The GoPro phenomenon: what the world-beating little 1080p vidcam can (and cannot) do. And what's new and different in the GoPro Hero2 (by Conrad Blickenstorfer; most video and stills by Carol Cotton)
Doesn't it always work that way: we had compiled a very detailed review of the GoPro Hero and published it mid-October 2011. And then, just a few days later, GoPro introduced the Hero2. Fortunately, the Hero2 is similar enough that much of our original Hero review remains valid. There are, however, also rather substantial improvements, and so we'll use this review to both explain and highlight the concept of the GoPro Hero, and also how the latest Hero2 model differs from the original.
When I first got a GoPro, I was impressed with the small size of the camera (2.3 x 1.6 x 1.2 inches) and certainly dazzled by all the mounting hardware it came with. But while the GoPro is tiny, it isn't particularly elegant or high-tech, and compared to all those waver-thin compacts it's actually a bit stout. But somehow its small, boxy shape resonates with people. They love it.
Who and what is GoPro? GoPro was started in 2002 by a surfer who wanted to have a camera to take along surfing. The name came from many a surfer's wish to "go pro," and "hero" stems from making people feel like heros when they could record and show their stunts. The original GoPro actually still used film, even in 2005. The second did silent 10 second digital video, the third had an SD card slot and 3 megapixel, the fourth, in 2008, had a wide angle lens, could do 5mp stills and VGA video. Then came the big step to high definition video and today's HD Hero 960 (960p video), Hero (1080p video), and now Hero2 (faster, more video and still modes, overall better).
Technology, however, is only part of the GoPro story. The real innovation was all the mounting systems the company made available. Starting with surfing and paddling, auto racing quickly followed, and that required different mounting. Then it was helmets, ski poles, motorcycles, and finally general outdoor sports. The ready availability of mounting brackets and systems, combined with the small boxy form factor, meant that the GoPro camera was used in very innovative ways, which brought a lot of publicity, which made it even more popular in many high-profile applications. The Discovery Channel uses it for "Deadliest Catch" and "Gold Rush," and National Geographic and LucasFilm use it too, or you can watch incredible footage of a race car barreling up the Pikes Peak hill climb, setting a world record (see here), and so on.
The GoPro Hero2 1080p video camera
The GoPro is almost a paradox. We expect advanced technology to come in spectacular, expensive packages, yet the GoPro is anything but. The little matte-silver plastic housing even of the latest Hero2 is very basic, with just two buttons, and no display other than a tiny black & white status LCD. There's a mini-USB port, mini-HDMI, a composite jack, one for an external microphone, and a special Hero expansion port. That's it.
GoPro cameras, however, do come with a lot of stuff. There's LOTS of mounting hardware in each of the three available packages (there are Outdoor, Motorsports, and Surf editions). There are cables. And the GoPro even comes with a waterproof housing. Yes, the housing is included in the basic package. So you get a 1080p HD video camera with plenty of accessories and an underwater housing good for 200 feet for less than you pay for a compact camera's underwater housing alone!
Below you can see what all comes with the GoPro Hero2 package:
Operating the camera isn't as simple as using a conventional digicam. That's because the GoPro doesn't have any controls other than the two unmarked buttons. There are no icons, there's no zoom, no playback button, nothing of the sort. Changing settings, though, is much improved with the Hero2 and you no longer have to have the instructions at hand to decipher cryptic codes as was the case with older Heros.
Almost everyone has the same initial reaction to Hero video. It's terrific. And still shots, too, are much better than you'd expected from this simple little box. The very wide angle lens makes for a fisheye view with a cool in-your-face action effect.
How is the Hero2 different from the original Hero?
This is the question we're asked most often. On the outside, the Hero2 looks almost identical, but a closer examination shows a number of subtle differences. For example, the Hero2 has three additional recording lights (top, back, bottom) so you know when it's actually recording without looking at it from the front. The ports and lens have changed as well. In the comparisons below, the Hero2 is always on the right:
Considerably more important are the specs. GoPro likes to keep things simple, and so their claim is that the new Hero2 has twice the processing power, more than twice the image detail, and its glass is twice as sharp. That's all rather hard to quantify without additional data. So let's take a quick look at the respective specs:
GoPro Hero2 vs. Hero: Modes and Features
medium (127°)/wide (170°)
medium (127°)/wide (170°)
14mp Aptina MY9F002
5mp Aptina MT9P006I12STC
10 pics per second
3 pics per second
Now we're getting somewhere: The underlying Ambarella chipset of the Hero2 is two years newer, runs at more than twice the speed, and is entirely more powerful and feature-rich than the Hero's older A2S chip. That means that the Hero2 can do tricks the original Hero just couldn't do. Like running 960p video at a faster 48 frames per second, or 848 x 480 WVGA at a blistering 120 frames per second for very cool slow motion video.
The Hero2's imager itself is new as well. While the old one was a 5mp Aptina model, the new one supposedly offers full 14mp resolution. That doesn't mean you get 14mp pictures with the Hero2, though. Instead, you have your choice of 5, 8 and 11mp stills in various angles. That is a bit weird as you'd expect full 14mp pics. There is one undeniable advance, though: there's now a new "narrow" 90 degree mode in 1080p video, which means you can shoot without the wide angle fisheye effect if need be.
Below is side-by-side video with the Hero2 on the left and the original Hero on the right. The good news for owners of the original Hero is that at least in this small size, you really can't see much of a difference between the two. The Hero2 does significantly better in low light, but it's really in the new video modes and when viewed on a big screen that the differences become noticeable.
What has changed drastically is the onscreen menu. The cryptic codes of the Hero have given way to a vastly improved text/icon interface that is very easy to use. We compiled the Hero2 menu tree for you (click the picture for a full-size PDF version):
Our underwater experiences with the GoPro
Our initial experiences with the original GoPro were mixed. We first took the GoPro on an 8-day expedition to the Islas Revillagigedos, a remote group of islands about 250 miles south-west off Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and one of the most remote places you'll ever see. Our above-water video was excellent, but 20 minutes of recording giant mantas, pretty much once in a lifetime footage, was blurry and out of focus, all of it. That was a major bummer as we'd left other video gear behind to give the GoPro a shot, and it let us down because someone didn't think the housing optics through.
The picture below is representative for what we got. It looks halfway decent shrunk to this small size, but the full-size version is totally blurry and out of focus. As was all underwater video. Given our majestic subjects, and how rarely you see them, that was quite frustrating.
We analyzed everything, wondered what we might have done wrong, examined any possible settings, then tried again. Same result. Blur, out of focus footage of sharks and giant manta rays. We tried several more times, and, adding insult to injury, the GoPro's already somewhat marginal battery conked out, yielding no more than a few minutes per charge towards the end of the voyage. Not a good start for the GoPro.
We did, however, get enough video for a decent movie of the trip. Note the huge difference between above water and underwater video:
Back from the trip we instantly went on eBay and ordered a real battery charger (the GoPro charges via USB cable, a notoriously unreliable charging method) and two extra batteries. That solved the power problem (but only to some extent; eBay batteries are notoriously iffy, and we'd definitely recommend to buy the real thing from GoPro).
We then took the GoPro along on our next product review dive trip, this time to Cancun where we dove the wreck of the 165-foot C58 mine sweeper in strong currents. The GoPro was certainly much more handy than the big and bulky camera and video gear we usually take along. Unfortunately, the result was the same: blurry, out of focus video.
We later found that the underwater housing that comes with every GoPro, and that GoPro says is good for depths to 200 feet, really cannot be used for underwater video. Why? Because the housing's curved dome lens keeps the camera from focusing underwater. Apparently that's been a known issue pretty much ever since the GoPro Hero came out. Scubaboard has hundreds of posts about it. And there are a number of fixes. In essence, you need a flat dome.
GoPro really should alert customers to this on its website or on the package. You cannot claim a waterproof case that's good for 200 feet and then neglect to tell customers that the housing will keep the camera from focusing underwater. That is more than just an omission. I really would have liked to know ahead of time that taking the GoPro to film one-of-a-kind shots of half a dozen giant mantas would not work. Even with the Hero2, GoPro still does not alert customers to this issue. If you dig deep, one of the product FAQs says that "Please note that due to the curved lens of the HD HERO2 (and the original HD HERO) waterproof housing you will notice a slight loss of sharpness with underwater images."
That is not good enough. It is NOT a slight loss. It makes the camera unusable underwater. And it creates the impression that as of now, for a company that is into extreme sports and makes a terrific product (AND advertises its housing for underwater use), GoPro is not very familiar with scuba.
Anyway, I researched available third party solutions, and here are some of them (all work with the original Hero and the new Hero2):
Snake River Prototyping offers the BlurFix adapter, the most professional looking solution of the lot. It's a precision-crafted aluminum adapter that leaves the GoPro housing's existing dome intact, but puts a flat-plate glass lens in front of it. This means a sealed air space that's potentially subject to fogging, but SnakeRiver guards against that by including a rounded groove for ceramic desiccant balls. The dome can also accommodate screw-on color filters to adjust for underwater conditions. There's a bit of vignetting in the 960p mode, none in all the others. The adapter with a clear filter costs US$77. Mounted on a housing it runs US$139.
Eyeofmine.com offers a flat lens with a custom dome that replaces the stock curved lens. Eyeofmine does the modification and sells the complete standard or wrist housing good for 100 feet (US$79) or 200 feet (US$99). The glued-on fix is not pretty, looks more like a science project, and the acrylic lens is prone to scratching, but the fix definitely works and there isn't any vignetting in any of the recording modes other than a bit in 960p.
aquapixs.com offers a glass (44 Euros) or plastic (30 Euros) replacement lens for the GoPro. The plastic lens is made of Makrolon and is said to be good for 190 feet. You simply unscrew the dome on your housing, replace the stock dome lens with the flat one from AquaPix, and you're done. There is, however, vignetting in all modes except R5 1080p.
Mako offers the MAKO Flat GoPro Housing Lens for just US$21.95 for those who don't mind the do-it-yourself approach. You simply replace the stock lens with the one supplied by Mako that's supposed to be totally vignette-free in the 1080p R5 setting. In lower resolution settings, the camera viewing angle is increased and the outer edges of the housing lens become visible in video and images.
Sartek offers a full replacement housing with a elegant black replacement dome ring and a glass lens. US$100 for the housing with lens. It's advertised as good for 240+ feet and free of vignetting in the 1080p R5 setting.
There's also the Oculus flat lens; it consists of a flat plastic lens and a replacement dome ring. It is sold via eBay and usually costs about US$35. It's advertised as good for 230 feet and free of vignetting in the 1080p R5 setting.
The above are by no means all of the solutions. Do note that simple replacements of the stock rounded lens will result in vignetting (i.e. the camera sees part of the flat housing lens, which results in rounded corners) in settings other than the 1080p. If you intend to use the camera in all of the recording modes, you need a fix that replaces the entire dome.
We opted for the EyeOfMine solution. It arrived very quickly and testing in the pool showed a huge difference compared to the standard housing. Video and pictures were now in focus underwater. Click on the picture below for a larger version.
While GoPro inexplicably so far has failed to alert divers to the underwater housing focusing problem, they did show an optional flat lens housing at the 2011 DEMA show in Orlando. The prototype shown didn't looked particularly elegant, but we haven't seen the final version yet. We offered GoPro to test a preproduction unit on a December 2011 dive product review trip, but they could not make one available.
Anyway, with a solution at hand (the EyeOfMine housing), we took the original Hero on another dive trip to the Islas Coronados just south of the border in Mexican waters. On a shallow, rocky dive site we were literally mobbed by curious sea lions, pups all, who darted all around us. It was a mesmerizing experience, and finally we had sharp underwater video! See for yourself:
Having resolved the blur issue with the EyeOfMine housing, we then took the Hero2 for a week's worth of diving to the Honduran island of Roatan. The video below, shot mostly at 720p/60fps, is a compilation of dive scenes:
In Roatan (we stayed at CoCo View Resort, see review) we tried all sorts of things with the GoPros (a Hero2 and two original Heros with a 3D housing). We explored the insides of a wreck to check low-light performance of the Hero2, and also how the white balance reacts. What we found there was that the Hero2 did significantly better than the original Hero, but there are some limits and physical realities underwater that are hard to overcome. For example, colors disappear the deeper you go, and then everything starts looking just greenish. That's why cameras designed to be taken underwater usually have special underwater modes that compensate for the loss of color. They do it mostly by adding reds back in.
Not specifically designed to be used underwater, the Hero2 doesn't compensate for the loss of colors down there. For that, you'd need selectable white balance modes or some sort of setup setting, or the camera would need to know how deep it is (which would require a pressure sensor). For now, a filter is your best bet, and some of the third party replacement case providers also offer filters.
Note, however, that you can get very good color underwater if you use a video light to illuminate the scene (see picture of the moray eel below). We experimented with a variety of video lights and torches, including Liquid Image head-mounts, Bonica dual video lights (shown in picture to the right), and a SeaLife video light. There are also compact LED video lights that you can mount the Hero on directly.
BacPac LCD display
One of the problems with the GoPro, old and new, is that it doesn't have a display. Thanks to the wide lens angle that's not too much of a problem as one tends to get the proper footage anyway. And many GoPros spend most of their recording time mounted on something, like a race cars or skateboard, where aiming isn't much of an issue. Me, I still missed an LCD to see what I am actually recording, and so, apparently, did enough other GoPro users for the company to release a "BacPac" LCD module for the GoPro in September of 2011. We ordered one the day it came out, and here's how it looks and works:
The LCD module cleanly snaps onto the back of the GoPro, doesn't need any wires or anything, and even comes with waterproof and non-waterproof backdoors for both the standard and the wrist-mount housing. It costs US$79, a virtual steal. The LCD does need a new firmware version, which you can easily download from the GoPro website, put on a SD card, and then install.
Once that is done, you don't only have a very nice 2-inch display with decent viewing angles and brightness. And since the BacPac shows the Hero2's hugely improved menu interface, setting up and using the camera is so much easier, and you also have playback. Learning how to use the BacPac, though, still means memorizing which of the by now three buttons to push short or long.
RAM Mounts for the GoPro
While the folks at GoPro offer all sorts of very clever mounts for the Hero and there are a good number of third party mounting options in addition to that, serious GoPro users should also look at what's available from RAM. RAM's been making mounting solutions for computers, cameras, GPS systems, etc., for many years, and their patented rubber ball and socket system is absolutely the best. Nothing else grips like it, and nothing else is as easy to adjust and versatile as the RAM mounts. RAM has high-quality GoPro mounting solutions that work with just about anything and anywhere (see the RAM GoPro page), and their industrial strength stuff is the answer where the smaller plastic mounts won't do.
3D video with the GoPro
You can actually do 3D video with the GoPro. But it's not that easy. First, you need two Hero or Hero2 cameras (and it must be two of a kind) and the special 3D kit from GoPro. The kit includes a special dual-camera housing with a connection cable that synchronizes the video. Free GoPro CineForm Studio software is used to combine the left and right video file into a 3D video file that can then be viewed on a 3D-capable TV or one of the 3D-capable video viewing sites.
Since GoPro's stock 3D housing suffers from the same underwater blur as the standard underwater housing, we procured a special flatlens 3D housing from EyeOfMine. And though we had hoped to shoot 3D underwater video with the new Hero2, GoPro informed us in December of 2011 that 3D did not work yet on the Hero2. GoPro, though, was kind enough to make a second original Hero available to us, and so we recorded a bunch of scuba 3D video.
We are not done yet with the 3D GoPro video project and plan on reporting on it in more detail sometime soon. For now, suffice it to say that 3D is not trivial, and though there are now a lot of 3D movies and TVs, it's far from certain if the technology will really catch on.
Check the picture in the sidebar of our GoPro 3D rig that we used in conjunction with a SeaLife video light.
Ambarella: What makes the GoPro go
While the components that made the GoPro happen come from all sorts of sources (Micron/Aptina makes the imager, TI the audio codec, Hynix the NAND Flash, and so on), what makes it all happen is the HD video compression hardware and software by Ambarella.
Ambarella specializes in low-power, high-definition video compression and image processing. Essentially they paved the way from legacy MPEG-2 encoding to the next-gen H.264 encoding technology. The purpose of H.264 was to provide good-enough video at much lower bit rates than MPEG-2. Ambarella sought to provide solutions that enabled low-cost hybrid video-still cameras. To that extent, Ambarella created single chip H.264 encoders. Apparently, Ambarella decided on a smart enough business strategy to emerge as a, or perhaps the, leader in the category of inexpensive hardware/software engines to drive a new generation of next-gen, incredibly compact video cameras that can also take pictures. About 400 people work for Ambarella these days, 100 of them at the Silicon Valley headquarters. For the most part, Ambarella makes chips, but they are also getting closer to providing full products, and already offer hardware/software development platforms.
None of this is totally new; it's just that it took companies like Ambarella and GoPro to really make it take off. Inexpensive vidcams that could record at amazingly high resolutions had been available at Walmart and other low price outlets for years, but those products rarely managed to rid themselves of the reputation of being cheap gadgets with marginal picture and overall quality. Which was too bad as a genuine revolution was indeed underway. In essence, what happened was a fortuitous convergence of a) CMOS sensors that have become powerful enough to generate decent high-resolution video, b) the emergence of SD and microSD cards with capacities large enough to replace large, bulky and expensive tape or hard drive storage, and c) efforts like Ambarella's that provided super-fast, efficient compression on the fly. All of this technology means that all of a sudden, a decent CMOS sensor, a lens, ancillary circuitry and storage all fit into a very small place at a very low cost, and it was capable of producing results that rivaled and often blew away what was possible with much more expensive conventional video gear.
And we ain't seen nothing yet. The wondrous full 1080p HD video of today is already being surpassed with 60 frame per second 1080p, high-speed RAW capture of 16-megapixel images at 30 fps (Ambarella's new A7L system-on-chip can already do this -- see here), and 2160p video. Maybe you'll soon see it all in a GoPro Super-Hero.
What's inside the GoPro Hero2?
Taking a peek inside the Hero2 is easy enough (not that we recommend it, of course). Just undo four tiny Philips head screws holding the top and bottom of the plastic case together. Gently flipping up the bottom part of the case reveals a jam-packed inside with three sandwiched circuit boards taking up all real estate.
To take the whole assembly out of the front half of the housing you need to open three more screws, one of them quite recessed. Now you can see that the GoPro guts are quite complex, with three tightly packed circuit boards sitting on top of each other. While the Hero2 looks almost the same on the outside, the electronics inside are all new. And note the metal heatsink due to the much more powerful new Ambarella processor.
The GoPro Hero2...
So there you have it. The GoPro is sort of an unlikely success story that represents determination and innovation at its best, and the new Hero2 is better yet with its better lens, larger imager, and faster, more powerful processor. The little 1080p high definition camera works, and it works amazingly well. Not even the sky's the limit for all you can do with it. Yes, they're still not telling divers that the waterproof housing can't actually be used underwater without a third-party fix or the soon-available optional flat-lens underwater housing, but anyone who can't figure that out probably isn't GoPro material to begin with. Now let's hope some big company won't come along, snatch up GoPro, and then shut it down like Cisco did with the Flip.
Terrific HD video and very good still pictures.
Very useful new video and still modes.
Better low-light performance.
HDMI port and 3.5mm external microphone port.
More expensive than the original Hero, but still a good value.
Lots of mounting gear and waterproof housing included.
Tiny and light; fits everywhere.
Much improved onscreen interface.
Extra recording lights so you know when you record.
Numerous uses, connects easily to TVs, computers, etc.
Optional snap-on BacPac LCD works great.
Not so much:
Standard waterproof housing is useless underwater because the curved dome lens makes for blurry video.
Lack of white balance or scene settings requires filters underwater.
Camera remains cumbersome to operate with just two buttons.
Would prefer a standard charger to the USB charging.
Battery is undersized.
Difficult to aim without LCD.
Specs GoPro Hero2
Ultra-compact HD video camera
Camera: plastic; Housing: acryllic
Housing: Max depth 200 feet (we tested to 125 feet)
Camera: 2.4 x 1.6 x 1.2 inches
Camera: 3.3 oz. as tested; camera with housing: 6 oz.
Ambarella A5S 528MHz ARM11
1/2.3" CMOS Aptina MY9F002
Max pixel size
3840 x 2800 (wide)
3200 x 2400 (medium)
2592 x 1944 (medium, wide)
Movie recording modes
30fps at 1920 x 1080 pixel
48fps at 1280 x 960 pixel
30fps at 1280 x 960 pixel
60fps at 1280 x 720 pixel
30fps at 1280 x 720 pixel
120fps at 848 x 480 pixel
60fps at 848 x 480 pixel
The pictures below are comparisons between the Hero (left) and Hero2 (right). You can't see the differences in the small, so click on them to see larger versions. In each comparison, note the percentage magnifications.
In the first picture above you can see that the viewing angle is about the same, though with the Hero2 you get 11mp versus just 5mp in the original Hero.
In the second comparison above, we zoomed in to 200%. Since the Hero2 has more pixels, you get a larger image.
In the third comparison above we zoomed to that the car was the same size in each picture. This way, the higher resolution of the Hero2 makes for a much sharper picture.
In the picture above, we shot the same subject with the Hero2 in 5mp and 11mp wide. You definitely get much larger pictures with the new 11mp mode.
Above are 5mp pictures from the Hero2 (left) and the original Hero (right). The Hero2 image looks much better and much cleaner when you zoom in.
Exptreme closeup of text in 5mp wide Hero2 (left) and Hero (right) pictures. Note the much cleaner image of the Hero2 with far fewer compression artifacts.
Now here's a headscratcher: we'd have expected the Hero2 11mp wide picture (right) to be the best and cleanest of all, but the 5mp Hero2 picture (left) is actually cleaner with fewer artifacts. So for now, unless sheer image size matters, the 5mp wide makes the best Hero2 still images.