An increasing number of people, mariners and otherwise, are chronicling the more exiting events in their lives on video. Whether it is a pair of whales breaching just in front of your bow, the green flash at sunset, or the worst storm you have ever encountered, there are some things that non-sailors won’t ever understand about the beauty of being out on the open ocean. Personal archives and sharing memories with friends have become exponentially easier with the development of the action video camera. This new class of camera puts an emphasis on compact size and mounting capabilities, so the user is uninhibited by its recording.
Far and away the best and most-used action video camera is the GoPro Hero 3+.
Action sports stars and television producers alike use GoPro because of its durability and its mounting versatility, coupled with professional-quality video. The diverse range of accessories available allow for any angle to be captured from anywhere.
Their newest model, the GoPro HERO3+, has further distinguished itself above the competing cameras from Sony (The Action Cam) and Contour (The +2). Although the Sony is lighter, and the Contour has a more rugged body, the GoPro blows both out of the water in video quality, ease-of-use, and mounting capability. The Hero 3+ comes in a more advanced black edition and a lower-costing silver edition.
Let’s look at their specs side-by-side:
Sony Action Cam
• Field of View: 170°, 120°
• Storage: microSD
• Dimensions: 3.23 x 0.96 x 1.85 inches
• Weight (w/ battery): 3.05 ounces
• Battery Life: 2 Hours, 37 minutes
• Price: $270
GoPro Hero 3+ Black
• Field of View: 170°, 127°, or 90°
• Storage: up to 64 GB microSD
• Dimensions: 2.30 x 1.55 x 0.08 inches
• Weight (w/ battery): 2.65 ounces
• Battery Life: 2 Hours, 9 minutes
• Price: $400
• Field of View: 170°, 120° (for 1080p)
• Storage: microSD
• Dimensions: 3.86 x 2.36 x 1.34 inches
• Weight (w/ battery): 5.55 ounces
• Battery Life: 2 Hours
• Price: $400
The Sony Action Cam is the lightest of the three up for review. Unlike the Contour, it has an LCD (no images) display to show battery life and wifi connection. It has a slow-motion setting, and it shoots in full 1080p just like the Contour and the GoPro can. Gizmodo’s product review said it was the most comfortable to wear of any camera in its class. Comfort, though, is where the up-sides to this camera cease. It has exclusive image-stabilization, but the result is a much lower-quality video than without the setting on. Once the waterproof case is on the camera, only the record button can be controlled without removing the case, making it extremely frustrating if just one, minute setting is wrong before mounting the camera. One more thing that was noted in Amazon customer reviews is that when the camera is mounted on the head of the user, a fair amount of forehead/eyebrow is unavoidably in the picture. I always dreamt of being a movie star, I just don’t think that cuts it.
Contour+2 is the rugged, military-style cousin of the Action Cam. Being the heaviest of the bunch, it’s encased in strong, brushed aluminum and comes with two mounts and a waterproof housing. A very unique feature to the Contour is that it has built-in GPS tracking. Through the Contour software included with the camera, a data box can be placed in the corner of the video that contains GPS location, elevation and speed (in MPH, not knots, unfortunately). All settings of the Contour can be adjusted from a smartphone application, including contrast, sharpness and white balance, for the more advanced videographer.
The critical flaw of the Contour, and the largest reason it is not the best, is the quality of the mounting accessories. In Gizmodo’s “Action-Cam Battlemodo” (a comparison of action cameras) the testers showed that the mounts for the Contour were less than durable. After only a few minutes of being attached to the bottom of a skateboard, the mount broke. The authors of the article said, “We figured it was probably a fluke—but the same thing happened when I was surfing. If I hadn’t tied it to the other two cameras with string, it would be at the bottom of the Atlantic right now.” Every boater is aware of the beatings that are handed down to anything and everything that is left exposed on deck of their boat. With the mounting durability in question, buying the Contour might be no better than throwing four $100 bills off the dock at your local marina.
This leads us to the best action camera available today, the GoPro Hero 3+. It is the Goliath of the action camera class, and the camera to which all other action cameras try to live up to. The Hero 3+ blows the other cameras out of the water in all categories besides battery life, which is still competitive to the Contour +2. The video quality is breathtaking. It records in full 4K, which is the new upper limit for HDTVs. Brent Rose of Gizmodo said of the lens, “In daylight and lowlight, it is a head and shoulders above its competitors. Nothing comes close in terms of sharpness”. The video is so good that television producers often use GoPros for their broadcasts in such shows as Mythbusters and the X Games. It produces slow-motion video in full quality, unlike the Action Cam’s slow motion technology. Smartphone integration with the Hero 3+ is far and away the best in its class as well. One-step sharing and live preview of the video only add to the capabilities of the GoPro. Settings embedded within the camera allow for easy time-lapses and continual photo shoots, which look absolutely stunning from the bow of a boat. The strongest feature of the Hero 3+ is the mounting hardware. In a video from the wirecutter, a GoPro survives a car crash, and stays firmly mounted on the mangled Porsche. Mavericks surfers use exclusively use GoPros to capture their competitions, which speaks to their sea-worthiness. In addition to the durability of the accessories, there is a much larger variety of mounts and gadgets to go along with the Hero 3+ than any of the other cameras. This array of features has led the GoPro to become the juggernaut of action video cameras.
The Hero 3+ sits far above any other action video camera. Its nearly unbreakable mounts are perfect for the constant wear and tear of extended time out on the water. Think of the GoPro as the iPhone of the action camera line. The design and feel of the GoPro is yet another thing that separates it from the other cameras. Michael Gorman of Engadget said, “Overall, the Hero 3’s build quality is exemplary.”
The GoPro HERO3+: Black Edition sits atop the action camera market. Its $400 price tag is the upper bound for the products in its class, but it is well worth it.
Alternatives exist for different purposes, such as if you aim to take mostly still photos. Waterproof models such as the Panasonic Lumix TS5 (recommended by the wirecutter), are meant to be used with the hands and take much higher quality still photos. The Hero 3+, along with similar action cameras, is meant to be mounted and left alone.
The Hero 3+ Silver is $100 cheaper, and comes without the upgraded lens and the new Auto Low Light technology, but has the same battery as the black edition. The silver edition is perfectly viable for the every-day sailor who wants to chronicle their journeys onboard. The two versions have the same casing, just different internals that lead to the difference in price.
Overall, the Hero 3+ stood out as a clear winner in our product comparison. It is tough as nails, and you can mount it in more ways and in more places than you could ever imagine. The lens makes the simplest of shots look like movie quality, because professionals use the Hero 3+. Built-in WiFi connection and an integrated smartphone app make uploading, editing and sharing your footage a breeze. If you are looking for an action video camera to capture the most cherished memories on your boat, from every angle, the GoPro HERO3+: Black Edition is for you.