It wasn’t long ago that action cameras were in an arms race to make the smallest possible device. In fact, a smaller profile was one of the things GoPro was boasting about just last year with the launch of the Hero8 Black. So, it’s a bit of a surprise that GoPro went bigger this year in almost every way. Bigger body, bigger battery, bigger images, bigger screen. It’s arguably GoPro’s most thorough overhaul of its flagship camera ever, and it crams in a ton of new features, mostly with great success.
Let’s start with the physical differences (you shallow bastards). Like last year’s Hero8, the Hero9 has built-in legs, so you don’t need a frame to screw it into standard mounting plates. It’s still waterproof to 33 feet without needing a housing, and it has redesigned mics that allow water to clear faster. The camera body has grown, though, to 71 mm x 55 mm x 33.6 (WxHxD) up from 66.3 mm x 48.6 mm x 28.4 mm (WxHxD) for the Hero8. It’s noticeable, but negligible in terms of where you can shoot with it or stash it. The weight has gone up too: from 126g (4.45oz) for the Hero8 to 158g (5.57oz) for the Hero9. It’s not a huge difference, but if you’ve got it at the end of a long selfie-stick (or on the front of your helmet) for a full day it adds up. Still, I’d say it’s net-positive for all the stuff you gain.
The most noticeable physical change besides size are the screens. Yes, plural. There’s finally a full-color, front-facing LCD screen which makes it extremely easy to frame your shots. This is a feature we first saw last year with DJI’s Osmo Action Cam, and it was that camera’s best feature, so I’m really glad GoPro was taking notes. The screen is just 1.4-inches on the diagonal, and it’s square, but you can choose to crop in on your face, or you can squeeze the whole frame into the window, which I think is more useful. The rear touchscreen has also received an upgrade from 1.95 inches diagonal to 2.27 inches, and it looks great, but it’s significantly less responsive than the previous iteration, which I found frustrating. (GoPro told me it’s aware of the issue and will be addressing it in a November firmware update.)
One of the biggest growth-spurts is in the battery. GoPro has basically been using the same 1220 mAh battery since the Hero5, but it’s getting a big jump up here to 1720 mAh, which gives you 30-percent more juice. I did a rundown test with power-hungry settings—4K24 in Linear mode, with image stabilization, high-bitrate, Wi-Fi, and GPS turned on—and it came in at 91 minutes. That’s 26-percent longer than the 72 minutes I got with Hero8 Black with the same settings. When I turned off all those extras and shot at 4K24 Wide with a low bitrate, it came in at 101 minutes, which was 11 minutes longer than the Hero8 Black.
Maybe the feature I’m most excited about is improved cold-weather protection. Snowboarding is one of my favorite things to film with an action cam, and they die reeeeally fast when the mercury drops. GoPro claims the Hero9 does a lot better in cold weather. To test that, I put the Hero9 Black and the Hero8 Black in a freezer that was around 10 degrees F (-12 C). I let them get nice and cold for half an hour (simulating a long wait for first chair at a ski resort) before I turned them on to do a rundown test. The Hero8 turned on, recorded for 5 seconds, and then said the battery was exhausted and died. Disqualified! The Hero9 proceeded to record inside that freezer (same power-hungry 4K24 settings as above) for a whopping 108 minutes. Yes, the battery actually lasted 17 minutes longer in sub-freezing temperatures than it did on a normal, cool evening. That’s incredible. My theory is that the camera actually gets pretty hot in normal use, so maybe the cold temp helps keep it from overheating? I really don’t know, but that difference alone makes it worth the upgrade for me and probably a lot of other snow junkies.
Last physical change: The removable lens is back! Last year the Hero8 Black slimmed down a bit by employing a lens that was fused into the body. That was not a good idea. Action cameras are supposed to be built for rough-and-tumble activities, where lenses easily get scratched or cracked, and a damaged lens would basically render your Hero8 useless. Thankfully, GoPro listened to feedback and the lens cover now screws off, making it a quick, cheap replacement as well as allowing for ND filters and stuff like that.
Speaking of stuff like that, GoPro will soon be launching the Max Lens Mod. Basically, it’s a much wider and taller lens (like the one on the GoPro Max) that you’ll be able to screw onto the Hero9 Black, and it will give you features like Max SuperView and Max HyperSmooth. It will also allow for 360-degree horizon leveling (as in you could be rolling down a hill and it will keep the world level). I’m really looking forward to trying it, but it won’t be out until October, and review units weren’t available as of press time.
Now, let’s get into the sensor. GoPro has been using a 12MP sensor since time immemorial. This is the first GoPro with a 23.6MP sensor. That translates to 20MP stills (up from 12), and up to 5K video (5120x2880 pixels). You really appreciate those extra megapixels in the stills, as you can zoom in more when editing, and I noticed a bit more flexibility in the RAW photos, too. Also, screengrabs from the aforementioned 5K video footage come in at 14.7MP, which is larger than a lot of phones deliver. Basically, if you are unsure whether you want video or stills, shooting at 5K and then taking stills from it later is a pretty solid option.
In a vacuum, the 5K video itself looks lovely. Everything is vibrant as ever. Shadows are lifted a bit compared to last year, revealing more detail, but the blacks are still nice and black. There is a bit of wonkiness in the colors, though. I was wearing a deep red shirt, and the Hero9 made it look a bit orange. It also gave me skin a yellowish tint that made me look slightly jaundiced. The Hero8, shooting right next to it, didn’t have those issues.
More concerning is a slight lack of detail. It isn’t “bad,” but looking at comparisons with the Hero8, it seemed like the Hero9 put one of those Instagram skin-softening filters on my face, even when shooting 5K vs 4K (and with Bitrate and Sharpness both turned to high). I thought it could be the lens—which is now f/2.5, up from GoPro’s usual f/2.8—but when I looked at the RAW still images they were just as sharp as I’d hope. That’s actually good news. To me, that says that GoPro hasn’t quite dialed in its video settings for the new sensor. It already improved once with a firmware update during my testing, so I’ll hold onto hope that these issues get fixed with the next one.
On the software side, there’s a ton of new stuff. For starters, there’s in-camera horizon leveling. That means if you have stabilization turned on you can select the Linear + Horizon Leveling option from the lens menu, which eliminates any fisheye effect and does an incredible of keeping the horizon line locked in place. I was able to rotate the camera 45-degrees and the horizon didn’t budge! Adding the horizon leveling does result in a slightly tighter crop, and the image stabilization gets a tiny bit worse, but that’s a price worth paying in many situations.
Speaking of stabilization, the Hero9 has HyperSmooth 3.0. There was a massive leap between HyperSmooth 1.0 and 2.0 in the Hero7 and Hero8 cameras, respectively. There was a real Holy Shit moment when I saw 2.0, and I haven’t carried a gimbal with me ever since. It was that good. I would say that HyperSmooth 3.0 is a bit better, but it isn’t the night and day difference we saw between 1.0 and 2.0. It’s a slight improvement, but considering it’s improving on already best-in-class stabilization slight is a nice bonus. HyperSmooth Boost is now available in virtually every resolution/framerate/lens, too, which crops a bit tighter but makes things even smoother. I did notice that the stabilization is a bit worse at 5K than the Hero8 is at 4K, but that makes sense since it has less margin space to crop.
A new killer feature is HindSight. It’s essentially a 15 or 30-second buffer (your choice) that is caching before you hit the record button. You might use this when trying a trick, but you don’t want to record a bunch of useless footage of you trying and missing. Instead, you’d just hit the button after you finally nailed it. Typically when I surf, I hit record right when I think I see a wave coming. Sometimes it doesn’t materialize, sometimes someone else gets it, or sometimes I just plain screw it up. Regardless, I usually end up with dozens of garbage clips at the end of a session. With HindSight on, I was able to just surf, and then just hit the button after I had completed a wave. At the end of the day I’d hardly used up any of the card space and I had nothing but good clips. Three caveats: 1. Whatever you’re wanting to capture had better be shorter than 30 seconds or you’ll miss the beginning of it. 2. It uses about as much battery life as if you were actually recording. 3. For reasons unknown, it failed to record one ride, and that happened to be my best ride of the day. Go figure. It only happened once, though, and I couldn’t replicate the issue.
Another killer software feature is Scheduled Capture. Basically, if you know the moon is going to rise over a lake at 3am, and you want to record a sweet timelapse, but you don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night, you can use Scheduled Capture. It will wake the camera up at the appointed time, in the mode you want it to be in, and it will shoot for whatever duration you so desire then turn itself off. It’s a fantastic feature, and it worked as advertised.
TimeWarp 3.0 (GoPro’s hyperlapse feature) now has better speed-ramping, so transitions in and out of real-time are smoother. In 2.0 GoPro introduced a feature that would allow you to tap the rear screen and go from hyperlapse to real-time, but unfortunately, it didn’t record audio. In 3.0 you now get full sound when you’re in real-time. It’s a little detail, but it makes a big difference. It can also now do half-speed slow motion in the middle, if you so desire.
Oh, and since covid-19 has dictated that we live our lives in video conferences now, it’s noteworthy that the Hero9 Black can be used as a webcam. You just plug it into your computer with the included USB-C cable, install a driver, and select it as the cam in whatever video chat program you’re using (e.g. Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc.), and you can broadcast up to 1080p video. The real advantage is that it gives you a bunch of field-of-view options, including up to 132-degrees wide, which is great for getting multiple people (or your whole room, or music setup) in the shot. You can also stream live through the GoPro app on your phone to YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, etc. (though Instagram is still holding out for annoying reasons unknown), which means you could livestream your morning ski runs.
It’s pretty much all good news, really. The video footage this camera shoots looks stunning, the stills are bigger and better, battery life is longer, and the new features are genuinely useful. I definitely want to see the sharpness and colors improve in an update, but it really does look pretty good as it stands. If you’ve collected a bunch of GoPro batteries over the years since the Hero5 then yeah, it’s a bit annoying that you’ve got to start your collection from scratch again, but it’s worth it for better battery life. For people who just recently bought the Hero8 and the Media Mod, sorry; the Hero9’s different shape means it’ll need its own Media Mod (same with the dive housing if you want to go deeper than 33 feet underwater).
Ultimately, if it’s been a while since you’ve upgraded, or you’ve just been waiting to get in on the action camera game, this is the best GoPro yet. It launches today (September 16th) for $450, which is $50 more than the Hero8 Black was when it launched last year, but if you purchase a one-year subscription to the GoPro Plus service, it comes down to $350. That service includes full camera replacement if it breaks, unlimited cloud storage, 50-percent off mounts and accessories, and access to new livestreaming features. It might actually be worth it. The Hero9 Media Mod is also available today for $80. The Max Lens Mod will be available sometime in October for $100. This will be my new go-to action camera for the foreseeable future, and even more so once the snow starts falling.
- 5K footage looks extra-good when you shrink it down to 4K
- 20MP stills give you way more to work with than 12MP stills
- Having a front-facing screen is soooo nice for framing
- Crazy-good cold-weather battery life, finally
- Sharpness and colors need work in video mode, which will hopefully be fixed with a firmware update