When it comes to making video where other cameras dare not tread, there is one leader. It's the GoPro HD Hero. Everything from gnarly extreme sports types right up to TV production companies make use of this tiny little camcorder.
While it's not especially new, we thought it was worth treating you to a review now, as a new model has been launched and the older, but still utterly brilliant HD Hero, is now a lot cheaper. We'll touch on what the new model brings a little later, but sufficed to say, this original HD Hero remains a fantastic buy, let's find out why.
The GoPro doesn't look like a normal camcorder, and that's deliberate. It is, however, very modular, which gives owners the opportunity make additions to the basic camera just by snapping extra peripherals on the back of the device. In itself, the GoPro is short and squat, and only likely to be loved by those who know of what it is capable under that silver plastic skin.
On the front of the camera is a fairly petite lens, large red LED a single button and basic LCD display. On the top, is the shutter release button.
On the back is a removable cover, under which the battery is stored. Clip on extra accessories are also available, but we'll talk about those later. An SD card slot is to be found on the side, and a push mechanism frees the card when you want to use it in a computer.
There are also AV outputs (composite and component) and a USB socket. You can both charge the camera, and copy footage off the SD card using this socket.
The Hero is nothing if not flexible in its recording formats. At the top end, you have 1080p at 30 frames per second. There is an option to switch between PAL and NTSC, in reality, you can use either, as all modern equipment will support both, and the US format is, frankly, better. If you do use PAL, then the camera will record at 1080p and 25fps.
There are also two 720p record modes. The first, is 720p at 30 frames per second (or 25, for PAL region users). There aren't many reasons to use this one, aside from the fact that it saves space, and if you're recording is going to end up on a DVD, it's more than enough resolution anyway. This mode is ideal if you want to record for very long times.
The second 720p mode is 720p at 60 (50, in Europe) frames per second. This is a real boon, and comes in to its own if you do any sort of sport. Because it has twice the frame rate of normal HD, it can easily be used to create slow motion video that looks smooth and wonderfully detailed. Snowboarders, base jumpers and bungee fans will all, no doubt, make some use of this mode at some time or other.
The GoPro also goes out of its way to accommodate people who want to include a lot of scenery. Where 1080p and 720p are both widescreen modes, the Hero also has a mode called 960p. Again, it records at 30 frames per second, but produces video that is nearly as high as it is wide. This is great for outdoor activities, where you want a lot of beautiful scenery in shot. While a lot of people won't use this mode, it's great to see the GoPro people so totally focused on giving customers a really great and unique experience.
The HD Hero also has a decent amount of still photo modes. There's a time-lapse mode, which will fire off photos every second, up to every 60 seconds. A self timer for getting photos of yourself, and your friends, doing something extreme and a multi-shot mode, for capturing three photos in rapid succession.
Photos look decent too, again, assuming there's decent light on the subject. You won't use the still images as much as the video, but it's still something that's fun to play with from time-to-time.
Modular design and expandability
By far the best idea the GoPro people had was to make their camera modular. In so doing, they allow users to upgrade as their funds and needs allow. The basic GoPro doesn't include, for example, any sort of screen. That makes setting it up tricky, but not impossible. For extreme sports the lack of viewfinder isn't an issue, but for other things it's more problematic. So, there is an extra LCD back pack that costs around £70 which takes care of all that, and improves the menu usability too.
An extra battery pack is also availalbe, and while it can't be used at the same time as the LCD screen, it does offer to double your record times if attached to the camera, but it also charges a removable battery, which can be swapped for the one in the GoPro, when it runs out of juice. Do bear in mind, of course, that the LCD monitor will drain a significant amount of power, and will reduce recording times hugely.
Impressive video, in good light
When it comes to being outdoor, the HD Hero produces some stunning video. Show it to someone without explaining what camera it has come from, and they would probably not believe it was anything but a full-size camcorder.
All of the video modes perform well. The 960p format is interesting to look at, it has niche and novelty appeal, and the distortion it produces in finished video is of value in both humorous videos, and those that take place in the great outdoors.
1080p and 720p are both beautiful, in almost all situations. Although this camera uses a CMOS 5-megapixel sensor, there's very little shutter wobble. That means your high-speed activities will be captured without it looking like the while thing was recorded through a jelly.
Things get less impressive indoors. In low, or even medium, light, the colour disappears completely and you're left with a grainy, and unnatural looking video that will have a colour bias that makes things look orange. The colour issues come from the camera's limited white balance, and could be fixed in post-production, but the low-light grain is just something you'll have to live with.
This might concern some, but most of the tests we performed left us with crisp, impressive looking video.
The sound on the GoPro is its weakest point, in all honesty. While it's usable enough, it's really not sufficient for most use. It's very biased toward the high end, and every jolt and touch to the outer case results in a loud clicking, fumbling noise.
If you want an all-round movie making tool, the sound is enough to probably dissuade most people. Of course, where the HD Hero is used with another camera, or with an external sound recorder, you can easily work around the poor audio.
Of course, the fact that it can record sound at all, especially in a waterproof housing, is quite a trick.
Waterproof or vented cases
Old techies like us here at Pocket-lint will remember a few years back (okay, fine, 10+ years, we're old, we admit it) that underwater cameras cost an arm and a leg. Indeed, to put a normal SLR or camcorder underwater now costs a huge amount of money. Here, the HD Hero does full underwater video and photos for a few hundred quid.
If you're not shooting underwater, then you have the option of fitting a vented back to the camera. This allows it to cool more efficiently and helps the produce better sound. Obviously, it's not suitable for use near water, but it does provide a decent amount of protection for rain and, of course, drops.
It's quite amazing what the cases allow you to do with the GoPro. There are some mind boggling videos on YouTube of them being left underwater for two months, shot in to near-space and dropped from a parachute at 3000ft. The HD Hero seems to survive many of these little mishaps, and tell the tale, in 1080p, after.
A choice of mounts
If you're in to messing about in the wild, then there are lots of mounts that will suit you. Drivers can opt for a motorsports mount that is attached via a suction pad to their car or motorbike. There are other mounts available too, which enable you to clamp the cameras to a variety of items.
There's a helmet pack available too. This allows you to fit the camera to a hard head protector, and suits those who throw themselves off skateboards, bikes and cliffs. If surfing is your game, there's a special mount for boards too. Don't be tempted to use the vehicle mount for water activities, it won't work and you may lose the camera.
HD Hero 2
The arrival of a new GoPro means that this model has had a price drop. As we write this, you can get the original Hero for a shade under £200.
The new model has a much improved megapixel count, up from 5 to 11. There is a 120fps shooting mode, for extreme slow-motion, at WVGA resolutions (848x480). The menu system and LCD info display are both overhauled too, which will come as a relief to those who have used the rather basic version on the HD Hero.
There are also more record lights - this is very handy, especially when the camera is mounted to something, and you want to be sure it's recording. And, there's a promised low-light improvement.
Perhaps most exciting though, is the new Wi-Fi remote and video streaming. Due to be launced in 2012, it will allow you to start the camera recording from afar - in fact, you can trigger up to 50 HD Hero2 cameras. You can also send video to your smartphone, and use it as a viewfinder. Or even stream video live online.
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We'll be reviewing the HD Hero 2 soon, but we still think the original HD Hero has a huge amount to offer, which is why we've given it such a stonking rating.
For less than £200 you can get an HD camcorder that produces vivid, high-quality, 1080p video.
The Hero isn't without some minor faults. The LCD info screen is a bit rubbish - the LCD back improves on it greatly, as well as making a good viewfinder - and the button pressing can be annoying if you're in a rush. The waterproof housing is also a little bit bothersome at times, and the clasp that locks it together is often a pain. The mounts too, can sometimes be a little bit less firm than we'd like, but using a screwdriver to fasten them can help with that.
In terms of flexibilty, the HD Hero is a piece of genius design. It's tiny enough to take all over the world, and cheap enough for you to be more bothered about losing the footage than the camera, if you drop it into the ocean.
You'll also be using a camera that's made TV productions change how they operate, and as such, it means anyone can be producing footage nearly good enough for broadcast TV.