You know how people call every kind of facial tissue "Kleenex," even if it's technically from another brand? These days, GoPro is practically synonymous with action cameras. I can't use any other action cam without someone asking me, "Is that a GoPro?" But there's a damn good reason why GoPro is on top of the world.
The new GoPro Hero4 Black and Hero4 Silver are two of the very best action cameras you can buy. Most of the competition isn't even close. For whatever reason, though, we haven't done a full-on review. Let's fix that now.
So what's an action camera, anyhow?
If you're asking yourself, "Why wouldn't I just shoot video with my phone?" you probably don't need an action cam. Modern smartphones typically shoot excellent video, but action cams are valuable because of their form-factor. They're small, light, aero/hydro-dynamic, and tough. You bust them out in circumstances where using your phone would be impractical, or hazardous. You wouldn't stick your phone to your surfboard and paddle out into six foot waves. You wouldn't strap your DSLR to your head and go snowboarding. But if you want to strap one to your baby, your dog, a firework, a flying drone or a ceiling fan, they're good for that, too.
What's a GoPro? A tiny, boxy little action camera that's typically one step ahead of the pack in image quality and features—plus an absurd number of mounting options made both by GoPro and by third-party companies. Everything from 3D printed 360-degree camera rigs to aerial photography drones (i.e. the popular DJI Phantom rigs) are built specifically to house GoPro cameras. There are also steadicams, selfie sticks, surfboards with GoPro mounts built directly into the deck. It gives you a ton of options.
Which brings us to the GoPro Hero4 Black, the new flagship $500 model. And the GoPro Hero4 Silver, which is $100 cheaper than the Black, but almost identical. The Black's claim to fame is an ability to shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second, and 1080p video at 120fps (for some very sweet slo-mo.) The Silver's processor is a bit slower, so it can't manage those higher frame rates, but the optics, the image sensor and everything else looks just as good. Basically, if you're shooting 1080p at 60fps, the two are indistinguishable.
Oh, except that the Silver has an LCD screen which is very handy for lining up shots and review footage on the fly, which is nice for adjusting settings because it's touch-sensitive too. It's a bit counterintuitive that the flagship Black edition is the one that doesn't have the screen, but… yeah, I don't know how that happened.
In terms of design, the Hero4 cameras basically look just like the Hero3 and the Hero3+. It's that same little box that GoPro's been using for the last three years, and that means it's compatible with basically all of GoPro's mounts and housings since 2012. Mics and lights are shifted around slightly, but the only major difference is that the battery panel is now on the bottom instead of the back. It actually makes the battery a little tougher to access when the camera is in a housing, but I guess they had to make room for the touchscreen on the Silver.
Speaking of housings: The waterproof housing that comes with both cameras is rated down to 131 feet deep, which should be more than enough for all but advanced-level SCUBA divers. By comparison, Sony's flagship action cams come with a case that's waterproof down to just 15 feet, which probably won't even be enough for vigorous snorkeling.
In or out of the housing, you can adjust all a GoPro's settings using just three buttons, and it's even easier on the new Hero4 cams. Now, the side button gives you quick access to the settings for whichever mode you're in (e.g. video, photo, or multishot). There's still a fair amount of button-pushing involved to swap modes, but it's a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. For example, to simply change the video resolution and get back to shooting, it took a minimum of 10 clicks on the Hero3+. It takes only four on the Hero4.
I've found the GoPro mobile app to be pretty reliable and intuitive, too. You can remotely control the camera, start/stop recording, and adjust pretty much all of the camera's settings, in addition to framing shots, quickly playing back footage, and transferring photos and videos over to your phone for quick sharing. Most every action cam has an associated app now, so while it's nothing to write home about, it's a solid performer.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of GoPro Studio, the company's video editing software. It has some good ideas, like templates that allow you to just drag and drop clips into cuts that are pre-timed to music, but it's a buggy, crashy mess. Fine adjustments are often impossible, and I've been halfway through edits when suddenly it can't find any of my media, and I spend an hour trying to reconnect every lost clip (one by one because it can't do batches!), only for that to fail and to have to start the whole project again from scratch.
It needs some serious work, but at the same time, pro-grade applications like Adobe Premiere really struggle with 4K footage and 120fps frame rates (on my two year old, maxxed out MBP), and that sucks a lot, too. Basically, if you're buying this camera to shoot 4K or high framerates, prepare for editing to be a real pain in the junk. Anything under 1080p60 should be fine on a reasonably new system.
There are some new additions too, like Bluetooth, though its integration is a little confusing. The Bluetooth (which currently only works with iOS) doesn't connect directly to your phone, but rather uses it to know when your phone is nearby to reduce power consumption when pairing with Wi-Fi. It would be nice if you could record audio through external Bluetooth mics or integrate with Ripcurl's Search GPS Surf watch to put your videos on a map. So far it doesn't do any of that. However, a new accelerometer inside the camera can detect changes in orientation, letting you mount the camera upside down without worrying about needing to flip the footage afterwards. Well, after an upcoming firmware update, anyways.
That's all good stuff, but the real reason the GoPro remains our pick is much simpler…
Simply put, video shot with the Hero4 (both Black and Silver editions) looks better than the competition. The upcoming 4K Sony Action Cam might put GoPro to the test, but for now it's no contest. Details are sharper, colors are more accurate, and critically, the GoPro has excellent dynamic range. Even when a subject is backlit by the sun, you can usually see their face. It feels like HDR, and it's really impressive. Also, the low-light capabilities are much improved this year, as you can see in the GIF above comparing a Hero4 to a Hero3+. GoPro also has the most video modes, resolutions, and frame rates to choose from.
Let's take a look at some of those:
The above video contains footage of the Hero4 Black's banner features, namely 4K at 30fps and 1080p at 120fps. Both look really, really good. I especially think the surf and deep water shots stand out for clarity and evenness. If you want to see more 4K samples, check this video, and if you want more 1080p at 120fps, click this.
As you can see in this comparison video, the Hero4 Silver does a really nice job keeping things balanced and exposing correctly. It's the best in low light, it has very solid audio (when not inside its waterproof case), and colors are pretty true to life. Obviously, this video only shows it against three other cameras—all of which are $100 or more cheaper than the Hero4 Silver—but still, it's the clear winner in these tests (make sure you watch at full resolution).
Additionally, the Black edition is getting a few new and very sweet modes, which you can read about here from when we got our exclusive first hands-on.
The above video shows the Hero4 Black's new 720p at 240fps mode, which is perfect for buttery smooth slow motion. I slowed it down to play back at 24fps, so you're seeing 1/10th speed. It looks really good, especially in well-lit situations. That said, it is limited to a narrow field of view, which can be pretty limiting, especially if you're shooting back at yourself. It's worth noting that Sony's forthcoming flagship Action Cam, the X100V, will also shoot 720p at 240fps, but it will do so in the wide field of view, which seems way more useful.
The Black can also now shoot 2.7k video at 60 frames per second (up from 48), which allows you to shoot very large video that can both be cropped (or used with image stabilization software) and slowed down. I really love the way this footage looks. This brings me back to my point that GoPro offers twice as many shooting modes as competing models. Sometimes they are obscure aspecct ratios that don't matter, but you're getting a lot more flexibility. Some of the modes that are exclusive to GoPro have actually become my favorite way to shoot. For example, you can see in this video how Super Mode squeezes way more into a frame, which is great for surf or snowboard shots.
The new software can also automatically cut together timelapse videos. Previously when you shot a timelapse you'd just end up with a giant folder of stills. You still have that option, but if you'd rather, you can have it cut together the timelapse into a 4K or 2.7K video right inside the camera which you can immediately share. It's slick. The Hero4 also has a Night Lapse mode, which lets you take a string of long exposures. I've found that it takes some tinkering to get the results you're after—especially on the Black edition, which has no screen—but it's possible to get some pretty neat results.
The current gold standard for image quality. Especially the Black edition with higher resolutions and framerates, but at 1080p60 the Silver looks just as good. Audio is very clean and low-light situations are met with low noise. Terrific dynamic range. Sets the bar for sharpness, too. Tons of accessories available, and it includes a case that's waterproof to 131 feet. Offers modes that other cameras don't have (like 2.7K video, 4:3 ratios, and SuperView). Light and comfortable to wear, and the menu system is easier to navigate than previous iterations.
The touchscreen on the Silver edition looks great. It's sharp and easy to read outdoors, and makes it a lot simpler to ensure you get the shot you want. It's a real shame that the Black doesn't have it, too.
Battery life. Ho man, battery life. GoPro has never been a leader on this front, but the Hero4 Black—the new flagship—is at the bottom of the barrel. While shooting at 1080p 30fps, it only mustered 97 minutes. Even the Hero3+ managed 115 minutes! Shoot 4K at 30fps and it drops to 70 minutes. Shoot 1080p at 120fps and it sinks to just 63 minutes. Yes, batteries are cheap and can be swapped out, but that does you no good if you're surfing, snorkeling, diving, etc. It's hands-down the worst thing about the Hero4 Black. The Silver edition managed a much better 119 minutes (at 1080p30), but that's still a good ways behind the 150 minutes I've gotten from a Sony AS100V. This is something GoPro needs to fix.
And if you're upgrading from a previous GoPro, you'll need to buy new batteries because the Hero4 has ones shaped slightly differently. You'll also want a new external battery charger, if you bought one of those. Which I did. Damnit.
The Hero4 doesn't have any built-in stabilization. Most action cameras don't, but Sony's does, and it's been getting better. What was initially a gimmick could end up making a very large difference in video quality. The Hero4 also doesn't have built-in GPS, which many (including the Sony) do now. The Hero4 no longer includes a remote control (which is rugged and waterproof, and convenient if your camera is out of arm's reach), which came standard with the Hero3 and Hero3+ models. It's $80 now. The cameras themselves aren't so cheap, either.
Should You Get It?
Shortcomings aside, the Hero4 Black is still the best action camera you can currently buy. At $500, it's not cheap, but if you want your action videos to look as good as possible, that's the way to go. You can expect large Hollywood production companies to purchase these things by the pallet, and it's going to yield some really sweet slow motion shots at angles you wouldn't see otherwise.
That said, for most consumers, the Hero4 Silver edition is probably the better pick. You probably don't need 4K video at 30fps, or 2.7K at 60, or 1080p at 120, or 720p at 240. I mean, they're awesome, but you can probably settle for a little less resolution and a little less speed. For that compromise, you'll save $100, and gain a very handy touchscreen and a bit of battery life.
It's also worth noting that Sony's 4K Action Cam (X100V) is just around the corner and gunning for the Hero4 Black. It costs the same $500 and has a lot (but not all) of the same shooting modes, plus stabilization and GPS. We should be getting our hands on it very soon, and we'll have a head-to-head comparison as soon as we can. For now, though, the king remains on his throne.