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.

Chicago Booth Spring Break

After enduring a tough Chicago winter, myself and 22 other first-year Booth students headed south to Colombia for Spring Break.  I haven’t had Spring Break in six years, so it definitely felt a little like being back in college.  But then again, what part of b-school doesn’t feel like college?

The week involved a combination of relaxation, culture, water sports, eating, and socializing.  Our accommodations comprised two beautiful villas in the center of Old Town Cartagena.  Amazing beaches, cigar shops, and seafood restaurants sat at our fingertips.  The setup could not have been more perfect.

But best of all, I got to spend quality time getting to know my friends even better.  Although we often hang out as a group, we’re usually together in the context of larger social settings, which aren’t very conducive to meaningful conversation.  There’s still so much I don’t know about some of my best friends, and this trip gave me the opportunity to change that.  Everyone has a story – so on strolls through Old Town’s cobblestone streets or over a ceviche and sangria lunch, I started learning about some of those stories.  Unbelievably, each one amazed me more than the last.

Everyone talks about business school as a place that brings together talented and ambitious people, all from different backgrounds.  This trip showed me just how true that is.  Chicago Booth has so far been one of the best experiences of my life, and I consider myself very fortunate to have such an extraordinary group of friends.

Here’s a video I made from our trip – hopefully you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it!

Summer GoPro Videos

I recorded a whole bunch of GoPro video last summer, and I finally got around to editing some of it this week.  I had so much fun shooting the video – especially with my friends Tyler and Rob on Cape Cod – but always found excuses to not take some time to edit it.  I still have a bunch more to work on, but I’m glad that I made some progress.

This video is from a weekend I spent with my friends Tyler and Rob on Cape Cod.  They got into GoProing our activities just as much as I did, which made for a really fun trip.

 

I shot this video on a late afternoon when my parents and I went for a ride around Pleasant Bay.  The conditions were perfect, so I decided to strap on a wakeboard.

 

During my trip to Europe in August, I visited Interlaken, one of the extreme sports capitals of the world.  Every direction I looked, people were base jumping, paragliding, mountain biking, or sky diving.  Obviously, I wanted to get in on the action.

Religion in the Modern World

A few weeks back, my roommate Gideon and I got to talking about religion.  He’s Jewish and I’m Catholic, but neither of us are really practicing.  My family attended mass every Sunday when I was young, but that regularity dwindled with each passing year.  Now, mass is reserved solely for Easter and Christmas Eve.

I never looked forward to mass because I found it boring and repetitive.  My parents probably felt the same way back then, and I know they feel that way now.  However, they wanted to raise my sisters and I with religion in our lives so that we learned basic moral principles, and had somewhere to turn if we needed a little extra support.  (Religion also came in handy when us kids asked questions like “How are babies born?”)  Religion provides children with an early moral compass and serves as a source of guidance and strength as they get older.  I agree with my parents’ choice to raise us as Catholic and will probably do the same when I have children someday.

At the same time, I struggle with whether or not I believe in God.  I’m not really sure if a God exists, but I do believe there is a higher power of some sort.  I also believe in the concepts that Christianity teaches, which mainly revolve around the Golden Rule.  Treat people the way you want to be treated, and all that.  This concept is fundamental across the teachings of every major world religion, but because of how my education was structured, I only learned it in the context of Catholicism.

I never received an education in the history, beliefs, or cultural systems of other religions, and I am admittedly ignorant of them as a result.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  For young kids, religion class is partly about learning history and customs, and partly about developing moral values.  There are common moral lessons across every religion, so why not supplement children’s primarily religion class with a course that teaches Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and the ideas that connect them?  Through this course, students would receive the same type of moral development, but would also gain a much deeper understanding of other world religions at a young age.  These students would enter society far more cultured than the average American, with the ability to more easily relate to people from different religious upbringings.

I’m not advocating that our society abandon teaching children to believe in one religion.  But we live in a global world, and as people from different countries and backgrounds become increasingly interconnected, the more important it becomes for people to be accepting of beliefs that differ from their own.  Globalization is happening all around us, and its time for schools to extend our global way of thinking to religion.

Some Music Playlists

I listen to a lot of music.  My preference for what genre depends on what mood I’m in and varies between pop, country, electronic, and hipster (think Matt & Kim or The Lumineers).  I use Spotify as my primary music player because its easy to use, has most of the songs I search for, and I can listen to playlists on my iPhone even when I don’t have cell reception.  Best of all, I can listen to an unlimited number of songs for $99/year.  For that price, I would be able to download ~77 songs from iTunes at $1.29/song.  Considering I probably “downloaded” 500 songs on Spotify this year, $99/year for the Spotify service is well worth it.

Recently, I’ve been listening to lots of electronic music and have discovered a number of great electronic remixes through apps like The Hype Machine and FratMusic.  I can’t make playlists on these apps, so I need to use another music service to collect the remixes for easy access.  However, lots of obscure remixes can’t be found on Spotify, so I’ve begun using SoundCloud as well.  SoundCloud isn’t as user friendly as Spotify, but its free and has almost every remix imaginable in its database.  That makes SoundCloud a perfect complementary service to Spotify, and I’m happy to use it if it makes organizing my music easier.

Here is a playlist of electronic remixes I made on SoundCloud.  I wanted to see if I could embed the playlist into my blog and share it, so hopefully this works.

 

Here is another recent electronic playlist I created on Spotify.  It will be interesting to see which one of these embedded players will work better – SoundCloud or Spotify.

(Update: After posting this, I realized that you can only play the Spotify playlist if you are already a Spotify user.  This makes it much less functional than the SoundCloud embedded playlist, so I guess SoundCloud wins this one.)

Christmas Shopping

It’s that time of year again.  The middle of December, a week shy of Christmas and I’m racking my brain trying to come up with gift ideas that my family will actually like.  It’s a difficult process, and one that I don’t think I’m alone in.  Recently, I’ve been buying tech gifts for my parents, first because it keeps them in the know, and second because it’s better than just another button-down shirt.

This year, I went with a BIG JAMBOX for my mom, who needs a high quality and easy-to-use sound system for her new art studio on Cape Cod.  I’ve owned a regular JAMBOX for awhile and love the sound quality.  The only time I’ve wanted the bigger version is when I’m in a room full of people and the music gets drowned out.  But those situations are infrequent, and the portability of the smaller version vastly outweighs it’s volume constraints.  However, my mom won’t be moving her JAMBOX from place to place – it will always be in her studio.  For that reason, I felt that she would enjoy BIG JAMBOX’s superior sound quality.

For my dad, I bought a Nest Thermostat.  I haven’t actually tried this product out myself, mainly because I don’t own a house worthy of such a high-end gadget.  From everything that I’ve read, though, Nest is a staple of the modern smart home.  First of all, it looks awesome.  Definitely way more stylish than your typical Honeywell thermostat.  Nest learns your temperature preferences over time, which eventually saves you money by automatically adjusting the temperature in different situations (like if you’ve left the house).  You can also control Nest from your phone, so monitoring and controlling the temperature is easy even when you’re away.

I floated the Nest gift idea by my mom, and she told me, “Whatever you get him, just make sure it’s easy to understand.  Otherwise your dad won’t use it.”  That’s a great point in general, but it’s especially important to the baby boomer generation who are still young enough to be eased into the latest technology, if only they find it intuitive.  In the case of Jambox and Nest, I think that their products remove a lot of the confusing buttons and settings found on more traditional comparative devices, and replace them with a simple and elegant user interface.  I hope that my parents feel the same way (and maybe even a little tech savvy) once they unwrap their presents.