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 Contour HD1080 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. Focus 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 allows the user to accomplish this levelling and aiming while the 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 the chip fills 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. There is no 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:
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.
Contour cameras (and most other helmet cameras) have a 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. It is preferable to mount a camera on the bicycle to avoid large bobbles, but on the helmet to avoid rapid shakes if image-stabilization software is to be used.
The Contour HD 1300 model is the follow-up to the ones Gordon reviewed. As of spring 2011, it was selling at a closeout price, as low as $100. The three cameras then in the Contour line were 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 mono microphone jack. To me, HD video benefits from at least stereophonic sound, and preferably, surround sound.
Contour nearly went out of business in 2011, but recovered.
I bought a Contour HD HD1080P camera when the company was in trouble and the price was low. I liked this camera better than the GoPro Helmet Hero HD which I already owned, for several reasons.
My first Contour had a problem -- I don't remember what -- and I returned it under warranty. The company promptly sent me a new one.
A couple things I did not like so much about these cameras were the loss of focus at the sides of the image, and that color rendering was a bit dull -- though that could be corrected in post-processing.
I kept using my second Contour camera until I dropped it and it lost focus. There are instructions on the Internet about how to adjust the focus of these cameras, but I couldn't get that to happen. It is supposedly possible to rotate the lens in its screw mount, but I couldn't get it to turn. Apparently, mine is glued in place too tightly.
As of July 2018, Contour is producing cameras in the same form factor but with added features. The Web site indicates that only one model, the Contour 4K, is in stock. I would consider one if I were in the market for a new camera now. A feature comparison of Contour models is here.
Last Updated: by John Allen