GoPro evolved: Hero 5 Black and Session review

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“GoPro, start recording.” And just like that the Hero 5 Black action camera, attached to a selfie stick an arm’s lengths away, started capturing stabilized video of me and the beautiful Squaw Valley mountains miles behind me.

I didn’t need to press a single button. Two voice commands later and the camera stopped recording, saved my footage and powered down.

Later, when I got back home, I plug the Hero 5 Black into power and all of the footage is automatically uploaded into the cloud with GoPro Plus, the company’s subscription service, so the footage is now accessible from my phone, tablet and laptop.

Then, with GoPro’s Quik app for iPhone, I create a movie montage, complete with music and effects, using the video clips and photos. And then — boom — it’s on Facebook.

The entire process of shooting, transferring, editing and sharing GoPro footage has never been easier.

Though this is a review for the Hero 5 Black (GoPro’s new top-tier action camera) and the Hero 5 Session (mid-tier), what I just described is the GoPro advantage that no other competing action camera has.
GoPro is betting this ecosystem of hardware and software is what will evolve the company from being just a camera company into a storytelling company.

Rather than just catering to the extreme sports athletes and tech nerds who are savvy enough to edit a video, the company wants to make visual content creation accessible to everyone. This includes all the people who don’t have the time or technical know-how to create a video from the footage they record with their GoPro.

It’s an ambitious plan after several missteps last year — the company had too many GoPro models that confused consumers and got the price of the Hero 4 Session wrong — but it’s the only one that will give the company legs amidst all the cheaper action-camera copycats now available.

The goal also furthers the company’s mission as a content enabler to inspire people to live a happier and more fulfilled life through the visual memories they create.

After reviewing the Hero 4 Session last year, it was easy to guess what a future flagship GoPro action camera would look like.

The Hero 5 Black has a rubberized exterior, which is easier to grip and waterproof up to 33 feet without needing a plastic waterproof case. It’s quite impressive at first, but then it stops wowing you when you put on the included frame mount, which you’ll need to attach it things. Compared to a Hero 4 Black with its waterproof case, the Hero 5 Black with its frame mount is roughly the same size.
Which means, unless you’re mostly holding the Hero 5 Black in your hand, the sizing is negligible. Of course, if you compare the Hero 5 Black with the Hero 4 Black without its waterproof housing, the Hero 4 Black is much smaller (but it’s also not waterproof).

GoPro’s also smartly made the the Hero 5 Black easier to operate. Where there used to be three buttons on the Hero 4 Black, the Hero 5 Black only has two (Record and Mode) and a 2-inch touchscreen on the back.

I can see some people (like athletes who wear gloves) not liking the touchscreen, but I really like it. Not only is the touchscreen no longer an accessory you need to purchase separately, but the ability to see and frame your shot is invaluable.

Plus, the UI is very, very easy to understand. To change settings just tap on them; swiping in from the left shows your camera footage, swiping down from the top opens up settings and voice controls, and swiping in from the right brings up various advanced camera settings for Protune, video stabilization, auto low-light and manual audio control.

In terms of image and video quality, you’re not going to see any major leaps in resolution. The Hero 5 Black still records video at up to 4K at up to 30 fps and snaps 12-megapixel still photos.

The cameras finally have built-in electronic image stabilization (EIS) for smoothing out shaky footage. At 2.7K resolution and lower, you can turn on video stabilization and the camera will stabilize your footage. And even though it’s not as good as optical image stabilization, it works to a certain extent (footage below was downsized from 2.7K to 1080p).

The Hero 5 Black also has a new linear FOV (field of view), which isn’t quite as fisheye as the medium and wide FOV modes.

The Hero 5 Black’s lack of big image quality improvements shouldn’t discourage anyone from giving them a serious look. Sure, there are other action cameras that promise sharper videos and frame rates, but most people don’t really care about that kind of stuff. They just want great videos that aren’t terribly shaky and the Hero 5 Black delivers just that.

Audio’s been improved to be less muffled especially since the Hero 5 Black doesn’t need a waterproof housing. Sound is definitely clearer, but don’t expect professional-grade audio.

The Hero 5 Black has a slightly larger 1,220 mAh battery versus the Hero 4 Black’s 1,160 mAh battery. I didn’t seen any significant usage gains over the old model, but that may have been because I was putting all of the new features to use, which likely taxed it more. The only downside is the old batteries don’t fit in the Hero 5 Black and vice versa; you’ll need to buy new spares.

The sweetest new feature on the new GoPros isn’t any of the stuff mentioned above, but voice controls, which work in seven different cameras at launch. It just makes so much sense on an action camera since you’ve usually got the camera set up somewhere else like on a selfie stick, tripod, mounted to a vehicle or in some weird out-of-reach place.

With voice controls, using the new GoPros is even easier than with the touchscreen. You can start capturing just by saying “GoPro, start recording” or “GoPro, take a photo.” Voice commands also work for switching modes, creating HiLight tags and turning the camera off.

I didn’t receive retail packaging with the Hero 5 Black, so I took it upon myself to see what voice commands it’d understand outside of pre-programmed ones like “That was sick” to create a HiLight tag. To my surprise, “GoPro, holy f*ck,” “GoPro, sh*t,” “GoPro, rad” and uhh, “GoPro, car” all triggered HiLight tags. “That’s so awesome,” “It’s lit,” and “This is epic” didn’t work.

You’ll know that the voice controls successfully worked if you hear the camera beep. Most of the time, the camera heard me fine, even in windy conditions like on the top of a mountain, but sometimes you really need to shout at it. The mics are even sensitive enough to pick up whispered voice commands if you’re in a super-quiet environment.
The Hero 5 Session has almost all of the Hero 5 Black’s features, including image stabilization and voice controls, so I won’t spend too many words on it. Physically, it’s exactly the same size and shape as the Hero 4 Session, with the same record button on the top and the power button on back and same 33-feet waterproof rating.

The smallest GoPro now shoots video at resolutions up to 4K at 30 fps; in 4K, it doesn’t shoot at 24 fps SuperView mode like the Hero 5 Black. The Hero 5 Session also has fewer frame rates at various other resolutions. You can see the full resolution breakdown between the two Hero 5 cams here on GoPro’s website. Low-light performance isn’t quite as good as the Hero 5 Black.

Record button

Compared to the Hero 4 Session’s 8-megapixel still photos, the Hero 5 Session takes 10-megapixel photos.

Battery life was on par with the Hero 4 Session’s two hours of continuous use. The non-replaceable battery still sucks, but if you’re not shooting continuous, the camera conserves power by turning itself off. Either keep a battery pack handy or don’t record continuously. That’s the tradeoff you have to accept for the smaller size.

Creating memories
It used to be that you bought a GoPro, recorded a ton of footage, and then figured out the rest on your own.

The problem is that most people who aren’t professionals and tech-savvy consumers never really do anything with their footage. Maybe they’ll review them on their computer, but the vast majority of the footage is usually left on an SD card or backed up to a hard drive never to be seen again.

The problem is most people never do anything with all their footage.
I know the feeling too well. I put so much time and effort into recording and I’m just too tired to look through hours of footage and then spend more hours piecing the best stuff together into a video. It ends up feeling like work because it is.

Much like how Instagram and smartphones made editing pictures and sharing them immediately so easy, GoPro wants to do the same for the footage taken with its cameras.

With the company’s $4.99 per month GoPro Plus subscription, Hero 5 owners can auto-upload their footage to the service over Wi-Fi and access their videos and photos from any iOS or Android mobile device or from a computer.

Photos and videos auto-upload to GoPro Plus when the camera is plugged into power and charged up to 50 percent.

The idea is that you don’t even need to fiddle with memory cards to download the footage to your computer because it’ll already be ready for you in the cloud. It sounds magical, but there are some caveats.

First, your Hero 5 camera needs to have at least 50 percent battery when it’s plugged into power before it can start auto-uploading to GoPro Plus; the odds of having that much battery left after a day of shooting are unlikely, which means you’ll need to wait for it to charge up.

Second, videos uploaded to GoPro Plus are only stored at 1080p resolution, meaning any videos shot in 4K or 2.7K automatically get downsized. It’s like the free tier of Google Photos.

And third, unlike Google Photos which lets you store an unlimited number of videos at 1080p, Plus can only store up to 35 hours of video or up to 62,500 photos or any combination of the two. If you’re a hardcore GoPro user, 35 hours is going to run out fast.

How fast your video files auto-upload to Plus will depend on how long they are and how fast your Wi-Fi is. It can take a really long time if you’re uploading long 4K videos.

But once they’re in the cloud, it’s nice to be able to see them on your phone or computer and either share them immediately online or edit them together into a video.

The latter is another area GoPro wants to make easier. With the Quik app, users can view their videos from Plus, download them and then let the app splice them into a montage video. The videos aren’t going to be as epic as the ones you see in GoPro commercials, but they do look spiffy with different video transitions, effects and audio. You can tweak some of the setting like the text, but not finer editing.

The app isn’t limited to only your GoPro footage. You can also mix in your smartphone photos and videos as well for an even better video.

The app uses its algorithms to parse through the footage and (hopefully) select the best moments to match up to the music. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Sometimes the app picks some bad sections of a clip and the app’s still rough in some areas (i.e. you can’t delete clips from your timeline after you’ve added them), but it does take a lot of the editing work out for you if you know nothing about video editing.

I’m not sure whether I like the Hero 5 Black or the Hero 5 Session more. I felt certain the Session’s tinier size was perfect for me when I reviewed the Hero 4 Session, but the Hero 5 Black’s touchscreen, higher-resolution still photos and slightly higher frame rates give it an edge.

If I really had to choose between the two this year, I’d pick the Hero 5 Black. The Hero 5 Black costs $399 and the Hero 5 Session $299. You can think of the Hero 5 Session as a great sidekick; pick it if size is more important to you.

But don’t go out and buy these action cameras just because they’re new. Recording stuff is pointless if you never share it. People who know how to edit video (even just the basics) will care more about the cameras’ tech upgrades, but everyone else will be more interested in letting the software do all the video creation for them.

GoPro Plus isn’t perfect with its current limitations, but it’s functional enough for people to use. The Quik app isn’t as polished as I would have liked, but this is GoPro’s first real stab at creating a true synergy between its action cameras and storage and editing software. Version 1.0 is rough around the edges, but the vision is there. The first GoPro Hero action camera wasn’t nearly as tiny or versatile as the Hero 5 Black and Hero 5 Session, but it laid the foundation.

If GoPro invests as much in its software as it has for its cameras, it could really bring one-stop video production to the masses.

The Good

Full waterproof design • Bright, easy to use touchscreen (Hero 5 Black) • Electronic image stabilization • Awesome voice controls

The Bad
GoPro Plus limitations kinda suck • Auto-upload has some big caveats • Quik mobile app needs more polish • Overheat when shooting in 4K

The Bottom Line
GoPro’s latest Hero 5 action cameras up the ante with new waterproof designs, voice controls and software that’ll help you create video memories easier and faster.

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