GoPro has been quiet for a while. Two years since the last Hero camera, just over a year since the smaller Session camera. And a rumored GoPro drone has remained a mystery while the competition in the skies continues to boil.
Today, we get new GoPro goodies, and at first glimpse, they look great. The California company just took the lid off the Hero5 Black ($399), the Hero5 Session ($299), and its Karma drone ($799). The cameras arrive on October 2, and the drone follows on October 23. Along with the new hardware, there’s a ton of new software.
The new GoPro Karma drone appears to have an original, user-friendly design–which means it might have a pretty good shot at making an impact in the crowded drone market.
Karma is small and foldable, designed to fit inside a daypack (or the small, rectangular backpack it comes with). You don’t have to assemble the drone each time; the four arms (one rotor on each) just fold snugly against the body and click into place in seconds. It’s also very flat. As someone who has used the DJI Phantom line for years, I can say that’s a big deal. Most drones are awkward to carry and require a specialized Pelican case.
Like most drones of this caliber it has a 3-axis gimbal to stabilize video, but unlike others, the camera hangs off the front of the drone and keeps the propellers out of the shot. More unique is the ability to remove the gimbal from the quadcopter and attach it to the included Karma Grip, so you can get stabilized video when you’re going handheld, too. The Grip has buttons to control the camera’s shutter, modes, and the angle of the gimbal. You can attach the gimbal rig to other mounts as well, which definitely adds a lot of value.
Speaking of the package, unlike most drones these days the Karma does not have a built-in camera. You just use your GoPro with it–any Hero4 or Hero5 camera. This will offset the cost somewhat and give you more options for upgrading over the years, but it’ll be interesting to see if it adds a level of complication with pairing and such. If you want to buy a camera with the Karma as a bundle, you can get it with a Session for $999 or the new Hero5 Black for $1,099. That’s still cheaper than DJI’s Phantom 4, plus you get a GoPro you can use independently, a stabilizer, and a backpack.
GoPro went with a video game style controller which is a pretty solid idea, given the fact that the majority of consumers have spent more time gaming than steering RC vehicles. It looks extremely simple with two joysticks and a take-off/land button Even better, the controller has a built-in touchscreen, so you don’t have to use your phone or a tablet just to see where you’re going or adjust settings. Yuneec did that with its Typhoon series drones, and definitely eliminates one of the pain-points of drone flying. According to Monday’s announcement, the remote will pair with a smartphone so you can focus on flying while a friend works the camera.
Be My Hero
For GoPro fans, this is a big upgrade. GoPro’s previous flagship, the Hero4 Black, was maddeningly missing a screen, even though the mid-range Hero4 Silver had one. Now, finally, you don’t have to choose between frame rates and user friendliness. The Hero5 Black shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second and 1080p video at 120 fps (like the previous Black version), but now it has a two-inch touch display in the back, and it boasts simplified controls. It also has three microphones and will automatically adjust to use the one with the best sound coming in.
The best upgrade to the controls, though, has to be voice control. We saw this feature pop up for the first time with the Garmin Virb Ultra 30, and I really loved it. Frequently the moment you want to start recording is the same moment you really need to be glued to your handlebars, so having a hands-free solution is a great option. The Hero5 Black understands seven languages. It works in different modes, too, so you can be in the middle of shooting a video and tell it to take a still, or in the middle of a time-lapse and tell it to take a burst. It’ll be interesting to see if it can hear as well through its case as the Garmin does.
Speaking of cases, you won’t need yours as often. The Hero5 Black is waterproof without a housing to 33 feet (like the Hero4 Session was). That should theoretically mean it’s safe for snorkeling and surfing all but the biggest waves, but if things get really hairy you’ll still want the case. The Hero5 Black is built to be compatible with all existing GoPro mounts, including the Karma drone.
Another thing it cribbed from the Session is one-button control. Yes, gone is the long-standing power/mode button on the front of the camera. Instead, everything is handled via the main button on top and the touchscreen. I’m a bit nervous about this, and I’m skeptical about relying on the touchscreen and voice controls, especially in situations where you can’t remove it from its case (surfing, diving). The one-press wake and record did help the Hero4 Session get more out of its battery, but it also sacrificed valuable seconds between when you hit the button and when it started rolling (the original Session took 5 seconds). Hopefully they’ve managed to speed that up.
There are a couple other firsts for GoPro here, most notably the addition of GPS, at long last. You can tag the locations of your videos right now, and the company hopes to add the ability to overlay stats like MPH and maps in a future update. The Hero5 Black also offers electronic image stabilization for the first time. Competitors have been doing this for years, and personally, I’ve never cared for electronic image stabilization (as opposed to optical image stabilization) as it typically involves cropping and losing some image quality. We’ll see if GoPro’s implementation is any better. It’s worth noting that Sony beat GoPro to optical image stabilization with its recently announced X3000R action camera.
Other new stuff? The ability to shoot RAW and WDR photos (wide dynamic range), a new “distortion-free” wide angle mode for photo and video, and stereo audio recording with “advanced wind noise reduction.” It can also auto-upload photos and video to the cloud when charging with the new GoPro Plus subscription service, which we’ll get to in a bit.
I reviewed the Hero4 Session when it debuted last year and found it to be a mixed-bag. I loved the new form-factor, but it lagged way behind in video quality and was too costly to recommend. The new Hero5 Session looks like a major improvement.
Most significantly, its processor has been upgraded so the lil’ guy can now shoot at speeds up to 4K at 30 fps, just like its big brother. It also gets voice controls, electronic image stabilization, the new “distortion-free” setting (will keep using quotes until I test it for myself), as well as the auto-upload while charging feature, which are debuting with the Hero5 Black. All that in the same wee package the original Session had.
It’s still waterproof to 33 feet without a case, and it will still work with all the existed mounts, including Karma. On paper the only ding is that it’s limited to 10 megapixel stills instead of 12 megapixels on the Black, but that’s still an improvement over the 8 megapixels of the original Session.
GoPro Plus, Software, Accessories
GoPro Plus is the name of new subscription cloud service designed to help get your footage out there. When you plug in a Hero5 camera (Black or Session) it can automatically start uploading your photos and video footage to the cloud, theoretically making sharing and editing easier. I’ve always found video editing in the cloud to be problematic at best, but I’m looking forward to going hands-on with this. The subscription grants you access to a large library of royalty-free music for your videos, which is handy, and gets you 20 percent off of mounts and accessories.
There are a couple accessories coming later this year that sound interesting, too. One is Quik Key, a small microUSB reader that transfers your footage directly to your smartphone. This actually looks kind of awesome, since transferring your footage from your camera to your phone has always been one of the slow parts of the process. When you plug it in now it just shows up in the Quik app, ready for you to edit. It’s tiny and meant to be worn on your keychain, so you’re more likely to actually carry it with you. The other is Remo, a tiny square (about 1.5 inches) with a control button that clips to your shirt and also works as a voice-activated remote control. That way you can control the camera even in noisy environments. No word yet on arrival date or pricing for these.
Quik, GoPro’s newly acquired editing app, will be making its way to the desktop starting late September. The mobile app lets you pick your favorite segments, choose a soundtrack, and then it cuts everything together for you, timing the cuts to the beat. It’s not clear how much of that functionality will be making its way to the desktop, but it sounds like it will be replacing the GoPro App for Desktop, which was mostly for file/footage management. It sounds like the GoPro Studio application–the company’s more advanced editor–will continue to exist, at least for the time being. Also, GoPro’s smartphone app has been rebranded as Capture, which seems way less intuitive than simply calling it the GoPro app. I dunno, man, I dunno.
As a geek, I love seeing how far action cameras have come over the last few years, and it’s great to see such solid competition out there. GoPro’s new gear looks like it has the potential to keep leading in the action cam category (and take a bite out of drones, too), but we can’t confirm that until we spend some serious time with the new toys, which I’m going to start doing right now.
Brent Rose is a freelance writer and regular WIRED contributor. He is currently traveling the U.S. living in a high tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com
UPDATE, September 19 at 14:31: This story was altered to give more detail about how the GPS features work.