(Editors’ Note: This review covers the GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, a previous model that’s no longer for sale from GoPro’s website but can be found in major retailers; the entry-level white edition is still available from GoPro. The Hero3 Black Edition has been replaced by the Hero3+ Black Edition, which you can read more about here.)
The professional quality images are what have made it a hit with pro photographers and cinematographers.
When GoPro founder and CEO Nicholas Woodman came up with the portable action camera concept, he tapped into two cultural zeitgeists at once. First, the relatively recent narcissistic need to document and share everything, and second, the “smaller is better” shrink-it-all movement. With its tiny size and amazingly high-resolution images (plus a flagship model capable of shooting 4K resolution), the GoPro Hero3 is perfect for capturing personal action and then sharing it. Its ultra-wide-angle lens brings the world into frame and allows people create what Woodman calls “engaging life content.”
The downside is that by viewing some of the now famous footage, some believe that the only thing standing between them and launching off a 40-foot-tall jump on a mountain bike, free-falling 24 miles from space, or leaping from a 2,000-foot high cliff in Norway is the GoPro Hero3 (White Edition, $200) camera. As we found out, that’s not exactly how it works.
Features and design
Until recently, when GoPro released the GoPro Hero3+, the GoPro Hero3 Black Edition was top dog in the GoPro Hero kennel. It features everything that has made the GoPro a favorite image capture device for the action sports crowd. At 1.2 x 2.3 x 1.6 inches the Hero3 is tiny. It weighs only 2.6 ounces (without the waterproof case), and with the right accessories it can be attached to nearly anything without much worry of it sustaining any damage. The old Hero3 Black Edition is no longer for sale directly from GoPro (although the entry-level White Edition is available), but you can still find it at a variety of places, including Best Buy, Amazon, and B&H.
While its small size is key, the professional quality images that the camera produces are what have made it a hit with professional photographers and cinematographers. The tiny size also means that some features one would expect to find on a digital video or still camera strangely absent. There is no viewfinder on the Hero3, and no onboard LCD screen for playing back video or reviewing the photos (an attachable rear color LCD is an option). It is just a box with a lens, and three small buttons. But not to worry: The lack of any visual image feedback on the camera is a thing of the past with the addition of GoPro’s new smartphone app. By pairing the Hero3 to the app (Android or iPhone) with the camera’s built-in Wi-Fi radio it is possible to view what the camera is shooting in near real-time, and simple to playback video and review photos, or save them to a smartphone photo album for immediate upload to a favorite social site.
We expected that getting the Hero3 ready to go would be easy. What we experienced was somewhat different.
The Hero3 shoots stills at 12 megapixels, however, there are more choices there as well. In photo burst mode the Hero3 will shoot up to 30 images a second. In time-lapse mode the Hero3 can be set for shooting one photo every .5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds for the epic shots of clouds rolling across the sky, or snow falling on cedars.
What’s in the box
The Hero3 Black Edition comes with the GoPro Hero3 Black Edition camera, a LI-Ion battery, a Wi-Fi remote, a waterproof housing good to 197 feet (or 60 meters), two quick-release mounts, two adhesive mounts (one curved, one flat), and a 3-way pivot arm. The White Edition lacks some of the accessories, such as the remote.
Performance and use
From the hundreds of cyclists, snowboarders, and motocrossers we’ve seen cruising around with GoPro cameras on their helmets, chests, or bikes lately we expected that getting the Hero3 ready to go would be easy. What we experienced was somewhat different. First off, no instructions are included with the camera. Not even a quick-start guide. After removing the camera from the box we found a black card that read “Visit gopro.com to dowload the Hero3 User Manual.”
After going to our computer and downloading the manual we learned that before we could begin shooting we’d need a microSD memory card (not included; although it supports Class 4 cards, you should for a Class 10) and a firmware upgrade. Luckily, we had a spare memory card, however, we spent close to an hour in front of the computer researching exactly how to “upgrade the firmware” on the camera. Great!
After finding a step-by-step how-to video on the GoPro site (and spending even more time trying to get our MacBook Pro to recognized the camera), we updated the firmware (not exactly a trivial task) and were dying to go outside and get some footage on our mountain bike. Unfortunately, the GoPro Hero3 Black Edition only ships with two adhesive mounts that stick (rather permanently) to a helmet or other flat surface. We wanted to mount the camera on the handlebars of a bike, so we had to make a run to Best Buy to purchase an additional $20 bike attachment accessory. Additional accessories are needed to attach the camera to anything other than a helmet or a flat surface. In fact, the Hero3 does not even include a standard tripod mount. That’s extra.
After getting the bike mount attached to our handlebars, we rolled out to the hills behind Boulder City, Nevada and the Bootleg Canyon Mountain Bike Park. There we learned the ons and offs of capturing video on the fly. To turn the camera on you press and hold the power button until the red light next to the button blinks and beeps three times. To power down, press and hold the button down until the light blinks and beeps seven times. To start a recording you press the shutter button once.
When the Hero3 is recording three tiny red lights slowly blink. One is on the front of the camera next to the power button, another is in the upper-left hand corner of the back of the camera, and the third is positioned on the left-end of the bottom of the camera. The idea is that no matter what side of the camera is visible there will be a red light blinking if it’s recording.
The Hero3 captures amazingly crisp, vivid, high resolution images from an almost unbelievably small camera. What it does, it does very well.
With the camera on the bars this worked fine. Had the camera been mounted on our helmet, however, it would have been more difficult. That’s one reason why the included Wi-Fi remote is a good idea. Rather than removing your helmet to check for the blinking light, the remote allows a quick status update and makes it much easier to start and stop recordings or switch modes on the camera. In fact, the Wi-Fi remote can reportedly control up to 50 different cameras from a distance of to 600 feet in “optimal conditions.” The downside is that using Wi-Fi puts more strain on the battery and the Hero3 battery seems taxed enough on its own.
During our two-hour mountain bike ride we used the camera sparingly and when we weren’t recording we turned the camera off completely. Even then we were surprised to find that the battery dead after only an hour and forty-five minutes. We only had one battery, so our day of filming ended abruptly before we even got back to the car.
After returning home and plugging the camera into our computer we learned a few more things that may be obvious to regular users of the GoPro cameras: the video files are huge. A two-minute clip shot in 960p was nearly half-a-gigabyte. We downloaded GoPro’s free editing software (GoPro Studio) and, browsing the clips, found that they played back with jumps, jitters, and skips. After some research we found that the video files need to first be converted into another file format before they will play smoothly and that the footage we shot was not recorded incorrectly. It was glitchy because our computer couldn’t keep up with the files.
We selected six or seven files for conversion and immediately got an error message telling us that there was not enough free space on our hard drive. GoPro Studio said we needed 100GB free and we only had 57. Once we cleared up the proper amount of hard drive space the GoPro Studio software worked like a dream. We were able to convert the clips, trim them, and slam them into a video, and after about 40 minutes of processing it was ready and suitable for posting on YouTube.
After editing the mountain bike footage we plugged the camera into a USB port to charge the battery (GoPro does not offer an off-camera battery charger) so it would be ready to go if we needed it. After it charged we placed the Hero3 on the corner of our desk and left it. A week later, while heading out the door on a mission to a local skate park, we grabbed the Hero3. When we tried to turn it on we got no blinking light and no beeps. After trying several times we realized the battery was dead. The battery had drained just sitting in the off position on our desk.
Before it begins sounding like we had no fun at all with the GoPro Hero3, let us get back to the smartphone app. The GoPro app is a marvel. By connecting the camera to a smartphone the Hero3 becomes a wide angle, high-resolution image capturing extension of the phone. To test it we mounted the Hero3 on a kid’s bike and had him ride around. The iPhone became our viewfinder and remote control. With a tap here or a swipe there we started and stopped recording, changed settings and modes, and viewed the photos and clips that we’d just created. More than that, we could upload any image or video directly into our phone’s photo album. With the images on the phone a whole world of possibility opens up. From the trail we could throw on some filters and blast a video out to Instagram, post it to Facebook, or just tweet it. There is no camera we’ve seen that works so seamlessly with a smartphone.
Nearly all of the issues we had with the GoPro Hero3 were the result of us being complete rookies with the camera. Guilty. Yes, we should have known that we would need additional accessories if we wanted to attach the camera to a bike. We should have been aware that a little camera this powerful would chew through the batteries in minutes and that the high-resolution video files it creates would be huge and unwieldy. But we didn’t put much time into thinking about all this before hand. And we don’t think we’re alone in that. Camera technology has progressed to the point where we’ve all gotten so used to just flipping our phones out and recording HD video that we expect all cameras to function as easily, especially since GoPro’s marketing makes it seem that’s the case. But in the GoPro Hero3’s case, it doesn’t work that way.
The Hero3 is a highly specialized camera that is optimized to capture amazingly crisp, vivid, high-resolution images from an almost unbelievably small camera. What it does, it does very well. For people who need to document and share mountain biking, snowboarding, surfing, bungee jumping, auto racing, or motocross, the GoPro Hero3 could be the perfect camera. But don’t confuse this cute little camera with one that can be thrown into a gear bag and forgotten until the next extreme adventure comes around. The Hero3 requires focus. It requires forethought and planning for both shooting and sharing. It demands having the right accessories, paying attention to firmware updates, and having a handful of fully charged batteries. Do all that, and the camera will perform epically.
One word of warning: Unless you’re a photo/editing genius, the footage you get won’t look anywhere near as rad as the stuff you’ve seen on the Red Bull YouTube channel. And the Hero3 won’t help you land any cliff drops or make you faster on your mountain bike. But it will help you record what you’re doing and let you share it to the world.
- Small size
- Crisp images in nearly all lighting conditions
- Durable waterproof case can survive almost anything
- Wi-Fi remote control
- Smartphone app
- Protune mode for cinema-style images
- Battery life is dismal
- No off-camera battery charger
- Lots of small pieces that are easy to lose
- Getting started isn’t straightforward for newbies
- Included mounts won’t cover all activities