It’s a rare camera that can count A-list cinematographers, action sports athletes, drone photographers and professional sports teams in its user base. GoPro’s Hero series of action cameras checks all of these boxes. But while they undoubtedly have the cachet, the action camera market is now crowded with serious competitors angling for their place on helmets and handlebars.
The big news coming out of the Hero4 is faster 4K (3840×2160 pixels) frame rates. Whereas the Hero3+ topped out at 15 fps in 4K, the Hero4 Black zips along at your choice of 24, 25 or 30 fps with a maximum bit rate of 60Mbps. Thanks to a new processor, frame rates have been given an across-the-board lift from the speeds achieved by the former flagship. Notably, you can record 2.7K-resolution video at 50 fps and 1920x1080p video at a motion-slowing 120 fps. A firmware update—due to be released after this issue went to press—will push 1280x720p frame rates to 240 fps and give 2.7K a nudge to 60 fps.
Looking beyond speed, GoPro also tweaked the audio recording. While the camera still uses a mono microphone, the processing algorithms have been enhanced to capture two times the dynamic range of the Hero3+ Black edition. We definitely noticed a difference.
There’s also a new HiLight Tag function, which essentially lets you favorite clips while you’re filming by pressing the mode button. When working in GoPro Studio software, these favored clips can be quickly arranged into a highlight reel of the day’s adventure. The camera’s Protune exposure settings, which let you adjust sharpness, color, ISO limit and more, have been added to the Photo+Video mode. There are now a pair of night modes (Night Photo and Night Lapse) for shooting after dark.
Beyond that, the Hero4 Black offers the same wide-angle, f/2.8 lens, still-image resolution (12 megapixels) and burst mode (30 fps) of the Hero3+.
First, the good news: Most of the Hero3 and Hero3+ cases and accessories—including the Battery BacPac and the LCD Touch BacPac—will work with the Hero4.
Also, what used to be the wireless button on the side of the camera now serves triple duty: Press it while filming for HiLight Tagging, press and hold to activate Wi-Fi, or press once to enter the settings menu for the mode you’re shooting in. While navigating around the Hero4’s menu is still a bit laborious, the one-button entry into your current mode settings is definitely an improvement. Our only wish is that the tiny front-facing LED was illuminated, since it’s difficult to read when the lights go down.
Now for the bad news: In the process of moving the battery port from the side of the camera to the bottom, GoPro changed the dimensions of the battery. Batteries from older models won’t work in the Hero4, as Patiño discovered to his chagrin. Extras cost $20 a pop.
While the sensor size, resolution and lens are unchanged from the Hero3+ Black, the 4K frame-rate boost is a major upgrade for filmmakers like Patiño, who used the Hero4 on a drone and for a concert video. Overall, Patiño found the quality of the HD footage to be consistent with what he was achieving in the Hero3+ Black, though with faster frame rates he found the motion much more fluid. For video shooters, the increased frame rates of the Hero4 Black make it a vastly more versatile camera than the Silver edition (which shoots 4K at a mere 15 fps) and older Hero models.
You won’t see a quantum leap in terms of still-image quality in the Hero4, but considering the Hero3 and Hero3+ were already delivering high-quality results relative to other tiny action cams, we’re not complaining.
While GoPro does give you some control over your exposure in its Protune menu, you still can’t manually set a shutter speed for the camera. In our conversations with the cinematographer Toby Oliver (see “Lights, Action Camera” in the February 2015 issue) he singled out manual shutter-speed quality as being the top item on many a cinematographer’s wish list for GoPro improvements—a wish that (for now, at least) is still out of reach.
The faster frame rates of the Hero4+ come at a price: battery life. Patiño found the Hero4’s battery life was significantly shorter than his Hero3+—often by as much an hour. Though to be fair, it was operating at faster speeds. On the whole, battery life remains fairly meager.
On the plus side, Patiño told us the camera’s Wi-Fi was significantly more responsive than on the Hero3+. For remote control, and especially for adjusting camera settings, the app is a pleasure to use—in stark contrast to camera Wi-Fi apps from other vendors.
As previously noted, GoPro is no longer the only game in town for serious filmmakers. If you need 4K recording, Sony’s new FDR-X100V offers comparable 4K frame rates and a higher maximum bit rate of 100Mbps. Compared to the Hero4, Sony is also delivering better on-board audio through its stereo microphones, plus it offers the built-in image stabilization that the Hero4 lacks. We’ve yet to test the X100V, so we’ll reserve final judgment on its video quality, but suffice it to say that GoPro is no longer a slam-dunk choice at the high end of the action cam market.
That said, the Hero4 Black is a fantastic action camera and the most versatile when it comes to recording options. For Hero3 or Hero3+ owners pondering an upgrade, it’s a no-brainer. For those not yet in GoPro’s camp, the Hero4 Black makes a very compelling pitch.
Above: GoPro’s newest flagship action camera delivers faster frame rates, faster Wi-Fi and better audio recording in its now-iconic boxy package.
PROS: Faster frame rates at multiple resolutions; revamped controls are easier to use; Wi-Fi connectivity more responsive.
CONS: Short battery life; requires new batteries if you’re upgrading from older model; no manual control over shutter speed.