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ContourHD 720p Review: No Regrets, BUY ONE!

On September 24, 2009 I received an order from Amazon with my brand new ContourHD video camera. Five minutes later it was torn out of the box and the Hat Cam was born; it’s that easy to get started with a Contour cam.

In the time since then, I have recorded many hundreds of gigabytes and hours of video with my ContourHD on five different continents, from sea level to over 16,000 feet, in jungles, snowy mountains, deserts and other terrain. It’s been strapped to my head, peeked out from my jacket, smashed onto my backpack, held in my hand and mounted to all kinds of vehicles and devices. I’ve punted it off (small) cliffs, fumbled it onto the side of the road at 35MPH, driven over it, stepped on it, fallen on it and left it out in the rain and cold… all more than once.



My ContourHD is one of two electronic devices that has been with me on every single adventure of the past year and is unlikely to ever be replaced (the other is my SPOT Personal Tracker). Other devices have broken over time or have been left at home to optimize various trips, but the ContourHD is always in my bag. If you want an adventure video camera, buy one, it’s that simple – I can’t imagine you’ll have any regrets, I sure don’t.

That’s not to say my ContourHD is perfect, because unfortunately it’s far from that. In the rest of this review I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about my experiences with it, from good to bad, in sickening detail. I’ll focus on the downsides and limitations at first, then walk you through all the benefits that counterbalance them. Before we go any further, however, please understand something:

My ContourHD is an old model. If you buy the latest and greatest, you’ll be buying a ContourGPS, while if you try to save a bit of money you’ll be running down a ContourHD 1080p. It’s only if you really want to go bargain basement that you’ll find a ContourHD 720p. I’ve followed Contour as closely as I can (see my pre-release thoughts on the ContourGPS) so where appropriate I’ve tried to indicate when newer models are believed to have fixed various problems. Mostly, though, the positive and negative principles still apply to the entire range.


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ContourHD 720p Drawbacks & Limitations

     Vibration Shutoff / Battery Contact Issues
     Lighting Issues
     Soft Focus
     Distortion
     Audio
     Shutter Vibration
     The Final Bad Stuff
The Total Awesomeness that is the ContourHD
     Mounting and Holding Options
     No Nonsense Video
     Surprisingly Usable Audio
     Is This Thing Bulletproof?
     The Fun Factor
Too Long; Didn’t Read


ContourHD 720p Drawbacks & Limitations:

You must understand that the ContourHD is an action sports camera in purest form. This is what makes it such a fantastic camera – you simply pull it out and use it, any time, any where, nearly any way you want. This intense versatility comes with some major drawbacks, a few of which are serious flaws while others are simply limitations to be accepted and worked around. In no particular order, here are some of those flaws:

Vibration Shutoff / Battery Contact Issues

Imagine you strap your cam to your bike and go tearing out around a track, getting some awesome footage that you can’t wait to check out: You unstrap the camera and notice that for some reason it’s off, but you figure the battery died so no big deal. When you plug it into your computer, you find that it recorded eight seconds of footage. What the heck is going on?!

The Contour batteries slide into a thin slot in the frame where they are held up again U shaped metal contacts in a pressure hold. It only takes a brief moment of losing that contact due to vibration or impact and you’ve basically pulled the power from the camera, just like unplugging something. Since the power switch is a soft switch, it will not automatically turn back on, and unless you’re carefully watching the lights (hard to do when it’s strapped to your head or some such), you’ll never realize the cam shut off.

The biggest initial cause of this problem was a lack of consistency in the battery sizes. This can be easily seen with the two batteries I have, where one fits snugly but the other is sloppily loose. Contour recognized this early on and by my understanding was offering replacement batteries to people with this problem free of charge and has done a great job at ensuring future batteries don’t suffer from this problem.

Even if the battery is snug, however, excessive use eventually causes wear on those metal contacts and they begin to bend. Over time this leads to the same problem – horrible if it happens to you like it did to me, when I had no idea this problem existed and I happened to be in the middle of the Himalayan mountains. For the first eight months with my ContourHD, I beat it up mercilessly and only rarely experienced this shut-off problem, but there I was hiking in the mountains and the damn thing would turn off constantly, to the point where I gave up using it thinking it had a bad short (and lost out on capturing a lot of awesome footage and memories).

I got back to the States and dismantled the entire thing trying to find the short and couldn’t find a single problem – in fact, after putting it all back together it seemed to work well again. I blamed it on some sand and didn’t worry about it until the problem reared its head once again causing me to lose key footage on my trip to the Arctic Circle. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place and went to Contour support for help.

I found out that this problem was widespread and the common solution was to place a wedge of some sort (like a toothpick or piece of zip tie or tape) around the battery to increase the tension of the friction hold. Worked like a charm – haven’t had a single unexpected shutoff since, though at times it’s a pain to deal with (I experimented with a few different techniques and found the zip tie fragment to be the best).

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I expect this will be a long term use issue with all the Contour cams and realistically there’s not much that can be done. I do wish they would switch to a hard switch for power on/off so that the cam would automatically restart and keep videoing during such an event though.

Lighting Issues

The Achilles heel of the Contour camera is lighting. The sensor is small and it’s designed to work with what it’s got – I don’t see how it would even be possible to overcome this, so it is what it is (in fact, it does amazingly well, all things considered). In a nutshell, don’t waste your time trying to record video in anything other than bright light because it’s not going to show up.

Worse, if you have any sort of conflicting conditions within the field of view such as during dusk when the sky is light but the ground is not, your video will turn out completely messed up unless you manage to keep the camera pointed away from any brighter bits (if it’s pointed at the horizon in these situations it won’t work, but if it’s pointed at the ground it can still capture usable footage). Don’t expect to do any light painting or illuminating video with headlights or a flashlight either, because it just can’t deal with this.

Finally, when it comes to lighting, be aware that trees can totally hose up the video if there’s significant light blockage. Any deep forest on a cloudy day will result in nearly unusable footage because of the contrast between the shade and small bits of light leaking in.

Supposedly the ContourGPS has better code to deal with this kind of thing, but I expect it’s still going to be limited by the sensor size – it is what it is.

Soft Focus

Everything you film with a Contour cam will be just a little bit blurry – especially if it’s close the camera. You will never capture a shot that blows your mind with utter and incredible crispness (at least, not at full resolution – shrink it down to a web player size and it might look amazing).

Again, it is what it is. The cam does an amazing job of keeping the entire scene in the same consistent level of almost-focus that this is an incredibly small price to pay, and as mentioned above when you shrink the video to half size and apply some sharpening it’s not as obvious (unless you compare it to a precisely focused real camera)…  but the stark difference between a quality video camera with controllable focus and a Contour cam will always be noticeable.

Fighting bears with a ContourHD and a Canon T2i? This video shows the difference in crispness with high end video vs the ContourHD while showcasing the versatility of a Contour cam:


Distortion

The Contour cams all have a large field of view, which will lead to some distortion. In most situations this effect is barely noticeable and you may not even process it unless you are looking for it, however you should be aware that some scenarios heavily highlight this weakness. Most importantly, stay away from panning across large vertically linear shapes. A great example of this is my video of Beng Melea in Cambodia – everything goes all wibbly wobbly constantly. I liked the effect in that video but it weirded some people out.



Audio

Contour has been working hard to fix this, with changes to mic positioning in the ContourHD 1080p and the ContourGPS looking to refine the core problem of the Contour cam series – wind noise and vibration noise. The former can be so bad that it drowns everything out, but most of the time it can be worked with to some degree (though audio from a Contour cam will never sound professional). There are a lot of different ways that people try to deal with it, but realistically again it is what it is. The only changes I wish would happen here would be the inclusion of a rear microphone on a separate audio track and some interior wind buffer of some kind.

The ContourGPS especially has totally relocated the microphone which supposedly has a massive impact on this, so it’s clear this is an important issue for Contour. Unfortunately, as long as they have microphones with the plastic shell wedged directly against the plastic/metal case of the cam they will always have the vibration problem – basically, any sort of knock or impact is intensely loud and has to be filtered out in post, and using any of the included mounts in heavy action will cause horrid vibration noises. The only way to mitigate this is to wedge bits of cloth or tape around the camera in the mount to reduce the vibration (especially key when mounted on a motorcycle/etc.).

Shutter Vibration

The final major problem I’ll bring up – the mounts are mostly not padded where the camera contacts the mount, because it’s a metal on metal (or plastic) friction hold. The result is an unfortunate susceptibility to both high and low frequency vibration. In situations where high frequency vibration is especially active (such as on a motorcycle handlebars at idle), the resulting video is nausea inducing and completely unusable. It’s just something you have to be aware of and work with – it’s not so much a problem with the Contour cam itself as it is with the options you have to mount it.

The Final Bad Stuff

The other drawbacks are all relatively silly or obvious, so I won’t go into so much detail. You can’t adjust lighting and camera settings on the fly (you have to configure it while attached to your computer via USB, though the 1080p and GPS allow you to pre-configure a couple defaults and toggle between them), so if you start out on a sunny day don’t bother to keep the camera on at dusk (or if you tweak your camera for a cloudy day and the sun comes out, your footage is also screwed). The new iphone/android app for the GPS may allow changing this on the fly, I’m not sure – if that’s not something they plan, I imagine they’ll add it soon enough because it’s critical.

There’s no usable battery or space indicators, which is pretty annoying. You do get a low battery/full card light but if you’re not watching all the time you might not notice. If I’m lucky I’ll catch the beep as the camera shuts itself off and know it’s time to swap the battery, but that doesn’t always happen. I wish there was a simple system of some sort to check the basic battery level and space usage (make the light blink five times when full or something), though again maybe that’s something for the GPS and the new smartphone app.

There’s no safety lock – believe it or not, that soft switch on the back is exposed enough that the damn thing turns on all the time in a pack and the like if you’re not careful, and is especially prone to turning on if you push on the back while shoving it into a pocket. Best case this can shred a battery, worst case you wonder why your card is full and find you have gigabytes of video of the pocket of your backpack. It’s really more of a user-error issue, since it’s my fault when I do this, but it’d be nice to have a safety lock of some sort so I don’t have to pull the batteries when it’s going in the pack long term (or, my latest solution, I just wrap it in a thick sock).

As an extension of that issue, the soft switch just annoys me in general. I hate switches like that – you hold it down to turn it on, hold it down for four seconds to turn it off, hold it down for some random amount of time to activate the lasers or turn them off, etc. It’s a major pain. I especially hate it if I have the camera off to save battery and I want to capture something right now – it takes a frustrating amount of time to hold down all the buttons to start the cam up. (note that the soft switch is pretty much required for the weather resistance, so it is what it is again) If there was a firmware option to set it up so flipping the switch to record automatically turned the cam on, I would be all over that.

Last but certainly not least, there are the random glitches. Everyone with a lot of Contour use has run into these, you used to see comments all over the old forums. Sometimes the video has no sound or the sound levels are random. Sometimes the video randomly completely whites out. Sometimes the lights stop working for no reason (or, as in my case, the rear LED’s just stopped working completely except when turning on). Sometimes the lasers get stuck on. Sometimes the video gets corrupted for no obvious reason (extremely rarely in my case, has only happened twice out of literally thousands of videos). It’s all pretty rare, but weird nonetheless.

Oh, I guess there’s one other drawback, though it seems stupid to bring it up – every person I ever video in a developing world country wants to see what they look like on the video, especially the kids. And, well, I can’t show them. It’s the only time this bugs me, but I feel like I miss a connection when this happens. Maybe the ContourGPS and the new app will mitigate this. Not really a drawback (I like that it doesn’t have a screen normally), but again – it is what it is.

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The Total Awesomeness that is the ContourHD

After reading all of the drawbacks and limitations of the ContourHD, you might get the impression I’m not happy with it or that I don’t like it… but you’d be wrong. Completely wrong.

The simple fact is that the ContourHD is the most incredible piece of electronics I have ever owned. I am still amazed at how versatile and rugged it is and I would never consider traveling without it. You have only to look at my Vimeo page to get a feeling for how versatile and valuable the cam is – I have used it to video kickball games, working out, adventure, and just exploring around town. It is the camera to have, it totally rocks. If I had to choose only one piece of A/V gear to bring with me on an adventure, it’d be my Contour cam every time.

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Mounting and Holding Options

One of the things I love the most about the Contour cam is how easy it is to mount to anything, anywhere. Forget the hundred different mounts you can buy – with just the default “goggle strap” mount and the tripod mount you are set for life (though the other mounts are cool and I do have a few). My very first use was the infamous (among my friends) “hat cam” where I simply cut a half inch slice into a hat band and mounted it up with the goggle strap. (example 1, example 2)

Add the tripod mount and a gorillapod and you can do anything. Awesome handheld shots at extreme angles? No problem. Mounting all over various weird bits? Candy. Easily videoing yourself talking to the camera? Simple. Want to stick it to the end of a pole? Done. Heck, I’ve even shot tons of awesome video simply by unzipping my jacket a little bit and placing the gorillapod into the jacket with the Contour cam sticking out of the V in my chest. You can see examples of most of this type of usage in my Mototaxi Junket trailer below or wander through any of my other videos for many more extended examples.



No Nonsense Video

Turn it on. Record video. Done.

It’s amazing, really. With the mid-range settings you can record for 4+ hours on a battery and barely dent a 16GB card, so there’s no reason not to video. It’s one of the things that makes the Contour cams so awesome, just attach it to something and turn it on and grab a couple hours of footage of… whatever! There will be something cool to check out later.

There’s no worrying about focus or light balance or really any of that, the video either turns out great (most of the time) or unusable (some of the time, though you get a feel for this as described above) and there you have it. It’s so much easier than even a digital camera or camcorder, and compared to the nightmare that is DSLR video there’s no reason not to whip it out constantly.

Surprisingly Usable Audio

Nothing that comes out of a Contour cam is ever going to sound professional, but the reality is that the microphone gain is balanced well enough that the raw audio is surprisingly usable with some tweaking in post. The vast majority of my videos include direct audio that has been manipulated in some form – sometimes it’s a bit annoying, but in general it conveys the action great. There are even some situations where I’ve picked up a perfectly usable conversation with someone ten feet away.

I’ve recently taken to recording audio on an external source to try to get better quality audio, but when it comes down to it in the final cut, I often just end up using the audio directly off the cam because it’s so much less of a hassle. It’s really quite impressive.

This video showcases both the good and bad bits of audio with the ContourHD,all audio is onboard:


Is This Thing Bulletproof?

I destroy things. From cameras to sunglasses, shoes to bags, very little can stand up to the excessive amount of abuse I have a tendency to put things through. The Contour cam blows my mind with some of the crap it has survived. Ten foot falls onto concrete, full submersion in water without the waterproof case, complete subzero freezing, extreme dust, dirt, and mud… not have I accidentally punted the thing over twenty feet down a mountain, but I’ve even had it go flying off a motorcycle at 30+MPH multiple times.

I mean, dude. I don’t know what else to say. The crazy bit is that if you look closely at the photos, aside from some serious denting of the front bezel it barely even looks like this thing has been outside. What the heck is it made out of?

The Fun Factor

This, really, is what it’s all about – having fun. The cam is so easy to use that anyone can enjoy it, you can mess around however you want, and you don’t really worry about it. You can give it to a kid to play with, you can hang off a motorcycle and hold it six inches above the ground without freaking out, or mount it wherever without thinking too hard. When you’re not worried about running out of battery or filling up your card or breaking your camera or finding room to wedge it somewhere, everything is so much easier. It’s fun!

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Too Long; Didn’t Read

It’s simple: Contour makes awesome cameras. They have improved them greatly with each product line, and the ContourGPS featureset is a massive further improvement. If you buy a Contour cam, you will love it, you will want to use it all the time, and you will be amazed by the footage you capture constantly.

The drawbacks will rarely bother you because it really is such an amazing piece of kit. I can’t compare it directly to competitors because I haven’t put a GoPro through the same variety of circumstances in which I’ve used my ContourHD, but here’s the thing:

I don’t really care. I can’t really imagine another camera being better simply because the technical challenges (sensor size) can’t be overcome in a camera of this size. Maybe other cameras might be as good, but I’d spend my money on a Contour because I can guarantee these things are awesome.

The exposure to vibration, dirt, rain, mud and cold for hours on end as I recorded video on my way to the Arctic Circle on a scooter last year highlights the durability of the Contour cam:


Comments

Unknown said…
Thanks for a great review.

I had given up on my own contourHD due to it going off repeatedly (vibration on a bike without shocks is pretty harsh). Contour support were pleasant but not useful.

I resurrected it last night and shoved in a bit of old cable tie and it survived a complete ride this morning.

There's a good picture here:

http://support.contour.com/contour/topics/why_my_contour_hd_720p_shuts_down_randomly_for_vibrations

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