GoPro: HERO3+ Black Edition in-depth tech review
A short time ago, GoPro took everyone by surprise by announcing their new cameras, the GoPro HERO3+ Black and GoPro HERO3+ Silver, less than a year after the release of their GoPro HERO3 range. The initial reaction online was mixed; whilst new features are always welcomed, many GoPro users have been frustrated at the new products’ release so soon after the GoPro HERO3 range, and are now faced with their older cameras being outdated. However, putting all that aside, we delve into whether the GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition is much of a change from its predecessor, the GoPro HERO3 Black Edition.
- 20% smaller and lighter than the GoPro HERO3
- 30% longer battery life
- 4x faster Wi-Fi connectivity to the GoPro App and enhanced connectivity to the Wi-Fi Remote
- SuperView to increase field-of-view in 1080p and 720p video modes
- New 960p50 and 960p60 video modes
- Wide and medium field-of-view selection is now available in 2.7k and 2.7k 16:9 modes
- 33% sharper lens with 2x reduced imaging artifacts
- Auto-low-light mode automatically adjusts frame rate for low light performance
- Improved mic to increases audio performance
- Price (RRP/MSRP): £359.99, €449.00, $399.99 (US), $449.00 (CAN), $529.00 (AUS)
Getting Naked: The ‘naked’ GoPro HERO3+ Black is housed in a practically identical body to its predecessor, with the majority of the same external features of the GoPro HERO3 Black. The only real giveaways are the ‘+’ on the front, a new shaped lens, a slightly more tactile ‘mode’ button and the position of the microphones on the body. As for weight, the ‘naked’ GoPro HERO3+ Black, with battery, tips the scales at 73 grams (2.58oz), 2 grams (0.07oz) lighter than to the GoPro HERO3 Black. So where is the advertised 20% weight-saving coming from?
Weight No More: GoPro has introduced a new thinner, slimmer and lighter outer case, to make the whole package more compact, contributing to the vast majority of the advertised weight saving. Back on the scales, the GoPro HERO3+ Black comes in at 135 grams (4.76oz) compared to the GoPro HERO3 Black at 163 grams (5.75oz) when weighed with case, battery and a MircoSD card. On top of the weight saving, GoPro has managed to implement some useful improvements to the case, such as larger ON/OFF, REC and Wi-Fi buttons, a less fiddly clasp, making it far easier to open and close with or without gloves, and a clearer view of the red tally lights on the camera, making it easier to see if you’re recording.
Power To The People: The much criticised battery life of the GoPro HERO3 Black has been at least partially addressed on the GoPro HERO3+ Black. The 1050mAh (3.885Wh) battery in the GoPro HERO3 Black has been updated to a slightly more powerful 1180mAh (4.37Wh) battery. Like most media devices these days, the use of the built-in Wi-Fi is its Achilles’ heel, so does the new battery make enough of a difference? We tested both cameras, recording from a full battery to flat with Wi-Fi switched ON, in 1080p 25 fps. The GoPro HERO3 Black shut down after 1 hour 17 minutes whilst the GoPro HERO3+ Black shut down after 1 hour 30 minutes, giving us an extra 13 minutes of recording time. With the Wi-Fi switched OFF, we ran the test again and the GoPro HERO3+ Black recorded for a full 2 hours, whilst the GoPro HERO3 Black shut down after 1 hour 35 minutes, giving us an extra 25 minutes on the GoPro HERO3+ Black. One useful but often overlooked feature is that the camera can be turned off, whilst the Wi-Fi remains on, allowing the camera to be powered-up or shut down directly from the app, though of course this continues to use battery life, so it’s probably only a feature to use if you have a few spare batteries on hand! Overall, the new battery in the GoPro HERO3+ Black will give you that little bit extra recording time but like its predecessor, it still saps considerable power when used with the Wi-Fi switched on.
Remote Control: One of the key features introduced in the GoPro HERO3 series was the built-in Wi-Fi which, when paired with the GoPro app, allowed for any compatible device to receive a streamed video image from the camera and gave easy access to the GoPro’s settings and recorded media. However, slow performance (high latency) meant the video preview was sometimes so delayed that it was practically unusable. With the new GoPro HERO3+ Black though, we found that the advertised Wi-Fi improvements when using the GoPro app and Wi-Fi Remote have indeed made the GoPro HERO3+ Black faster when downloading/transferring files with a reduced lag when using one of the app’s key features, video preview. However, we noted that the video preview on our HTC One X and Apple iPhone 5 devices had a much lower latency than our Apple iPod Touch, which suffered around an additional 3 seconds delay, although this is an improvement over the GoPro HERO3 cameras (see video comparison and table below). This supports GoPro’s assertion that the app is optimised for iPhone 5 and Android 4.2 devices. Another point to note is that although the connectivity of the GoPro app worked faster on the HTC One X Android device, there was no sound coming through with the live feed, whereas on the Apple devices, sound came through just fine, although it’s not always desirable due to the huge lag. No doubt these sorts of issues could be rectified in a firmware and/or app update in the future, and expanding the support for a wider range of video preview resolutions would be a welcome addition too.
|Mobile Device||GoPro App||Latency on GoPro HERO3 Black||Latency on GoPro HERO3+ Black|
|HTC One X||v 2.2.59||1.04 seconds||0.76 seconds|
|Apple iPod Touch 5||v 2.2||3.32 seconds||3.24 seconds|
|Apple iPhone 5||v 2.2||3.28 seconds||0.64 seconds|
Beam Me Up: Aside from the ability to make on-the-fly setup changes to the camera (a feature which is largely unchanged, although the new modes and settings have been updated in the app for the GoPro HERO3+ Black), the app’s other main feature is the ability to wirelessly transfer media from the camera. To test the speed improvements, we loaded 25 photos (approx. 160MB), onto a single 32GB SanDisk Mobile Ultra Micro SD (SDHC Class 10/UHS-1) card and then timed the process for downloading these from each camera to each of the devices running the GoPro app. The results are below:
|Mobile Device||GoPro App||Latency on GoPro HERO3 Black||Latency on GoPro HERO3+ Black|
|HTC One X||v 2.2.59||8m 10s (0.33MB/s)||2m 16s (1.18MB/s)|
|Apple iPod Touch 5||v 2.2||8m 29s (0.31MB/s)||2m 28s (1.08MB/s)|
|Apple iPhone 5||v 2.2||8m 14s (0.32MB/s)||1m 59s (1.34MB/s)|
Overall, GoPro’s claim of a 4x speed increase is accurate in terms of our real-world test transferring media, which worked out as 3.6x faster on Android, 3.4x faster on the iPod and 4.2x faster on the iPhone using the GoPro HERO3+ Black, meaning this feature is now a lot more usable. However, there is still a significant latency issue with iOS devices other than the iPhone 5 when it comes to the video preview function, with only very minor improvements here on the GoPro HERO3+ Black.
Foreign Affairs: For those who use their GoPros in ruggedised third-party pro-housing kits such as the Genus (shown below), Tehkron and Red Rock cages, the updated case sadly doesn’t yet fit in these housings, although the ‘naked’ GoPro HERO3+ Black camera will fit into the old GoPro HERO3 case. Of course this isn’t that much of a problem, particularly as many users are choosing to use their GoPros in the frame mount, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re planning on buying one of these cages.
Photos: The main reason our review has come out some time after the GoPro HERO3+ Black’s release is to due a firmware bug that existed with early batches of GoPro HERO3+ Blacks. This bug caused the still image quality to be substantially reduced – very blurred corners of the image and very low file sizes due to significant image compression – for which there was no manual override. Thankfully, the v1.04 firmware update has largely resolved these issues on the GoPro HERO3+ Black, so despite scrapping a ton of our review criticising the image performance under firmware v1.00, we’re pleased to see that GoPro have rectified this with the new firmware.
Most people obviously won’t go out to buy a GoPro purely for its still image capabilities, and to be honest, that’s with good reason. Whilst the video, audio and Wi-Fi functionality has developed hugely since the GoPro HERO2, sadly there’s still only very small improvements to the GoPro HERO3+ Black’s still imaging side. Compared to the GoPro HERO3 Black, the GoPro HERO3+ Black features no improvements to capture resolution (megapixel count), field-of-view options, time-lapse intervals, burst modes, continuous photo modes or simultaneous photo + video features, which is a huge shame. Given that advanced features like Protune (offering user-selectable white balance and Cam Raw modes) are available even in the camera’s 4K video modes, it’s a real shame that Protune modes make no difference to any of the stills settings, especially for users who shoot image sequences or time-lapses. On top of that, consider that the GoPro HERO3+ Black is more expensive than most pocket cameras and smartphones, the majority of which feature a good degree of both video and still image processing modes – some even have raw or HDR modes at much lower price points – whilst GoPro seem to prefer the ‘auto everything’ approach, even forgoing any manual controls in the GoPro app. Despite this, we thought we’d perform a few tests to compare the crisp new lens on the GoPro HERO3+ Black to its predecessor.
To compare the two cameras as like-for-like as we could, we used a Genus GoPro Cage fitted to a sturdy tripod, and took an image on each camera one after another, ensuring as little movement of the tripod as possible as we swapped the cameras over. Check out the results from our tests below (images have been scaled-down for viewing).
Comparison 1: The GoPro HERO3+ Black has an overall darker, more contrasty image throughout a range of lighting conditions. The shadows are more compressed, for example the boathouse and jetty on the extreme right are easier to make out on the GoPro HERO3 Black photo.
Comparison 2: The GoPro HERO3+ Black’s new lens appears to be adding a more spherical (fish-eyed) distortion the image, for example the park bench in the foreground. The image is sharper overall, though even after the v1.04 firmware update, there is still some defocusing near the image edges (download the original files above), something that wasn’t apparent with the GoPro HERO3 Black.
Comparison 3: The GoPro HERO3+ Black’s optics appear to be more realistic in showing a truer colour in the highlights and some mid-tones, for example the stone structures and Buddah figure. However, highlight detail is quite low – notice how the highest branches of the trees are getting lost against the sky in the GoPro HERO3+ Black photo.
Comparison 4: The GoPro HERO3+ Black appears to be dealing with lower light levels better than its predecessor, as well as effectively removing the older model’s colour cast. Detail in the tree, for example, is superior on the GoPro HERO3+ Black.
Comparison 5: The GoPro HERO3+ Black’s new lens gives a subtly different but noticeable lens distortion. Subjectively, we actually prefer the image from the older model as it’s a bit more atmospheric and less contrasty, but that’s just our opinion!
Overall, we found that colour reproduction is improved, and in getting rid of the colour casts that have plagued previous GoPros, we thought the images were a bit more realistic, especially in lower light conditions. However, subjectively, we felt that the overall quality of the image wasn’t substantially improved compared to the GoPro HERO3 Black. The advertised “33% sharper lens with 2x reduced imaging artifacts” wasn’t really holding true for us (for still images), and ultimately it’s always going to be hard to quantify something like this in such a precise manner. So let’s take a look at video performance…
Video: We performed two tests to compare the video performance. Test 1 used the same locations as for the photo tests, again using the Genus GoPro cage to ensure the position of the cameras was identical for each test, whereas test 2 was carried out at a private trail location.
Again, it’s pretty hard to quantify results from comparing video footage, but in general we found that the GoPro HERO3+ Black indeed had an improved image overall, with less of an image colour cast, richer, more precisely rendered colours and much reduced chromatic aberration/fringing, especially around finer detail objects. Handling of highlights has also been improved, for example evening or overcast skies had better definition rather than looking like a grey/white sky gradient, and the overall image was sharper with marginally less noise. We also noticed that when the camera was moving fast, there was sharper, less blurry motion-blur, meaning the image overall looked clearer. We didn’t have the best light conditions for testing the cameras, but in bright, well-lit surroundings, we’re sure the GoPro HERO3+ Black’s performance will excel. Sound was also considerably crisper and less ‘muddy’. Looking at the SuperView mode, you can see from our rough video comparison what SuperView gives you in terms of added field of view, although of course the amount of distortion is quite significant. SuperView does however, put you more ‘inside’ the image, so we think it’s going to be a video mode we’re going to see a lot of, despite the amount of distortion. Of course, if the distortion does bother you, in either photos or videos, there are lens correction tools from Adobe which allow simple image correction, although these currently only work with the GoPro HERO3, with support of the 3+ (and SuperView) hopefully coming soon.
Testing the new auto low light mode was a pretty simple affair…set the camera to record in a high frame rate mode (in our case 50fps), then move from a well lit space into a dimly lit space then check out the files to see what happened. As expected, the video recorded at 50fps throughout, but when in the well lit space, the video was made up of 50 frames per second, as expected, whereas when we moved into the dimly lit space, this dropped to 25 frames per second, with each frame being repeated to maintain the original 50 fps setting, thereby giving each frame double the exposure time, to allow the camera to shoot the best possible image in the darker surroundings. Initially, we were a bit sceptical about this feature, thinking it was going to start and stop recording to different files at different frame rates, but GoPro have instead provided a great solution that doesn’t start making new files each time the frame rate or light level changes – which could be a nightmare if riding in woods or darker conditions – meaning you still have a single file to view or edit. Pretty neat! Of course the auto low light feature can be turned off to ensure the GoPro’s software doesn’t interfere with your footage ‘by accident’, but it’s a feature worth playing with to experiment with what works for you.
However, we did notice a couple of things that gave us a little cause for concern. Despite the v1.04 firmware upgrade, on our camera we noticed there was still a sizeable area on the left hand size of the image that never seemed to be sharply focused. Objects in the foreground did – as advertised – appear to be sharper, up to a distance of around 8ft (2.5m), but we felt the camera was a little soft beyond that distance, to infinity. We’ve found a few reports of this issue on a few blogs and it appears that GoPro are aware of this. Our advice would be to speak to GoPro directly if you feel your camera is suffering this from this focussing issue.
Overall, we think the GoPro HERO3+ Black is better than its predecessor, but the claimed 33% improvement in sharpness and 2x reduction in image artifacts is pretty hard to verify. If we had to figure on it, we’d say maybe 10-15% better overall.
We had expected to see more of an update from the GoPro HERO3+ Black but it is easy to see why GoPro felt it necessary to implement a step up from the GoPro HERO3 Black in terms of improved video functionality and quality of images, although for the latter the improvements were only really made by a firmware update. The improvements to the Wi-Fi functions are largely positive, though also largely dependent on what device you are using. It’s a shame GoPro have decided to only optimise the app for iPhones and Android 4.2 devices, when many users may have older smartphones or iPods. The marketing relating to the size and weight of the GoPro HERO3+ Black isn’t strictly true, with the majority of these savings occurring in the thinner casing whilst some important issues still remain, such as the cameras getting hot even after a short period of use and the lack of even basic manual controls, for example in photo mode. Ultimately, this left us wanting a bit more out of an expensive bit of gear that should last you a few years.
With a few tweaks to some technical and aesthetic areas, the GoPro HERO3+ Black is definitely worth the upgrade if you are currently on a GoPro HERO1 or 2. The step up from the GoPro HERO3 isn’t as big though, so you might be wise to save your money now and wait for the expected 4K improvements when the next GoPro arrives.
Note to readers, the above tests were done with:
- GoPro HERO3 Black Edition, firmware 3.00
- GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition, firmware 1.04
- GoPro app v2.2.59 (Android) and v2.2 (iOS)
- HTC One X, running Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2
- Apple iPod Touch 5, running iOS 6.1.3
- Apple iPhone 5, running iOS 7.0
- 2x 32GB SanDisk Mobile Ultra Micro SD (SDHC Class 10/UHS-1) cards
- Genus GoPro Cage
Many thanks to Charlie Sharp, James Smith, Matt Wakefield and Madison UK for the GoPro HERO3 Black and 3+ Black.