Review: ContourGPS Point-of-View Helmet Camera
- by John Hawkins
- Published: 7 October 2011
Contour have deservedly earned a solid following in the adventure market for their Point-of-view cameras over the last few years. The ContourGPS model released this year continues to set new standards. In the cycling community, Contour’s cameras been particularly popular amongst mountain bikers and downhillers, but recently they have proven to be popular amongst road cyclists.
Their uptake among commuting cyclists is also growing. Spectacularly, footage recorded on a Contour camera made it into mainstream press and Sydney prime time news, when a Forest Coach Lines bus driver tried to squeeze a cyclist into the gutter outside Warringah Mall and the cyclists video was posed on YouTube.
Like its predecessors, the ContourGPS it is compact enough to be hidden in the palm of your hand and light enough to be worn on a helmet for a considerable period of time. It is self-contained, so tangle-prone video cables leading to a processing unit are done away with, and it has enough memory and battery power to capture several hours worth of 1080p high definition video.
GPS functionality enables viewers to put what they’re seeing in context on a map overlay for greater interest, or if you are in the racing scene, allows your team-mates to see exactly where on the circuit that gnarly obstacle or tight corner with the tricky exit sits.
The ContourGPS Close-Up
The casing looks and feels tough and solid. One tale from a skydiving enthusiast on a Contour forum describes how it survived a fall from a ridiculous height during a jump. Handed into the club by a nearby farmer, it still operated flawlessly with the only damage being the memory card getting jammed in by the impact.
Powering up and starting the unit for the first time could not be easier. The instruction manual is quite sparse, but the unit is so simple to use that it is all that is needed. A considerable amount of thought has gone into ensuring ease of use in less than ideal conditions, especially when users are likely to have to work with gloved hands in frequently hostile environments like mud and snow.
The power switch is easily operated with a gloved hand, although I found initially that it was better to power up with the helmet off my head until I was a bit more practiced at locating the switch. The more crucial recording on/off slide switch is super easy to locate and operate on the top of the camera. No need to shuck gloves off and fiddle with little buttons to get the recording started or stopped.
The camera face can be twisted through 180 degrees within the housing to restore the image sensor to level, enabling fitment to either side or top of your helmet or anywhere in between without the video image appearing tilted to one side on playback.
The downside of this simplicity and ease of use is that changing configuration settings such as resolution, frame rate, light metering and so on cannot be done on the camera, rather requires connection to a PC and the use of Contour’s StoryTeller software. The only on-camera configuration is the ability to select between two pre-configured modes via a small switch under the back cover.
Telling The Story
The Contour Storyteller software allows easy archiving and replaying of your captured videos, and uploading of your files to the Contour community site could not be more straightforward. It is simply a matter of marking which section of the file you consider “awesome” and the program does the rest.
Storyteller is also used to configure the camera settings that are applied to each of the two mode options that can be changed using small mode switch under the camera’s rear flip cover.
Initially I had problems with the StoryTeller software crashing whenever the camera was connected, but I have to say the commitment and follow-up of the service people and engineers at Contour to resolving my dramas was outstanding. I deliberately didn’t tell them about this review, so as to ensure I got an unvarnished view of their responsiveness, and I was impressed. If I didn’t post a response on their forum for a couple of days, they followed up directly via email to chase up.
After a few test rides to acquaint myself with the camera, some group rides were organised and footage was duly shot and uploaded to Contour’s video community website.
One neat feature of the Storyteller software is being able to see the GPS data overlaid on a map in real time along with an elevation chart in a separate window while the video runs.
Contour’s video hosting community is rather cool. With the GPS logging enabled, not only do you get the rider’s eye view of the action, you also get the location, route and elevation displays from Storyteller available online such as in this example by Troy Brosnan:
The resolution of 1080p is impressive, and the field of view excellent for trail riding and commuting. Video capture was smooth and sharp, with no lag or missed frames that we could detect by viewing.
The detection and adjustment to changes in light levels was excellent, the speed especially noticeable during rapid flickering between light and shade whilst I was riding the Kiwarrak State Forest singletrack. The only downside was that I was caught out being too slow to dodge a jumping tree and my tumble was caught on video for the world to see:
Setting the camera to “dusk” mode provided a surprise during the evening commute home. Street lights and car headlights provided adequate illumination to capture usable footage, although the faster action did tend to blur slightly and vehicle registration plates tended to blow out a little from over-exposure when reflecting back the “hot zone” from the helmet lights.
On unlit streets, relying on just my Ay-Up helmet lights tended to result in “tunnel vision”, showing up the inadequacies of the beam pattern for camera use. This wasn’t surprising: the human brain tends to cope better with a hot spot in the centre of the field of view than the camera.
To my eye, the colours seem a little washed out in strong sunlight, and I found myself wishing for a compatible Skylight 1B film camera filter to correct this.
The ContourGPS will accept up to 32Gb of flash memory, meaning you will be able to will run out of battery four times over before running out of storage.
Enter the Android
Towards the end of the review period, with the helmet mounting stability niggles and hassles around aligning and setting tilt I had been experiencing (more on this in a moment), I was tempted to look at other options.
However, I then received an email that the free Android version of Contour Connect was now released and this turned out to be a game-changer. This little smart phone application fixes all of the ease of use issues around aiming the camera and changing the settings in one fell swoop.
iOS devices like the iPhone require the Connect View card, which is available at a small extra charge.
With camera on and record mode off, a five-second press of the hidden Bluetooth button in front of the slider, followed by starting the Contour connect app on your phone is all it takes.
With just a few of dabs on your phone display you can change just about every setting on the camera. You can choose between full HD 1080p, 960p and 720p at 30 frames per second, Action HD mode at 720p and 60 frames per second, or continuous photo mode. The 720p/60fps mode is great for shooting fast action where you might want to do slow motion replays.
Quality can be set between Medium, High or Max, and for continuous photo mode, you can choose between 3, 5, 10, 20 and 60 second intervals. You can turn GPS mode on or off, and set it to work in everyday outdoor or dusk light conditions. There is also a Custom light metering mode where you can manually set sharpness, exposure and contrast, and where in the frame the camera meters light input. Microphone gain can also be dialled up or down as required.
The switch under the rear cover on the camera now takes on a new usefulness, giving the user the best of both options. You can use the Android or iPhone connection to set up your options at the start of the ride to take account of the conditions, and use the switch to quickly flick between them later without having to wait for link to your phone to connect or to navigate menus. Choices might be bright daylight or evening recording, or (my favourite) normal and slow motion modes if you think your mate is about to do something especially dodgy that is worth recording for maximum possible embarrassment!
You can use your smart phone to make sure that the camera is pointing in the right direction on your helmet and the image is level and not tilted. It isn’t a real-time viewfinder and playback feature however as the screen refresh rate is only once a second or so and the Bluetooth connection cuts off when you start recording. This would certainly be a nice feature to have, perhaps in a future upgrade if Bluetooth bandwidth is not a constraint.
It’s all in the mount
The vented helmet mount was easy to fit and allows for three positions in tilt to get the elevation angle right.
Unfortunately the sample provided wasn’t really rigid enough. Flex in the detent mechanism allowed for noticeable camera shake over rough ground, which you will see in the video mentioned earlier. I have heard similar comments from a couple of other users.
Once you’ve got your placement sorted out, using Aralditing or super glue to fix the tilt mechanism in place would be recommended. This would also cure the rattling sound generated by this mount. Replacement mounts at approximately $15.00 are cheap enough if you need to change helmets at a later stage.
The stick on side mount is also prone to flex, but much less and was a definite improvement over the stock vented helmet mount. The resulting video was noticeably smoother.
While short sharp sessions on a Downhill bike with the one-sided weight of the camera on your helmet would be a non-issue, but I did notice some stiff neck muscles after carrying it on the side of the helmet for an hour or more. Perhaps a counterweight fitted on the other side would help, such as the battery from your helmet-mounted Ay-Up lights, but that is starting to push the helmet weight up past what some would find comfortable.
Using the vented helmet mount to place the camera top and centre is the most comfortable for longer rides.
The concern I had with the strength of the adhesive on the stick-on mount has so far proved to be completely unfounded: it is very strong. A short clip-together security lanyard is provided that can be cable-tied to your helmet at one end if you are concerned.
Despite the rugged construction and low profile, it is still possible to knock the camera about if you are unfortunate enough to get struck from the wrong angle. On one ride while using the ‘stick on side’ mount, I noticed that the rear hinged cover had come unlatched and was open leaving the battery and ConnectView card exposed. Initially thinking I’d just not fastened it correctly I closed the cover and slid it down into place and kept riding with no further issues.
However, as I looked more closely after the ride, I noticed that when the slider is in the Record position, a small lip on the top of the back cover sits up and is exposed to passing branches, and this is evidently where I’ve taken a hit. The rear cover hooks on to the body at three places besides the hinge, and two of the three hook points have broken off. This leaves the rear cover held in place by the one remaining catch point. Given the frequency with which your helmet gets brushed by low branches on the trail, this is something I feel that could have been done better. Removing this lip is something I’d like to see Contour do as a design tweak.
The battery will last up to three hours per charge, and spare batteries are available at relatively low cost if you need to continue shooting.
The GPS does tend to consume a fair bit of the battery’s capacity and limits use to about an hour 50 minutes per session with the GPS logging turned on. The GPS captures your position every second. For mountain biking purposes, I think every three seconds would be sufficient and I’d like to see a software update to allow users to select a longer tracking interval.
While Contour’s Australian reps confidently asserted the water resistance of the unit would be more than adequate for wet weather riding, I would be reluctant to risk the camera getting fully immersed in a race like the Dirtworks 100km, with its well-known (and infamous) canoe pontoon river crossing. There are two optional water casings available, a heavy duty one for diving and one for light immersion. Alternatively, the newly released Contour Roam unit may be what you’re looking for with a one metre immersion rating, although it lacks GPS and Bluetooth functionality.
Camera shake was quite noticeable off-road. Part of this is terrain, part movement of the helmet itself on my head, and part was shake in the mount. I would like to see better mounts for vented bicycle helmets, probably something with a wider base that can be trimmed as required by the user to suit the shape of their particular helmet.
Some kind of image stabilisation filter in the Storyteller software would be a welcome feature.
This is a seriously good camera, with outstanding resolution and
rapid responsiveness to changes in light levels. The Bluetooth connectivity and the applications for Android and iOS mobile phones make configuring the camera and confirming the aim delightfully simple and easy, and render the fitment of a viewfinder pretty much unnecessary for the camera’s intended hands-free point-of-view use.
The low profile of the camera minimises the risk of getting “hung up” by your helmet or having the unit knocked off on a passing tree branch. The solid construction makes it tougher than most. The ability to twist the lens to level the field of view is a nice touch that means the inevitable shaking and vibration the camera will be subject to is less likely to result in the aim being shifted and missing out on capturing the action.
Image capture in low light was much better than expected, making it eminently suitable for recording your commutes to and from work year-round.
While there are some niggles with the vented helmet mount, these can be addressed with relatively simple modifications.
+ Easy to use
+ Robust construction
+ Low light performance
+ Responsiveness to changes in lighting levels
+ Full 1080p high definition
+ Contour Connect mobile phone software makes confirming camera aim and changing settings brilliantly simple
+ Great customer service backup
- Vented helmet mount allows some camera shake and generates noise when riding rough surfaces
- Side helmet mount not ideal for bicycle helmets
The (VHR 1400) ContourGSP camera is distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Meeco Sales with a RRP of $399. The handy website includes a retailer locater and you will find the camera available at a lot of electronic entertainment and camera stores: www.contouraustralia.com.au
Look out for the summer promotion with free Contour backpack available with the camera at selected dealers.
Contour also have the lower price ContourROAM available as a ‘fun’ camera for RRP $299 as well as top model Contour+ with live streaming capabilities that retails for $699.