Contour HD 1080p Helmet Camera

For a while now, I've been planning to upgrade my various 'action' video cameras to full HD 1080p capability. It's taken me a while to finally make a decision and I've finally bought a Contour HD helmet camera, just in time for my next skiing trip.

Contour HD 1080p helmet camera
I've bought this camera for several reasons. The first was to be mounted to a helmet for skiing and snow-boarding. The second, is for in-car video whilst out on the road or on track in my Fisher Fury R1. The third reason was for cycling and mountain biking. I can also see myself using it whist power kiting and for other activities though. The waterproof case means I can use it for water sports, including snorkeling and diving.

The main competitor to this camera is the Go Pro HD but, there is not much to choose between them in terms of performance. The main reason I choose this one over the Go Pro HD is because it is smaller, lighter and looks better when fixed to a helmet.

Specification & Features

Full specs are available on the Contour website. The camera supports video capture at various resolutions, up to full 1080p at 30fps. The various support resolutions and frame rates are:

  • Full HD - 1080p (1920 × 1280)
  • Tall HD - 960p (1280 × 960)
  • Action HD - 720p (1280 × 720)
  • Contour HD - 720p (1280 × 720)
  • Fast SD - WVGA (848 × 480)

The field of view is 135° in HD mode and 170° in SD mode.

You can't just select the video format on the camera. Using the supplied software, you choose two video formats that are then used using the mode switch on the camera. I've set the 'LO' setting to be 1280 × 720 @ 60fps and the 'HI' setting to be 1920 × 1080 @ 30fps. The former is the best resolution and frame rate for action video, as it minimises the rolling shutter effect.

I wasn't that impressed with the sound on the device initially but then I discovered that it comes supplied with a laser warning sticker stuck over the microphone! Removing this sticker improved the quality and volume of the captured audio a lot. There is quite a lot of wind noise, even at bicycle speeds though. I've found the best way to fix this on these sort of cameras though, is to stick some foam tape over the microphone and this has made a huge difference on video cameras I've used in the past.

The built-in, omni-directional microphone uses AAC Audio Compression and being bottom-facing, ensures that a meaningful audio track is captured.

In The Box

Box
In the box is the camera and two mounts, one for a helmet and another for fixing to goggles. The camera also comes with a 2Gb micro-SD card (with software pre-loaded on it), a battery and a USB to mini-USB cable.

Mounting The Camera

Goggle Mount

I didn't think I would use this but, whilst out skiing in Dec 2010 I lent my camera to a friend who used it whilst following me. It worked really well and was almost as stable as the helmet mount. The only downside is that more of the frame is filled up with the goggles themselves.

Helmet Mount

surface mount
The camera comes with a helmet mount, which sticks to the helmet. This has a circular mount insert, which can be detached and has teeth on it to lock the camera angle (up/down). This circular mount insert clips into the helmet mount and the goggle mount and also has Velcro to help keep it in place. The camera also has a safety cord which clips to another cord, fixed to the mounts.

Contour HD mounted on helmet
The stick on mount seems perfectly strong enough to hold the camera as it is quite light. For added protection I drilled a 2mm hole through the surface of the helmet and the mounting plate and fixed a tiny stainless-steel nut and bolt right through, being very careful not to leave anything sharp or pointy on the inside of the helmet. This basically ensures the two parts cannot become detached.

I thought the lasers for alignment were a bit of a gimmick but, they really do help when trying to work out where to fit it to a helmet and when adjusting the angle of tilt in the vertical plane. The side of the helmet is slightly curved but the mounting pad has some give in it, to ensure a permanent fixing.

One thing to watch out for, when fixing to a helmet: The camera has a wide field of view and you need to make sure that the helmet itself doesn't fill a large part of it! As I've fixed it, you can only just see my helmet in view, in the bottom left corner of the picture. Also don't forget that ski goggles might stick out a bit further.

Testing so far shows this to be a really good way to mount the camera. Even when off-road on my mountain bike, the picture is relatively stable and the ability to point the camera, really adds to the interest of the footage. Because the camera simply slides off the mount, the positioning will also remain set correctly. The key thing to get right is that the camera is pointing forward when you stick the mount on the helmet, because you have no adjustment in this direction, once fixed.

In-Car Mounting

Thread mount
I've bought the thread mount adaptor for use in car. This basically means you can use the Contour HD with any standard mounts. The main reason for doing this is that these slide-in/out mounts make it easy to fix the camera quickly and I already have a mounting plate for my Fury, on which this will sit.

Some people may be concerned that the front lens will be damaged when used on track but, you can buy a replacement front lens glass for the Contour HD, for not a lot of money.

Generic clamp
The thread mount adaptor allows the camera to be used with generic clamps.

Monopod mounting
It also allows it to be used like a normal camcorder on a monopod, to improve stability.

720p sample video clip taken in my Mazda 6 in the snow, with low light:

Underwater Case

Contour HD underwater case
I also ordered this underwater case. Shame it didn't arrive in time for our summer holiday in Florida this year :-( Going to have to wait for the weather to get warmer before I can do this bit of kit justice.

Finally used the Contour HD and underwater case in anger whilst on holiday in Mexico (April 2012). The results are really impressive. Make no mistake, this is a properly water proof case, rated to 10m depth. I experienced no issues with moisture or condensation, though I did place the camera in the case, whilst in an air-conditioned hotel room.

In Use

The camera is powered up by pressing the button on the back for a second. The camera power light on the front lights up, the lasers flash on for a few seconds and the camera beeps once. The lasers on the front allow you to quickly align the camera direction and ensure it is level.

Starting recording is easy. The large slider button on the top is slid forward and the camera beeps once. Sliding it back the other way stops the recording and it then beeps twice. I like this because you could do this with ski gloves on.

The device is powered off by pressing and holding the power button for three seconds. The lasers come on whilst you do this, it then beeps twice and all lights go off.

Still images showing barrel distrortion
Although the field of view is very wide, there is some noticeable barrel distortion at the extreme edges, when the subject matter involves vertical straight lines.

Batteries & Charging

Battery
The device uses a Li-ion 1000mAh, 3.7V battery. This should last for 3 hours of HD recording. Whilst used on a car, you can use a cigarette socket adaptor that accepts a USB cable, to keep the camera powered. This would require you to leave the back cover off though. The supplied battery takes about 4 hours to fully charge.

I bought two spare batteries for use on the ski slopes. I've since noticed that these batteries are identical in every respect to the Nokia B-5C mobile phone battery. The latter can be bought online cheaper than the Contour replacements I could find. Even in very cold conditions, I was getting a battery to last close to a recording a whole days skiing action. I took a spare out on the slopes with me each day though and needed it at around 3pm each day.

Memory Cards

The camera comes with a single 2Gb micro-SD card. I bought two additional 16Gb cards for use whilst skiing, etc. These cards should provide plenty of recording time (>16 hours) as it typically uses 1Gb per 30 minutes when recording in HD and 1Gb per hour when recording in SD. These 16Gb cards are the biggest that can be used in this device.

Skiing

Having used the camera on a recent (Dec 2010) skiing and snow-boarding trip, I was really impressed. It handles the cold very well, even when it was cold enough for fingers to stick to the metal body! Battery life is also good, despite the cold. A 16Gb memory card could store about 3 days worth of skiing or boarding. It seemed to handle being dunked into snow at regular intervals. It works better in brighter light and most of the footage taken in foggy conditions wasn't really much use anyway. The snap-in Velcro mount insert stayed put apart from one very hard hit I took on an icy slope, at which point you realise the safety cord is an essential requirement. What I really like about this device though, is that it is light enough to forget it is even on your head.

720p sample in medium lighting conditions:

Accessing Footage

Accessing footage is simply a matter of plugging the (switched off) camera into a computer with the supplied USB cable. The files can then be found in the /DCIM/100MEDIA folder. The files are named FILE001.MOV, etc. and can simply copied or deleted.

The other way to access the footage is to remove the memory card and to slide it into an SD-card adaptor. Some devices support micro-SD cards directly now though.

Easy Edit Software

The camera software can be used to import clips, 'edit' them and then share them online. The import process also allows you to tag the video clip with various bits of data. Whilst the upload feature is quite useful to share your videos publicly, there is no video editing capability that I could find. You are better taking the raw footage directly off the camera over the USB lead and editing with a decent video editing tool.

Summary

To get the best action footage, you need to use the camera in 720p 60fps mode. The faster frame rate minimises the rolling shutter effect found on these cheaper video cameras. This is fine for most situations. This camera has proved amazingly flexible and useful over the last few years.

Updates

April 2012

We have been so impressed with this Contour HD and the water-proof case, that we have decided to upgrade to the latest model and have now purchased a Contour+ and the new water-proof case to go with this camera (it is rated to 60m depth and a slightly different shape). Our review of the Contour+.

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