Race Video Camera Comparison Review: Part 1 – The Problem With GoPro

By Tom Martin

August 07, 2013

Lots of racers use video cameras to capture action at the track. Some of this is for fun, because it is enjoyable to review an exciting day’s activity. Some video is for sharing, because if you make an epic start or pass, you want your buddies to see it. Some of this use of video is to gather evidence; if you protest or someone protests against you, you’d like to have an objective record of what happened (and sometimes, you really aren’t sure until you take a look at video). And our favorite reason for racing videos is learning, because sometimes you or another driver can see what went wrong or what went right and you can do better next time. So, video is good. Not only that, it is relatively cheap and has the appearance of being easy.
But, not so fast on the “easy” bit, at least with our subject, the GoPro Hero3. While GoPro cameras have become wildly popular, in our experience and the experience of many racers we’ve talked to, it isn’t because the cameras are easy to use or dependable. In fact, we’d go so far as to say the GoPro is one of those products where market share and quality of execution are pretty seriously disconnected. Like French’s mustard or Bose speakers, some products become popular because they are well known and easy to find despite below average quality. That’s GoPro, it would seem (details follow).
gopro review
With that in mind, our plan in this series is to review the competitors to the GoPro Hero3 series. With a product as laden with flaws as the GoPro is, we thought surely there must be something appreciably better. And there is, although it turns out that whatever common-sense-reducing substance is in the corporate Kool-Aid dispenser at the GoPro engineering building must also be present in at least trace amounts at every video cam maker.
As background for this series, let us catalog the problems with the GoPro approach (it has been consistent enough from Hero2 to Hero3 and various sub-models to warrant being called an approach). But first, two caveats. GoPro deserves some credit for realizing that a very wide angle lens would mean that imperfectly aimed videos would still probably capture what you wanted and that the resulting footage often would have a good sense of action. And, if you are happy using your GoPro, we’re not here to rain on that parade. It is a tool, and if it works for you it is a good one.
We also have to say that in our experiences the current crop of video cams can all do a fine job of capturing HD video. We're not saying their output is pixel-level identical. To a pro or to a video aficionado there may be differences and GoPro is on average a step ahead in resolutions and frame rates. If you are one of these folks, you may want to attend more to the spec sheets for resolutions, dynamic range, codec file types, bit rates and the like.  You may also want to know that in DxOMark quantitative testing the Hero3 gets a video score of 75, while, for example, the iPhone 5 scores a 70.
Hero3 owners may also want to consult this simple guide to the many, many recording format choices the Hero3 presents: 
But we think for most of you, HD (1080p at 30 fps) is basically HD. Our point is that the quality of the core image is not a big differentiator with these cameras, but ergonomics are. Because ergonomics, for amateur filmmakers, determine whether you get the shot at all. (No shot) x (slightly higher quality) = no shot. 
gopro review wifi remote
Now, on to the problems, which we lay out in detail, not to skewer GoPro (we have no beef with them) but to set forth some standards when looking at alternatives. This evaluative framework is specifically for racecar video production, just to be clear. For context, this means the driver is strapped in to a small space, pumped with adrenaline and trying to focus on how he or she is going to drive. Things are happening fast at times and maybe your crew isn’t on hand because they are doing something else. Many people only do this a few times during the year, so this is a punishing crucible for ergonomic flaws.
Race Video Cam Evaluation Criteria
Some basics that the well-designed video cam should address:
1. It should be clear how to turn the camera on. GoPro provides a button on the front of the camera to activate power. This button has the international power symbol, which is great if you’ve memorized your icons. Or it would be, except that the button is labeled “mode.” So, which is it, “mode” or “power (circle-bar icon)”? Things are made slightly more confusing because in the manual, the button is called neither “mode” nor “circle-bar icon,” it is called “P.” It just isn’t a great idea to have a single button do two things and to label it three ways (though maybe this is an improvement from the Hero2, with unlabeled buttons).
2. It should be easy to turn the camera on. Unfortunately, with the power button on the front and the camera mounted near the windshield (a reasonable spot, we have found), the button is hard to see and sometimes hard to reach.
3. There should be a remote control, mountable near the driver. GoPro has what seems like a nifty answer to our complaints about reaching the power button: the WiFi remote connected to the Hero3 Black (now with WiFi built in). This little remote duplicates the power (mode) and record buttons and the display of the camera, which, bad as those button designs are, at least doesn’t take complexity up a notch. We used Velcro to mount it securely on our dashboard within easy reach. This would be great if the remote and the camera connected reliably. But like a lot of wireless connections, it just isn’t a sure thing.
4. It should be clear that the camera is on. GoPro uses the “recording” light for double duty, by flashing it three times and then turning it off. There are, pretty clearly, three problems here. First of all, this light means two different things: “record” and “on.” The light behaves differently to indicate “power” or “record,” but would a bomber pilot want the same light to indicate “drop bombs” and “dump fuel”? Confusion in the heat of battle is easy enough without an assist from engineering. The second problem here is that the light is on the front of the camera, where you often can’t see it. And third, the light goes off, which means if you forget if you turned the camera on or just want to confirm that you succeeded, well, that can’t be done at a glance.
5. There should be a way to enact “power” and “record” in one quick step. If you use the power-on steps above, you can start a recording by pressing the record (red circle) button. But you might find the above overly complicated or you might be in a hurry. At such times, you just want to hit one button and then have a recording later when you are done showing Vettel how to drive (so you can share with others, naturally). On the GoPro, there is a way to do this, sort of. First, set the camera to One Button Mode. This involves nine steps, but you only have to do them once. After you complete those steps, pressing the power (mode) button turns the camera on and starts your recording. Of course, you have to remember that the power button starts your recording, not the record button. You also need to know that this can’t be done with the WiFi remote connected.
6. It should be easy to stop a recording. The main reason is that all video cams have limited battery life and limited storage, so recording 30 minutes of your car sitting on grid or back in the paddock can lead to trouble down the road in the form of recording that stop too early. With the Hero3, your press the record (red circle) button and hold it for two seconds to stop a recording. The flashing red light on the front stops flashing. The only thing we don’t like about this is that when you can’t see the light or hear the beeps that indicate shutdown, the two-second requirement can lead to errors.
7. Setting resolution and field of view should be easy. The latter is particularly important (and tied to the former) because different mounting points need different angles of view. For example, we recently had a recording made for us, but the owner of the camera set the GoPro to wide FOV to capture driver, instructor and track, and but the wrong FOV meant the outside world was massively overexposed (essentially a white blur). On the GoPro, setting FOV or resolution involves ten or more button presses to navigate through various menus and sub-menus using the power and record buttons. You could say this is the price you pay for the flexibility of the design, and we would say “what is photo burst mode, again?” and “for $400 you couldn’t give me another switch or two?”
8. The camera should be easy to mount. GoPro provides a bunch of mounting hardware with the Hero3. And they have all sorts of other options (rollbar and suction cup, the latter being far more useful). Our experience is that these are quite secure. Our main complaints are that the various little widgets that change the orientation of the camera are at times tricky to figure out and, because they are separate pieces, easy to lose. Some people feel that the finger nuts that tighten GoPro’s clamps are also too small and hard to access. One nice feature is that GoPro allows you to record “upside down” so that you don’t have to rotate video in your editing application. Ten or so confusing steps and presto!, the fact that the mount forces you to invert the camera is corrected.
9. The camera should be mountable almost anywhere on the car. The size of the Hero3, the double sticky tape and suction mounts, and the wireless remote, mean the camera can be placed and used (theoretically) almost anywhere you’re willing to put it.
10. The camera should be easy to align. GoPros are square and their protective housings are square, so we’ve found it pretty easy to level the cameras. Also, the mounts are continuously adjustable, so changing the angle is quickly accomplished.
11. The mount should be mechanically rigid. Honestly, the mounting system on the GoPro looks a bit sketchy, but in practice it works better than you might think. We would give it a ‘B.’ The brick shape isn’t very aerodynamic and the slightly flexy plastic and imperfect knobs mean that some shake can happen especially when mounted outside the cockpit of a fast car.
12. Battery life should allow for some cushion around events. The acceptability of any battery life figure depends on what you’re doing, of course. But, typical amateur road races last about 30 minutes. With some time for waiting on the grid and a pace lap, we might say that 45 minutes is the minimum for racers. Ideally, you’d have twice that because you might qualify and do a race in short succession, for example. So, 90 minutes would be great. We will do some measured battery life testing in a future installment, but for now we’ll say that GoPro battery life in the real world has been a constant frustration. GoPro battery life, per se, seems okay if not great (Hero3 Black with Battery BacPac), but two things make it worse than that. First, the WiFi remote connection reduces battery life. This is partially because the WiFi connection is power hungry, and partially because you have to drain the WiFi battery (part of the combined battery pack) while you wait to use the WiFi remote. Thus WiFi usage means you have to use the battery longer than if you could just press the record button at the “1 minute to go” signal. The other thing that makes battery life seem worse than its maximum potential is that there are two battery connection terminals. If you don’t happen to have two chargers (three if you use the WiFi remote) then there is an increased chance you are going out with batteries that aren’t fully charged. This is amplified because the Hero3 seems to self-drain faster than other cameras, likely leaving you with a dead battery at the start of the weekend.
13. Batteries should be removable/replaceable. GoPro has this feature, so you can address some of the issues above by bringing more batteries. But you need to buy and bring two types of batteries and possibly an extra WiFi remote.
14. Batteries should be charged with standard USB chargers. The Hero3 uses standard USB charging and cords, except in the case of the remote, which uses a special cable. Why? We have no idea.
15. The camera should accept large memory cards. Who wants to run around guessing if their memory cards are filling up? Or risk having a recording cut off mid-race? Even worse, who wants to stick a card in, make a recording, and then find that the memory card was incompatible? Ideally, this means compatibility with SDXC cards, some of which can hold up to 2 TB of data. GoPro got this one right. It uses micro SDXC cards, which almost always come with adapters so they can be used in SD slots (on your PC for example).
16. Controls should work consistently and smoothly. On the Hero3, they mostly do. There are, however, two sources of confusion. First, sometimes pressing a button (the mode button in particular on the remote) simply does nothing. Or, it may take several seconds before you get a response. Then, at other times, pressing that same button does what the instructions suggest it will do. In addition, the role of the two buttons (P and S) feels slightly hard to predict. Actually, the P button cycles through menu items and the S button selects them, which is reasonable. It just takes a while to remember, “am I switching to another part of the menu (another mode) or confirming a setting?” Then you have to associate the power button with mode switching (relatively easy, because it is the mode button too) and the record button with choosing a setting.
17. The lights and displays should be easy to read. The Hero3 has a display and lights. The display is icon-driven, which can require interpretation. And, sometimes it uses numbers or letters, and those are on the small, low-contrast side for our tastes. The lights, as discussed above are tough to use.
We’ve gone into detail with the Hero3 Black because some of you might want to understand our logic in criticizing a camera that some view as the “gold standard.”  And we want it to be clear that seemingly easy goals often aren’t that easily accomplished in actual products.
For those of you who prefer summaries, here is ours:
Requirement GoPro Hero3 Black Comments
Clear how to turn camera on ** Power button labled "mode"
Easy to turn camera on ***
Button on front hard to reach with right side windshield mounting
Remote control ***
Small and light, same controls as camera; has connection and power issues
Camera clearly indicates if power "on"
Same light used for "power" and "record." Light on front
One step power + record *** One Button Mode can be set up. Recording is started with "power" button
Easy to turn off to preserve battery **** Must hold power button for 2 sec to turn off
Setting resolution and FOV easy ** Must dive into complex menus
Easy to mount *** Many options, but multiple fiddly parts often needed
Mountable almost anywhere on car ***** Mount variety plus wireless remote help
Easy to align **** Square chassis and continuous adjustments
Mechanically rigid mount *** Depends somewhat on which system you use
Ample battery life ** Base battery not great, with BacPac requires two chargers, self-drain high
Replaceable batteries *** Yes, but two types needed
Standard USB charging **** Yes, except for remote
Accepts large memory cards ***** Micro SDXC (up to 64 GB)
Controls work consistently and smoothly ***
Logic is good, but two buttons to control complex menu leads to some confusion
Lights and displays easy to read ** Small monochrome display uses icons extensively, manual often needed
Overall *** You pay a price when mixing flexibility and a decade-old interface
In words, we would say that the Hero3 Black feels like a product whose basic interface was designed 10 years ago (pre-iPhone). Then GoPro got feedback from a variety of users and added flexibility to do various things these users wanted. That seems reasonable, but the result for racers is a complex camera with a primitive interface that is harder than it should be to use. That difficulty in use leads to missed, incomplete, sub-optimal recordings. Couple that with a racing environment where the user is restricted in some ways, and you have a product that doesn’t suit the need very well. That’s all moot, though, if no one has designed something better. Fortunately, many have tried, and some have succeeded. We’ll cover that in future installments.
Price and specifications
Camera: GoPro Hero3 Black Edition
Price: $399 (includes waterproof housing, remote, stick-on mounts, charging cables)
Battery BacPac: $49.99
RAM suction cup mount: $36.45
Key resolutions: 1080p at 60, 30 and 24 fps, 720p at 60 fps; many other modes (4K, 1440p, 120 fps)
Field of View: Ultra Wide (170 degree), Medium (127 degree), Narrow (90 degree) in 1080p and 720p
Memory card: micro SDXC (up to 64 Gb)
+ Race Video Camera Review Roundup