In October 2016, GoPro radically revised its range of action cameras, introducing two new models, and discontinuing two older ones. The current line up comprises of three models – two in the smaller ‘Session’ format (first introduced in 2015) and one, the Hero5 Black, a larger more full-featured unit. But with the holiday season fast approaching, what is the difference between these models, and which GoPro should you buy? Read on to find out…
The first thing to note with all the new cameras is that GoPro has done away with the separate external waterproof case. This used to be a feature of every GoPro camera, but since the Session was first introduced in the Summer 2015, GoPro has clearly been moving towards making its cameras inherently waterproof without the need for a fiddly case. We can definitely see the logic in this – the new ‘naked’ models are waterproof to 33 feet (10 metres), which is sufficient for nearly all their likely uses other than scuba diving, and if you do need to go deeper, then a ‘Super Suit’ dive housing is available for the Hero5 Black which makes the camera waterproof to 196 feet (60m) – deeper than the previous generation of cameras.
Starting at the bottom of the range, the GoPro Hero Session is the only camera in the current range that isn’t wholly new – it was introduced in the summer of 2015. That said, the model now being sold by GoPro has been updated for 2016 with a USB-C connection, rather than the micro USB sported by the previous generation. Interestingly, when it was launched in 2015, the GoPro Session was billed as a top end camera with a price tag of $400 to match; however, GoPro quickly reduced this to $200 which is what the camera is on sale for now.
In common with the other Session camera in the range (discussed below) the Hero Session is a cuboid camera 1.5 inches in each dimension and weighing 2.6 oz (74g). The Session only has two buttons – it powers up and starts recording video with a single push of the button main button on the top; when you stop recording it turns off. The other smaller button (located at the base of the non-lens side of the camera) is the ‘status’ button, used to display information on the tiny display and to turn the wifi on and off. In order to change the video resolution or tweak any other setting, you have to use the GoPro smartphone app. And of course, since there is no display screen built in, you also need to use the app to see the field of view through the lens, or to review any footage you have taken. The Hero Session can shoot video at a maximum resolution of 1080p at 60 fps, or take 8 MP still photos with a maximum burst rate of 10 fps. Another feature (or rather the absence of a feature!) is that the Session does not have a replaceable battery. On a full charge (and in laboratory conditions) it is capable of recording at 1080p60 for approximately 1 hour 45 minutes, but once the battery is flat you need to plug the camera in – there is no option to swap in a new battery.
Next up in the range is the new Hero5 Session. Externally, this looks almost identical to the basic Session model, with the same two-button interface, although it has a graphite gray colour versus the Session’s black. Indeed, everything we’ve written above about the physical details of the Hero Session also applies to the Hero5 Session! However, internally the Hero5 Session features an upgraded sensor and processor, and can shoot 4K video at 30fps, as well as 1080p video at 90fps. It can also take 10MP still photos at a maximum burst rate of 30fps. The Hero5 Session also boasts several features that are new to the GoPro line up in the 2016 refresh (and also feature in the GoPro Hero5 Black, discussed further below):
- Voice control – this allows you to start and stop recording, and shoot both video and still photos, by using pre-determined voice commands in one of 7 different languages. The idea is that this makes it easier to toggle the camera on and off to record just the bits of action you want to, rather than leave it running for a long time, wasting both battery and memory card capacity.
- Image stabilization – this is the first time that image stabilization has featured on a GoPro camera. The technology used here is electronic image stabilization, where the camera software effectively crops the edges of the frame to allow for a stabilized central portion. This is easier to implement than true optical image stabilization (which requires moving lens components), though the disadvantage is that it means the stabilized image cannot be as large as the full sensor resolution. In the case of the Hero5 Session, this means that the maximum stabilized resolution is 2.7K, rather than the full 4K of the sensor.
The photo and video specs of the Hero5 Session appear at first glance to be quite similar to those of the Hero5 Black, particularly given that both top out at 4K / 30 fps. However, as we discuss further below, the larger and more expensive Hero5 Black does appear to produce somewhat higher quality at these same resolutions, and also has some additional features.
Sitting at the new top of the range, the new Hero5 Blackis a similar overall shape to the previous generations of GoPro cameras, but like the Session models, it is now inherently waterproof to 33 feet (10 meters) without a case. The Hero5 Black effectively combines the features of the previous Hero4 Silver and Hero4 Black cameras – taking the integrated touch screen from the Hero4 Silver and merging it with the 4K 30 fps capability which was previously only found on the Hero4 Black (which did not feature a screen). The software for the integrated touchscreen has been improved and the interface is now easier to use. As with the Hero4 Silver, the inclusion of the touch screen is something of a game-changer for how you can use this camera – it becomes much more feasible to use it as a more general purpose still and video camera rather than just an action cam to be mounted somewhere. The Hero5 Black also features a replaceable battery. This means that you can carry spares, and extend your filming beyond the time given by a single charge (which, particularly in cold climates, can sometimes be not that long).
On the video and photo spec side, the Hero5 Black can shoot 4K at 30 fps. This is the same as the Hero5 Session, but at lower resolutions the Hero5 Black is generally able to shoot at higher frame rates than the Session – for example, it can shoot 1080p at 120 fps while the Hero5 Session tops out at 90fps. On the still photo side, the Hero5 Black can shoot at 12MP, while the Hero5 Session can only manage 10MP. This difference in still photo megapixels demonstrates that the Hero5 Black has a larger sensor than the Hero5 Session. This has an impact on the quality of the video output even at identical resolutions, particularly in low light, as the Hero5 Black has a larger sensor to capture more available light. As such, GoPro tout the Hero5 Black as having “Professional Grade” low light performance, whereas the Hero5 Session makes do with “Consumer grade”.
So, if you’re in the market for an action camera, which GoPro should you buy? Looking at the new models, the pricing structure is quite straightforward – $200 for the basic Session, $300 for the Hero5 Session and $400 for the Hero5 Black. As ever, the first decision you need to make is whether you have any use for a 4K-capable camera. We’ve set out some more thinking on that issue here, but in essence, unless you have (or soon will have) a 4K-capable monitor or television, you are unlikely to get all that much benefit from 4K. In particular, while support for 4K as an online video resolution is growing, the vast majority of websites such as YouTube and Vimeo still tend to default towards 1080p as a usable maximum – over most internet connections 4K is simply too slow to stream, and in any event most people won’t be viewing it on a 4K capable device. (That said, if you have the computer processing power and storage capacity to edit 4K video, there is still an argument for using it now even though it has not yet been widely adopted, on the basis that it makes the footage you take more ‘future proof’).
With that in mind, theGoPro Session has a lot to recommend it. It has a great small form factor, and the 1080p60 video is good compromise on image quality versus storage space. In addition, it’s worth remembering that its $200 price is half of what it was introduced for just over a year ago. However, it does lack the new features introduced this year such as voice control and (more importantly) image stabilization.
The Hero5 Session may now be the sweet spot for those looking for a wearable action camera that covers most (if not all) of the bases. It can shoot at 4K at 30fps, or 1080p at 90fps a decent slow motion ability. The voice control may prove useful in some circumstances (though the jury is still out over how usable it will actually be), but the image stabilization is definitely a real step forward. Although it can only stabilize the sort of high frequency ‘jiggle’ that occurs (rather than bigger knocks which you would need a gimbal to iron out) it does make a significant difference to how smooth the footage looks. That in turn makes the experience of watching it more immersive – when we participate in action sports we don’t notice the vibrations, and so our perception is that footage without them looks more ‘real’, It’s a subtle point, but a real improvement. All in all, the Hero5 Session offers a huge amount for $300, and if you can afford the $100 uplift from the basic Session, we think it is worth going for it.
The Hero5 Black will remain the choice for professional and prosumer users, but it also has much to recommend it to other users who don’t baulk at the $400 price tag. The main reason is that the integrated screen makes it a much more versatile camera, and also makes changing the settings a cinch – you are much more likely to experiment with different settings on a Hero5 Black than you are on either of the Session models where doing so involves getting out your phone and pairing it. In addition, the replaceable battery means that you can continue filming beyond the lifespan of a single battery change. There is an added benefit too, in that it makes the batteries a consumable that can be replaced if they degrade; with the Session cameras you are stuck with the same battery cells for the life of the device. It’s worth noting too that at $400, the Hero5 Black is $100 less than the Hero4 Black of 2 years ago, and includes an integrated screen. Although it is the most expensive model, you are getting a lot of camera for the money.
Ultimately, all of the current line up are very strong action cameras, and it’s good to see GoPro simplifying down its range from the 6 cameras it was offering at one point last year! For our money, the Hero5 Session is the one to go for if you’re sure you can live on one battery and without a screen (and like the super compact shape of it); otherwise, the Hero5 Black would be our choice. But thankfully, there isn’t a bad camera in the line up, so whichever you get you should enjoy it!
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