GoPro is the first–if not only–name most people think of when it comes to action cameras. It’s not just because the company conquered the market early, but also because its cameras have remained the best and most widely used for a long while.
GoPro Hero5 Black and Hero5 Session
Both cameras are waterproof without cases. Excellent touchscreen on the Hero5 Black, finally. Voice controls are neat. Best in class image at the resolution you’ll use most. Hero5 Session is much improved.
GPS doesn’t do much yet. Recording indicator on the Hero5 Black is too dim. Cameras are not as sharp in 4K.
However, in recent months GoPro’s latest flagship camera (the Hero4 Black) has been usurped by the likes of the high-end Garmin Virb Ultra 30 and the solid yet affordable Yi 4K Action Camera.
Now GoPro has answered its challengers with two new cameras, the Hero5 Black and the diminutive Hero5 Session. These new shooters update the capabilities found to the older GoPro models, and they add new features–like voice control and built-in GPS–that the contenders introduced in their new models. After testing the new GoPro cameras alongside their older versions and the latest cameras from the competition, I can tell you that GoPro has done just enough work to recapture the throne it very briefly lost.
Back in Black
The Hero5 Black has the same rectangular shape as its predecessors, but there are some big physical changes. It’s now waterproof to 33 feet without a case–it took a pounding in six-foot waves on my surfboard, and it also made it through some cliff jumping, all with no leakage whatsoever. The now-watertight port covers are a bit harder to open, but that’s a small tradeoff.
Another change: the touchscreen. In the last generation of GoPros, the high-end Hero4 Black was the most capable camera in the line, but it was missing a touchscreen. The mid-tier Hero4 Silver, however, did have a touchscreen. GoPro has corrected this oversight and given its top-of-the-line camera a really nice touchscreen. The 2-inch diagonal panel is big and responsive, and the menu system is easy to understand. Make sure you remember to lock the screen before you take it in the water, though, as water drops can cause accidental settings changes.
Talk to Me
This is the first GoPro to offer voice controls, a really slick feature Garmin built into its recent Virb Ultra 30 action cam. The GoPro understands far more commands than the Virb, though, and you can talk to it in seven languages. It certainly isn’t perfect–ambient noise like rushing wind confuses it, and I ended up with some footage of me biking downhill yelling, “GoPro stop recording! GoPro Stop Recording! GOPRO STOP RECORDING!!” It’s still very nice to have another way to work your camera, but you can’t rely on it 100 percent. (GoPro will soon be launching a tiny remote control with a mic that clips to your collar that should improve audio pickup.)
Image quality is excellent. At 1080p and 2.7k, the image is much sharper than the Garmin, but the edge goes to Garmin when shooting at 4K. Personally, I give 1080p performance more weight because that’s what I shoot 90 percent of the time, but if you know you want to be shooting a lot of 4K, that’s a compelling case for the Virb. The GoPro’s audio is much better that the Virb, though, especially since you don’t need to put it inside a waterproof case in wet conditions. If it takes a dunk, the mics eject water extremely quickly.
This is the first GoPro that has built-in GPS, but all the GPS can do is geotag the photos you take. You don’t get any fancy overlays on your video that show your speed or elevation, though GoPro says its working on a software update. It’s a shame they missed it for the launch, since other cameras offer this.
Gone is the button of the front of the GoPro, a staple since the first generations. Now there’s just a side button for toggling power and modes, and a button on top to start and stop recording. But fret not! Pressing both buttons together still lets you change all the granular stuff while just looking at the small LCD screen on the front of the camera. It’s nice to have that option for when you’re surfing or snorkeling and can’t use the touchscreen. Also, GoPro replaced its bright LED recording indicator lights with teeny little dinky ones. It’s almost impossible to tell if you’re rolling or not when you’re looking at the camera in bright light. Big miss.
The battery has been slightly upgraded from 1160mAh to 1220mAh, which you’ll want if you have GPS and voice control turned on. This does, however, mean your old batteries won’t work with the new camera. I did a standard rundown test at 1080p and 30 fps (no GPS, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth) and recorded one hour and 56 minutes of video. That’s a definite improvement over the Hero4 Black’s one hour and 37 minutes, but it’s still behind Sony’s action cams which exceeded two hours. The Hero5 Black now uses USB-C for charging and data transfer, which worked nicely and quickly. When it’s charging it can auto-upload your videos to your GoPro Plus cloud account, GoPro’s new subscription service (more on that later).
Other enhancements include faster wireless data transfers, RAW photo capability, on-board software to eliminate lens distortion, and decent electronic image stabilization.
Given the new features and the excellent image quality, the Hero5 Black is the best action camera you can buy. Also, it will be fully compatible with GoPro’s forthcoming Karma drone. The new camera is also only $400–a full $100 cheaper than the previous Hero4 Black.
Start a New Session
If you read my review of the original Hero4 Session you’ll remember that it was mostly about unrealized potential. Here was a tiny, waterproof, super-light cube. A few things killed it, though. Images were soft and grainy, like they’d come out of a GoPro from two generations earlier. That, and it launched at $400, the same price as the vastly more capable Hero4 Silver.
The Hero5 Session fixes almost everything that was wrong with the original. Image quality has gotten much better, with far more detail, less noise, and a wider dynamic range. It can now shoot 4K at 30fps and 1080p at 90fps. Stills have been upgraded from 8 megapixels to 10 megapixels. The images look slightly darker at times, but that’s what happens when you cram more pixels into a small sensor, and it’s most definitely worth the trade-off.
Physically, it’s essentially the same as last year: still a tiny cube, and still waterproof to 33 feet without a case. It now uses USB-C for charging and data transfer, though unlike the Hero5, that battery isn’t removable.
Like its big brother, it also responds to voice commands, it has the effect that compensates for lens distortion, and it has electronic image stabilization. The microphone has gotten a bit louder and a bit clearer, too. Like the Black, when it’s charging you can have it automatically upload your files to the new GoPro Plus cloud service.
When the original Session launched you could only change your setting by pairing it with a smartphone app or a remote control, which was a massive pain. The Hero5 Session (and the original now, too, after a software update) now utilizes its two buttons to give you access to all your settings.
There really aren’t too many things I can ding the Hero5 Session on. It’s just so much better than the original. It’s definitely not as good as the Hero5 Black, but it comes in a hundred bucks cheaper at $300, and it’s got that wonderful form factor.
GoPro Plus is the name of new subscription cloud service designed to help you publish your footage. When you plug in a Hero5 camera (Black or Session) it can automatically start uploading your photos and video footage to the cloud via your home Wi-Fi network. The footage then gets stored in your GoPro Plus account, which you access via GoPro’s website, but these files will also appear in the Quik app for mobile or desktop.
Quik is GoPro’s slick app for quickly editing videos. You select highlights and it automatically edits them to music, timing cuts to the beat. When you have videos and photos stored in your GoPro Plus account, you’ll see them in the Quik app. From there, you can download them and share them.
It’s a really great idea, and fairly intuitive to use. Plus, you don’t have all those videos clogging up your hard drive, right? Well… there’s a catch. The videos saved in the could aren’t full resolution. In fact, the file sizes were half the size of the originals. This means you’re losing a lot of quality for the sake of convenience. The quality isn’t god awful–good enough for Instagram–but if you’re putting it on YouTube you’ll see the difference, and that sucks.
You can try GoPro Plus for free for two months. After that it’s $5 per month, which really isn’t too bad. The subscription grants you access to a larger library of royalty-free music for your videos, and it gets you 20 percent off of mounts and accessories. It also comes with premium customer service, and you’ll be able to stream videos to your TV with AirPlay and Apple TV. It’s got a lot of potential, but personally, I’ll wait and see if it goes full quality. If it does, I’m in.