Design and features
The GoPro Hero 3 is 25 per cent lighter than the previous generation Hero 2's camera. It's also 30 per cent smaller. However, all of that reduction manifests in reduced thickness, with a new depth of only 20mm. The height and width (42x60mm) are unchanged to maintain compatibility with GoPro's line of BacPac add-on modules and rear doors for the clear plastic shell.
On the front panel, you'll find the new f/2.8, six-element aspherical lens, which is supposed to offer twice the image sharpness and reduce the amount of barrel distortion at the extremes of its 170-degree field of view. However, the characteristic fish-eye look of the video and photos captured by the Hero 3 hasn't been totally removed, as it's sort of a hallmark of the action-camera style, adding a bit of drama to scenery as it speeds by.
The Hero 3 uses the same improved LCD of the Hero 2, with its monochromatic dot-matrix display. We found the screen to be easy enough to navigate, using the GoPro's combination mode/power button to change modes and the shutter release to make selections. However, there is a bit of a learning curve. Expect to spend a bit of time on your first outing just looping through the menus and getting used to where the options are. We also found the LCD to be a bit difficult to read in direct sunlight.
The front panel is also home to two indicator lights: one red, to indicate that the Hero is recording, and one blue that blinks to indicate that Wi-Fi is active. There are also smaller red indicator lights on the top, back and bottom panels that are visible from most angles.
On the back panel, you'll find the removable cover for the 1050mAh lithium ion battery. Swappable batteries are a good idea if you plan on being out shooting all day. Next to the battery door, you'll find the proprietary BacPac connection where the accessory BacPacs, such as the LCD and Battery BacPacs, connect.
On the right side of the unit (when viewed from the front), you'll find the Wi-Fi button that activates and deactivates the wireless connectivity with the GoPro app for smartphones or the Wi-Fi remote (which is included with the Hero3 Black Edition, but not the Silver or White editions). The details of how the Wi-Fi remote works have already been detailed as part of our review of the GoPro Wi-Fi BacPac. However, this built-in Wi-Fi functionality renders the Wi-Fi BacPac itself obsolete for this new generation — although, you'll still need it if you have a few older Hero 2s kicking around.
On the left side, behind a removable plastic panel, you'll find the Hero3's greatly simplified bank of connections. There's a micro-HDMI output, shrunken down from the mini-HDMI of the previous generation, and a microSD card slot, shrunken down from a full-size SD card slot for space savings. The Hero 3 doesn't come with a microSD card, but supports cards with capacities up to 64GB. Finally, there's a mini-USB port, which makes a return appearance and is used for charging and syncing. However, with the aid of optional adapter cables, this Mini-USB port can also double as a 3.5mm microphone input or an analog video output. I'd like to see GoPro doing more with less space here, but this connection scheme pretty much locks you into only using GoPro's first-party adapters, which may not be too big a deal for some users.
On the either side of the Hero 3, you'll find a small pinhole microphone for audio recording alongside your video. GoPro claims that its wind reduction algorithms have been improved for this generation. But like the previous generation, the camera comes with a swappable Skeleton back panel for its clear plastic case, which can be used to further improve audio quality at speeds below 100 mph at the expense of waterproofing.
Rough and tumble shell
The Hero 3's clear plastic shell is as much a part of the GoPro system as the camera itself, and has received an update as well to match the smaller Hero3 chassis. Now thinner than before, the Hero 3's shell also offers three waterproof buttons that pass your inputs through to the power/mode select button, the shutter release and the new Wi-Fi button.
The back panel is still removable to allow replacement, for example, with the aforementioned Skeleton door or deeper doors that accommodate the BacPac add-ons. The door also features a new two-stage lock that requires a tab to be pushed to the side before the locking mechanism can be lifted and rotated out of place. This adds a bit of extra security, keeping the camera sealed in its case, but we never really had any issues with the old, single-stage lock, so this new, sometimes incredibly difficult to open one seems a bit unnecessary. Users who often submerge their GoPro cameras might not think so.
Finally, the Hero 3's shell features a new, flat lens that is supposed to work better with the lens' reduced distortion and offer better underwater-image quality.
Like every generation of Hero shells before it, the Hero 3's clear shell is completely user-serviceable, with the ability to replace any component independently, from the lens, the door and the body itself. It also retains compatibility with GoPro's entire catalogue of mounting options.
Improved video processor
Next, we come to the improved image processor: the component of the Hero3 that most differentiates the Black, White and Silver editions.
The Black Edition has the newest, fastest processor of the bunch, packing twice the pixel-crunching horsepower of the Hero 2 that we loved so much. In addition to delivering video that is claimed to be twice as sharp as the Hero 2's, with improved low-light performance, the Black Edition is able to capture 1080p full-HD video at up to 60fps, 960p Tall HD video (4:3 aspect ratio) at up to 100fps, 720p HD at up to 120fps, and WVGA 480p video at up to 240fps, making it good for slow-motion video.
Users wanting to capture more pixels also have the option of capturing video at 1440p (4:3 aspect ratio) at up to 48fps, 4K Cinema at 12fps, or 2.7K Cinema at up to 30fps. These ultra-high resolutions are too pixel dense to be displayed on anything but the most cutting-edge monitors, and the 15fps cap of 4K Cinema almost renders it useless for anything but slow, panning establishing shots. However, I can see the 2.7K and 1440p resolutions being useful for users who want to have some extra pixels for image stabilisation or cropping software to work with.
The Black Edition can also capture still photos at up to 12MP (with 7MP and 5MP modes available) in four different modes: single-shot, time-lapse, burst and continuous. Time-lapse intervals can be set in increments ranging from every half-second to a shot every 60 seconds. Burst modes range from 3fps for one second to 30fps for a 3-second burst, snapping off 90 shots with one button press. The Black Edition also has the unique ability to simultaneously capture still photos while it's recording video, with intervals ranging from every 5 to 60 seconds.
The Hero 3 Silver Edition uses essentially the same processor as the Hero 2's, so it lacks the Protune mode and its 4K, 2.7K and 1440p video resolutions. Additionally, its 1080p video caps at 30fps, 960p at 48fps, 720p at 60fps, and WVGA at 120fps. Still photos max out at 11MP, with a maximum burst rate of 10fps over 2 seconds. The Silver Edition also lacks the ability to simultaneously capture photos while recording video.
Finally, the White Edition uses an even lower-capped processor. Its HD video caps out at 30fps for 1080p and 960p, and 60fps for 720p and WVGA. Still photos are captured at only 5MP, with a maximum burst of 3fps over a single second.
Note: be sure to play back the sample in full screen and in YouTube's HD mode to view the full-resolution video.
The flagship GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition goes head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the top of the line Contour+2, which retails for the same price. Both cameras offer great HD video quality, and both cameras ship with waterproof, ruggedised plastic shells to protect your investment. Both also feature built-in wireless connectivity with smartphone apps: GoPro uses Wi-Fi; Contour uses Bluetooth. The Contour+2 wins a round with its ability to record and embed GPS elevation and speed data into its videos, and the fact that it ships with video-editing software, while the GoPro offers neither.
However, the Hero 3's smaller chassis, on-device display and controls, superior resolutions and available frame rates make it the obvious winner in a spec battle. If you're a semi-professional or prosumer sports-camera enthusiast, taking an extra day to figure out the Hero3's more complex control scheme is totally worth the greater amount of on-device flexibility of shooting modes.
However, the AU$489.99 Hero 3 Black Edition may be too much camera for the average consumer who only occasionally hits the slopes or is only uploading to YouTube or Facebook. For those who don't need 4K video or want to hold off on buying the Wi-Fi remote, the AU$379.99 Silver Edition and AU$269.99 White Edition meet the right price points.