GoPro HERO4 Black Review

HERO4 Black

INTRODUCTION

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a devoted GoPro user. I’ve been filming with GoPro cameras ever since the HD HERO Original was released in 2010. During that time, I’ve seen how each successive model has improved upon the one before it. Their latest model, the HERO4 Black, is a truly professional grade camera that produces stunning quality video. Yet, while the HERO4 is a big step up from the HERO3+, it still leaves many features to be desired.

Here is my newest video, shot mostly with the HERO4 Black during the Chicago Booth ski trip to Vail, Colorado.

After a week of using the HERO4 Black, here is my summary of its biggest improvements over the HERO3+, as well as my wish list of features for the HERO4+/5.

IMPROVEMENTS

4K video recording at 30fps.

4K
This is the obvious one. The HERO4’s new image processor now lets users record 4K video at a usable frame rate of 30fps, versus 15fps with the HERO3+. This is an impressive addition, and when used in the right way, it can produce amazingly high quality video. But for several reasons, I tended not to shoot in 4K, and it’s worth explaining these reasons to understand why 4K might not always be the best option.

1.  4K-30 doesn’t allow for slow motion playback. I like editing a lot of my ski footage in slow mo. Since 30fps is currently the highest frame rate offered in 4K mode, and slowing down 30fps video produces choppy playback, recording in 4K simply wasn’t an option for me.

2.  Shooting in 4K drains the battery quicker. This is because the processor works harder to process more information being captured by the image sensor. The HERO4’s battery life is already dismal, and since I only had one spare battery on me, conserving battery was a high priority. Cold weather conditions also decrease battery life, so being on a ski mountain didn’t help either.

3.  4K video requires more compression. The HERO4 has a maximum bitrate of 60Mb/s. Bitrate measures the amount of video data that can be collected from the image sensor, processed/compressed by the image processor, and stored to the memory card each second. To illustrate the importance of this, I’ll give an example. Say I record a video in 1080-30 with ProTune on. Then I record the same exact video in 4K-30. For both videos, the camera will process data at its maximum bitrate of 60Mb/s. However, for the 4K video, it needs to process four times as much data because the image is four times as large! To achieve this, the camera uses compression techniques to reduce the amount of information it needs to process, which results in some image quality loss. When there’s not much motion occurring in the video, image quality loss isn’t too noticeable. Still scenes, slow pans, tilts, stable tracking shots, and time lapses are great examples of when 4K really shines. However, during high motion activities like skiing, compression blocking can be a problem.

Outside of these performance-related issues, there are a couple other considerations to keep in mind when filming in 4K.

4.  4K video generates larger file sizes. In order to capture and store higher quality 4K video, the HERO4 Black processes information at a higher bitrate of 60Mb/s. This higher bitrate translates into larger file sizes. To give an example, the size of a one minute GoPro video captured in 1080-30 (ProTune off) at 30Mb/s is 225MB (30Mb/s ÷ 8Mb/MB x 60 seconds), whereas the same one minute video captured in 4K-30 is 450MB. That means 4K video takes up 2x as much space on your micro SD card than 1080p video, effectively cutting your recording time in half. It also takes up more space on your hard drive once you transfer your files to your computer. The decreased recording time wasn’t a huge issue for me, since I was transferring all of my videos to my laptop at the end of the day. But for people filming in more remote areas who can’t offload their files, this should be something to keep in mind.

5.  4K video requires much more processing power to playback and edit on a computer. When I tried watching 4K video on my old MacBook Pro, playback was extremely choppy. Editing it wasn’t even an option. So, I upgraded to a new iMac 5K and 6TB external RAID hard drive in order to more easily work with 4K footage. This was an expensive purchase, proving that the HERO4 Black is really meant for professional users.

6.  4K video is difficult to stream online, and not many people have 4K monitors. Today, very few people have an internet connection fast enough to stream 4K content. To fit through current bandwidth pipes, a 4K signal is often compressed to the point where it can actually look worse than a good 1080p signal. Additionally, very few people own devices that are capable of displaying 4K content. So even if you’re watching a 4K video, you likely aren’t getting any better picture quality. As bandwidth and compression algorithms improve, and as 4K devices become cheaper, these problems will slowly start to disappear.

New battery compartment design.

Battery door
The HERO4 battery compartment is built into the bottom of the camera and features an attached quick release door that makes battery swapping much easier. I frequently need to replace batteries, and often dropped the battery compartment door of my HERO3+ during a swap-out, so this redesign was a welcome improvement. The one (small) downside is that you now have to take the camera completely out of its housing in order to access the battery compartment. During activities like skiing, removing the camera can expose the inside of the housing to snowflakes, which adds moisture and can fog up the case when you close it back up.

Easier to replace housing backdoor.

Backdoor
With the HERO3+, I felt like I was about to break the housing every time I forced the backdoor on and off. Replacing the backdoor was very difficult, and I watched many others struggle with it as well. On the housing that came with my HERO4 Black camera, I find backdoor replacement to be much easier. Maybe I’m just getting better at it, but I really think GoPro tweaked the design.

Improved menu navigation.

Menu navigation 1
The HERO4 features a new menu that’s more intuitive to navigate compared with that of the HERO3+. Settings are now linked to what mode the camera is currently in, which cuts down on the number of button clicks needed to find the setting you want to change. Because there are now so many video and photo capture options, this was likely a necessary modification. One additional improvement could be adding a physical “Back” button to the camera. I hate when I accidentally pass by the option I want to change and need to scroll all the way through the menu to reach it again. I do this all the time, and it frustrates me. A back button (or scroll wheel?) would solve this problem.

Addition of manual control settings.

ProTune
The addition of manual control settings in ProTune further proves that the HERO4 Black targets professional users. I am by no means a professional videographer, but I’ve loved learning how to manually control the camera by using ProTune. Altering things like ISO and white balance was not possible with the HERO3+, and understanding how these settings affect the image has helped make me a better filmmaker. For example, I now always set ISO at 400 to reduce image noise in low light settings. (400 should really be the default, not 6400.) It would be fun to play with shutter speed if GoPro added this setting to ProTune, but I’m not dying for it.

WISH LIST FOR THE HERO4+/5

If I were a Product Manager at GoPro, here are a few changes I would suggest for the next version. Some might not be feasible due to constraints I’m unaware of, but none of them seem too far-fetched.

Backlit screen.
The GoPro screen is hard to read indoors or in low light. This has been a constant issue across all generations of GoPro cameras. Teaching my dad how to navigate the new HERO4 menu was especially difficult since he could only read it if the screen was right in front of his face (thus preventing me from seeing anything). I’m not entirely sure how a backlit screen would affect battery life, but I think it’s worth exploring. Especially if GoPro wants people to use their camera in low light settings (which, judging from their press and new launch video, it seems like they are).

Menu back button.
As I mentioned earlier, adding a physical “Back” button (or scroll wheel) to the camera would vastly improve menu navigation. I frequently scroll past the option I want to change because I’m rushing through the menu list (my friend is about to hit that sweet jump!), forcing me to scroll all the way through to reach it again. A simple way to go backwards would make my life a lot easier.

2.7K 4:3 – 48/60 video capture.
When I ski, I like shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio to increase my chances of capturing the best shot. (The 4:3 ratio records 180 extra pixels on the top and bottom of the image, effectively capturing more of the frame.) As I mentioned earlier, I also like to film at a high frame rate (anything above 30fps) so that I can edit my videos in slow motion. 1440 (the 4:3 version of 1080p) is currently the highest 4:3 resolution setting of the HERO4 Black that can record at a frame rate above 30fps.

Now that YouTube supports 2K and 4K streaming playback, I’d love to edit videos in this higher resolution. In addition to achieving higher image quality, shooting in 2.7K allows me to crop the image on a 1080p editing timeline without losing any quality. This can be really helpful when adding image stabilization to shaky footage (will GoPro ever add electronic image stabilization in-camera?). For these reasons, I had hoped the HERO4 Black would include a higher frame rate mode for 2.7K 4:3.

GoPro recently announced plans to release a firmware update to the HERO4 Black and Silver that includes a higher frame rate for 2.7K. Hopefully they will provide a similar update for 2.7 4:3 in the near future!

Higher quality video download via the GoPro app.

GoPro app 1
I’m always frustrated when I take an awesome video, but can’t share it real time in a high quality format on my iPhone. The GoPro app only gives me an option to download videos in a low resolution format, which look grainy when I post them to Facebook or Instagram. I understand that file sizes coming out of the HERO4 can be huge, especially when filming in 4K or with ProTune on. But there could be an option to select a 15 second clip within a file (similar to what Instagram does), in order to limit the file transfer size.

To test the feasibility of this, I ran a couple quick calculations:

– A 15 second video filmed in 1080-60 (ProTune Off) resulted in a file size of ~56MB. The GoPro app transfers data from the camera to the iPhone via Wi-Fi at ~0.5MB/second.
– Therefore, a 15 second video transfer would take 1 minute and 52 seconds if kept at its original resolution.

That’s a bit lengthy, but if it means sharing an epic powder run in full HD resolution, then I’m all for it.

Slow motion and music options in the GoPro app.
As an addition to the 15-second HD clip feature above, it would be nice if the GoPro App had a simple slow motion option that automatically converted high frame rate videos to 24 or 30fps. Not only that, GoPro could include a music bank of 15-second audio clips that users could automatically set their videos to. If all of these features were available in-app, I would prefer this on-the-go method of editing and sharing to editing video on my laptop 95% of the time. After all, GoPro wants people to share their content with others, so why not make it easier for them?

Camera orientation auto-detect feature*
*Even though GoPro will enable this feature as part of their February firmware update, I thought I’d include it since it’s been on my list for quite some time.

Currently, if you want to record with the camera upside-down, you need to select a setting that flips the orientation to record right-side up. The setting is buried in the menu, and since I frequently switch between filming right-side up and upside-down, navigating to it every time is pretty annoying. I always felt that adding a camera orientation detection feature that auto-adjusts orientation would solve this problem. Big props to GoPro for adding this feature!

SUMMARY

The HERO4 Black is an extraordinarily powerful camera that has transformed the way I record my life’s most exciting moments. It allows me to share my experiences with others in a way that photos or video captured with another device simply cannot replicate. But, as with any consumer product, there is always room for improvement. Should GoPro choose to implement any of the features I suggested in my Wish List, their next camera will surely blow this one away.

In a future post, I’ll discuss some of the improvements GoPro could make to its accessories, packaging, and website, as well as propose some adjacent product lines GoPro should consider getting into.

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  • canoe

    great post, but what about exposure lock? that’s what we really need for effective postprocessing job

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  • judgedread1

    when i realised there was no back light i was like…..WHAT THE ACTUAL F@#@