount. Similar to the Podz idea, there are GoPro BacPacs, which do things like add an LCD screen and Wi-Fi controls.
A lot to choose from then, but unless you are throwing yourself out of a plane or sticking it to an F1 car, the standard mounts are usually enough. If so, the Ion grabs this one as it just comes with more in the box for a lower price, at £249, to the comparable HD Hero 2 Motorsports Edition at £280.
Who shoots better?
In the end, its video quality that really matters. Both the HD Hero 2 and the Ion can shoot 1080p video at 30fps, with a 170 degree field of view. This definitely looks impressive the first time you see it from both cameras.
It wouldn't be an action camera test without at least some sort of action, so we attached both cameras to our cycling helmet and nipped out for a ride.
Using the 3M sticky-back attachments for the HD Hero and Ion, we fixed both to our helmet. It left the thing fairly cluttered and us worrying if we had the angle right on both cameras. This was fairly fixable using the Wi-Fi Pod on the Air Pro, but the GoPro was purely guesswork. After a bit of practice you do tend to get an idea of what each are looking at without a finder though.
Cameras secured, microSD in the Ion and SD in the GoPro, we set them both to record. The Ion will vibrate when it starts recording, the GoPro beeps. We personally think something audible is better, but understand what Ion was trying to do there. Useful if you have the thing on your head as the vibrations , will carry through your helmet, even when it has run out of battery or video buffer
The combined weight of the two cameras made our helmet a tad uncomfortable, but we imagine one on its own would cause no issues whatsoever.
Now for the main course: how the actual video looks. What is immediately apparent, is the GoPro's quality. It is a lot sharper and colours more balanced. The initial side-by-side sequence in the video below makes this particularly clear. If you look at the grass, for example, you can pick up a lot more with the GoPro than the Ion.
Sadly, it's all down hill from there on for the Air Pro. Once we start moving, despite our complaints with the built in GoPro mic, the amount of wind makes the entire audio track from the Ion virtually unusable. This is a shame as when still, it is much clearer.
The coin then flips once we start moving, as the Ion appears to be picking up more detail than the GoPro. It does however suffer from some quite nasty purple fringing, if you look at the trees in the video for example.
Exposure doesn't appear to be a major issue for either camera, but the GoPro does seem to have got things slightly more correct than the Ion. It also allows you to spot meter, which is great for situations of contrasty light and dark.
In the end, the actual video appears to be a matter of taste, at 1080p that is. What it is important to remember, is that the GoPro can also shoot 60fps at 720p and 120fps at WVGA resolution, as well as featuring an ultra wide 960p mode. This gives you a lot more shooting options than the Ion and should be a pretty major deciding factor.
So when it comes to accessories and build, the Ion has a pretty big lead over the GoPro. There is just more to play with and the Wi-Fi pod in particular is a very useful bit of kit. It is also a cheaper camera overall, so worth considering should you be after a value for money action cam.
The GoPro is still king when it comes to video but at 1080p, only just. It's the choice of modes and the ability to add in your own mic that has given the GoPro the win here. Still, it could definitely do with taking a leaf out of the Ion's book when it comes to design.
Like the sound of the Ion? Or is the GoPro your thing? Let us know in the comments below ...