Lighter, smaller, sharper
The GoPro Hero3 is 25 percent lighter than the previous-generation Hero 2's camera. It's also 30 percent smaller. However, all of that reduction manifests in reduced thickness with a new depth of only 20mm. The height and width (42mm by 60mm) are unchanged to maintain compatibility with GoPro's line of BacPac add-on modules and rear doors for the clear plastic shell.
On the front panel, you'll find the new f/2.8, six-element aspherical lens that is supposed to offer twice the image sharpness and reduce the amount of barrel distortion at the extremes of its 170-degree field of view. However, the characteristic fish-eye look of the video and photos captured by the Hero3 hasn't been totally removed, as it's sort of a hallmark of the action-camera style, adding a bit of drama to scenery as it speeds by.
The Hero3 uses the same improved LCD of the Hero 2, with its monochromatic dot-matrix display. I found the screen to be easy enough to navigate using the GoPro's combination mode/power button to change modes and the shutter release to make selections. However, there is a bit of a learning curve. Expect to spend a bit of time on your first outing just looping through the menus and getting used to where the options are. I also found the LCD to be a bit difficult to read in direct sunlight.
The front panel is also home to two indicator lights: one red to indicate that the Hero is recording and one blue that blinks to indicate that Wi-Fi is active. There are also smaller red indicator lights on the top, back, and bottom panels that are visible from most angles.
On the back panel, you'll find the removable cover for the 1,050mAh lithium ion battery. Swappable batteries are a good idea if you plan on being out shooting all day. Next to the battery door, you'll find the proprietary BacPac connection where the accessory BacPacs, such as the LCD and Battery BacPacs, connect.
On the right side of the unit (when viewed from the front), you'll find the Wi-Fi button that activates and deactivates the wireless connectivity with the GoPro app for smartphones or the Wi-Fi remote (which is included with the Hero3 Black Edition, but not the Silver or White editions). The details of how the Wi-Fi remote works have already been detailed as part of our review of the GoPro WiFi BacPac. However, this built-in Wi-Fi functionality renders the WiFi BacPac itself obsolete for this new generation -- although you'll still need it if you have a few older Hero 2s kicking around.
On the left side, behind a removable plastic panel, you'll find the Hero3's greatly simplified bank of connections. There's a Micro-HDMI output, shrunken down from the Mini-HDMI of the previous generation, and a microSD card slot, shrunken down from a full-size SD card slot for space savings. The Hero3 doesn't come with a microSD card, but supports cards with capacities up to 64GB. Finally, there's a Mini-USB port, which makes a return appearance, that is used for charging and syncing. However, with the aid of optional adapter cables, this Mini-USB port can also double as a 3.5 mm microphone input or an analog video output. I like to see GoPro doing more with less space here, but this connection scheme pretty much locks you into only using GoPro's first-party adapters, which may not be too big a deal for some users.
On either side of the Hero3, you'll find a small pinhole microphone for audio recording alongside your video. GoPro claims that its wind reduction algorithms have been improved for this generation. Like the previous generation, the camera comes with a swappable Skeleton back panel for its clear plastic case that can be used to further improve audio quality at speeds below 100 mph at the expense of waterproofing.
Rough and tumble shell
The Hero3's clear plastic shell is as much a part of the GoPro system as the camera itself and has received an update as well to match the smaller Hero3 chassis. Now thinner than before, the Hero3's shell also offers three waterproof buttons that pass your inputs through to the power/mode select button, the shutter release, and the new Wi-Fi button.
The back panel is still removable to allow replacement, for example, with the aforementioned Skeleton door or deeper doors that accommodate the BacPac add-ons. The door also features a new two-stage lock that that requires a tab to be pushed to the side before the locking mechanism can be lifted and rotated out of place. This adds a bit of extra security, keeping the camera sealed in its case, but I never really had any issues with the old, single-stage lock, so this new, sometimes incredibly difficult-to-open lock seems a bit unnecessary. Users who often submerge their GoPro cameras might not think so.
Finally, the Hero3's new shell features a new, flat lens that is supposed to work better with the new lens' reduced distortion and offer better underwater image quality.