The introduction of the entry-level GoPro Hero model in October 2014 represented a new direction for GoPro. Previously, all GoPro cameras had cost $200 and upward, with the top models reaching $500. At this price point, the GoPro represented a significant bit of spending on technology – one that was justified by the camera’s performance, granted, but still something that had to be considered carefully. The new GoPro Hero changes that. At a price point of around $130, it is tantalisingly close to the magic $100 mark. As such, it potentially provides a stepping stone into the GoPro range for whole new markets – for example, kids who would love a GoPro but might not be able to afford the more expensive models, or those who have no need for the higher resolution shooting modes and simply want a full HD, rugged action camera. It might also appeal to those who already have a GoPro camera, but are looking to augment it with a second cheaper camera, so as to have (for example) one cam mounted on the user’s body to capture POV footage, and one mounted somewhere else to look back at the user in action.
So, the new GoPro Hero gives GoPro a foot into a new market. It’s also doubtless a response to the entry level actions cameras coming to the market, such as the Polaroid Cube. But the question for any potential buyer is whether to go for the Hero, or stump up the extra cash and go for the Hero 3 White? Well, this article is here to help you decide! Interestingly, while there are some advantages to the White, there are also some technical areas in which the new entry level Hero can be considered superior (in addition to the obvious price advantage it has).
(You might also be interested in our article on the Hero’s more expensive stablemate, the Hero+ LCD, and on our overview and buyers’ guide to the entire GoPro range, which you can find here!)
In common with all the GoPro cameras, the GoPro Hero and Hero 3 White are the same basic shape and size, and feature the same standard GoPro mounting point. The Hero is somewhat lighter at 3.9oz (111g); while the White weighs in at 4.8oz (136g) with its housing – though these differences are unlikely to trouble anyone.
What is a major difference between the cameras is the case design though. In contrast to nearly all the other cameras GoPro has ever made (other than even newer Hero+ model, which has the same design), the Hero is fixed into the front part of its waterproof case – so you cannot separate the actual camera from the case. This isn’t abundantly clear in the photos (though GoPro do point it out in fairly small print in their literature on the camera) and could come as quite a surprise to someone familiar with the rest of the camera line up. In any event, this design decision has a number of consequences:
- You cannot use the GoPro Hero without a case. At a push, you could probably remove the rear door and use it without that (though we’re not sure why you’d ever want to!) but you cannot use it ‘naked’. This has implications for some applications of GoPro cameras – most notably, using it on some quadcopters like the DJI Phantom 2. It also prevents the use of a ‘frame mount’ case like this, which allow sound to be captured better.
- If the case gets damaged, you might have to replace the whole camera, or at least send it off to GoPro for a repair. With any other GoPro, you can buy a replacement waterproof case for around $40
- the battery is built-in, and cannot be removed and replaced with a spare one. As such, once the battery is dead, the camera cannot be used until it is recharged, which will take several hours assuming there is somewhere to recharge it. In addition the GoPro Hero lacks the connection port to work with the extended Battery BacPac. Also, in the longer term, if battery performance is degraded through multiple charge / discharge cycles, it is not possible to simply change the battery for a new one.
It’s an interesting decision by GoPro to manufacture the Hero (and the Hero +) in this way. Arguably, it can’t make the camera any cheaper to produce – at least not by a significant amount. If that is right, it may be that GoPro felt it had to hold back the Hero in some meaningful way to avoid it from cannibalising sales from the more expensive Hero 4 Silver and Black cameras. Whatever the reason, it’s something that potential buyers will need to consider carefully when carefully whether they can live with.
The GoPro Hero and the Hero 3 White look to have, on paper, the effectively same video resolution options – both can shoot at 1080p at 30fps and 720p at 60fps. The White can also shoot in WVGA (848 x 480 pixels) at 60 fps, but given the framerate here is no higher than an 720p, there is no real reason to use this mode other than to save SD card space – and with 64Gb Micro SD cards now under $30, there doesn’t seem to be much point!
However, there are some other subtle differences between the cameras. The main one is that the Hero 3 White can only shoot at a “medium” angle field of view at 1080p – this is around 127 degrees. While this is ideal for giving a less distorted, more natural perspective, it doesn’t provide the ultra wide angle (170 degree) footage which is the GoPro range’s trademark – for that, you have to make do with the 720p setting. In contrast, the GoPro Hero only shoots at the ultra wide setting, both at 1080p and 720p. This is great if it is what you want, and for lots of action sports it is – the super wide angle gives a real feeling of speed as the scenery whips past the lens at the sides, while the wide angle minimises the “jiggle” effect of the operator’s movement (since this is magnified the more “zoomed” in a lens is). However, for some uses, the more natural perspective of the White might be preferred. The Hero also features GoPro’s SuperView mode (which is explained further here), allowing the camera to capture a “taller” image by using all of the 4:3 aspect ratio image sensor while still outputting a 16:9 widescreen image. This feature debuted on the Hero 3+ Black (now discontinued) and is currently only also featured on the $400 Hero 4 Silver and $500 Hero 4 Black, so it’s something of a bonus to also find it on the $130 entry level Hero.
Another difference is that the GoPro Hero features “QuikCapture” mode, which can be set to automatically start up the camera and begin filming with just a single touch of the shutter button. While this is potentially useful, it should be noted that the GoPro Hero 3 White can also be set to being filming automatically on power up, so the option is still available on the White (although then there is no way to turn on the camera without also starting it rolling!)
One additional feature that the White has is the ability to record in a continuous loop, and then only save a key bit of the footage when the button is pushed again. The idea is that you can leave the camera running constantly, and the when something interesting happens hit the button to save it – the rationale being that you only use up memory card space on the “good” bits. However, given that the the cost of large capacity micro SD cards has plummeted, and that a looping mode like this still eats up battery life to the same extent as recording continuously, overall it makes more sense to simply do that and then find the good bits in the edit, rather than risk not remembering to press the button when something incredible happens!
As with the video resolution, the top still photo resolution is the same for both cameras – both can shoot 5MP stills. However, since the Hero is effectively two product cycles, and hence two years newer than the Hero 3 White, it is clearly able to process the images being captured faster than the older, more expensive camera. This leads to the Hero beating the White when it comes to burst mode photograph – the Hero can take 10 seconds over a 2 second burst (5 fps) while the White can only 3 photos for 1 second – so 3 fps and for half the length of time as the Hero. Both camera can however shoot in a continuous time lapse mode at a maximum of a shot every 0.5 seconds.
As we mentioned again, the Hero has a built in, non-swappable battery. This is rated at 1180mAH, and gives a stated recording time of 2 hours 45 minutes at 1080p and 30 fps. The Hero 3 White has a somewhat lower capacity battery at 1050mAH, and this translates to 2 hours 15 minutes at 1080p30. As ever, the actual times quoted represent the best possible performance in test lab conditions, and in real world, particularly if it is cold, the actual recording times will inevitably be lower. While the Hero has around 20% more battery life than than the White, this has to be set against the fact that the White’s battery can be swapped out for a fresh one, or the camera used with either GoPro’s Battery BacPac or a third party alternative. In contrast, once the Hero’s battery is dead the camera is unusable until it is charged again. While it might be possible to do this on the go with a portable USB battery pack such as the Anker Astro Mini, it would still be necessary to leave the Hero plugged in to recharge for 1 – 2 hours before it was back in service. This lack of battery swap ability may not be an issue for some users, but it is certainly worth considering if there is even a possibility that you might need the ability to film for longer than the run time of a single battery.
Connectivity and storage
It’s on the connectivity front that there is probably the biggest difference between the GoPro Hero and the Hero 3 White. The White – in common with the rest of the range – features wifi which enables it both to work with GoPro’s smartphone app (which is free to download) and with the separately available GoPro remote control. These give the ability to control the GoPro remotely and, in the case of the app, review the footage both live through the lens and that has already been recorded. The app also provides a much clearer and quicker way of changing the settings on the camera. It’s a big advantage in favour of the White and, if it is something you would use, is probably worth the $70 extra on its own. That said, it’s perfectly possible to use a GoPro without a remote or the app, and indeed, on the White or Hero you’re less likely to want to change the shooting mode so often – it’s probably going to be left in 1080p30 or 720p60 – so the app may be less of an issue than it is for the higher spec cameras with more settings to play with.
Another connectivity difference is that the Hero 3 White (again, in common with the rest of the range) has an HDMI output, so you can plug the camera directly into your television and review the footage. The Hero goes without this HDMI connection. Overall, this probably isn’t a major issue for most people – the nature of the type of footage shot on GoPros means that it tends to need to be edited to get something worth watching on the big screen – both to fillet out the best bits, and to add a soundtrack other than wind noise!
Both the GoPro Hero and the Hero 3 White work on micro SD cards – the Hero’s slots straight into the back of the camera when the case is opened, while the White’s card slot is to the right hand side of the unit. Interestingly, the Hero can support a maximum of a 32 Gb card, while the White (once more, as with all the other GoPros) goes all the way to a 64 Gb. Again, this decision by GoPro seems like it could be calculated to deliberately hold back the Hero against its more expensive stablemates – it’s hard to imagine there is any real cost consequence to including support for 64Gb cards. That said, a 32Gb card will still hold around 4 hours and 45 minutes of footage at 1080p30 which, given the Hero’s battery life, is plenty. In any event, there is something to be said for using a number of smaller SD cards rather than one big one, to avoid the risks of losing all your footage if the card becomes corrupted or is lost or stolen.
There are no differences in the audio quality captured with the internal mic as between the Hero and the Hero 3 White – both record at 48kHz in mono, and save the audio in AAC format. However, the White has the capability to attach an external stereo microphone via a 3.5mm jack. On balance, we anticipate that most of the target users of both the Hero and the White are unlikely to want to connect a microphone in any event, and will cope just fine with the sound from the internal microphone, but again, the exclusion of the microphone jack is another example of how GoPro have paired back some features from the Hero to get it down to the price point.
As noted above, it’s also possible to remove the White from its housing, which dramatically improves the quality of the sound captured from the internal mic. This is not possible with the Hero, and so the sound will always be muted by the case.
Conclusion and recommendations
The GoPro Hero is an exciting new development for GoPro, and definitely represents it tapping a new potential market. As well as competing directly with other entry level action cams, the Hero represents a first step into the GoPro eco system – GoPro will doubtless hope that people will Hero, and then in due course (having made an investment in GoPro specific mounts) step up to its more expensive cameras.
For now though, the question is: if you’re looking for an entry level GoPro and are content with a maximum of 1080p30 or 720p60 footage, should you buy the GoPro Hero or the GoPro Hero 3 White? Overall, the key factors in the decision are whether you need to be able to swap out the battery for the fresh one, whether you want SuperView and/or ultra wide footage at 1080p, and whether you want to use the GoPro smartphone app or remote control.
In our view, the non-replaceable battery in the Hero is likely to be the biggest issue. Ultimately, the wifi remote and smartphone app are nice to have, and extremely useful, but you can still absolutely use the camera without them. In contrast, once the battery is dead, it is game over until it has been recharged. That may be acceptable if you don’t anticipate ever needing to film for longer than the battery will last on the Hero, but it is a real limitation if you’re hoping to film throughout the day. It’s also something which is likely to be more of a problem if using the camera for winter sports or otherwise in cold conditions, where battery life will already be reduced. That said, if you can accept the lack of a swappable battery and wifi connectivity, the GoPro Hero is a bit of a bargain at $130, particularly when you consider that it also features GoPro’s SuperView mode, which otherwise requires a step up to the $300 GoPro Hero + or $400 Hero 4 Silver to obtain.
It’s also worth noting that the Hero 3 White has now been discontinued, and while stock is still available at the moment (November 2015), it is starting to become hard to find, and accordingly prices are (in that bizarre way that they do!) rising considerably above the $200 that was originally charged for the camera. While at the original RRP we might make an argument for going for the White if you really wanted the replaceable battery and wifi connectivity, if the price is above $200 then we think the GoPro Hero is now the better option. Its perfect for someone who wants a true entry level camera with great performance, and is prepared to charge it up after no more than a couple of hours recording. We would also definitely consider the GoPro Hero as a second or back up GoPro, where it could add some interesting new angles to video shoots.
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