Got an adventurous spirit? A love of video? If either of those apply to you, then you're likely well-familiar with GoPro. Heck, if you nodded "yes" to both, then there's a chance you actually even own one. Every iteration of the camera has promised to bring your chosen activity to life in more detail and clarity. So, what could the king-of-the-cams pull out of the bag this time around to inspire another purchase? The answer -- GoPro hopes at least -- is the Hero3+.
As the name suggests, this is more of an incremental revision, rather than the overhaul we saw with the last update. That's not to say there isn't anything to talk about here; there really is. But if you were hoping for 8K (c'mon, really?), or even full frame rate 4K, then sadly no dice. What you will get are better optics, a new "SuperView" mode, an improved battery and a slimmer profile (more on this later) -- all for the same price as last year's model. We jumped at the chance to get outside and see how it fares, so join us below to see the results.
Although it's more revision than revolution, the Hero3+ maintains GoPro's position at the top of the action cam market.
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If you're thinking the Hero3+ looks a hella lot like the regular Hero3, that's because it does. In fact it's near-identical, bar the small, painted "plus" symbol around the front, and a fainter icon on the power button. This means there's not so much to talk about that we didn't already cover last year, but still, there's no harm in a refresher. First up, didn't we mention it's smaller? We did, but that's when it's in the trademark waterproof housing, which has been trimmed down to reduce its overall footprint -- the actual camera is unchanged in size. A positive side effect being that Hero3 owners can upgrade their housing to the new one and reap the same benefit. So, it's a little misleading at first -- the idea that the camera is smaller -- but with the vast majority of use cases requiring the housing, it's at least mostly true. For most people, anyway. The main functional difference being that the slimmer case is now "only" waterproof to 40 meters. The previous, heavier one being rebranded as a dive case for those who wish to sink a further 20 meters.
Beyond the size, there are a couple of notable design changes to the in-box housing that are worth mentioning. If you like small buttons, then bad news, as the new case has bigger ones that are much easier to prod, especially with a gloved thumb or finger. Likewise, if you like fiddly clasps, you're outta luck. The two-stage hinge from the dive case has been replaced with a much simpler one-pop mechanism, almost reminiscent of that found back on the HD Hero2 housing. If this sounds less secure, it might well be, but in our testing it caused no problems -- your extreme mileage may vary. The only other significant difference between the two is the black frame around the lens. The dive case has rivets and is larger, while the new one is smaller, without decoration or detail. It's very flat and -- in our opinion -- more aesthetically pleasing.
As before, the power button and action LEDs are on the front (under the small LCD display). The shutter control is on the top along with an extra LED, while the WiFi toggle is on the left side as you look at the lens. On the other side is where you'll find the micro-HDMI/mini-USB connections and microSD slot (for cards up to 64GB). Port fans will observe that there's still no 3.5mm audio/mic in, which got the axe after the HD Hero2. You can, however, restore this functionality with the use of an optional $20 adapter that uses the USB connection. Around back is where you'll find the battery cover hiding the 1,180mAh cell (up from 1,050) and the Hero port for use with any of the relevant proprietary accessories (BacPacs and the like).
On the inside is the same sensor, which grabs video in a dizzying assortment of modes and frame rates. In summary, you can start as low as WVGA, and work up the ranks, including 720p, 960p, 1080p, 1440p, 2.7K and 4K. As a rule, as the resolution goes up, the number of frames-per-second options goes down. For example, in WVGA, you can grab 240 fps, while 1080p offers 24, 30, 48 and 60 (for NTSC) or 24, 25, 48 and 50 if you're a PAL kinda gal/guy.
By the time you get up to 4K, this choice has dwindled to 15 or 12.5 depending on your NTSC/PAL requirements. There's an exhaustive list on the GoPro website if you need to know specifics like, "Can I shoot 960p at 100fps?" (The answer to which is, "Yes," by the way.) You're not limited just by resolution and fps, either. "Protune" makes a return, which is a preset mode for professionals that gives more control during the postproduction stage. There are also a few different aspect ratios to choose from. If you're shooting in 2.7K or 4K, you can opt for 16:9 or 17:9 (that's 4,096 x 2,160 in 4K or 2,704 x 1,440 in 2.7K if you're keeping track). There's even good, old 4:3 when shooting in 1440p. That's your lot for video options. Actually, we lied -- it totally isn't. There are also a number of field-of-view settings to consider, with Ultra Wide available across the board, Medium when shooting between 720 and 2.7K and Narrow for 720p and 1080p only.
Amazingly, we're still not done yet. There are a couple of new options that are designed to be less technical in nature, and more about just getting that great shot. First up is the aforementioned "SuperView," which basically takes the broader, more inclusive view of 4:3 and formats it in 16:9. GoPro pitches it as the "most immersive wide angle perspective," but in lay terms it's all the footage you'd get in 4:3, just more TV-friendly (no black bars, bigger view). The other new option is the somewhat self-explanatory Auto Low Light mode, which will sacrifice frames per second when lighting conditions are poorer in exchange for a more exposed shot.
If you want to take a break from that labyrinthine video settings menu, there are always the photo options to keep you distracted. There's less change here, with 12-, 7- and 5MP modes, and time-lapse options from half a second right up to once a minute. The burst mode is a little more flexible now, with 30 photos per second as before being joined by a host of other options (30 per two seconds, 10 per second, right down to five and three per second, if you wish).
For all the obvious inner and outer similarities, there is one hardware change that is nearly impossible to spot, but promises one of the biggest differences, which is the new and improved lens. According to the marketing materials, the new optics deliver a 33 percent improvement in sharpness compared to the Hero3, despite both being f/2.8 and made from six-element aspherical glass. This we'll explore later on.
Accessories? GoPro has them. Lots. So, technically, we're not done with hardware just yet. If you're buying the Hero3+ Black Edition (which is what we're testing here), you'll get the waterproof housing, a WiFi remote (worth $80 on its own), two quick-release buckles, two sticky mounts (one flat, one curved), a three-way pivot arm and a charging cable (USB). This is less extensive than some of the bundles of old, but even so, it should be everything you need to get going.
In addition to what's in the box, GoPro launched a bevy of new accessories alongside the Hero3+. We got to try some of these out, too. So, while they'll cost you extra, there are a couple worth mentioning for sheer coolness if nothing else. The show-stealer has to be the new Jaws: Flex Clamp. As the name suggests, this is a high-tension clamp with GoPro's proprietary mount clip on top. Jaws also comes with an adjustable "neck" that will let you carve out a whole range of new angles to record from. This has the potential to really add some new perspective options, but isn't suitable for everything. We tried it clamped to a Freebord (seen in the video) and the neck adds in a lot of rocking to the video (it even fell off at the end of our run), so it's best-suited to more stable objects.
If you just want some standard first-person, or to shoot from the hip belt instead, the new QuickClip will hook onto caps without the need to wear the rather more conspicuous head strap and clips right onto the aforementioned trouser supports. Other new additions include a (revised) suction cup, a "junior" chest mount and the most simple, yet most welcome of all: updated regular tripod mounts. These have been around in official and third-party forms for some time, but it's good to see them getting the official GoPro re-working (and they're so, so handy, too).
It's quite likely you came straight here for the video samples, and we don't blame you. The GoPro's task is a simple one: to let you shoot high-quality footage from whatever angle/point of view you choose. If you didn't read the above yet, then firstly, shame on you, but secondly, it's worth knowing that there are a lot of filming options. To test every single one would keep us here until next week. We did, however, make sure that we went through all the resolutions, a variety of frame rates and field-of-view options. Ultimately, what we're interested in is the quality of the footage it grabs across the spectrum, and how easy getting that footage is. We managed to get our GoPro out in the water, and for some downhill skate action -- two fairly typical use cases -- as well as some general indoor and outdoor feature testing.
The first mode we wanted to test was SuperView. This is the marquee new feature here, and it's something that GoPro has been very excited about. The company's founder, Nick Woodman, told us that until now, he shot everything in 4:3 for the extra shooting area it captured (with 16:9 trimming off the top and bottom). This means stretching the image out if you want it to play nice with most TVs, or watching with black bars and not getting the benefit that the wider format offers. SuperView is the solution, which effectively takes everything that 4:3 would grab, and dynamically spreads it out to 16:9 at the recording stage (hopefully doing a better job than many blunt, software post-production stretches).
The idea is that the result is the best of both worlds. Purists might shudder at the thought of any unnecessary image manipulation, and we hear that. Others will love that they can get more of their experience crammed into their recordings. Our experience? It definitely does feel more "immersive," as GoPro hopes, but there's also more visual warping around the edges, as you can imagine. This is already a trademark of wide-angled shots, and SuperView just compounds that. In faster-moving action, this effect is more noticeable, but if the subject is right in the center, the broader immersive "frame" caught in this mode definitely can add to the enjoyment; it's just very case-dependent.
The second slide on the promotional PowerPoint would likely cover the Auto Low Light mode. With action cameras, the goal is usually "set and forget." So you want to make sure you have the camera in the best mode for what you're about to do. Auto Low Light mode aims to take some of this anxiety away by offering a virtual hand on the frame rate control to adjust the setting on the fly, and -- hopefully -- getting you a superior video. The results definitely do seem to come out better when light starts to fade and you're recording up in the higher frame rates. In particular, you'll notice more detail and less noise when lighting is poor. The only downside we noticed was that the color representation in this mode can sometimes be slower to adjust and settle to a natural tone. Another plus note relating to this, is the improved WiFi. Setting up your shot with the companion app is now infinitely more useable than before. Seriously, so much better we're predicting bigger smiles on more faces just on this fact alone.
One other standout claim from GoPro is that new optics offer a 33 percent improvement in image sharpness compared to the Hero3. There's obviously only one way to really assess this and that's to pit them against each other side by side. We did exactly that, and would agree that head to head, the footage from the Hero3+ not only appears sharper, but also has notably better color tones with much better brightness. In fact, the light levels alone really add to the perceived image quality. In the screen grabs below, you can see more detail in the brickwork of the buildings with the Hero3+, while the shots of the food-hall tent show how the Hero3 doesn't offer as much detail after the first few yards (noticeable on the gravel floor, particularly). What, about that new battery? Well, we're pleased to report that it does seem to make a solid difference. Owners of older GoPro cameras might have developed frugal tendencies when it comes to power management. We're still finding those hard to shake, but the difference with the new battery is decent. In our usage we got a good day's general usage out of it, which shortened to three or four hours when in more constant use. Progress, but it's still prudent to pack a couple of spares if you can.
If we were writing this section just a few weeks earlier, it would make for very different reading. Why? Because the company many considered to be GoPro's biggest competitor -- Contour -- was still in business. Alas, no more. This effectively widens the gap between the GoPro Hero3+ and everything else. There are, of course, strong contenders from Sony ($300), which just got a gentle upgrade, or Drift. Additionally, there are some notable new entrants from Garmin ($299/$399) and Toshiba in roughly the same price band that you might want to consider. There are also a bunch more affordable options from the likes of ION, Veho, Polaroid and Swann -- each with their own merits and trade-offs.
Most of the competition, however, tends to specialize in specific areas. Veho and Garmin sport built-in screens; ION offers good value; Sony trades on its brand and experience; and JVC aims for ease of use and mass-market appeal. GoPro, on the other hand, has kept things simple. It might not have the most functional form factor, or the most tempting price. But, what it does have is reliably good video quality and a metric shed-load of accessories that makes it appeal to a wide number of use cases. Dog handler? No problem, the junior chesty will fit your mutt. Base jumper? GoPro has you so covered it's almost silly. Needless to say, while there's a good deal of competition, if GoPro keeps doing what it currently does, the onus is on the rest to catch up before GoPro has much to worry about. Sure, at $399 for the top-end camera, it's not cheap. But even then, GoPro has the Silver ($299) and White ($199) editions if you don't need the absolute best specifications.
With three Hero3+ cameras to choose from (Black, Silver and White), price shouldn't be much of an issue. Nor should quality. GoPro's taken a leaf out of Apple's book and released its "best ever" camera, even if it's just an incremental update over the Hero3. But considering it shoots better video, has more options, a better battery and a smaller case, not to mention more accessories, there isn't really anything to complain about. This really is the best GoPro ever, and with a 12-month product cycle evidently in place, if you're new to GoPro, the time to buy is now. Owners of last year's model have a tougher decision to make. For some, there's not enough new here to warrant the upgrade, but the "gotta-have-its" also won't be disappointed. Ski season is nearly upon us, after all.
Daniel Orren contributed to this review.
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