GoPro finds itself in the odd position of having substantial brand clout while also having its sales eaten alive by the proliferation of smartphones and their advanced cameras.
I’m not exactly an adrenaline junkie but after extensively using the Hero9 Black, GoPro’s latest flagship action camera, I am enjoying shooting video more than ever.
Smartphones have swooped in and all but killed the compact camera market for photos, so you might assume amateur videographers would also be happy with the built-in capabilities on most iPhones or Samsung Galaxy devices.
But GoPro has weathered the storm and remains the go-to action-cam company for extreme sports nuts.
I’ve spent a good couple of months capturing sunny lakes, windy beaches, leafy mounts, and irritating my wife by shoving the excellent Hero9 Black in her face as I tested all its features.
I’m confident in saying if you want to brilliantly capture in the moment video that will stand the test of time, it’s worth the spend, even if you have the latest smartphone camera tech in your pocket already. The act of shooting video on a dedicated device and then downloading it to a large screen PC or tablet to view and edit really pushed me to be more creative.
You’ll just have to be willing to spend $799 to find out if it’s the same for you, and you’ll have to buy a microSD card to store everything on as it’s not included. Cheaper GoPros are available but they don’t have the top level features of this latest version.
The Hero9 Black can capture 5K resolution at 30 frames per second and 4K at 60 frames per second footage thanks to its 23.5-megapixel sensor, but even the 1080p (standard high definition) playback looks great.
The superb levels of detail combined with GoPro’s eerily good HyperSmooth stabilisation smarts makes for footage you simply can’t get out of a phone. Whether I was walking, running, or being jolted about by a boat the steadied footage almost looked as though I had a physical gimbal attached.
GoPro loaned me the camera along with The Handler, its nifty foam and plastic handgrip that is light enough to float should its wrist strap come loose when you’re shooting in water. But worry not, as the Hero9 Black is waterproof to 10 metres.
The camera itself is tiny considering the tech packed inside. It has a small 2.27-inch touchscreen on the rear and a tiny 1.4-inch front facing screen for lining yourself up in frame when trying to capture yourself on video or when taking photos, which the GoPro can take at 20 megapixels.
Both screens run at all times so there’s no need to switch between the two, great when the rear touchscreen is fiddly enough as it is.
We’re all used to the excellent responsiveness of smartphones, so you’ll have to be patient with the GoPro’s touchscreen performance as it feels a little laggy. But on days out shooting video, you don’t have to use it once you’re set up the way you want and can simply use the physical record button to start and stop.
The lens cover is replaceable so you can replace a damaged one or spend $179 on the swappable Max Lens Mod that claims to improve the already good stabilisation and expands the ultra-wide angle to 155 degrees.
I wouldn’t suggest the GoPro as a replacement for still images over a phone or DSLR though, as there is a fish-eye effect at the edges of images with the wider-angle lens settings.
A trip to Manakau Heads lighthouse was a good test of the GoPro’s three microphones thanks to the ridiculously high winds.
Results were blustery but the mics are good enough to capture voices above wild gusts. 5K videos unsurprisingly look tremendous but no phones can support that level of video playback. Few TVs can either.
The main advantage is you can crop in on recorded footage without compromising image quality, or even pull decent still frame images from high-res video. Shooting in 4K is the sweet spot at 60 frames per second and is better for high-speed biking or snowboarding footage.
All this tech crammed into such a small body takes a toll on the battery. I found the GoPro was good for a day out of casual shooting without running out of juice, but if you are recording continuously you’ll be watching the battery level after about two hours. Luckily, replaceable cells are only $35 each, so you can buy a couple more, charge them up, and have them ready to swap out and keep filming.
There are tons of interesting and useful software features built in like a scheduled capture mode so, for example, you can set up the camera for a sunrise video and not actually have to wake up to press record. You can also use the Hero9 Black as a webcam for video calling or live streaming.
A healthy official accessory market lets you add the aforementioned lens, a light, a mic with wind muffler, or a larger front facing screen for vlogging, and there are tons of mounts and grips to attach to bikes, boards and more.
For $79.99 per year, you have the option to subscribe to GoPro’s Quik app and all its services.
I used the app for free on my iPad to wirelessly download photos and videos as I recorded but paying unlocks a ton of additional features such as unlimited cloud backup storage at original quality, automatic stitched video creation, tons of editing tools, and music to put over the top of video montages.
GoPro is pushing Quik to collate all the media you shoot on your phone too, but I limited it to just GoPro footage to keep my action cam footage separate and organised.
It is possible to buy and use the Hero9 Black without Quik and simply plug the USB-C cable into your computer or tablet to physically save footage off the microSD card. Quik does link up well and offers a lot of additional features, but I suspect only those who want to curate and edit their video extensively will want to pay annually for the privilege.
If this does sound like you then I would subscribe to the regular GoPro service, which is similarly priced and confusingly separate from the Quik subscription. GoPro subscribers get all Quik’s features as well as savings on new cameras, 50% off purchases at GoPro.com, and other perks.
But the real draw of buying the Hero9 Black is a video camera that is just a video camera. It makes you put your phone away and concentrate on shooting great footage that you will actually want to keep, watch and treasure, rather than shooting throwaway clips to upload to Instagram.