Last month GoPro, the best-known maker of “Look at me!” action cameras, introduced a new lineup of products. This includes two new top-of-the-line GoPros and the company’s first entry-level camera.
Your Re/code reviews team has been testing all three — the GoPro Hero ($130), GoPro Hero4 Silver ($400) and GoPro Hero4 Black ($500) — over the past month, to give you the most comprehensive overview of their noteworthy features and how well they work. (A couple of our Re/code colleagues were also nice enough to pitch in and test the new GoPros by attaching them to their pups.) If you’re in the market for a new GoPro, this column will help you choose the one that’s right for you.
Keep in mind, though, as Katie Boehret points out in her review, that these cameras are not for everyone. The higher-end models aren’t cheap, and unless you’re participating in some really cool activities or using the camera for professional videography, it can be tough to find good use cases for a GoPro. And the cost of the SD cards, mounts and accessories, which you’ll likely want to invest in if you’re going to buy a GoPro, can add up very quickly.
That said, here’s all you need to know:
The Entry-Level GoPro Hero
I’ve been playing around with the GoPro Hero for the past few weeks. At $129, it’s the company’s least expensive camera yet; the next-closest is last year’s $199 model with built-in Wi-Fi, which this one lacks.
GoPro hopes that this one will lure newcomers, but I’m not quite sold.
I was an ideal candidate to test this new Hero because I’ve never used a GoPro. It’s true: I’ve somehow managed to bike, hike and ride ocean waves without recording every second of it.
Unfortunately for GoPro tests, my favorite sport is tennis. It’s one of the least-extreme sports out there, and it doesn’t lend itself well to a GoPro-wearing scenario. (See this GoPro clip of Roger Federer volleying — and he’s not even the one wearing the camera.) Nevertheless, I donned a head strap and wore my Hero on the courts for a hitting session with my husband. Later, he wore the camera to capture me playing. The footage is nauseating, but each of us got to see how we look while playing, which did help us notice and correct mistakes.
I also used it for capturing shaky, yawn-worthy video footage while walking around outside, taking wide-angle still photos of historic landmarks and capturing a time-lapse video on a city street.
A simple Power/Mode button on the front of the camera lets you choose between Video, Photo, Burst or Time Lapse, and tapping the Shutter/Select button on the top of the camera chooses that mode and starts capturing.
Generally speaking, my GoPro footage looked fine, with crisp colors and audible sounds. It shoots up to 1080p HD video. Its wide-angle lens caught most objects in any scene. But I found GoPro’s downloadable software, GoPro Studio, to be too geeky for a novice. It seemed to emphasize the “Pro” aspect of GoPro.
Some of this camera’s features will also puzzle GoPro newbies. For starters, it doesn’t have a viewfinder. Extreme-sports enthusiasts who wear their GoPros using head straps or chest straps may not need to see what they’re shooting as they capture it. But people who want to use it for more mundane things, like capturing a scene, will want to know what the picture looks like before they record for a while.
This camera is built into a clear, durable case that makes it waterproof up to 131 feet. But unlike all other GoPros, it can never be removed from its case. Instead, the case opens at the back to reveal the mini-USB port where you plug in a charging cord. The camera’s microSD card slot is also here; memory cards are sold separately.
Speaking of charging, several times I went to use my GoPro Hero only to find its battery dead. The company estimates that this model’s battery lasts for about two and a half hours of straight recording time. I never shot video for that long, but the camera’s standby battery life was weak and unreliable.
Bottom line: If you’re a first-time GoPro user, be prepared for a learning curve.
— Katie Boehret
The GoPro Hero4 Silver
The $400 Hero 4 Silver Edition sits in the middle of the GoPro range. It’s a good choice if you want more functionality than the entry-level model, but don’t need the 4K video of the Black Edition.
I’ve used GoPro’s past two models — the Hero 3 and Hero 3+ — and the Hero 4 Silver has one feature that makes me want to upgrade: A built-in touchscreen. Before, you had to use GoPro’s mobile app to see what you were shooting, or you had to buy an $80 LCD accessory. Now it’s integrated into the camera, and the company has managed to do this without completely changing the dimensions. That means you can still use old cases with it, though the batteries are different from the Hero 3 line, so you will need to buy new ones if you want spares.
Having the touchscreen made it so much easier to navigate through all the camera’s different menus and settings. No longer do you have to figure out which buttons do what and repeatedly press them to cycle through the many menu options.
The display was also great for framing and video/photo playback. Prime example: I no longer had to connect to GoPro’s mobile app to set up for a time-lapse video (the GoPro app, which works on iOS, Android and Windows, acts as a viewscreen for the cameras). It was also helpful when I was trying to figure out the best placement for the camera on my bike’s handlebars.
That said, I found situations where I wasn’t able to use the touchscreen at all. I still had to rely on the physical buttons when I had the camera in a waterproof case and mounted to my surfboard (you know, to capture all of my sick moves wipeouts). This was also the case when I had it attached to my skateboard.
The Hero 4 Silver can shoot 4K video at 15fps, 1080p video at 60fps, 720p video at 120fps and 12-megapixel photos at 30fps. There’s a new HiLight Tag function where you can mark a particular moment by pressing the small button on the right side of the camera. Once tagged, you can quickly jump to that point in a video when using the GoPro app or GoPro Studio editing app. It worked as advertised in my tests, but again, it wasn’t so useful for certain activities, like surfing and skating, where you can’t always reach the button.
Overall, I was happy with the quality of the footage captured by the Hero 4 Silver. Video was sharp and clear, with bright colors. But still images looked a bit dark.
Battery life on GoPros has never been stellar, and the same is true of the Hero 4. In most cases, where I started and stopped recording throughout the day, the Hero 4 Silver’s battery lasted around two hours.
But when recording 1080p video continuously during a standup-paddleboarding session with Lauren Goode and our videographer Vjeran Pavic, the camera lasted just a little over an hour.
Bottom line: The addition of the built-in touchscreen makes a great action camera even better. But at $400, the Hero 4 Silver is best suited for outdoor enthusiasts and other hobbyists who will get the most out of the camera.
— Bonnie Cha
The GoPro Hero4 Black
Unlike Bonnie Cha’s Hero4 Silver, which is all business in the front and LCD-party in the back, the top-of-the-line, $500 GoPro Hero 4 Black does not have a built-in viewscreen.
It does, however, shoot 4K video at up to 30 frames per second, whereas other models shoot 4K video at 15fps. In short, the higher frame rate makes 4K video more useable after you’ve shot it, and pro videographers will go nuts for it. It also shoots 1080p HD video at up to 120 frames per second, and 12-megapixel photos.
I actually shot more 1080p footage on the Hero4 Black than I did 4K, mostly because the 4K footage takes up so much space. A 16 gigabyte SD card I used while paddleboarding was full in about a half hour, forcing me to swap in a new SD card while out on the water. Also, while the 4K footage I did shoot looked beautifully crisp on my MacBook Retina display, but in most cases, the difference between pure HD and 4K on a regular display will be barely discernible to the average consumer eye.
As with the Hero4 Silver, you can tag highlights while you’re shooting. There’s also a manual mode called ProTune that lets you adjust ISO settings. In general, these new GoPros are supposed to be better about auto-adjusting in low-light settings — especially if you’re shooting a time-lapse video that segues from light to dark, like a sunset scene.
If you look at the front of the Hero4 Black, it doesn’t appear any different from other models, but GoPro has changed the interface on both the Hero4 Silver and Hero4 Black. On the Hero3+, the button on the side of the camera is used to turn Wi-Fi on and off; on the Hero4 cams, this button is also used to toggle through settings.
This is supposed to make the interface more intuitive but, personally, I still get a little tripped up every time I use a GoPro. I ended up switching among these three buttons a lot as I was changing video or photo settings.
Inside the camera, there’s a new processor that GoPro says is twice as fast as the one in the GoPro Hero3+.
Bonnie already covered battery life in her review of the Hero4 Silver, and my experience with the Hero4 Black was pretty much the same. It lasted about an hour and 10 minutes shooting 4K video during a stand-up paddleboard session, and that’s without connecting to the GoPro mobile app, which drains the battery faster.
While Katie came to the conclusion that GoPro Studio is too convoluted for newbies, I think GoPro Studio is a useful editing app for pro-sumers. First off, it’s free. It supports 4K video editing, and before you even get started editing, the GoPro Studio software will convert your MP4 files into ones that are easier to scrub through and edit. Then, when you export for YouTube, it can compress the file again. For people who have some experience with standard timeline editing in software like Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, GoPro Studio is relatively easy to master.
Bottom line: The GoPro Hero4 Black is the most powerful GoPro available. However, I really think it’s for hardcore GoPro users, or professional videographers who are looking for these kinds of specs. If I could buy just one, I would go with the Silver, because I don’t yet have a need to shoot 4K video and really liked the Silver’s viewscreen.
— Lauren Goode
Bonus video: Our colleague James Temple attached the GoPro Hero4 Black to his new dog Moxie using the Fetch harness, and captured some really great video in 1080pHD, 120fps and 1080p HD, 60fps. We’ve included the video clip below, in case you needed an excuse to watch puppy videos.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.