GoPro’s flurry of new products, unveiled August 19 in Squaw Valley, California — the new Hero5 Black and Hero5 Session cameras, the Karma drone and multiple software enhancements — have certainly generated plenty of buzz among action-cam junkies. The improvements not only to GoPro’s specific core camera products — including out-of-box waterproofing, voice commands, image stabilization, and, in the Hero5, a built-in display — are profound, and they’re buoyed by updates to the ecosystem’s general usability. The new software makes it far easier to offload, edit and share the footage captured by the cameras, and the drone, when viewed as an enhancement to the camera lineup, is legitimately exciting.
The Hero5 Black — the flagship camera, knocked down a Benjamin to $399 — is now waterproof (it joins the $299 Session). You no longer need to tote around an image-degrading clear plastic case to submerge the camera or use it in wet environments. Both cameras have clear Gorilla Glass covers over their lenses, but the quality is far higher than on the previous waterproof casing, and with the Black you can take off the glass if you think it might be degrading your image. The cameras work beautifully underwater (though the Black’s touchscreen doesn’t work well when wet) and are rated to 33 feet.
In some cases, security trumps ease of use.
The casing on the Black is now gray and lightly rubberized, with a rectangular window for the camera lens. While this means that many aftermarket accessories won’t carry over to the new shape and dimensions (the included LCD increases its depth, as well), the basic frame bracket that comes with it will fit into GoPro’s legacy mounting hardware. Waterproofing the camera primarily means securing the buttons and access doors against water intrusion. The buttons on both are fully sealed and the access doors to the batteries, ports and microSD slots include hard-rubber interior panels that conform to the shape of the interior tray. In the Black, the doors are a bit of a trick to open, requiring mild pressure to engage the release button and slide them open, but that’s fine — in fact, it’s what you want. In some cases, security trumps ease of use.
Both cameras can be controlled via the case buttons or GoPro’s new Capture app. The buttons are intuitive and smart — both include instant-record/photo capability, so they start as soon as you turn on the camera — and the rear screen on the Black allows you to access most functions and tweak the settings. You can also scroll through images, watch videos and delete files. From the app, you can also access a deeper roster of settings, including activation or disabling of the new electronic image stabilization and accessing GoPro’s ProTune image-enhancement software, something that remains a confusing add-on, especially for newbies who would suddenly wonder whether they’re actually getting the best image quality from their camera. (The answer from GoPro is that the out-of-camera images are optimized with ProTune-caliber enhancements, but the app interface simply permits fine-tuning those tweaks.)
The primary new usability enhancements, however, are the GPS (Black only), voice control and enhanced app interfaces. The GPS lets you geotag your images and videos, and voice controls give you the ability to start and stop recording, take photos, mark key moments in videos being recorded, and even command burst photos — all based on the settings you have established in the camera (including resolution, exposure, aspect ratio, etc.). The commands are simple (“GoPro, take a photo!”), but they truly do enhance the user experience. Not only can you do things much faster in much more complex situations — biking, say, or driving — but you can do them regardless of what mode the camera is in. So when you fire up the camera and want to take a photo instead of using its default video setting, you just say so. It’s a great enhancement. (Beware, however, the risk of using multiple cameras, either your own or with friends. One person saying “GoPro stop recording” will halt all cameras within earshot.)
There are two new apps: Capture and Quik. Capture is the primary interface for the cameras, allowing remote control as well as access to the video and images on the camera and transferal to the smartphone. (There’s also a new accessory coming out called Quik Key, a small adapter that lets you transfer photos directly from the microSD card to your phone. I’ve been testing it and it works smoothly and quickly, alleviating a previous pain point for GoPro enthusiasts eager to edit footage on their smartphones.) The app also serves as your primary interface with GoPro Plus, the company’s new cloud storage system. It provides automatic uploading of files from the cameras to the cloud when the cameras are plugged in and charging. The videos can then be accessed and downloaded onto desktop or mobile devices for editing. The service is reasonably brisk, though uploading and downloading the files does take time, and it downscales any footage above 1080p (4K, 2.7K) down to 1080 — meaning you can’t use it for storage, but just for editing and sharing.
All in, the cameras both offer significant improvements in usability, with the image quality we’ve come to expect from GoPro.
The Quik app is the other key development, a new video editing tool that imports videos and automatically edits them according to a variety of visual styles, complete with music synced up with the edits. You simply select the clips you want to include in your video, ballpark the duration you want, and the app does the rest. You can only use music provided by the app — so it’s free to use and share — but if you want to include your own music, you’ll have to save the final clip and change the music in another video-editing program. The system works as advertised, though many of the transitions are jarring and/or include some goofy visual effects, but you can opt for more basic styles, and you can also trim clips and re-order them if you’re not happy with the app’s own judgment. Overall, Quik makes it easier to get videos off the devices and into the world — something that has stymied GoPro users for years.
Finally, there’s the question of image quality. The previous GoPro top dog, the Hero4, was already an outstanding imaging product, with the best quality you could get in an action camera. GoPro hasn’t done too much in terms of image enhancement; the quality is essentially the same as that from the previous cameras.
But, there are a few key improvements. The Black shoots 12MP stills while the Session tops out at 10MP, and both shoot up to 4K video. You can now shoot still images in RAW format in the Black, something advanced photographers appreciate when editing their work, and you can now tap on the rear screen to set the exposure metering point in the image and even lock it in, in case you want to reframe the image while retaining certain exposure settings. Next is the addition of electronic image stabilization and the minimization of lens distortion, seen in both cameras. The image stabilization works the same way many cameras do, by reducing the size of the image digitally and then using that reclaimed space to smooth out bumps and jitters. It’s not the same as optical stabilization, in which the lens itself absorbs movement, letting the image stabilize without compromising resolution. Apple introduced optical stabilization in its recent iPhone 7 unveiling, so it’s disappointing to see that GoPro couldn’t match that capability with their camera.
They do, however, claim that the intrusion in sensor real estate is better than most — a 10 percent reduction versus the usual 25 percent. My test videos confirmed it’s good, but it comes with resolution compromises, which limits your ability to crop and zoom while editing. You can turn it off if you want to ensure maximum image quality, if the camera is in a fixed location.
Lens distortion — something most noticeable when viewing the horizon at anything less than perfectly horizontal — is fixed via the new “linear” option in the settings. Again, this works by cropping in the image slightly and using the reclaimed image to straighten the shot. It would be better, of course, if the lens itself were adapted to eliminate distortion, but that’s not easily possible, so this is a perfectly acceptable compromise, and it works quite well.
All in, the cameras both offer significant improvements in usability, with the image quality we’ve come to expect from GoPro. There remains room for improvement; some of the settings menus are still confusing, and hopefully electronic stabilization will soon be upgraded to optical stabilization. But it’s safe to say that GoPro has definitely created products worth upgrading to.