Product Review: Nflightcam Contour+
Summary: The Contour Plus Nflightcam is an excellent option for pilots wishing to make inflight recordings and playback with aircraft parameters (airspeed, altitude, heading) and GPS groundtrack. The camera has some design quirks when trying to record cockpit audio with camera mounted on the optional suction cup mount. The GPS feature also seems somewhat unreliable. It is a pricey camera that takes excellent footage.
|Ease of Use:|
PROS: Small camera, lots of features, excellent picture quality
CONS: High price, minor design flaws, difficult to figure out without Contour’s help
The Nflightcam is manufactured by Contour (www.contour.com) and is actually considered a Contour Plus model (even though the box says Nflightcam Plus, there is no such model listed on Contour’s website.)
When you open the box you will find the following items:
1. 1 x Nflightcam (Contour+) w/ aviation lens and 4GB micro SD card installed
2. 1 x Rubber lens cover
3. 1 x USB cable
4. 1 x Battery
5. 1 x Contour+ owner’s manual
6. 1 x Clear lens (for non-aviation filming)
7. 1 x Comm cable (with headset connection for filming cockpit audio)
8. 1 x Profile mount (for mounting to a headset or helmet)
9. 2 x Flat surface mounts
10. 1 x 2.5mm male to 3.5mm female camcorder microphone adapter
11. 1 x HDMI cable
12. 1 x Lanyard
13. 1 x Clear plastic camera case
The camera comes with a letter offering to schedule a free 30-minute phone brief to bring you up to speed on your new camera. I initially chose not to get the phone brief because I wanted to see how difficult it would be to figure the camera out myself.
The first thing I noticed when removing the camera from the plastic case it comes in was the lens cover was not on the camera. I removed the camera, put the lens cover on, and tried to put it back in the plastic case, but the front portion of the case is ever so slightly narrower than the back and the camera will not fit in the case with the lens cover on.
The owner’s manual is 149 pages long, but don’t get discouraged, only 29 of those pages are in English. The manual starts out with a logical flow, but quickly becomes difficult to follow. For example, rather than explaining how to charge the battery or format your SD card for initial use in the beginning of the manual, it gives you a quick one-page explanation of how to turn it on and record and then dives right into using the GPS function. The remainder of the manual seemed confusing, but it made more sense after I went to https://nflightcam.zendesk.com/home and watched several how-to videos. The instructional videos are far better than the printed owner’s manual and I would recommend watching them if you don’t get the phone brief.
Initial setup of the camera was somewhat labored. After digging through the owners manual and figuring out how to format the SD card, I finally got the point where I needed to install Storyteller (software that allows you to configure the camera and download your work) on my computer. This was a little frustrating. The instruction manual points you to www.contour.com/support to download Storyteller. When I went to that page there were answers to questions about the software, but no download. After some browsing I finally found the download at: www.contour.com/software/storyteller.
Once located, the software installation on my iMac was quick and easy. I hooked up the camera to update the firmware on the camera and was not happy to see that Storyteller put the firmware for the wrong model on my camera! I had to go back to Contour’s website and manually download and install the correct version of the firmware.
In addition to the Storyteller software, there are two other applications that are worth downloading, both are free: The Contour mobile app for iPhone and Android, and a desktop app specifically for the aviation functions of the Nflightcam called “Nflight”. Both were easily found via a search on the iPhone and iMac App Stores.
The Contour mobile app is nice because it allows you to hook up to your camera via Bluetooth and see what the camera is seeing. This is important because there is no viewfinder on the camera itself. The picture quality on the app is nowhere near the quality that the camera will capture, but that is not necessary as you are simply using this app to set up your shot. You can also remotely start recording from the app, but know that your Bluetooth “viewfinder” will stop working once you hit record.
The Nflight app for your desktop will display your GPS airspeed (up to 330 knots groundspeed), GPS altitude, and track direction (it looks like a heading indicator, but because you are receiving GPS data and the unit does not know aircraft heading or winds aloft, it only provides your GPS track direction.) This application can be useful for reviewing flight parameters during an instructional flight or for monitoring parameters during practice maneuvers. Just make sure you understand where the data comes from and take it with a grain of salt.
Preparing the camera for recording was easy. The battery charges while in the camera via a USB cable and took only four hours to completely charge up out of the box (charging times may vary with battery charge levels.) The camera comes with a 4GB SD card already installed. Replacement of the SD card is simple (eject by pushing down briefly on the card and it will self-eject) and formatting your new SD card is also easy and can be done in seconds.
The camera mounts in the box are meant to be permanent mounts and are NOT reusable. As I have nothing I want to permanently affix my camera to, I have not yet attempted use of these mounts. Instead, I purchased the Contour suction cup mount for easy installation and removal of the camera to any cockpit I choose.
As I set up the camera mount for my first use, I noticed what I believe to be pretty major design flaw. The Nflightcam has an external microphone jack that connects to cockpit audio. That jack is located on the bottom of the camera – the same part of the camera that sits atop the solid flat mount when installed on the suction cup mount. Now, it is possible to slide the camera forward just enough that you can plug in the cockpit audio cable, but at that point the camera is not fully seated in the mount and seems like it could slip off under high G (most likely experienced in fighter or aerobatic aircraft) or perhaps even in rough turbulence.
Putting the camera to work is very simple. Once I picked a smooth flat surface upon which to stabilize the mounting apparatus, it only took a couple of seconds to ensure the mounting bracket and camera were secure. The clearly marked lens settings allow to see whether your camera is angle is level with the horizon (if it is not, simply twist the lens bezel until the horizontal marks are parallel to the horizon.
Starting the recording is simple – just slide the top switch forward (easy to do with Nomex gloves on) and slide it back to stop recording. I had the camera fully seated in the suction cup mounting bracket throughout the flight and did not change camera angles or setting during the recording period.
Playback of the video is very simple. I plugged my Nflightcam into my iMac via the supplied USB cable and when I opened Storyteller, I just clicked on the icon of my Nflightcam. There were two video files on there that, when linked together, are seamless. I just thought it was a little weird that one non-stop recording does not equal one non-stop video file. The files are “.mov” files which are handled easily by the iMac.
If you wish to edit your video at all, Storyteller is not the way to go. There really are no editing options available in the software. Really the only benefit it provides is easy sharing of your raw footage. You will need video editing software if you want to make a decent movie with your footage (i.e. add music, splice the video with other clips, etc.)
When I opened the footage in the Nflight app, I saw that the camera had an incredibly accurate initial fix. I actually saw a picture of my aircraft and parking spot on the ramp under the GPS position dot! I had the camera positioned ideally for GPS reception (it requires four satellites to get and maintain an accurate fix) with nothing obstructing the reception. Unfortunately the GPS went haywire after I took off. Upon departure I made a climbing left turn at about 3,000 fpm, but the GPS showed me continuing straight and leveling off. I got nothing else GPS-wise throughout the remainder of the flight. I had the GPS turned on at a rate of four updates per second (4hz).
The recording duration of my first flight with the camera was approximately 1.4 hours. I had a 16GB SD card installed and battery life held strong throughout the flight. The Contour suction cup mount I purchased seemed to work well, but rolling down the runway for takeoff it was quite bumpy and anytime I applied more than 2g to the aircraft there was significant camera shake even with all of the position screws tightened up as tight as they would go.
Advertised elimination of prop blur was not tested as the product was tested in a turbine-powered aircraft. Cockpit audio recording was also not tested as the provided connection is for civilian aircraft only. I will give it another go here in a propeller-driven civilian aircraft soon and update the review accordingly.
In summary, the Nflightcam takes great footage and has a small profile making it almost unnoticeable in the cockpit. The camera takes some time to figure out (mitigated by the free 30-minute phone briefing offered by Contour), and has some quirks related to the GPS function and the support software. Overall it is a great camera that takes great footage and provides a lot of additional features if you have the money for it.
Here is a recap and the justification for the ratings:
Picture Quality: 5 – I used the highest definition setting (1920×1080 @ 30fps) and “automatic” white balance with the aviation lens. Very high picture quality when viewed on a high definition screen.
Durability: 3 – The camera, while very light and seemingly fragile, is very sturdy. The only question as to durability lies with the cap/cover on the back of the camera. At times it does not want to stay in place.
Versatility: 4 – While there is no view finder or immediate playback capability, the GPS and cockpit audio functions are nice to have and can be a great instructional aid if the GPS actually works for you.
Ease of Use: 3 – The free phone briefing offered by Contour will help the setup go a little easier if you have the time to schedule and wait for the appointment. Otherwise, setup and learning your camera is made difficult by the vague instruction book and lack of clear online help.
Value: 3 – This is an expensive camera when compared to others on the market (i.e. GoPro HD) It does offer some features for pilots that other cameras do not, but I’m not sure that justifies the high price. I would be more willing to overlook the minor quirks if I hadn’t paid so much for the camera.
Overall Rating: 4 – The camera takes up almost no cockpit space, takes great video, and gives you features such as cockpit audio recording that can be very helpful to a pilot. If you can overlook the design and software quirks and the high cost of the camera, it is a great asset for recording your time in the air.