GoPro Hero3 Black Edition review: taking action cam quality to the next level

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GoPro's lineup of mount-anywhere cameras has been dazzling extreme sports enthusiasts for years. The original HD Hero first delivered stills and wide-angle HD video in 2009, and those capabilities improved with a higher-res sensor, faster burst mode and a wider field of view in the Hero2. Now, GoPro has rolled out the Hero3, which packs even greater performance (up to 4K video!) in a cube that's almost a full centimeter thinner than its predecessors.

What kind of powerful imaging gear did the company boffins shove in that diminutive package? Just how pro do videos from the new GoPro look? To find out, we took a Hero3 up in a jet, strapped it to the roof of a car and recorded a base jump out of a hot air balloon (from the safety of the basket, of course). Join us after the break to see the results and find out how we got along filming with the Hero3.


We received a Black Edition Hero3 for this review, which is GoPro's top-of-the-line camera packing an f/2.8 wide-angle lens in front of a 12-megapixel sensor and built-in WiFi. That lens / sensor combo lets you shoot in 4K at 12 fps, 2.7K at 30 fps, 1440p at 48 fps, 1080p at 60 fps, 960p at 100 fps, 720p at 120 fps and WVGA resolution at an incredible 240 fps. So, no matter how you like to get your video gnar -- via super-hi-res or super-slow-mo footage -- the Hero3 Black Edition can give it to you.

GoPro hasn't changed the look of its cameras much since the introduction of the original HD Hero. Prior Heroes are silver boxes with stubby fisheye lenses jutting out next to a 2-centimeter monochrome LCD display on the front. The Hero3 measures 58 x 40 x 21mm (2.28 x 1.57 x 0.82 inches) , while the Hero2 checks in at 60 x 42 x 30mm (2.36 x 1.65 x 1.18 inches). Aside from being thinner than its predecessors, however, the Hero3 is no longer clad in all silver. Instead, it's coated in smooth soft-touch black plastic on the back and a textured version of the stuff on its sides. Not only does this make the camera easier to hold, but it also provides a nice visual contrast -- not to mention it's a finish that'll hold up better to the rough and tumble lifestyle most Hero3's will lead.

GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

Additionally, the power / mode switch on the front and record button up top have grown to roughly twice the size of those found on elder GoPros, a welcome change, especially for those with stubby fingers. A pair of LED indicators -- one red to serve as a power / shooting indicator and one blue to tell you the WiFi's on -- and Hero3 branding take up the rest of the space on the camera's front. Smaller secondary LEDs doing double duty as both power / record and WiFi indicators are on the top, bottom and back as well, so extreme auteurs can keep abreast of the camera's doings from any viewing angle.

Located on the right side are micro-HDMI and mini-USB ports along with a microSD slot. On the left resides a small WiFi key, the microphone and a trio of pinholes that serve as an outlet for audio alerts. The beeps emanating from there tell you when the Hero3 is powered up and inform you when you've started eating up space on your memory card with photos or video recordings. There's also a trough for latching on an external battery or LCD touchscreen BacPac.

GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

The rear is where you'll find the battery door, which, should you manage to pry it open with your fingernails or a business card, reveals a 1,050mAh rechargeable cell. Next to the door is the company's proprietary 30-pin Hero port for connecting the camera to either of the aforementioned BacPacs.

Overall, the Hero3's build quality is exemplary.

Overall, the Hero3's build quality is exemplary. All of its components are well-fitted, with no unsightly seams or blemishes to be found. What's more, the WiFi, power and record buttons all have a nice, deep travel and engage with a satisfying snick. Such solid construction imbues a sense of confidence that it can take the abuse it'll doubtlessly receive when in the field. Our only complaints with the design are the size of the WiFi key (gloved or ham-handed users may find it difficult to press) and the lack of some sort of tab, notch or spring to help open the battery door. The latter issue is particularly vexing as the camera's meager battery life had us swapping cells during lengthy shoots, a shortcoming discussed in more detail below.


GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

Every Hero3 also comes with GoPro's venerable waterproof housing. It's like the old model, except the lens window is flat and square (for reduced image distortion) instead of domed and round, while the latch that holds it closed is a dual-hinge articulating design that's more secure than the previous model. Naturally, the case is also thinner to accommodate the svelte profile of the Hero3, though it has the same interchangeable backplate design as its precursors. Swapping backplates isn't terribly difficult once you get the hang of it, but the amount of torque required to pop them in and out is somewhat disconcerting -- it's foreseeable that one could snap off a plastic mounting clip in the process.

A pair of adhesive mounts, assorted mounting hardware and a three-way pivot arm -- all backwards compatible with old GoPro hardware -- are included with the Black Edition, as is a WiFi remote capable of controlling up to 50 GoPros at a time. GoPro says the remote works up to 600 feet away in "optimal conditions" but in our clearly less-than-optimal neighborhood, range was limited to about 120 feet. Should the $400 price tag of the premier Hero3 model prove too much, silver ($300) and white ($200) editions are also available. These lower-priced models don't come with the WiFi remote, which costs $80 on its own, and also have downgraded lenses and sensors. Both top out at 1080p recording at 30fps, with lesser frame rate recording at lower resolutions than the Black. Stills are also limited to a max of 11 megapixels in the Silver Edition and 5 megapixels in the White Edition.

GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

In addition to the standard Black Edition kit, we also got to use GoPro's $40 wall charger, $40 Frame mount and $80 LCD touchscreen BacPac. While the 5V Wall Charger's a nice luxury for world travelers with its selection of international plug attachments and dual USB output, it's hardly necessary given that the majority of us already own a USB charger or two. The Frame mount is similarly superfluous, as it leaves the Hero3 susceptible to the destructive powers of the great outdoors in exchange for a thinner and lighter profile than the bombproof case the camera comes with. The LCD BacPac is quite the useful add-on, however, as it lets you change camera settings more easily than using the cam's buttons. Plus, it enables users to immediately review images, video and even audio using its tiny built-in speaker or 3.5mm headphone jack.


GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

GoPro provides rudimentary editing software, called Cineform Studio, as a free download on its website. The program provides basic tools to trim clip length, rotate clip orientation, adjust white balance, contrast, sharpness, exposure and saturation. Its main purpose is to create 3D videos should users have two older Heroes and a 3D Hero System housing. We didn't have the dual shooters needed to create a 3D video, but we did find the software quite easy to use for trimming and adjusting our clips. That said, it currently lacks the ability to string together multiple clips and transition between them -- though GoPro has pledged to add more editing features to the software in the future -- so you're best served sticking with your existing video editing program of choice.

GoPro has also released a free, self-titled app for iOS and Android that turns your handset into a remote control for the Hero3. Connecting your phone to the camera is a simple, if multi-step affair. First, users should upgrade the camera's firmware through the GoPro website, during which you name the WiFi network and set the password for the ad-hoc network the camera creates. With that accomplished it's simply a matter of turning on the Hero3's WiFi and connecting a handset to that network.

Once connected, the app provides both a real-time preview (on about a 1.5-second delay) of the camera's field of view and a full suite of controls for the Hero3. That means you can start and stop recording, switch between shooting modes, change resolution and frame rate, delete pictures and clips, and even check the camera's battery status and remaining SD card space. The only feature it lacks, a rather glaring omission in this editor's opinion, is the ability to review photos and videos. That said, it's straightforward to use, and we were thankful for it during our testing -- like using the LCD BacPac, it's far less time consuming and easier to change settings in the app than it is cycling through and selecting options using the hardware buttons on the camera or WiFi Remote.


Because the Hero3 Black Edition is an action camera, and GoPro's halo device at that, we used it to shoot some proper action, including filming from a hot air balloon, in a fighter jet and taking it for a drive through the Marin headlands just north of San Francisco. Before getting started, we charged up our Hero3 in a little over two hours and popped in a microSD card (not included). Upon the advice of GoPro's boffins, we set up our camera at 1440p48 for shooting the flight portions, while the road test was shot in 960p48 -- all of our videos were shot in a wide 170-degree field of view.

We also did our shooting using GoPro's standard settings, though recording using the ProTune format is also an option. Why? Well, recording using ProTune is really for filmmakers, as it encodes video at a much higher data rate (45 Mbps) and uses a special, wider-gamut color profile developed by Technicolor to provide more editing flexibility in post-production. While those expanded options are sure to be appreciated by film pros, such capabilities weren't needed for this review.

2.7K is the maximum resolution for capturing quality video -- recording in 4K is really just a novelty.

GoPro claims that the Black Edition's lens is twice as sharp as previous GoPros, and the upgraded sensor provides improved low-light performance. During testing, the Hero3 performed well, as captured footage was bright and clear at all resolutions. However, 2.7K is the maximum resolution for capturing quality video -- recording in 4K is really just a novelty. Results are choppy, with borderline unusable footage due to a low, low 12 fps frame rate. Color reproduction is good, though the Hero3 did take a few seconds to correctly calibrate colors when transitioning from a poorly lit area into daylight in a continuous shot.

The camera performed similarly well when shooting stills, providing bright, vibrant wide-angle shots. However, the lack of fine-tuned controls prevent it from becoming a camera replacement, and without the GoPro app or the LCD BacPac showing you what the camera sees, it can be difficult to frame photos.

In order to see how far GoPro hardware has come, we did a side-by-side comparison shoot with the original HD Hero and the Hero3. Doing so showcases the new sensor's improved low-light performance, as the Hero3 reveals more detail in shadowy and dark spaces, though that was at the expense of blowing out some other portions of shots in mixed lighting. The Hero3 also provides more accurate, if sometimes warmer, color reproduction than the original Hero as well. Audio recorded by the Hero3's mic is decently clear and free of distortion, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that wind noise wasn't a problem during our testing, whether the camera was in its waterproof case or not. Naturally, should you wish to use an external mic, GoPro offers a 3.5mm to mini-USB adapter sold separately for 20 bucks.

While the results produced by the GoPro were some of the best we've seen from an action camera, its battery life leaves something to be desired. Its diminutive 1,050mAh cell lasted us half a day during intermittent use (fiddling with settings, shooting pictures and video, and repeated power cycling). And using WiFi and the LCD BacPac resulted in dramatically worse battery life -- the well ran dry in under an hour. Additionally, we didn't find the battery meter to be particularly useful, as the three bars provide only a vague impression of the amount of juice left. We highly recommend carrying around an extra battery or two ($20 bucks each) or grabbing the battery BacPac for $50 if you plan on doing all-day shoots.

The competition

GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

The action camera market has seen a spate of new entrants in the past year, most notably the Contour+2, which matches the Hero3's $400 price. However, the +2 is a much larger camera, and provides lesser recording capabilities than the newest GoPro. The Hero3 provides higher frame rates at all resolutions, records usable video at up to 2.7k resolution with a 170-degree FOV, while the Contour maxes out at 720p to deliver the same FOV. That said, the +2 does provide a lower, sleeker profile than the boxy GoPro when mounted, and it has some superior design features like its sliding power / record switch, rotating lens and alignment laser.

Other options include Sony's Action Cam, a $200 option that significantly undercuts the Hero3 on price while packing 1080p recording and WiFi in a similarly small device. However, the Sony can't match the Hero3's resolution, frame rates or general imaging performance. Drift and ION are other options that provide 1080p recording in barrel-shaped shooters for $370 and $350, respectively, but they lack the Hero3's higher-resolution and high-frame rate capabilities.


GoPro HD Hero3 Black Edition review taking action cam quality to the next level

GoPro's Hero3 Black Edition is, put simply, the most capable action camera on the market today. It delivers unparalleled resolution from a camera of its size and does so without sacrificing frame rate or field of view. Despite its meager battery life and less-than-ergonomic shape, the Hero3 provides imaging performance superior to all of its competitors at a price that won't break the bank.

Myriam Joire contributed to this review.