If you need a camera/camcorder that can take a real beating, experts recommend the GoPro HD Hero2 (*Est. $300). It's definitely not the camcorder you want to shoot your wedding with -- but if you're whitewater rafting, skydiving, dirt biking or otherwise abusing your video equipment, this is the super-tough camera for you.
Like the original GoPro HD Hero Naked (*Est. $200), you can stick or strap the Hero2 onto just about anything, testers say. The Hero2 Outdoor, Motorsports and Surf editions (all the same price) each come with mounts geared toward that particular use. GoPro also sells a dozen accessory mounts, like chest straps and roll bar mounts. The Hero2 is lightweight (3.3 ounces, or 5.9 ounces with its included waterproof housing), so testers say it feels comfortable mounted on a helmet.
Once you attach a Hero camera to something, it stays attached, testers say (Engadget.com's testers stuck theirs to the wing of a fighter plane and it stayed put), but the little pivot screws can be fiddly to handle -- especially with icy or gloved fingers. Other brands like Contour and Ion use easier slide-in mounts.
Little touches make the Hero2 easier to use than the original Hero, reviews say. Both use two buttons to control everything, but the Hero2 gets easier-to-understand icons and words on its tiny monochrome LCD control readout. It gets four Record lights all around its body (the original Hero has just one), so it's easy to see whether the camera's rolling. The Hero2 also gets two important ports that the Hero lacks: a mini HDMI port and a 3.5 mm jack for an external microphone.
The mic jack is inaccessible once the Hero2 is in its protective case, and the on-board mic can barely capture sound in there, either, testers say. GoPro offers the HD Skeleton Housing (*Est. $40), which has openings in it to allow more sound to reach the on-board mic (although you still can't get to the mic jack), but these openings mean that the case is not waterproof.
The Hero2 still won't let you preview or playback what you're shooting -- there's no built-in viewfinder or viewscreen. However, this is par for the course with sports cams, and GoPro does offer an LCD BacPac that adds an LCD view/playback screen. You can get other accessories too, like the Wi-Fi BacPac that lets you remote-control your Hero and stream videos or photos live to the web. All mounts and accessories are compatible with both Heros, although the original Hero doesn't support certain Wi-Fi features.
In test after test, the Hero2's video quality outshines Contour, Ion and Drift cameras' -- and compared to the original Hero, the improvement is "amazing," says Mike Perlman at TechnoBuffalo.com. "Sharpness, detail and color were right in the sweet spot."
CameraLabs.com agrees. "When comparing the video from the HD Hero2 against its predecessor you'd be forgiven for thinking they were taken on different days -- the difference is that big," Scott Kennedy writes. He hauls both cameras on adventure trips all over New Zealand, and the Hero2 shows deeper green hills and brighter blue skies throughout his side-by-side footage. The Hero2 adjusts better from darkness to bright light (or vice versa) than other brands, too, reviews say.
The Hero2 gets a bigger image sensor and more megapixels than the original Hero, and it can shoot the widest-angle shots (170 degrees) in full 1080p HD. To avoid the fisheye effect, you can also shoot narrower views down to 90 degrees, although the video gets grainier. There's still no zoom. In short, experts say this is a fantastic camera for shooting your own sports action.
The Heros can shoot still photos, but remember: Unless you buy an accessory like the LCD BacPac or Wi-Fi BacPac, there's no way to tell what you're shooting. Still, this camera's built for action sports -- the Hero2 can burst-shoot 10 photos per second (the original Hero can shoot three per second), and with good light the photos look "pretty good," Kennedy says.
"Try and use the HD Hero as a normal digital camera for walk-around photography and you're likely to be disappointed," he says, "but jump out of a plane with one and you'll be delighted."
Battery life is 2.5 hours, according to GoPro -- but reviews say it can't really shoot for 2.5 hours straight. GoPro sells spare batteries for $20 or you can recharge in an hour with your own wall-socket USB charger or two hours with the included USB cable.
Lock a Hero camera into its included clear case, and testers say you don't have to worry about destroying it. "I know of one that was run over by a tank and survived," says Tim Stevens at Engadget.com. Various testers take the Hero2 skydiving, bungee jumping, skiing and four-wheeling through a sandstorm. -- TechnoBuffalo.com's Perlman plays hockey with it. The Hero2 survives the abuse unscathed. "Weatherproof, shockproof and nearly indestructible," CameraLabs.com concludes.
The Hero cameras' included case is waterproof to 197 feet. Contour charges $40 to $50 for a waterproof case that good. Professional testers say the case really does keep the Hero2 dry while they're sea kayaking, jet-boating and more; one Hero camera was "famously was lost at sea, turning up months later on a beach, still fully functioning," says Pocket-Lint.com. A few owners at Amazon.com complain that the Hero2's underwater footage looks blurrier than they'd like -- but impressively, none reports any leaks.
One downside: The Hero cameras aren't sleek. They're shaped like little silver bricks. That doesn't really matter if you're strapping your camera to your bike, for example -- but stick one on a helmet or a pair of ski goggles, and testers say it looks awkward.
Competing sports cameras such as the ContourRoam (*Est. $185) and the Ion Air Pro (*Est. $230) are more discreet, testers say, with their slim, cylindrical shapes. They're more aerodynamic, too. In fact, as much as Engadget.com's Stevens likes the Hero2, he says he'd still pick the Contour to mount on a helmet for those reasons. Other reviewers still prefer the GoPro, despite its boxy shape.
In test after test -- at CameraLabs.com, Gizmodo.com, Engadget.com, TechnoBuffalo.com and Pocket-Lint.com -- the GoPro HD Hero2 emerges as the gold standard among sports cameras. Owners at Amazon.com agree, and the Hero2 runs away with the title of Best HD Sports Camera. You can get a tough HD camera for less, though. The original Hero Naked is still available for $200, and the ContourRoam (*Est. $300) boasts a sleeker shape and a lower price, but its footage doesn't look quite as clear or sharp as the Hero cameras'.
1. Camera Labs.com
In this thorough review, filmmaker and "adrenaline junkie" Scott Kennedy takes the GoPro HD Hero2 skydiving, sea kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, heli-biking, jet-boating, bungee jumping and playing hockey all around New Zealand. He shoots it side-by-side with the original HD Hero and compares it with the Contour+ and Drift HD. He also tests its time-lapse and burst-shooting features. His conclusion? The HD Hero2 has "raised the bar for all others to chase."
Review: GoPro HD Hero2 Review, Scott Kennedy, Nov. 2011
With the best image quality and waterproofing, the GoPro HD Hero2 "is the clear winner" in this test. It beats the Contour+, Ion Air Pro and Drift HD in a shootout that includes mountain biking (street, trail and night) and an eight-hour soak underwater.
Review: The Best Action Camera, Brent Rose, June 20, 2012
Whether charging through a sandstorm on an ATV or strapped to the wing of a fighter plane, the GoPro HD Hero2 proves it can take whatever Engadget.com's testers dish out. They do prefer the more discreet Contour+ for helmet-mounting, though.
Review: Contour+ vs. GoPro HD Hero2: Through the Desert and Into the Skies, Brian Heater, April 9, 2012
Once again, the GoPro HD Hero2 beats the Contour+. Both survive Mike Perlman's testing -- at one point, he straps each one to a hockey puck and takes a shot -- but he prefers the GoPro's image quality and mounting system, and he likes that its waterproof housing doesn't cost extra.
Review: GoPro HD Hero2 vs. Contour+ Video Review, Mike Perlman, Feb. 24, 2012
Although the Ion Air Pro is easier to use and costs less, the GoPro HD Hero2 still ekes out a win here. Video quality proves slightly better, and the GoPro offers more shooting modes and a mic jack.
Review: GoPro HD Hero2 vs. Ion Air Pro: Who Is Action Cam King?, Hunter Skipworth, April 12, 2012
All GoPro HD Hero2 models (each with different mounts included) share the same rating here -- 4 out of 5 stars overall, with about 200 owner reviews posted. More than half of users give it a perfect 5 stars, but a significant minority complain that underwater footage is blurry -- or that the camera broke and GoPro service wasn't helpful.
Review: GoPro Camera HD Hero2 Edition, Contributors to Amazon.com