GoPro Better Watch Its Back

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

The new Osmo Action is so GoPro-like, it’s almost insulting. But calling DJI’s new action cam a GoPro clone ignores the innovative tweaks that set the Osmo Action apart. DJI has been creating solid cameras for its drones and gimbals for years. And while some of the features seem designed to compete with GoPro’s latest and greatest, the Osmo Action boasts at least one solid feature not found on any GoPro cameras—and one potentially disastrous design flaw.

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In terms of specs, the Osmo Action compares most closely to GoPro’s Hero7 Black, the company’s top model. Both cameras can shoot in 4K at 60fps. Both have in-camera slow-mo and timelapse features. Both are waterproof without the need for a case (more on this later). Both shoot 12MP still images. And perhaps most importantly, both pack impressive image stabilization tech.

GoPro made a big deal about its HyperSmooth image stabilization at the Hero7 Black’s release last September, and it’s easily the camera’s most impressive feature. Meanwhile, DJI has been stabilizing shaky cameras on drones for years. The Chinese company has also been expanding its reach into drone-free image stabilization with its line of Osmo camera-gimbal combos since 2015. The most recent iteration, the gimbal-powered Osmo Pocket, impressed us with its capacity to do image stabilization in a small form factor. So I was excited to test out how the Osmo Action’s in-camera stabilization tech, which it calls RockSteady, fared against HyperSmooth.

As I’d previously done with the Hero7 Black, I attached the Osmo Action to my Harley-Davidson Sporter to see how it handles shaking and all the bumps, twists, and turns in the road. The Harley vibrates so much that it makes my hands go numb after an hour riding, so it’s certainly a good testing ground for the image stabilization software. And after a few hours ripping around the backroads of New York’s Hudson Valley with both the Osmo Action and the Hero7 Black, it’s clear that GoPro should be nervous about its new competitor.

The Osmo Action and its RockSteady stabilization handled my rumbly motorcycle rides with ease. The DJI cam produces clean, sharp footage that looks essentially as smooth as the footage I captured using GoPro’s HyperSmooth stabilization. The Osmo Action performed equally well when panning and recording while running and even jumping on a trampoline.

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That said, RockSteady is not necessarily better than HyperSmooth—in some ways, it’s worse. Shooting with RockSteady stabilization on crops the image, giving you a tighter field of view than you get with the Osmo Action’s non-stabilized mode as well as the Hero7 Black in HyperSmooth mode. The Osmo Action image is also softer than footage shot with RockSteady turned off, which is hard to ignore once you notice it. Neither camera offers perfect image stabilization, and if you need flawlessly stabilized footage, you’re better off picking up a gimbal. But for your average adventurer, YouTuber, or tourist, the Osmo Action and the Hero7 Black both offer image stabilization that’s better than you might think possible for such compact, simple devices.

One feature the Osmo Action has that the Hero7 Black lacks is HDR video. With HDR, you would think the Osmo Action could produce super-vibrant footage and help you worry less about capturing subjects in both direct sunlight and shade. However, even when shooting in HDR mode, the Osmo Action footage looked less rich and less detailed than the Hero7 Black’s non-HDR footage. (When shooting in non-HDR mode, I found the Osmo Action’s footage to be slightly washed out.) You also can’t shoot higher than 30fps at 4K resolution or turn on RockSteady when shooting in HDR. So the whole feature feels like a bit of a flop.

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Where the Osmo Action definitely beats the Hero7 Black is in the camera’s design. On the back, there’s a 2.25-inch color touchscreen display. It’s only a quarter-inch larger than the Hero7 Black’s 2-inch touchscreen, but that makes a huge difference when the entire device is just 2.56 inches wide. (That’s just a few millimeters wider than the Hero7 Black’s width of 2.45 inches.) And the Osmo Action’s screen is much better-looking when you look at the two displays next to each other. The Osmo Action’s footage might be a bit lackluster color-wise, but at least the screen looks good.

Flip the Osmo Action over, and you’ll find what is likely its main selling point: a selfie screen. I loathe taking selfies of any type, but I still found the front-facing, 1.4-inch, full-color LCD display to be a welcome feature that is entirely absent from GoPro’s current camera lineup. (The black-and-white screen you’ll find on the Hero7 Black only displays camera data, not footage.) Like the rear screen, the image is bright and vivid. And it definitely helped me set up my shots when filming myself on my motorcycle or bouncing around on a trampoline.

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However, because the front display has a 1:1 aspect ratio (it’s square), not the 16:9 landscape of the rear screen, you can only see a fraction of your shot. And you can’t switch between the front and rear screens while you’re recording, which I found endlessly obnoxious. Still, it’s better than the nothing you get with a GoPro. So if shooting selfie videos is one of the main ways you want to use an action camera, the DJI may be the better pick for this feature alone, which you can’t find on any GoPro model.

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As formidable a competitor as the Osmo Action is, a few of its characteristics are annoying enough to keep it from clearly besting the Hero7 Black. When shooting in 4K at 60fps, for example, the screen lags behind the live action. That means what you see on screen is just a few moments behind reality. (I didn’t observe this when shooting at lower resolution and frame rates.) It’s possible that DJI can fix this in a future software update, but that’s certainly not guaranteed.

Worse than the screen lag is the SD card slot itself, which doesn’t have quite enough spring action to allow you to easily remove the card every time you try to pop it out. It was hit or miss—sometimes it was easy to grab with my fingers, but other times it was virtually impossible. In one instance, I had to pull the card out with the scissors on my Swiss Army knife. I know I have stubby fingers and short nails, but good lord.

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The most problematic design features involve the battery and the door to the SD card slot. If not properly latched, these can be points of failure for the Osmo Action’s waterproofing. The battery itself has two points where it locks into place on the camera, and both must be fully closed or water could seep in. You really have to press on both sides of the battery, to fully engage the latches and create the waterproof seal. The real problem with this design is that once you get just one side latched, it looks like the battery is secure. The other side will be flush with the case. DJI is aware of this issue because the latch on the outer corner of the camera has a red indicator to let you know when the latch isn’t engaged. So you have to pay attention to that.

The door for the SD card slot is also easy to close halfway, which is just as dangerous. Gently sliding the SD card up will give you one click, and it basically looks like the hatch is closed. But it’s not fully waterproofed until you hear the second click.

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This is all to say, we accidentally killed our Osmo Action.

To be fair, the Osmo Action user manual warns users (multiple times) to make sure that the battery is fully locked and the door for the SD card slot fully closed. The thing is, not everybody reads user manuals. That might be even more true for folks who have used other action cams, like a GoPro, given that the devices are so similar. (In my experience, the Hero7 Black’s battery/SD card slot door is easier to properly close.) The Gizmodo staffer who took the Osmo Action surfing —that was when our device took on water—is a seasoned action camera user. He hadn’t read the user manual or the reviewer guide provided to us by DJI.

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DJI offers a number of ND, polarized, and underwater filters that screw onto the Osmo Action’s round lens.
Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

Yes, you can chalk all this up to user error, which it is. But it also felt like a mistake any user could make. The extra effort required to fully waterproof the Action Cam doesn’t feel very intuitive. There are also no alerts on screen to let you know if the action cam isn’t fully waterproofed. And as we learned the hard way, even a few minutes in the ocean can cause enough water damage to cause catastrophic damage.

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There are other aspects of the Osmo Action’s design that weren’t as serious as the waterproofing stuff but were annoying nevertheless. DJI definitely drew inspiration for GoPro in its small-touchscreen user interface. While both cameras pack a lot of functionality onto a 2-inch screen, I found the Hero7 Black’s interface to be more intuitive than that of the Osmo Action. DJI’s camera does have a “Quick Switch” (QS) button on the side, which you use to switch between the different shooting modes, activate the front display (which you can also do by tapping the rear touchscreen twice with two fingers), and to access custom settings. I suspect some users will find the QS button helpful, but I actually found it easier to navigate the GoPro’s functions, which are all accessed through the touchscreen.

For some users, the most frustrating things about the Osmo Action will be what it lacks. Unlike the Hero7 Black, the Osmo Action has no HDMI port, which is great for showing off your footage directly from the camera onto a television or other screen. The DJI action cam also lacks the option to shoot video in the RAW file format, which you also can’t do with GoPro’s newest camera. (You can shoot RAW stills with the Osmo Action and the Hero7 Black.) The inability to shoot video in RAW means less leeway when working with your footage.

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But even if you add up all the faults of the Osmo Action, you’ve still got a solid action camera that deftly followed the GoPro blueprint. It has all the niche features you’ll find in a Hero7 Black: slow-mo, timelapse, still images, waterproofing (hopefully), etc. The Osmo Action’s RockSteady image stabilization also hangs with GoPro’s impressive HyperSmooth. Its unique and useful front-facing display also gives the Osmo Action a sharp edge over the Hero7 Black, at least for users who want the option to ensure they’re staying firmly in frame. The GoPro, meanwhile, offers a slightly better UI, HDMI out, and a proven track record, whatever that’s worth.

If you’re hoping price will make the decision for you, we have some bad news: the Osmo Action retails for $350. The Hero7 Black will cost you $400, if you buy the camera directly from GoPro. (It’s widely available for $350 from other retailers.) A new GoPro camera can cost even less if you take advantage of its “TradeUp” program, which will knock off $100 from the price if you send GoPro any digital camera that retailed for $100 when you purchased it.

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Despite the Osmo Action’s very nice screens and buttery image stabilization, I’d still spend my money on the Hero7 Black. I prefer the field of view with GoPro’s image stabilization; the overall image quality is slightly better; and I really do like the HDMI out. The Osmo Action’s selfie screen is a nice addition, and I suspect it’s meaningful enough feature to win DJI a lot of new customers. But if you do buy the Osmo Action, please read the user manual and be sure to close those hatches tight.

README:

  • The front-facing screen is the Osmo Action’s winning feature
  • DJI’s image stabilization is good but not necessarily better than GoPro’s
  • A lack of HDMI out may be a deal-breaker for some buyers
  • You can’t go wrong with either the Osmo Action or the Hero7 Black

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Hero7 Black can record video in the RAW file format. It cannot. We regret the error.

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About the author

Andrew Couts

Managing Editor, Gizmodo

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