High Gear: GoPro Hero 5, Black edition review and field test
December 22, 2016
GoPro is getting scary good at making pro-level video available to just about anyone: skiers, snowboarders, kayakers, little children, dogs with chest mounts.
Set aside the recent Karma Drone recall — in early November the company recalled all of its $799.99 consumer drones after reports of randomly losing power midflight — and GoPro is still the master of making the small, burly, high-quality action cameras that made it a household name.
Released in early October, the newest Hero camera, the Hero 5 Black edition, is touted as the "ultra HD action camera" to end all ultra HD action cameras. It boasts full 4K resolution in video and still mode, with up to 30 frames per second in both. Yes, that's 30 slo-mo or burst-mode images in a package more portable — and less breakable — than most consumer-grade SLR cameras. Those run anywhere from $700 to $1,500 with no lenses, while the Hero 5 Black costs $399.99 and the smaller Hero 5 session costs $299.99.
Pause. That might seem like a steep price for a toy, but the GoPro Hero 5 is anything but a toy. Sure, it's shaped like a toy, and sure, it's marketed like a toy, and of course the mix-and-match components have always reminded me of Legos. But when a toy-like camera packs such a serious punch — or is marketed that way, at least — it demands respect.
The Hero line has come a long way from the original, which maxed out at 1260-by-1080 pixels at 30 frames per second when it was released nearly a decade ago. Here's how the latest edition stacks up against its forerunners and the competition.
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As always, the Hero line's biggest selling point is incredibly quality in a small and affordable package. The Hero 5 fits the bill, from 4K resolution to relatively new features like in-camera stabilization, a wireless app for remote operation and a now-standard touchscreen to review footage in the field. Not too shabby.
Let's start with the resolution. To be honest, I haven't worked much with full 4K equipment — it's still pricey enough to scare off most consumers like moi — and so I've never seen what it can do in person. That said, I'm used to shooting stills with the Canon 5100 SLR series, and those images are on par with anything else considered pro-quality these days.
Still, I was shocked to see just how crisp and clear and balanced the Hero 5 images were. I took the camera to the Copper Mountain halfpipe for the U.S. Revolution Tour in early December, and after shooting on burst mode for five or six athletes, I hardly even needed to pull out the SLR. Every Hero image still has the slight curve of a wide-angle lens, even on standard shooting mode. But, then again, GoPro has done a canny job of making everyone think a fish-eye lens is the worldview of all things cool and crazy. Well done.
Also new with the Hero 5 is a waterproof camera body, meaning no clear-plastic protector case. Just slap it into the mount kit and go. Just be wary — this also means there's nothing protecting the back-mounted touchscreen. I'm sure it's durable enough to handle a few bumps and bruises, but I wasn't willing to test the limits. Let's just it's smart to avoid direct hits to the screen. These things might be advertised as bulletproof, but every piece of sensitive equipment has its threshold. Don't push it.
It's strange: GoPro has improved on the functionality of the Hero camera with each new model, but they still haven't solved the problem of cold-weather battery life. At Rev Tour, the battery was drained after about 45 minutes of burst-mode shooting — no video, just stills — and so I'm glad I had the SLR with me to finish the day. It was only about 30 degrees that afternoon, and I shoved the camera into my coat after every run to keep it warm. The 45-minute mark is an improvement over the 20-minute lifespan of my Hero 2 in cold weather, but it's not enough.
Luckily, the Hero 5 comes with an easy-to-swap battery, and that's my final big complaint about the camera: expensive accessories. Batteries cost $20 per pop, and the camera doesn't include the micro SD card it needs to shoot for extended periods of time. A 64 GB card is about $30. Add the card reader and you're looking at $50 on top of the $399.99 asking price — still affordable, but not as much. The voice activation is also spotty in outdoor environments, although truth be told I hardly used that feature. It's much easier to sync up with a smartphone and the free GoPro app.
The GoPro Hero 5 Black edition is everything the Average Joe and Jane need from a camera, plus some, with incredible image quality and the same easy-to-use platform GoPro made famous. It's a toy with teeth.
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