The GoPro phenomenon: what the world-beating little 1080p vidcam can (and cannot) do (by Conrad Blickenstorfer; most video and stills by Carol Cotton)
Update November 2011: Days after we released this comprehensive review of the GoPro Hero, GoPro announced the even more amazing Hero2 with a faster processor, additional video and still modes, a new menu system and many other improvements. At DEMA 2011, GoPro then also announced an underwater housing that will address the blur issues we're discussing in the below review.
October 2011 -- According to IDC, pocket camcorders were a US$2 billion business in 2009, with almost 14 million units sold in 2010. At ScubadiverInfo.com, we've reviewed several versions of the innovative Liquid Image video mask, the impressive little ContourHD, several versions of the now defunct Flip, and other small and compact cameras that record better video than the most expensive broadcast class equipment could not too long ago. Yet, until a recent conversation with the folks at Ambarella (more on that later), I was actually unaware of another contender in the pocket camcorder class that initially had a cult following and now is taking the world by storm: the GoPro.
When I first got a GoPro, I was quite impressed with the small size of the camera (2.3 x 1.6 x 1.2 inches -- about the size of a matchbox) and certainly with all the included mounting hardware, but the GoPro didn't seem particularly elegant or high-tech. So, of course, I had to research this whole thing in more detail. The result is this rather lengthy report, and several dive trips that took us thousands of miles from home, and several hundred miles offshore.
Who and what is GoPro? GoPro was started in 2002 by a surfer who wanted to have a camera to take along surfing. The name came from many a surfer's wish to "go pro," and "hero" stems from making people feel like heros when they could record and show their stunts. The original GoPro actually still used film, even in 2005. The second did silent 10 second digital video, the third had an SD card slot and 3 megapixel, the fourth, in 2008, had a wide angle lens, could do 5mp stills and VGA video. Then came the big step to high definition video and today's HD Hero 960 (960p video) and Hero (1080p video).
Technology, however, is only part of the GoPro story. The real innovation was all the mounting systems the company made available. Starting with surfing and paddling, auto racing quickly followed, and that required different mounting. Then it was helmets, ski poles, motorcycles, and finally general outdoor sports. The ready availability of mounting brackets and systems, combined with the small boxy form factor, meant that the GoPro camera was used in very innovative ways, which brought a lot of publicity, which made it even more popular in many high-profile applications. The Discovery Channel uses it for "Deadliest Catch," and National Geographic, LucasFilm, or you can watch incredible footage of a race car barreling up the Pikes Peak hill climb, setting a world record (see here), and so on.
The GoPro 1080p video camera
The GoPro is almost a paradox. We expect advanced technology to come in spectacular, expensive packages, yet the GoPro is anything but. The little matte-silver plastic housing is very basic, with just two buttons, and no display other than a tiny black & white status LCD. There's a mini-USB port, and two TV-out ports, one standard, one HDMI. That's it.
The box, however, did come with a lot of stuff. There's lots of mounting hardware, and I mean LOTS. There are cables. And the GoPro even comes with a waterproof housing. Yes, the housing is included in the basic package. So you get a 1080p HD video camera with plenty of accessories and an underwater housing good for 180 feet for less than you pay for a compact camera's underwater housing alone!
Below you can see what all comes with the GoPro Helmet Hero package:
Operating the camera isn't as simple as using a conventional digicam. That's because the GoPro doesn't have any controls other than the two unmarked buttons. There are no icons, there's no zoom, no playback button, nothing of the sort. Changing settings pretty much requires having the instructions next to the camera so you can decipher the cryptic codes for the 15 or so settings. Nothing is obvious or intuitive.
I started playing around with the GoPro, and the video was terrific. And the still shots, too, were much better than I had expected from a simple 5mp CMOS imager. The very wide angle lens makes for a fisheye view with a cool in-your-face action effect.
There are several recording modes, depending on card capacity and intended use of the video:
Full HD - 1080p 30 fps (1920 X 1080 pixel, 127 degrees)
Tall HD - 960p 30 fps (1280 X 960 pixel, 170 degrees)
HD - 720p 30 fps (1280 X 720 pixel, 170 degrees)
HD - 720p 60 fps (1280 X 720 pixel, 170 degrees)
WVGA - (848 X 480 pixel, 170 degrees)
Bottomline: the GoPro Hero sure looked like a terrific addition to the review gear we take along on scuba trips. Expectations were high.
Our underwater experiences with the GoPro
Islas Revillagigedos (Socorro Islands), Mexico
We first took the GoPro on an 8-day expedition to the Islas Revillagigedos, a remote group of islands about 250 miles south-west off Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and one of the most remote places you'll ever see. Exclusively reached via liveaboard vessel, the islands are not a group as much as four random peaks of rock poking through the surface of nowhere more or less in the same general vicinity.
Among divers, Socorro is famous as a remote destination where one can see sharks and, more importantly, giant manta rays, also known in some languages as devil fish. Our above-water video was excellent, but 20 minutes of recording giant mantas, pretty much once in a lifetime footage, was blurry and out of focus, all of it. That was a major bummer as we'd left other video gear behind to give the GoPro a shot, and it let us down because someone didn't think the housing optics through.
The picture below is representative for what we got. It looks halfway decent shrunk to this small size, but the full-size version is totally blurry and out of focus. As was all underwater video. Given our majestic subjects, and how rarely you see them, that was quite frustrating.
We analyzed everything, wondered what we might have done wrong, examined any possible settings, then tried again. Same result. Blur, out of focus footage of sharks and giant manta rays. We tried several more times, and, adding insult to injury, the GoPro's already somewhat marginal battery conked out, yielding no more than a few minutes per charge towards the end of the voyage. Not a good start for the GoPro.
We did, however, get enough video for a decent movie of the trip. Note the huge difference between above water and underwater video:
Back from the trip we instantly went on eBay and ordered a real battery charger (the GoPro charges via USB cable, a notoriously unreliable charging method) and two extra batteries. That solved the power problem.
Cancun and Isla Mujeres, Mexico
We then took the GoPro along on our next product review dive trip, this time to Cancun where we dove the wreck of the 165-foot C58 mine sweeper in strong currents. The GoPro was certainly much more handy than the big and bulky camera and video gear we usually take along. Unfortunately, the result was the same: blurry, out of focus video.
We encountered two other parties who also had GoPros and loved them for sky diving and off-roading. But under water, both had the same problem: blurry scuba video. We didn't even bother taking the GoPro on a whale shark snorkel expedition off Isla Mujeres where we saw about a hundred whale sharks in crystal clear 84 degree water.
Towards the end of the trip we saw a guy who had a GoPro with a large third-party dome on its housing (see below). He said it fixed the blur problem underwater.
Fixing the GoPro's underwater blur problem
Once home I did what I should have done in the first place: I googled the problem. Lo and behold: the GoPro's underwater housing cannot be used for underwater video! Why? Because the housing's curved dome lens keeps the camera from focusing underwater. It just can't. Ever. Apparently that's been a known issue pretty much ever since the GoPro Hero came out. Scubaboard has hundreds of posts about it. And there are a number of fixes. In essence, you need a flat dome.
The big question is why GoPro does not alert customers to this on its website or on the package. I mean, how can a company advertise a waterproof case, good for 180 feet, when YOU CANNOT USE THE CAMERA UNDERWATER BECAUSE IT WON'T FOCUS?!!? That is more than just an omission. It is really unacceptable. I really, really would have liked to know ahead of time that taking the GoPro to film one-of-a-kind shots of half a dozen giant mantas would not work.
So I researched available third party solutions, and here are some of them:
Snake River Prototyping offers the BlurFix adapter, the most professional looking solution of the lot. It's a precision-crafted aluminum adapter that leaves the GoPro housing's existing dome intact, but puts a flat-plate glass lens in front of it. This, of course, means a sealed air space that's potentially subject to fogging. SnakeRiver guarded against that by including a rounded groove for ceramic desiccant balls. The dome can also accommodate screw-on color filters to adjust for underwater conditions. There's a bit of vignetting in the 960p mode, none in all the others. The adapter with a clear filter costs US$77. Mounted on a housing it runs US$139.
Eyeofmine.com offers a flat lens with a custom dome that replaces the stock curved lens. Eyeofmine does the modification and sells the complete standard or wrist housing good for 100 feet (US$79) or 200 feet (US$99). The glued-on fix is not pretty, looks more like a science project, and the acrylic lens is prone to scratching, but the fix definitely works and there isn't any vignetting in any of the recording modes other than a bit in 960p.
aquapixs.com offers a glass (44 Euros) or plastic (30 Euros) replacement lens for the GoPro. The plastic lens is made of Makrolon and is said to be good for 190 feet. You simply unscrew the dome on your housing, replace the stock dome lens with the flat one from AquaPix, and you're done. There is, however, vignetting in all modes except R5 1080p.
Mako offers the MAKO Flat GoPro Housing Lens for just US$21.95 for those who don't mind the do-it-yourself approach. You simply replace the stock lens with the one supplied by Mako that's supposed to be totally vignette-free in the 1080p R5 setting. In lower resolution settings, the camera viewing angle is increased and the outer edges of the housing lens become visible in video and images.
Sartek offers a full replacement housing with a elegant black replacement dome ring and a glass lens. US$100 for the housing with lens. It's advertised as good for 240+ feet and free of vignetting in the 1080p R5 setting.
There's also the Oculus flat lens; it consists of a flat plastic lens and a replacement dome ring. It is sold via eBay and usually costs about US$35. It's advertised as good for 230 feet and free of vignetting in the 1080p R5 setting.
The above are by no means all of the solutions. Do note that simple replacements of the stock rounded lens will result in vignetting (i.e. the camera sees part of the flat housing lens, which results in rounded corners) in settings other than the 1080p R5. If you intend to use the camera in all of the recording modes, you need a fix that replaces the entire dome.
We opted for the EyeOfMine solution. It arrived very quickly and testing in the pool showed a huge difference compared to the standard housing. Video and pictures were now in focus underwater. Click on the picture below for a larger version.
Can the GoPro see underwater now?
Coronado Island and Wreck Alley, San Diego
With the apparent solution at hand, we were eager to give the GoPro another shot, and it came in the form of a trip down to San Diego where we boarded Waterhorse Charter's Humboldt for the one hour 20 minute ride to the Islas Coronados just south of the border in Mexican waters. These are stark, but beautiful islands, uninhabited, and similar to the better known California Channel Islands.
We dove "Lobster Shack," a shallow, rocky dive site with sea lions galore. Down at just 25 feet or so, we were literally mobbed by curious sea lions, pups all, who darted all around us. It was a mesmerizing experience, and, finally: sharp underwater video!!
The next two days we were diving off San Diego, in what's called "Wreck Alley." The main attraction is the 366-foot wreck of the Canadian destroyer HMCS Yukon that's laying sideways in about 100 feet of water. This was a tough dive as the "red tide" (a natural algae/plankton bloom) made the top 20-30 feet of water brownish-opaque. Underneath, the water was a bit clearer, but there was virtually no light. At the wreck, visibility was perhaps 5-10 feet, and the water temperature was just 55 degrees.
We had attached the GoPro's wrist-mount housing to a makeshift video light by using one half of a camera lighting arm (see above). There was so much particulate floating around that lights were nearly useless. We still managed to get some video out of the GoPro, and we certainly appreciated the handy size of the rig.
BacPac LCD display
One of the problems with the GoPro, of course, is that it doesn't have a display. Thanks to the wide lens angle that's not too much of a problem as one tends to get the proper footage anyway. And many GoPros spend most of their recording time mounted on something, like a race cars or skateboard, where aiming isn't much of an issue. Me, I still missed an LCD to see what I am actually recording, and so, apparently, did enough other GoPro users for the company to release a "BacPac" LCD module for the GoPro in September of 2011. We ordered one the day it came out, and here's how it looks and works:
The LCD module cleanly snaps onto the back of the GoPro, doesn't need any wires or anything, and even comes with waterproof and non-waterproof backdoors for both the standard and the wrist-mount housing. It costs US$79, a virtual steal (though, of course, today you can get an entire 14mp camera for that amount). The LCD does need a new firmware version, which you can easily download from the GoPro website, put on a SD card, and then install.
Once that is done, you don't only have a very nice 2.5-inch display with decent viewing angles and brightness, but you finally can configure the camera without needing the manual to figure out the cryptic settings codes. Learning how to use the BacPac means memorizing which of the by now three buttons to push short or long.
RAM Mounts for the GoPro
While the folks at GoPro offer all sorts of very clever mounts for the Hero and there are a good number of third party mounting options in addition to that, serious GoPro users should also look at what's available from RAM. RAM's been making mounting solutions for computers, cameras, GPS systems, etc., for many years, and their patented rubber ball and socket system is absolutely the best. Nothing else grips like it, and nothing else is as easy to adjust and versatile as the RAM mounts. RAM has high-quality GoPro mounting solutions that work with just about anything and anywhere (see the RAM GoPro page), and their industrial strength stuff is the answer where the smaller plastic mounts won't do.
Ambarella: What makes the GoPro go
While the components that made the GoPro happen come from all sorts of sources (Micron/Aptina makes the imager, TI the audio codec, Hynix the NAND Flash, and so on), what makes it all happen is the HD video compression hardware and software by Ambarella.
Ambarella specializes in low-power, high-definition video compression and image processing. Essentially they paved the way from legacy MPEG-2 encoding to the next-gen H.264 encoding technology. The purpose of H.264 was to provide good-enough video at much lower bit rates than MPEG-2. Ambarella sought to provide solutions that enabled low-cost hybrid video-still cameras. To that extent, Ambarella created single chip H.264 encoders. Apparently, Ambarella decided on a smart enough business strategy to emerge as a, or perhaps the, leader in the category of inexpensive hardware/software engines to drive a new generation of next-gen, incredibly compact video cameras that can also take pictures. About 400 people work for Ambarella these days, 100 of them at the Silicon Valley headquarters. For the most part, Ambarella makes chips, but they are also getting closer to providing full products, and already offer hardware/software development platforms.
None of this is totally new; it's just that it took companies like Ambarella and GoPro to really make it take off. Inexpensive vidcams that could record at amazingly high resolutions had been available at Walmart and other low price outlets for years, but those products rarely managed to rid themselves of the reputation of being cheap gadgets with marginal picture and overall quality. Which was too bad as a genuine revolution was indeed underway. In essence, what happened was a fortuitous convergence of a) CMOS sensors that have become powerful enough to generate decent high-resolution video, b) the emergence of SD and microSD cards with capacities large enough to replace large, bulky and expensive tape or hard drive storage, and c) efforts like Ambarella's that provided super-fast, efficient compression on the fly. All of this technology means that all of a sudden, a decent CMOS sensor, a lens, ancillary circuitry and storage all fit into a very small place at a very low cost, and it was capable of producing results that rivaled and often blew away what was possible with much more expensive conventional video gear.
And we ain't seen nothing yet. The wondrous full 1080p HD video of today is already being surpassed with 60 frame per second 1080p, high-speed RAW capture of 16-megapixel images at 30 fps (Ambarella's new A7L system-on-chip can already do this -- see here), and 2160p video. Maybe you'll soon see it all in a GoPro Super-Hero.
What's inside the GoPro?
Trying to take a peek inside the GoPro seemed easy enough; just four tiny Philips head screws holding the top and bottom of the plastic case together. Gently flipping up the bottom part of the case reveals a jam-packed inside with three sandwiched circuit boards taking up all real estate.
To take the whole assembly out of the front half of the housing you need to open three more screws, one of them quite recessed. Now you can see that the GoPro guts are quite complex, with three tightly packed circuit boards sitting on top of each other. Given the tiny circuit board inside an Apple iPad 2, there's actually a lof of electronics crammed into the GoPro's boxy little housing.
The lens, incidentally, comes off, and a whole cottage industry devoted to modding the GoPro has sprung up. For example, the stock GoPro lens has an extreme fisheye look. There's a fix for that by replacing the GoPro lens with a Sunex DSL355A-650-F2.8 lens (see disassembly) that has an aluminum barrel threaded M12x0.5 mount that goes onto the stock lens mount. To see a side-by-side comparison between stock lens and DSL355A lens, that's here. Yet more discussion is here and there is also goprouser.freeforums.org. Full GoPro tech specs can be found here. And that is just scraping the surface.
The GoPro Hero...
So there you have it. The GoPro is sort of an unlikely success story that represents determination and innovation at its best. The little 1080p high definition camera works, and it works amazingly well. Not even the sky's the limit for all you can do with it. Yes, they flopped with not telling divers that the waterproof housing can't actually be used underwater without a third-party fix, but anyone who can't figure that out probably isn't GoPro material to begin with. Now let's hope some big company won't come along, snatch up GoPro, and then shut it downlike Cisco did with the Flip.
Terrific HD video and very good still pictures.
Lots of mounting gear and waterproof housing included.
Tiny and light; fits everywhere.
Almost foolproof to operate.
Numerous uses, connects easily to TVs, computers, etc.
Optional snap-on LCD works great.
Not so much:
Standard waterproof housing is useless underwater because the curved dome lens makes for blurry video.
Camera is cumbersome to operate with just two buttons.
Cryptic settings codes mean you need the manual every time you set the camera.
Would prefer a standard charger to the USB charging.
Our battery conked out.
Difficult to aim without LCD.
Specs GoPro Hero
Ultra-compact HD video camera
Camera: plastic; Housing: acryllic
Housing: Max depth 180 feet (we tested to 110 feet)
Camera: 2.4 x 1.6 x 1.2 inches
Camera: 3.3 oz. as tested; camera with housing: 6 oz.
Ambarella A2S / A2S70-A1-RH
Max pixel size
2592 x 1944
Movie recording modes
30fps at 1920 x 1080 pixel
30fps at 1280 x 960 pixel
60fps at 1280 x 720 pixel
30fps at 1280 x 720 pixel
60fps at 848 x 480 pixel
Max movie pixels
1920 x 1080 (HD 1080p)
Video records AAC mono sound with automatic gain control