I bought my first ever video camera in 2009 to record bicycling on streets, paths and other bicycle facilities, for instructional and advocacy purposes. I searched for advice and reviews about models which are appropriate for action activities, and chose the ContourHD 720p sold by http://contour.com. The particular model I purchased is no longer sold, but the ContourHD1080 is the comparable updated version on sale at this writing (summer 2011). It is the entry-level model of the three they sell now.
This company sells to the action-oriented enthusiast, including mountain biking, skiing, surfing, skydiving, and even fighter jets. Using the Contour for road and path recording is pretty trivial in comparison. So far I have had mostly good results.
The water-resistant camera unit, with an aluminum shell, is about the size of a small LED light, or, a short fat cigar on a mount. The body size and weight are advertised as 95x55x34 mm and 4.3 oz. ( 122 g). The camera records HD video, requiring the user to only push one button (power) and one slide switch (record). This can be done with winter gloves. What is missing is an LED screen and viewfinder, and the plethora of buttons, connection ports, and menu choices typical of most consumer cameras. Apparently, the designers have picked, and chosen, only the essentials to easily record fast action. Autofocusing spans from 50 cm to infinity, and the exposure automatically adjusts for the varying light levels. There is no optical zoom. With this model, you aim the unit as best you can, and see the results after transfer to your computer. Learn from trial runs before you take it to your main event.
The inner camera can be rotated in the outer shell over a 180 degree range to level the view for eccentric mounting angles. A pair of red LED lasers allow the user to accomplish this levelling and aiming whilthe camera is facing a flat vertical surface. The 720p recording mode uses a 16/9 aspect ratio, with the 16 dimension spanning 135 degrees of view. This provides a good representation of most of what a cyclist should be watching ahead while riding in traffic. The 5 MPixel sensor output is recorded in the H.264 codec, and the files saved in the MicroSD chips are in .mov (QuickTime) format. The supplied 2 GB chip saves about 1 hour with the 720p format at 29.97 frames per second. At 60 fps, the field of view is narrower, and fills the chip in half the time. Chips up to 32GB can be used. The lithium battery will record 2 hours. Transfer to the computer is via the USB cable [or from the chip -- John Allen].
A variety of mounts is available: for handlebars, helmets, goggles, car dashes/windshields, tripod mounts, military tactical weapons, surfboards, and a hand grip. Other handy accessories include a hard-shell carrying case with a 12 inch USB cable for field transfers; a lens kit; lens cover; mount leashes; extra batteries and chargers; and other replacement parts.
The one irritating shortcoming on the unit I use involves a slightly loose Record slider switch, which rattles on bumps when used with the handlebar mount. I use a piece of electrical tape on it to silence the rattle. It does not rattle with the helmet mount.
The web site has a section for users to upload videos. This will provide the potential customer with plenty of examples. An example of my recording with the helmet mount is http://www.vimeo.com/10492285. Here is a handlebar view of my commute home at night: http://www.vimeo.com/11671542.
The two more advanced models, the ContourGPS and Contour+, include GPS and Bluetooth capability. The Bluetooth allows an iPhone to change the recording settings, and to be used as that LED screen viewfinder which is missing from the basic ContourHD1080 model. The Contour+ also has a 170 degree wide angle lens, and a jack for an external microphone.
Prices are: Contour HD 1080, $250; ContourGPS, $300; Contour+, $500.
Additional comments and an update by John Allen, November, 2011:
In Gordon's videos, I noticed that the lens didn't hold its sharpness all the way out to the corners. The GoPro does; the Insight POV does not. I do not know how the newer Contour models with the 170 degree lens do.
One significant weakness of the Contour cameras (and most other helmet cameras) is their pronounced "rolling shutter" effect -- that is, the image is scanned from top to bottom, rather than input all a once. When there is a lot of camera shake, this results in geometric distortion of the image, and it cannot entirely be removed by post-processing with image-stabilization software..
The Contour HD 1300 model is the follow-up to the ones Gordon reviewed. It is currently (spring 2011) selling at a closeout price, as low as $100. The three cameras currently in the Contour line are the Contour Roam, Contour GPS and Contour+. The Contour Roam's features are similar to those of the HD 1300 except that it has the 170-degree lens. The GPS has the 135 degree lens; the + has the 170-degree lens. The + also has an external microphone jack, but it is only monophonic. To me, HD video demands at least stereophonic sound, and preferably, surround sound. My humble helmetcamera.com standard-definiton camera offers stereo! A feature comparison of the current Contour models is here.
Last Updated: by John Allen