Good as the GoPro is, the camera does have its drawbacks. It is not straightforward to use and, housed in a polycarbonate external protective case, it is bulky and heavy – at least by action camera standards.
The Contour Roam is lighter and neater than the GoPro and is easily powered on, even wearing gloves.
So is there a credible alternative? Contour cameras, like GoPro, are another West Coast techie company almost inevitably started by two undergraduate students – in this case Marc Barros and Jason Green. In the best American tradition of high tech geniuses they will probably be billionaires by next year while we are still wondering why we weren’t as smart as they clearly are.
Barros and Green were avid skiers and they wanted a light, simple camera to record their exploits on the piste. This philosophy of minimalist size and ease of use carries over to the Contour Roam we have had on test.
Compared with the GoPro, the Contour is much lighter and neater. There is no additional case, as there is with a GoPro, the Contour’s aluminum and polycarbonate body being waterproof to a depth of one meter. In practice, this is fine for motorcycling, recreational surfing, whitewater rafting and all the other adventure activities which are part of the West Coast lifestyle – but you wouldn’t want to go snorkeling or diving with it.
Contour does market a fully waterproof case but, unless you are riding in the Dakar and mis-judge the depth of a Peruvian lake, this should not be necessary for bikes.
For motorcyclists, the waterproofing element is important not so much to keep water out but rather for protection from the elements. It is demanding to ask any camera to tolerate being pounded by debris at 130mph but the Roam is well up to the task.
Going all the way back to the founders’ skiing days, and the thick gloves they necessarily used, one of the great joys of the Contour is an absolutely huge slide button, right on the top of the camera. Slide it forward and two, bright green leds light up to show that power is going to the camera. A few seconds later, the leds switch to red which indicates filming has commenced.
It is difficult to overstate just how good this feature is. Waiting in the collecting box for your race to be called is not the time or place to start fiddling around with messy buttons which may, or may not, be active. Switching on the Contour is utterly fool-proof – even wearing gloves.
Mounting the Contour took less than a minute and the lens rotates so it can be mounted on its “side” and still film as if in a conventional position.
A close second in terms of convenience is the Contour mounting system. GoPros are a thorough nuisance and although there are a wide range of mounts none are as simple, or effective, as the Contour. First, a wide, perforated, heavy-duty, rubber strap slides round the fork leg. This is sufficiently long to deal with almost any fork leg – including USD sliders. A curved mounting block hooks on to the strap and the Contour simply slides onto this and locks into place with an audible click.
Fitting the camera takes under a minute and Tech Control at every race meeting we have been to with the Contour have been 100% happy with the system.
The Contour has another clever trick. The lens will rotate so the camera can be mounted on its “side” and will still film as if it were in a conventional position. There is also a laser sighting device which works, after a fashion, to allow the camera to be aligned horizontally. However, probably to avoid being sued by morons who might stare at the laser to check if it is working properly, the beam is weak and not really effective outdoors.
What is irritating is Contour’s unwillingness to include Bluetooth connectivity on the Roam. This is a really desirable feature because you could see what the camera is filming through your Smart Phone. The Roam is Contour’s budget offering but not having Bluetooth is like offering a bike for sale without wheels or a gas tank.
The rest of the package is enough to get you filming but not overly generous. There is a USB cable, but no flash card, and a very basic manual which indicates that few of Contour’s staff were English Majors at college.
The battery is internal and sealed by the factory. Contour say that: “…we will have a program available in the future where you can send the camera back to us for replacement of the battery.”
Excuse my cynicism but I would like to see the cost of this – maybe 2/3 price of a new camera?
Contour claim that battery life is something around 2.5 to 3 hours. Certainly, this was ample for a full day playing at the race track. Charging is via a USB port using the same cable as for downloading video.
Contour need complimenting for the ease of accessibility necessary to complete both tasks. At the rear of the camera, there is a very solidly made access door with a locking tab. Move the tab – it shows a white dot when locked so there is no mistaking when it is unlocked – and the door slides firmly up and then pivots. It’s a very practical, durable, easy to use system which shows that someone knows what it is like to use a camera like this in real life.
What is not so satisfactory is the lens cap. This is a really good thing to have on any camera – but only if it doesn’t fall off all the time. The next time someone at Contour orders a batch of lens caps they need to be a couple of mm smaller internally.
The Contour also has a vast range of other mounts, to cover any action situation and the body is drilled and tapped ready to receive a standard tripod.
The only one I would avoid is the helmet mount. I cannot understand the logic of putting a block of aluminum between your helmet, which is there to protect your brain, and the ground. This has to be a stupidly dangerous thing to do – even with the re-assurance that the camera will release if you hit the ground. Certainly, Race Control will not even consider a helmet mounted camera – nor will many track day operators.
Although the Roam is simple to use – even a techno Neanderthal like me could make the thing work straight out of the box – there are some irritations. The sound recording levels are adjustable via the in-built software which comes with the camera. Unfortunately, the moment you make any adjustments the camera stops working and the latest version of the software has to be downloaded. Why ship a camera knowing that the software is obsolete and won’t work?
The camera will shoot full HD but this is not all that it seems. To be blunt, we have no hardware in the Melling household which will show full HD. Even on a high quality Sony computer monitor I could see little difference between the 720p, high resolution mode, and 1080p – except when viewed in the full screen mode.
A further factor is that in 1080p the camera gobbles up 1 GB of memory every 8 minutes against 1 GB in 15 minutes for 720p.
Finally, uploading to You Tube is horrendously slow for us in rural England. The film of the Thundersprint which I have used to show the camera in action took almost an hour to upload – and even this was in reduced resolution. This clip was shot in the high resolution 720p mode.
Here is a much shorter piece which was shot in full 1080p and you can compare the difference. This clip is 2 minutes and 37 seconds long and took 2 hours 16 minutes to upload!
The high resolution clip also shows how the Roam struggles in anything less than strong sunlight. The film was taken at 2 p.m. on typical English summer day – overcast and ready to rain! You can see the huge difference between the first film, taken three weeks earlier, at the same of day but in strong sunlight. The Contour really does need strong light.
In downtown Seattle, with 75mbps internet connection, H-D will be fine but for us English hillbillies it’s still a long way from a practical reality.
What the 720p film does show is the excellent range of colors and sounds that the Roam produces. The 170 degree lens gives a real sense of actually being in the action and the sound reproduction is accurate and rich. For me, the film fairly represented what I saw, and heard, riding the Thundersprint track and one can’t ask for better than this.
I am far from an expert in terms of these new action cameras so I sought a professional opinion from Rob Hallam owner of Big Tank TV (http://www.bigtank.co.uk/). Rob is one of Britain’s top independent TV producers and is responsible for the Thundersprint TV show, amongst many others.
Rob was delighted with the footage shot on the Roam and, like me, loved the ease of mounting the camera. In terms of the quality of the film, he is using the footage in 720p as part of the Thundersprint TV show which will be broadcast internationally. If it is good enough for commercial TV then most amateur sports fans should be satisfied.
Regarding price, there is good news and bad news. It seems that prices are currently plunging for a Roam which means that you can get an awful lot of camera for not very much money. At the time of writing, Roams are being advertised for $166 which is extremely good value. However, heavy discounts usually point to the imminent arrival of a new model so it’s a question of, “place your bet and take your chance.”
In summary, the Roam is a really excellent product as it comes – especially for motorcyclists. With Bluetooth connectivity it would be a serious challenger to GoPro and I am certain that this won’t be long in coming because other Contour cameras already have this feature.
Contour are at http://contour.com/.