Let’s just say it: It’s a weird, complicated time to be reviewing gadgets. All sorts of products optimized for out-and-about use are tough to evaluate when you’re spending much of your time cooped up at home, cafés won’t even let you inside, and travel by airplane feels almost as far off as space tourism.
Still, I was excited to try GoPro’s Hero9 Black, the latest version of the action camera that defined action cameras as a category. I don’t partake in any of the extreme activities typically depicted in GoPro promotional materials, such as skydiving, surfing, or mountaineering. But I already knew that you don’t have to be doing anything all that extreme to have fun with a GoPro.
Furthermore, I’ve been fighting social-isolating sloth by puttering around the Bay Area on my Gazelle e-bike, which I bought in April and now couldn’t live without. My best journeys felt like little expeditions that might be worth preserving.
Before I get any further, here’s a video I made using the Hero9 Black and GoPro’s iPad app. It depicts a recent e-bike jaunt up the Pacific Coast, over the Golden Gate Bridge, through Sausalito, and into the Marin Headlands. This being 2020, it also includes plenty of people wearing masks and a small protest (and a larger contingent of police officers, some with bikes) on the bridge.
I certainly had fun biking with the Hero9 Black, which is a meaty upgrade from previous GoPros on multiple fronts. And its new full-color front-facing display even makes the camera useful for indoor scenarios such as videoconferencing and shooting YouTube videos. That could help justify the price, especially if your ability to go adventuring is constrained at the moment.
About that price: The Hero9 Black lists for $450, which is $50 more than its predecessor, the Hero8 Black, cost at launch. But GoPro is tiptoeing in the direction of encouraging customers to think of it as a service provider rather than merely a camera manufacturer, and it’s providing a financial incentive to make that leap. You can order the Hero9 from GoPro for $350—a price that includes a year of the company’s GoPro service (formally known as GoPro Plus), which offers unlimited cloud storage, discounts on accessories, and a camera replacement plan. (Also new is plastic-free packaging that includes a zippered storage case that—for a free bonus item—is quite respectable.)
After the first year, a GoPro subscription is $5 per month or $50 per year. You can cancel anytime. Presumably the company hopes that once you’ve uploaded all your videos to the cloud, you’ll have an incentive to keep paying.
Far from a dinosaur
For years, pundits have predicted that the GoPro was destined to be rendered obsolete by ever-improving smartphone cameras, much as the Flip video cam of yore was. But even though today’s smartphone cameras boast wide-angle lenses, stabilization, and other technologies that lend themselves to action shooting, they don’t come anywhere near being a better GoPro than a GoPro.
A smartphone makes a great video camera when you want to compose your shots artfully and otherwise devote full attention to the process of capturing footage. A GoPro still works much better when you want to affix a camera to your person or a piece of equipment such as a bike and press record—and then go back to being in the moment. Besides, I mount my iPhone 11 Pro to my e-bike and use it to map out my treks, so it’s unavailable for photography.
In fundamental ways, the Hero9 sticks with what has worked for GoPro for a long time. It’s small enough to stuff in a pocket, sturdy enough to survive its share of rough and tumble, and controllable via its touch screen, a couple of physical buttons, and voice commands such as “GoPro, start recording.” (I ended up using those a lot.)
As always, it’s compatible with an array of accessories from GoPro and others—I used the company’s handlebar mount to put it on my bike. It works with some optional “mods” GoPro introduced last year with the Hero8, including a larger front-facing screen, a light, and a combination directional microphone/mic-out jack/HDMI-out jack. There’s also a new stabilized 155-degree ultrawide-angle Max Lens mod you can swap in for the standard Hero9 one. (I didn’t try any of these.)
As for the Hero9’s standard features: The most obvious change is that the front-facing display is now a full-color viewfinder; in previous models, it was monochrome and devoted to information such as settings and battery level. That lets you see yourself when you’ve pointed the camera in your direction. At 2 inches, the preview is really dinky, and it gets smaller still if you change the settings to view it in the correct aspect ratio, with black bars, as I did. But it still lets you verify with a glance that selfie shots are framed properly, and makes the Hero9 a more intriguing option for YouTubers and others who capture first-person video. Having used it, I’d be sorry to lose it.
The front-facing display is also handy if you use the Hero9 as a high-def webcam with a computer, an option the company rolled out last summer for previous models. Mounting the GoPro on a tripod at eye level and gazing at its front-facing screen rather than your computer is a good way to capture yourself at a flattering angle and avoid looking shifty-eyed; you can also choose between three digital lenses (wide, narrow, and linear).
The Hero9 doesn’t quite feel like it was born to be a webcam—you need to leave its battery door ajar so you can plug in a USB-C cable—but it’s still a significant upgrade over my MacBook Pro’s grainy built-in camera.
Another major change is a new battery. GoPro says that it delivers 30% longer life than that of previous GoPros. This means that the Hero9’s battery isn’t compatible with the smaller one used with previous models, which is a bummer for longtime GoPro fans who have stockpiled the earlier version. But one of the biggest irritations with GoPro photography is the battery conking out at inopportune moments, so any increase in running time is welcome. (I would still bring along at least one charged spare.)
A new feature called HindSight buffers up to 30 seconds of video when your GoPro is turned on but not (officially) recording, letting you press record after the fact to capture moments you might otherwise have missed. I was concerned about decimating the battery and therefore used HindSight cautiously, but it was still pretty neat for feats such as filming the GoCars that whizzed by my bike almost before I noticed they were there. There’s also a new scheduling option that lets you set your GoPro to start recording at a given time, like a DVR; that opens up some interesting opportunities such as capturing nocturnal backyard wildlife, especially combined with the TimeWarp time-lapse capability.
More pixels than absolutely necessary
Along with all these added features and capabilities, GoPro is also serious about improvements to its core job—capturing smooth, high-quality action video. With the Hero9, those include version 3.0 of the HyperSmooth stabilization technology, which erased the jitters from my footage even when I was biking over manhole covers and other road hazards. The Hero9 can level the horizon inside the camera, rather than after you’ve transferred video to GoPro’s app as with previous models. You can also take still photos with 20 MP of resolution, up from 12 MP. (Generally speaking, I still prefer to use a smartphone for still images—or to grab them from frames of videos, which you can easily do in the GoPro app.)
Then there’s the new ability to record 5K video at 30 frames per second. That captures 77% more pixels than 4K, GoPro’s previous maximum, which is a boon to any still images you extract from a video. But for most video work, you don’t need anywhere near that much resolution. It doesn’t make sense to use 5K purely on the theory that it’s safer to shoot at the highest possible quality, even if you buy a bigger memory card than the 32 GB one that comes with the Hero9.
I did record a lot of footage in 5K mode at first, in part because it’s the default resolution for GoPro’s alluring-sounding “Cinematic” mode. I knew it was overkill. But that many pixels turned out to be an outright burden: When I tried to piece together multiple 5K clips in the GoPro app for iPad, it told me I couldn’t.
A GoPro representative explained that the issue relates to the amount of RAM required to decode multiple 5K videos, and that it can’t fully support them until devices provide sufficient memory. I worked around the limitation by downsizing the resolution (not in GoPro’s app, which doesn’t let you do that) and bringing the videos back into the app for editing.
In general, GoPro’s software is less of a joy than its hardware. It’s nice for piecing together clips, adding a canned soundtrack, and even letting the app use artificial intelligence to pick highlights to emphasize. But while the app lets you transfer video from the camera (wirelessly and slo-o-o-o-wly) and provides access to your camera roll and GoPro’s cloud service, there’s no way to work directly with other storage options you might prefer, such as Dropbox. The iPad app behaves as if it can’t decide whether it supports landscape mode, an irritant that has persisted through several versions. GoPro already abandoned its desktop editing apps, which is a shame since a Mac or Windows PC is a logical tool for ambitious projects.
The next time I hunker down to make a movie from my raw video, I might give iMovie a try instead of the GoPro app. But the Hero9 Black itself is a gem. There’s never been a time when I felt more like treasuring the opportunities I do get in the great outdoors. And an action camera that doubles as a premium webcam is no one-trick pony.