One of the big selling points of the new HD Hero3+ is that the case is about 20% smaller than the case of the standard HD Hero3. When you pick it up, the size difference really isn’t that apparent, but when you compare the two, it’s clear where they made the cuts. More importantly, though, they’ve also managed to drop the weight by more than a full ounce. Again, that might not sound like a lot, but these things are built to wear during sports, and ounces do make a difference. Smaller is better here.The size of the actual camera is exactly the same, which is good, because it means it works with all the accessories and cases made for the HD Hero3. The battery is also the same.
In the box
GoPro doesn’t exactly shortchange you on accessories for your $400, but at the very least you’ll need to get a microSD card up to 64GB. That’s really the only thing that you’ll need in addition to what’s in the box to get you shooting.The camera’s waterproof housing is good to depths of 131 feet (40 meters); the Hero3’s dive housing was good to 197 feet (60 meters). If you don’t need the camera to be dust- or waterproof and would like a bit more audio to reach the built-in mono mic, you can swap out the standard backdoor for the skeleton backdoor.The housing is smaller and lighter than past versions and has a new lens surround, so if you’ve invested in any sort of lens filters or replacements for the Hero3 housing, they likely won’t work with the Hero3+ housing. Also, the latching mechanism has been changed and now no longer has a locking switch on top. The housing is still difficult to open, though, which is for the best in this case.Two adhesive mounts are included — one flat and one curved — so you can slap one on a helmet and go. The mounts work with GoPro’s quick-release buckles that attach to the bottom of the camera’s housing. You’ll find a horizontal as well as a vertical buckle and a three-way pivot arm, so you can mount the camera on the top, front, or side of a helmet.Once you’ve put the mount on your helmet, just slide your buckle of choice into it and it’s securely attached. A small locking plug (also included) can be used to help prevent the buckles from accidentally releasing from the mount from force or vibration.There is no charger in the box for the camera, just a Mini-USB cable for charging via computer or USB wall adapter if you have one. GoPro offers a two-battery external charger, but again, you’ll need a USB wall adapter or a computer to supply the power.
Otherwise, since you’re charging in camera, you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to carry additional batteries.Lastly, there’s a Wi-Fi remote that comes with the Black Edition. It requires a special charging cable, which is included, but also means if you lose it, it’ll cost you $20 to replace. It is nice to have, though, for the those times when you don’t want to whip out your smartphone to remotely start and stop recordings. It’s waterproof to 10 feet and can control up to 50 cameras at once from up to 600 feet away.
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 fish-eye 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 will hold up better to the rough and tumble lifestyle most Hero3’s will lead.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 BackPack.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 BackPacks.
GoPro claims that WiFi connectivity in the new camera is up to 4x faster than it was in the previous model. It is tangibly faster, but the preview still lags a second or two behind, so don’t expect true real-time preview like you might get with the Sony QX-series cameras. Connecting to the camera does seem a lot more reliable and speedy now, though. As soon as the app was opened, it recognized the camera and synced without a problem. WiFi had a few issues in the HD Hero3, but they seem to have been ironed out.
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.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.
When the announcement for the HD Hero3+ made the rounds, the lead story was about the size reduction, but all of my tests show a pretty big jump in quality as well. GoPro says it’s a difference in the lens, claiming that it’s 30% sharper than its predecessor. It’s a very noticeable difference. When I first uploaded the video footage, the sharpness was actually the first thing that jumped out at me. The leaves surrounding the mountain bike trails were extremely crisp and well-defined. It helped that I was shooting at 60 fps (which I prefer for action sports), but it’s even obvious in individual frames that this lens is capable of more resolution than its predecessor. [BELOW: HD Hero3 top and HD Hero3+ bottom. Even in small web versions, the difference in sharpness is easy to spot. Click each for a full-resolution version.]When the sun enters the frame, you do get some interesting flare effects.
Most of the time it’s actually fairly attractive, but sometimes, like at the beginning of the mountain bike video, the little lens gets overwhelmed and you get big streaks. Still, it’s not enough to ruin the picture.
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.
The Hero3+ Black Edition produces some of the best quality video I’ve seen from an action cam. With few exceptions, bit rates on action cameras tend to be around 15Mbps or lower. The Black Edition passes double that amount of data, giving you nice detail — even when you’re moving fast.Also, where other cameras tend to be loaded with compression artifacts that become readily visible at larger screen sizes, that’s not the case here. Color and white balance are very good, too, and it’s quick to adjust to exposure changes.That’s straight from the camera, though. Depending on your settings when converting and uploading to YouTube or Vimeo or elsewhere, you might end up with compression artifacts and reduced detail. Aliasing artifacts seemed to get worse as well, though that’s something that others in this category suffer from, too. It’s stuff that’s less noticeable when viewed at small sizes, but doesn’t look good when viewed closely on a large screen.Lastly, while I’ve read complaints about focus problems, this isn’t something I experienced. We’ll continue testing the Hero3+ as we test other action cams throughout the year and this review will be updated with additional video and photos.
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.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.
Like the Hero3, the GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition’s strongest attributes are its excellent video quality and impressive list of shooting options. If that’s what matters most to you, this is the action cam to get. However, if you’re just looking for something to play with and post videos online or watch on mobile devices, it’s overkill and there are plenty of other options out there.