GoPro has been in the HD action sports and helmet cam game for some time now, with its Hero line proving a popular sight atop many a daredevil's lid. Now, you can add HD Hero 2 ($300) to the ever growing list of options now, as this is the latest (and they say greatest) incarnation to date. Last time we tested the Hero Original -- as it's now called -- against the Contour HD, but now we're pitting new against old, like for like, side by side. Not only will we discover how the new boy stands up against the camera it effectively usurps, we'll also see how it fares out in the field. Above all, we'll see whether a smattering of new recording options, and a supposedly "two times sharper" image make it worth the extra dollars.
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GoPro HD Hero 2 review


Hardware


Once you unbox the Hero 2, you'll be greeted by many of the same accoutrements as before. The packaging is the same Perspex-crowned cardboard box, the camera pride of place, while all the accessories are tucked away down below. The kit you get depends on which edition you buy, with three available at launch: Outdoor, Motorsports and Surf. We've been testing the Outdoor set, which is little more than a new name for what was previously known as the Helmet Hero.

In the box are four adhesive mount clips, an elasticated head mount, a padded helmet mount, three pivot arms, a waterproof case, a non-waterproof case door (for better audio), a battery and of course the camera. All very familiar if you own any GoPro gear, so much so that the new camera itself is almost identical too. There are subtle differences in the size of the recording LEDs, HDMI port, 3.5 Mic input and of course the product name emblazoned on the front, but aside from that they're identical, meaning that their cases are interchangeable also.

What is new with the HD Hero 2 is what's going on beneath that unassuming little case. According to GoPro, the Hero 2 is two times as powerful in every way. That means "two times sharper image" (however that's measured); 11MP Photos, up from the original's five; ten photos per second, up from three; time lapse down to 0.5 second increments, previously 1 second; max fps 120, up from 60; and 170 degrees FOV all the way up to 1080p, previously 170 stopped at 960p, dropping to 127 degrees at full resolution. Fortunately you won't be expected to pay double price for all this extra spec, but more on that later.

Mounting

Accessory-wise, the pivot arms are there to let you position the HD Hero 2 in a number of different positions, but they are somewhat fiddly, and limited in the number of angles. You have enough to get the camera extended, away from helmet obstructions, and change the mounting angle should you need to. As before, the adhesive clips cling to anything with vigor; because of this you have to be committed to whatever you are sticking it to. If you want to film your friend snowboarding, pray that she doesn't mind you slapping one of these on her board, as it'll be there almost permanently.

Sometimes clipping the camera in and out of these mounts can be difficult, especially if space is limited, or your fingers are gloved / wet / cold, which might be quite often considering this is an action sports device. Likewise, the pivot arms are screwed in place, and the little plastic screw heads can be extremely difficult to loosen manually with weather beaten fingers, mercifully the caps have an exposed Philips-head screw, so you can get a screwdriver in to do the job when your fleshy digits fail.


The tie-up helmet mount pad is great for those lids with air vents, and means you don't have to use up one of your four adhesive clips, but it does leave itself more open to loosening or coming undone, so a little bit of a trade off. The head-mount makes you feel wonderfully self-conscious when you adorn it, like some sort of techno-miner, but it's fairly comfortable and practical, which is by far the most important thing here.

In use

Once you've worked out how you're mounting it, the rest of the set-up is a cinch. Like its elder sibling, the front button controls power and cycles through menu options, while the top button selects, and of course, sets the camera rolling. Once again you have to contend with a tiny LCD screen for navigating through menus, but the interface is a little more friendly than before, with slightly clearer icons and text replacing the calculator-esque codes of before.

Kicking off basic filming is easy: simply select movie mode and press go. Once you're rolling the camera beeps and red LEDs on the front and top flash to let you know it's still going. The previous model suffered from not beeping loud enough to be heard over engine noise, and it's still the case with the Hero 2, meaning you aren't always sure it's shooting unless you can physically see it. Annoyingly, there is still no way of viewing what you've just shot until you either get home and upload it, or buy a the BacPac accessory at an extra cost. As a middle ground, if you have an iPad with a camera kit, the GoPro files play back just fine right off the bat. Other tablets should also handle them without a problem.


The resolutions available are the same as on the HD Hero Original, just with more frame rate options and FOV angles (in a forthcoming firmware update), which expands the number of stylistic possibilities. For example, WVGA mode will be able to be shot at 60 and 120fps; 720p gets three FOV options: 90, 127 and 170 unlike before where you just had the wide 170 setting; 960p gets a 48fps setting and up at the top 1080p again the two additional FOVs are now available.

The 1,100 mAh battery should see you through a good 2.5 hours of use according to its claims and in our tests it barely registered a loss of over half on the indicator while out and about, shooting regularly. Outputting the video you shot is now possible over HDMI which usurps the component cable offered with the last generation, but you'll need the lead already, as it's not supplied in the box like previously.

Video quality

The first thing you'll notice if you have the luxury of having both cameras is that the HD Hero 2 is noticeably clearer. Many people tend to think in pure numbers: megapixels, resolution and so on, but then forget that a lot of it really depends on the piece of glass the image is coming through. We noticed that images were generally sharper, but this was most visible with more complex textures such as asphalt, grass and so on.


The additional resolution settings and FOV options are more of a luxury than a necessity, but combined with the higher level of sharpness do give the device a more complete and professional feel. Audio still suffers dramatically when inside the waterproof case, and fares mildly better with the more sound-friendly door.

The color balance between the two models is also notably distinct, with the HD Hero 2 reproducing much more authentic tones compared to the Original's slightly brasher levels. Performance under lower-light levels also seemed to have enjoyed a marked improvement.

There are still times when you can sense that this is ultimately a click-and-go camera. For example, some jaggies are still noticeable at times, and white balance can be a little off on occasion, but all things considered, it generally puts in a solid performance.

The videos below were taken in two very different light situations, but give you a good understanding of how well the camera might perform under different weather conditions. The first was shot on a cloudy winter day about an hour or two prior to sundown and it holds up pretty well.


Next is some on-board (heh!) footage, we took on a brighter day. Pay close attention to the pavement, and you can see that at times definition of the asphalt isn't always crisp, but given the amount of movement this is forgivable. It's worth noting that the rocking back and forth is not due to the camera mount, but the rocking of the board it's attached to. Sudden movements such as this can make the resulting material a little unpleasant to watch, so it's worth bearing in mind when you consider your mount points.


Wrap-up

Pound for pound, the HD Hero 2 is a marked improvement, and continues very much in the advancing footsteps of its predecessors. The price is not much more than the Original when that was new at $299.99. That said, some of our gripes remain, and they might be significant enough to change your buying decision depending on your requirements.

The main one, we found, is that the camera itself is quite heavy, especially when cased and mounted. Heavy enough that when you've got one slapped on your helmet, you definitely know about it, and sudden head movements can cause you to feel a tip in the balance – somewhat off putting when mid-action.

Likewise, the mounts themselves might lend themselves to larger, smoother surfaces, but if you want to attach it to something less regular, you might struggle. Sure you can buy different mounting kits and tools, but it soon adds up. Not to mention how fiddly it can be to get set up just right too. If you need to change the camera position on the go, you might find yourself missing some of the action. This can all be negated to some degree with the right preparation, but worth considering if prep-time isn't a luxury that you might have. For the most part, GoPro has improved on what was already a popular product, so we expect newcomers to be pleased, but upgraders might want to consider if there is enough net benefit.