Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Product Review: Contour GPS Video Camera

I am a little conflicted writing this review, because Contour doesnt even make this model of camera anymore... but you might find one still for sale (maybe even at a great price) and a lot of the comments here will also apply to the other models, so here we go.

I thought a lot about what kind of sports cam I wanted for my bike. The two obvious options are the GoPro or the Contour. Both seem to have a lot of fans and both seem to take great videos. I like the Contour's looks and mounting options better but I just wasn't ready to buy yet.

I've also been getting interested in Strava, and you need a GPS recording device to take advantage of the coolest Strava functions. But I already have computers on all my bikes so that would be a lot of duplication just for some cool maps.

So then I realized the Contour GPS sports cam would allow me to take videos and upload GPS data to Strava too. After a little more self-convincing, I pulled the trigger.  You can click on My Contour link here or over in my sidebar to see a whole bunch of my clips, but most of the still shots and video you see on my blog since last June were taken with this camera... I hardly ever take my regular camera along for rides anymore.

The GPS function though is pretty bad:
  1. It takes a really long time to lock on the signal.  You might go a whole ride with no GPS recorded  You can help things along by finding a sweet spot in your back yard or something that you know it'll find, and warming up your camera there before each ride.
  2. The GPS makes the battery discharge faster.
  3. It only records when you're recording video.  There is no "GPS-Only" fuction.  The GPS data is encoded inside the video somehow and you can only extract it using the Contour software on your computer.
  4. Once you extract the GPS data you have to upload it manually to Strava or other programs - this may also require a little knowledge of html code.
  5. The GPS mapping onto the video only works in the Contour software and the Contour website - if you import the video into a video editing program you won't see the maps.
So if Strava data is important to you, you will certainly be disappointed with this as your device.

Overall though, I am not disappointed and I'm having a lot of fun with it.

Contour currently makes two models, the $200 Contour Roam-2, and the $400 Contour+2.  The cheaper one doesn't have replaceable batteries (recharge through the camera) and has an "instant on" switch, so it's for people who want to capture video on demand, a few minutes at a time or shorter rides only.  The expensive one has GPS and replaceable batteries and other bells and whistles so it's for people who want to record everything for the whole time on long rides and then edit later.

The mounts that come with the camera aren't much good for cycling. You need the vented helmet mount and the rubber strap mount. Other possibles are the bike mount (bars or stem) and pole mount (seat stay).

The rubber lens cap doesn't fit very well and you'll lose it within a month.  I store my camera in an old sock to keep the lens from getting scratched.

In addition to the basic package, I bought (or received as gifts)  two flex straps, a pole mount (for the seat stay), a vented helmet mount, four extra batteries with charger (Wasabi from Amazon), and a 32GB Micro SD card.

The bezel in front of the lens has to be turned the proper direction according to the orientation of the camera - if you do a sideways mount you have to rotate the bezel so "up is up".  I painted some extra dots on mine so it'd be extra obvious.

This is my normal mount.

The Flex Strap mount comes with two bands, the smaller one is big
enough for a steel headtube but you need the bigger one if you have
an oversized headtube.

The Vented Helmet Mount gives a good perspective, but you might
get dizzy watching the videos.

You have to line up that little dot on the rotating bezel with the arrow
on the top (there are arrows on three sides of the camera) - otherwise
your video will be sideways or upside down ... the little dot's pretty
small, that's why I painted some bigger dots there.

Doesn't look a whole lot different from a helmet-mounted lighting system.

The ski pole mount works well on a chainstay.  You can
rotate the ball thing to about any orientation.

All of the mounts work by sliding onto those rails at the base of the camera.  You can slide it on from either side and it's a nice tight fit but still easy and fast to put on and take off.  The pole mount above also has sort of a quick release bit that attaches to a screwed on clamp bit that you leave on the bike.

Here's an example of how screwy the GPS can be.  One of those
red lines is my climb up Diablo, and the other one is the descent
(same road).   More frequently it won't have any GPS data at all.

When you get it right though, it's pretty cool.  I can embed the Contour videos onto my blog but you lose the GPS mapping.

Here's the same video on the Contour site with the map included:  LINK

On the back door you see the battery light, the power on button, 
a door latch slider, and the memory light.  The lights flash different
combinations of colors to indicate that they're working, have locked
on to the satellite, running out of memory, etc.

The mode switch allows two different recording modes - you might pick highest def for mode 1 and long recording time for mode 2 for example... or video for mode 1 and continuous still photos for mode 2... but you can only program which mode is which while the camera is plugged into your computer... then you can switch between those two modes while you're on your ride.

Here's the link to My Contour Site where you can see lots and lots of little clips I've taken, and you can see some of the highly recommended clips of all kinds of other people too.

The Contour GPS gets a 6 out of 10 on the DiabloScott CycleCam rating scale.  One point off for the slightly buggy software, another point off for having to buy all the extra bits like mounts and decent size SD card, two points off for the unpredictable GPS availability.

Why didn't I get a Go-Pro? Mostly just the looks and the attachment options... and the lack of a GPS recorder.

Dork factor goes to 11

It's like a Fred annunciator.

UPDATE:  Here's a comparison of still photos.
I took photos of the same tree with different methods, and then cropped them to the same size... seems like a valid comparison.

Test Photo 1:  Screen grab from Contour 1080p video.

Test Photo 2:  Contour continuous still photo mode.

Test Photo 3:  Olympus pocket camera photo.
One thing I didn't mention before is that in the full HD 1080p mode, the camera uses a lens angle of 111°, and in all the other modes it uses 135° degrees, so there's a noticeable fish-eye effect in the still photo mode that you should be aware of that isn't too pronounced in the way that I cropped the photos here.  You'll also notice that in some of my videos you get a little more brake lever and shift cable in the frame... that's 720p mode, and the ones with hardly any lever and cable are in 1080p mode... IMO much nicer framing for bike videos... snowboarders and such may prefer the wider angle.

Here are uncropped screengrabs from the Contour Storyteller software so you can see the difference.




Unknown said...

Hello Scott, Ben the Klein addict here... I've been in the market and am leaning towards the Contour as well precisely because of the dork factor, but my question is: Can you snap a photo mid video capture, or do you to interrupt the video stream? I assume the stills are higher res. Sorry for being to lazy to research it on the website. I also just wanted to thank you for the comprehensive review. GPS feature fail!

Diablo Scott said...

Hi Ben! You gonna start a blog?

Short answer - no, there is no way at all to take a single still shot... there is no "shutter release" button. All the still shots you see in my blog that are obviously Contour photos are screen captures from the video file... this works pretty well but you're right the resolution isn't quite what you'd get with a nice DSLR.

Photo mode takes a photo every 3 seconds (adjustable through the software program) automatically, so you can imagine how unsatisfying that would be to set up and frame a photograph. The still shot photos are 2592x1944
pixels so that is better than the highest video resolution of 1920x1080. I experimented with photo mode for a while but haven't used it in months... it does give a longer battery life if that's an issue.

To switch from Mode 1 to Mode 2 you have to open the back door and flip the switch, so it's not something you can do on the fly.

And the GPS isn't a total fail - it's still pretty fun to have even if it only works 70% of the time... but definitely not reliable enough for a Strava junkie and too clunky for someone who can't handle manual file manipulation.