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VholdR ContourHD 1080p Review
Adventure Sports / POV Camera

Review by Ron Risman -- January 2010

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VholdR ContourHD 1080p Sports & Point of View Camera Review

The VholdR ContourHD is an ultra compact and rugged POV (point of view) camera designed mainly for extreme sport enthusiasts who want to capture their adventures to share with friends, family, and ultimately their online social network.  

The camera is billed as the "World's First and Smallest wearable video camera" and both the ContourHD and ContourHD 1080p models were also the first to offer high-definition video, but now share the spotlight with the GoPro Hero HD.  

The camera weighs only 4 ounces, but features a rugged "armor" body with integrated rails on each side that allow a variety of mounts to slide and lock into place.  Mounts are available for helmets, goggles, handle bars, vehicles, tripods, and more - allowing you to capture your adventures completely hands-free.  In the box, the ContourHD includes a flat surface mount and goggle / strap mount.  

I wanted to review the VholdR ContourHD not because I wanted to see how well it performed as I jumped off a cliff - there are plenty of other dare-devils out there that are already doing this -- rather I wanted to see how this high-definition P.O.V.  (point of view) camera could be used to get shots from interesting locations and angles that could then be combined with footage from my other HD cameras.  

The first thing I tested was the camera's image quality.  

Image Quality
The ContourHD 1080p is able to capture full high-definition video at sizes up to 1920 x 1080 pixels.  I used the word "sizes" instead of "resolution" since it's important to remember that not all devices offer equal sharpness & quality despite sharing the same 'resolution.  " A matter of fact, the size of a video clip has very little if anything to do with its quality.  The factors that really determine image quality are: quality of the lens; quality of the image sensor, capture rate or bit rate (MB/s); the amount of video compression used; and the compression method used.  

I have to say that while the ContourHD 1080p does not have the image quality of a traditional HD camcorder, it was surprisingly good when used in decent lighting.  On overcast days, the camera tends to under expose everything, making for dull footage, but a quick brightness and contrast boost in post production can easily add punch to these scenes.  In low light, the camera isn't great, though better than I was expecting from such a small lens.  

The camera uses a CMOS sensor so it does suffer from the "jello" effect when the camera shakes or if panned too quickly, however the wide 135-degree field of view really helps to minimize the jello effect as does shooting at 720p @ 60fps, which tends to smooth out the overall video.  

In the video clip below, I mounted the ContourHD to the inside front window of the Tram at Snowbird (Utah) using a Panavise Suction Cup mount (photo right).  This mount allowed me to 'stick' the camera to the center portion of the open window and pivot the camera up to get it aimed out the window.  The footage came out very smooth, much better than I had imagined.  When set to music it has a very cinematic feel to it, as if I was flying over the slopes in a helicopter.  The Tram itself had quite a bit of vibration, but the wide-angle view really helps to hide it in the footage.  Also, in one of the shots, the sun was aiming directly into the camera, yet the ContourHD handled the resulting exposure much better than many cameras.  Instead of adjusting for the bright sunlight, the camera instead opted for a middle 'average' which helped to save the shot.  

For this demonstration I left the original audio intact so you can hear what the microphone in the camera picked up.  This video test also demonstrates how the video out of the ContourHD can be punched up in post production.  Here are some before & after clips showing the quality of the image after doing a bit of grading using Premiere Pro CS4.  

720p or 1080p - or Both
The ContourHD comes in two flavors - the ContourHD which records up to 720p (1280x720 resolution) at 30 or 60fps, and the ContourHD 1080p, which offers a step up in resolution to 1920x1080 at 30fps.  The 1080p version also sports the 720p mode at both 30 & 60fps as well as additional resolutions that are discussed further in this review.  Both models look and function identically.  

The ContourHD body is very small, measuring about 3" long, 1.25" wide, and about 2" tall.  It weighs just 4 ounces.  It's anodized aluminum body was designed to be rugged and can withstand dust, dirt, mud, and snow.  It's important to note that the ContourHD is water resistant, not waterproof.  VholdR does make an inexpensive waterproof case ($39.99) that is watertight down to 10 meters (approximate  30 feet).  

VholdR designed the ContourHD to be super simple to use.  At first glance there are only two buttons on the exterior of the camera.  A rubber covered on/off button on the rear of the camera and a large start / stop slider on the top.  Both of these can easily be toggled just by feel and even while wearing gloves, a welcome feature for winter use.  The only other switch on the camera, one that selects between two user controlled resolution presets, is located under the rubber door that covers the rear battery compartment.  

Low-light performance
The lens opening on the the ContourHD is not much bigger than the tip of a thick pencil, which is one of the reasons why its low-light performance isn't great.  While video captured in low light will look darker than the actual scene, the camera does a good job keeping blacks black, unlike many camcorders that switch to hi-gain, making the overall scene brighter but grainer.  For extreme sports enthusiasts I can't imagine that low-light performance is all that important, but for use as a point-of-view camera you'll just have to know its limitations and work around them.  

Low Light Video Demonstration
This video was shot and rendered in 1080p.  It was shot at night while driving to a mall parking lot.  A few seconds in I created a split-screen that will compare the original footage (left) with the same scene after it had been enhanced using editing software.  The enhanced version will yield a bit more detail in the shadow areas, but at the expense of black levels.  

Make sure to turn on "HD" on the bottom panel of the video.  

Audio Performance
Audio quality from the ContourHD ranges from acceptable to poor depending on speed of motion and wind noise.  There are audio level adjustments that can be made while connected to a PC, but once set they cannot be changed out in the field.  If your intended shoot involves mounting the camera out of the wind, then setting the audio levels a bit higher can improve sound, but when used in the wind there isn't much hope of capturing anything other than wind noise.  It's actually for this reason that I don't recommend trying to lower the audio levels to combat wind noise.  The only thing that will accomplish is lower volume, it won't help the microphone pick up voices over the sound of the wind.  By keeping the audio levels at the best settings for voice, you'll ultimately be all set to capture louder audio once the camera is no longer shooting in the wind.  

Easy Edit Software
The ContourHD comes bundled with a very basic video viewer and editor.  The "Easy Edit Software" makes it easy for those who are not super computer savvy to download the video clips from the camera directly to the PC.  Once the videos are off loaded to the PC, you can then play and trim each clip as well as share them via email or by uploading them directly to the ContourHD community web site.  It's noted that the software does not play back full 1080p files smoothly, so I recommend downloading a free video player called KM Player, which does a great job on PC's with moderately fast processors.  The Easy Edit software also allows you to add a title, description, location information, and keyword tags to each clip before sharing them.  While the software can trim a clip, that's all the editing you can do.  You'll have to pick up additional software if you want any real editing capabilities.  I would recommend looking at Pinnacle Studio 14, Adobe Premiere Elements, or Sony Vegas.  Each of these are priced at or slightly below $100.  

The above image is a screenshot of the Easy Edit Software.  This is not a video.  

Software Camera Adjustments
The included Easy Edit Software also allows you to change camera parameters, which are not accessible from the camera itself.  These include contrast, exposure, sharpness, metering and microphone gain.  To make changes to the camera settings, just connect the ContourHD camera to your PC's USB port and open the Easy Edit software.  Under the "Tools" menu select "Configure Camera.  " Select the "Lighting" tab to make changes to the Contrast, Exposure, Sharpness, or Metering options.  

Video Tab:

Lighting Tab:

If you select the "Video" tab, you'll find the option that lets you select the resolution and frame rate that are attributed to the "Hi/LO" switch on the back of the camera.  This provides the user a way to switch between two frame rates and/or resolution settings while out in the field.  Out of the box the "HI" switch is set to 1080p (30fps) resolution, while the "LO" setting is set to 720p (30fps).  On the review camera I kept the high setting at 1080p (30fps), but changed the "low" setting to 720 (60fps), which is better suited for fast action videography.  

Selectable Resolutions include:
  Resolution Image Quality Battery Life* Record Time CPU Field of View
Full HD (1080p) 1920 x 1080, 30fps Best Low 15 min/GB High 110°
This setting is best when you need the highest resolution possible from this camera.  At 1080p the camera offers a 110° field of view.  
Tall HD (960p) 1280 x 960, 30fps Excellent Low 15 min/GB High 135°
While not a 'standard' resolution, the Tall HD setting is great for situations where additional height is more desirable than additional width.  The Tall HD setting offers a 135° field of view.  
Action HD (720p) 1280 x 720, 60fps Great Low 15 min/GB High 135°
This settings is ideal for fast action as the 60 frames-per-second helps to smooth out motion and minimize vibrations.  The 720p setting offers a 135° field of view.  
ContourHD (720p) 1280 x 720, 30fps Great Medium 30 min/GB Medium 135°
While offering the same field of view (135°) as above.  This mode is great for capturing low-speed action.  This mode also reduces file size so you can twice as much video per MB.  
Fast SD (WVGA) 848 x 480 (60fps) Good High 60 min/GB Medium 110°
The Fast SD setting records at standard resolution (DVD quality) at 60 frames per second.  This makes it ideal for capturing fast action while saving keeping file size to a minimum.  This means longer recording times and even longer battery life.  If you plan to make a DVD video of your clips this resolution works best.  
* The Lithium-ion rechargeable battery provides up to 3 hours of operation when shooting at the lowest resolution setting (Fast SD).  Battery life will be reduced at higher resolutions and/or bit rates.  Cold weather also affects battery life.  The battery takes 4 hours to charge and can be charged through any USB port or USB car charger.  

Bit Rates
To the best of my knowledge VholdR has not published the actual bit rates of each resolution setting, however, Cinematographer and D.O.P.  , Tom Guilette, published a review of the ContourHD 720p and 1080p versions on his blog where he posted bit rate information he received from VholdR.  Here are the numbers he was given:

Full HD 1080p
1920x1080 @ 30fps
Tall HD 720p 4:3
1280x960 @ 30fps
Action HD 720p
1280@720 @ 60fps
Contour HD 720p
1280@720 @ 30fps
848 x 480 @ 30fps

* See illustration below.  

Rotating Lens Keeps things Horizontal
One of the exclusive features of the ContourHD and one that should not be overlooked when comparing it to other models is the rotating front lens.  This allows you to mount the camera at virtually any angle while rotating the lens to keep your video level.  The camera even has two laser beams built-in that make it easy to aim and level the camera lens before you slide the record switch.  Trying to mount a camera to real world objects rarely ends up providing a perfectly level platform.  With the ContourHD it doesn't matter.  If you can find a way to attach the camera (laying down, standing up, at an angle) you'll be home free with a quick turn of the front lens.  

Designed for Action
The long & narrow design of the ContourHD makes it less prone to being 'pushed around' by the wind, which helps stability at higher speeds.  Also, the large sliding RECORD switch on top of the camera is glove friendly - something you'll appreciate when it's 10° and windy.  The camera provides an audible BEEP when the camera starts recording and a double "BEEP" when you stop recording.  These features make it easy to activate the camera without having to take it off whatever it's mounted too.  

Show it to me differently!
One of the main reasons to purchase a P.O.V.  camera would be to capture visuals that you either wouldn't normally try to capture using a traditional video camera or to capture them from a whole new perspective.  For me, it's the latter that makes the ContourHD an interesting product.  So far, my favorite mount for the ContourHD is the automobile suction cup mount.  I had originally purchased a Panavise version to mount my Canon HG10 camcorder to the inside windshield of my car - and it worked great, but with the small size and rugged body of the ContourHD I am now comfortable mounting the camera on the OUTSIDE of the vehicle.  This allowed me to get angles and perspectives that I would never think of getting with a traditional camcorder.  

In the video that I put together below, I used the ContourHD to get some moving vehicle shots from outside the car, under the car, inside the car, and even one outside the car aiming in through the open sunroof.  There is also a video of myself getting a haircut that I turned into a time lapse by increasing the speed in Adobe Premiere CS4 and another clip where I mounted the camera to the inside of a shopping cart at the Christmas Tree Shop.  I then used the shopping cart as a pseudo dolly.  The video ends with a clip of my dog playing with a mini Joby tripod that he felt threatened by.  The video rendered very smoothly, but it stutters quite a bit when played through Vimeo - You can download the original rendered file by clicking here.  FYI.  This file is 177MB in size.  

This next video is only 47 seconds in length.  In this video I kept the original audio from the camera rather than replacing it with music.  The video was uploaded to YouTube in 1080p resolution, but to watch it in 1080p you'll need to do so over on YouTube - just make sure to click the HD / 1080p button in the player.  

Laser Accuracy without an LCD
One of the downfalls of the ContourHD is the lack of a preview or playback screen.  Without an LCD screen, aligning your camera would mostly be guesswork, but thankfully the ContourHD has a very forgiving 135-degree wide field-of-view, practically guaranteeing that anything in front of the camera will be recorded.  VholdR has also included two bright red laser beams, one on each side of the lens, that automatically come on when you first turn the camera on.  The beams show you exactly where the center of the camera is aiming and also act as a leveling aid.  

For me, the lack of an LCD display makes relying on the ContourHD a bit risky.  There were a couple of times when I was testing the camera out in Utah that the unit didn't record what I thought it had, despite having a charged battery and an empty memory card.  I drove through Big Cottonwood Canyon twice, setting the camera up to record part of the drive.  Each time the camera beeped when it started recording, yet when I got home there was nothing on the card.  Even more surprising was that my laptop was showing that the card was full, despite no video files being present.  I ran recovery software on the card, but still no video from the Canyon, only older deleted files that had yet to be overwritten.  

Since the camera lacks an LCD, it was equipped with a series of beeps and lights that indicate different conditions where the camera may stop recording, of course this assumes that you can hear the beeps from where the camera is mounted and that you'll remember all the combinations of beeps and/or lights.  For example:
  • The camera will beep 3 times if the memory is full and will be forced to stop recording
  • The camera will also beep 3 times if the memory is corrupt or is not installed in the camera
  • If the battery is the low, the camera will beep, the lights will flash, and the camera will shut off
  • If the camera was turned on in silent mode - well, you're out of luck with regard to hearing the warning beeps
  • The record status lights green if it's ready, red if it's recording, and flashes if the card is full or corrupt.  Depending on where you mount the camera, you may not see these lights.  
  • The memory / battery indicator lights green if there is more than 80% battery power, yellow for 20% - 80% and red if less than 20%.  Again, these are only helpful if you can see the camera once it's mounted.  

While I understand the need to make the camera as small as possible, incorporating an LCD screen would make a huge difference in usability.  Impact and water resistance shouldn't be much of a problem since digital camera manufacturers, such as Olympus and Pentax, already make shockproof and waterproof camera's that have built-in LCD displays.  Actually, Kodak just announced a "Flip-style" pocket camera called the PlaySport (Amazon) that will record in HD, is rugged, waterproof down to 10', has a 2.0" LCD display, and takes 5MP still images - and will be priced at just $150 when it ships in April.  No, it's not designed as a POV camera, but the technology is already in place to make a POV camera with a few of these missing features, so let's hope that they're already working on it.  

Rotating Lens
I would have to say that the biggest advantage the ContourHD offers over other pocket size and POV cameras is its rotating lens.  By allowing the lens to rotate, the camera can be placed on uneven surfaces, while rotating the lens to keep the horizon level.  Just mount the camera and rotate the lens until the two laser beams are horizontal to each other.  Just be careful not to rotate the lens in the wrong direction, otherwise you'll end up with upside down video.  Easily corrected in post production, but just as easily fixed BEFORE you hit record.  Just make sure to keep the printed words around the lens upright.  

Ease of Use
VholdR has made the ContourHD 1080p simple to use.  Just press and hold the on button (back of camera) for a second and then slide the record button (top of camera) forward.  That's it.  When the camera first turns on you'll hear a beep and the two laser beams will shoot out beams in order to help you align the camera.  The laser beams initially only stay on for two seconds, but a quick press of the power button will turn them on for an extended period of time (approximate  13 seconds) to help with placement and alignment.  

Camera Mounts
One of the unique features of the ContourHD is the sliding mount system that is integrated into both sides of the camera body.  VholdR sells camera mounts for ski goggles, helmets, handlebars, and tripods, each that slide into the grooved slots on either side of the camera.  The ContourHD includes a goggle mount, flat surface, and helmet mount in the box.  The goggle mount is probably the best of what's included.  It is designed to allow a strap to pass between the mounting base and camera, allowing the camera to aim forward.  

Water Resistant, not Waterproof
The ContourHD series have been built to take some abuse, however the camera is not waterproof.  VholdR does now offer a low-cost watertight housing for it ($39), which I would probably recommend purchasing just as extra protection for the camera itself.  If a mount ever fails, replacing a $40 case is much better than having to replace a $300 camera.  Plus, you'll have a blast with it at the beach or in the pool.  

Overall I liked my experience using the ContourHD.  The ContourHD is the first and only point-of-view camera that I have tested to date and I was pleasantly surprised by it's image quality.  It doesn't have the image quality of a traditional HD camcorder, but it's quality is still pretty good under the right conditions.  On sunny days, the video looks sharp and exhibits vivid colors and good contrast, however on cloudy days the image quality was less exciting, with low contrast and dull colors.  Some of this can be corrected in post production, but not dramatically.  

Audio quality was a mixed bag.  Indoors and inside my car, the audio quality was actually pretty good, but when mounted to the exterior of the car all you hear is wind noise, especially once speeds reached 20 MPH.  On a windy day you'll get wind noise even standing still.  For me the audio quality isn't all that important, since I'll almost always add in my own choice of soundtrack after I've edited the footage together, but there's a definite need to improve the wind reducing abilities of the microphone.  

After a situation in Utah where the camera didn't record my trips through Big Cottonwood Canyon I became frustrated with the camera's lack of an LCD display for playback.  It's a good thing I didn't write my conclusion to the review at that time.  :-) After watching all the other video clips that the camera successfully captured my opinion of the camera had once again turned positive.  I especially liked how smooth the footage was that I recorded going up the Snowbird Tram.  

The camera ships with a few basic mounting options, but for me, the most versatile mount is one that isn't included - the tripod mount.  With the tripod mount, you'll be able to use the camera with a wide variety of standard camera accessories such as windshield suction cup mounts and clamps, Joby "gorillapods", monopods, extension arms, and tripods.  The goggle mount that's included with the camera works by sliding the straps of the goggle through the special mount.  The only problem with this is that Goggle straps are flexible and the camera tends to wobble as your head moves.  Thanks to the 135° wide field-of-view this didn't impact the video too badly, but I would recommend using the included helmet mount instead - assuming you were a helmet.  

Since a sturdy mount is the most important aspect of capturing great action video, I would like to see a wider variety of mounting options included with the base kit.  The mounting capabilities, round body design, and the cameras rotating lens is really what sets the ContourHD apart from just using a rugged digital camera with video capabilities.  The flat surface mount included with the ContourHD 1080p allows you to mount the camera to non-vented helmets and other flat surfaces thanks to its weatherproof adhesive pad, but the package only includes one adhesive pad, so you tend to hold off making a decision on where to mount it since you only have that one shot.  I would like to see the ContourHD ship with at least a few extra pads to provide some mounting flexibility.

The real question is whether the ContourHD is right for you.  If you have been itching to record your bike trips, bungee jumps, skydiving adventures, snowmobiling, ski or snowboarding adventures but haven't had a camera small or tough enough to mount, the ContourHD might be the right choice.  Just try to have a goal in mind when ordering so that you'll know which mount(s) you'll need to add to your order to make your first experience with it a good one.  

The other thing I feel is important to mention is that the P.O.V. camera space is about to get more crowded.  Kodak has just announced the new Kodak PlaySport shock and waterproof video camera that will sell for only $149 when it ships in April.  The camera will offer 1080p HD video recording, a 2.0" display, 5MP still capture, electronic image stabilization, and is waterproof down to 10ft.  It also features direct playback from within the device and will include HDMI and AV cables in the box.  Kodak also announced the availability of the PlaySport adventure mount for helmet, handlebars, and more.  So while not everything is known about this new model and it won't even ship until April, it could be a game changer thanks to its feature set.   Olympus has also announced an addition to it's TOUGH series of digital cameras (Stylus TOUGH-3000) that will offer 720p (30fps/60fps) as well as 1080i video recording in a freeze proof, waterproof, shockproof body.   It will also take 12-megapixel stills as well.  It will be interesting to see what happens in this market over the next year.  

Even in it's own space, the ContourHD 1080p has a competitor called GoPro HD Here.  Both are similarly priced, but the GoPro HD Hero doesn't feature a rotating lens so it must be mounted horizontally (upright or upside down), but does come packaged in its own waterproof housing without having to buy anything extra.  It still lacks an LCD display and any playback functionality, but does feature a 5MP still capture mode that is lacking in the ContourHD. One of the big advantages that the ContourHD has over the GoPro HD Hero is its round tubular shape, which makes mounting the camera in tight spots much easier than a square body that needs to be kept horizontal.

Additional Information

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