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GoPro's newest Hero camera is boring and important all at the same time

It’s all about the GP1, baby

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It’s a GoPro. Just like the iPhone 8 is an iPhone, the new iPad is an iPad, and how most iterative product releases tend to resemble their forebears, the new Hero 6 Black is stunningly similar to the camera it’s supplanting.

Well, mostly. After spending all launch day with the $499 Hero 6 Black, and a few days after that, I can say it’s definitely easily mistaken for the $399 Hero 5 Black, especially on the outside. If you try to pluck the newer of the two out of a bag, the laws of probability dictate that you’ll only get the Hero 6 half the time. They’re that physically identical.

So why the $100 price bump this year? The answer lies on the inside with the new GP1 processor — GoPro’s latest weapon in the action camera market, and the thing that most distinguishes the Hero 6 Black from the Hero 5 Black. It’s been custom-designed by a company called Socionext, and is exclusive to GoPro. From the sounds of it, GoPro was heavily involved in the process of its creation, which took almost three years from the earliest discussions.

It’s an important step for GoPro, because it gives them distance from competitors who have increasingly used the same components — Ambarella’s processors in particular — that help make GoPros good cameras in the first place. It also gives them more control over the image pipeline.

GoPro even argues that the GP1 has more potential than the Ambarella processors it’s replacing because of that control. Late in the day at the launch event, when an athlete asked CEO Nick Woodman about what other resolution / frame rate combinations might be coming (as if 4K footage at 60 fps wasn’t enough), he said, “We haven’t completely unlocked the performance of GP1 yet.”  

“We haven’t completely unlocked the performance of GP1 yet.”  

GoPro has done a good job over the years of squeezing extra performance out of its cameras via firmware updates, so it’s worth believing there’s more to come like Woodman says. But enough about what the GP1 could be. What does the Hero 6 Black do for you now?

At first blush, it offers as good or often slightly better image quality compared to the Hero 5 Black. There’s extra dynamic range, especially in ProTune mode and with the camera set to capture in “flat” color, and the Hero 6 Black captures a little bit more fine detail in both videos and photos. It distinguishes and separates colors better, too, and images from the Hero 6 Black aren’t as warm as they tend to be from the Hero 5. You might have to strain to notice these differences in many cases — especially in good lighting — but they’re there, and it’s important that GoPro’s ahead of where it was with the old processor.

What I don’t like so far is that, while footage seems to be more clear in low light, color noise is more noticeable (at least when sharpening is turned on, which it is by default). And there are some clips I shot in the flat color mode where the blue sky looks a little too blue for what’s supposed to be a more neutral setting.

Hero 5 Black, flat color profile.
Hero 5 Black, flat color profile.
Hero 6 Black, flat color profile.
Hero 6 Black, flat color profile.

But for most people, the immediate value of the GP1 will show up in other parts of the camera. For one, GoPro says it has bestowed the Hero 6 Black with better electronic image stabilization, and that absolutely bears out. The EIS on the Hero 5 Black was okay, and maybe useful in a pinch, but it never felt like it was worth the 5 percent crop that the software has to do on the image to pull it off. On the Hero 6, it’s definitely worth it; it’s strong and smooth, much like the digital stabilization on Google’s Pixel smartphone, but far less jittery. I left it on almost every time I wasn’t shooting in 4K 60 fps or 1080p 240 fps. (It’s not available in those modes anyway.)

Walking around with the camera in my hand, the EIS erased most of the evidence of my steps. Holding the camera on a small tripod grip produced footage that almost looked as good as you can get with the Karma Grip, which suspends a GoPro in the air and uses motors for stabilization. (Some employees were even nervously joking about how the Hero 6’s stabilization runs the risk of obsolescing that product.) With a Hero 6 cranked tight to the roll bar of a bike or racecar, or clamped to a ski pole, I’m willing to bet the new EIS will prove even more valuable.

The Hero 6 Black also feels relatively stable, which has been a problem for GoPros over the years. It only ever worked itself in bit of a processing knot when I was shooting rapid-fire clips at 4K 60 fps and 1080 240 fps, two of its most intensive shooting modes. And at that point, the trusty “pull the battery out” hard reset was enough to get it going again.

It’s worth that occasional struggle, because when you slow down the 240 fps video at 1080p, it looks magical. You just have to use it sparingly, because that footage adds up quickly when you slow it down. Every second winds up turning into about 10, which increases the size of the already large haystack of photos and videos we tend to shoot these days.

Both videos shot handheld at 1080p / 30 fps, ProTune on and in flat color mode with sharpening on.

Everywhere else in the experience, the GP1 has the Hero 6 Black moving fast. But the revamped touch-based menu system that GoPro rolled out last year could use some more work. There are too many different possible swipe actions competing with each other on what is still a pretty small screen, and the performance and UI of some of the menus that those swipes activate is still confusing.

With more modes and options than in any other GoPro, I understand the company’s desire to continue moving away from its classic button-based menu system. You can still use the small LCD screen and the buttons to move through menus if you want, but there’s honestly too much going on in GoPros at this point to constantly be cycling through options one button click at a time. So if the touchscreen is going to be front and center, it needs to be a little more polished.

The same could be said for the company’s mobile apps. Quik is a sweet idea — doing a lot of the boring first steps of editing for you, automatically — but the app experience is dizzying any time you try to wrestle control back from it. The same can be said for the main GoPro app, which is your conduit to the files on your camera. GoPro now uses the start page of the main app to promote those quick-editing features offered by Quik, but it does this so aggressively that I have sometimes found myself lost as to which app I was in. GP1 is also supposed to make these edits better by improving the analysis of the footage that identifies what’s a “good” clip, though it’s hard to see that in this noise.

All footage shot handheld at 1080p / 240 fps in ProTune with color set to flat.

There are also just some basic compatibility issues that need to be ironed out. The new shooting modes — 4K at 60 fps and 1080p at 240 fps — are encoded using the HEVC format. That means, as an Apple user, you have to update your computer to macOS High Sierra to view those files. You also have to upgrade your phone to iOS 11, but even then I had trouble getting them to play back in the basic Photos app.

The Hero 6 Black isn’t a revolutionary change compared to the camera that came before it, but it’s a solid step forward. And considering the company was building off of an entirely new processor this time around, it’s encouraging that there don’t appear to be any setbacks. There’s a progression in image quality and performance, and if you believe GoPro, more runway to improve the camera as it ages.

The touchscreen menus and apps still need more polish

Of course, that doesn’t mean GoPro won’t offer a Hero 7 next year. In fact, it’s pretty likely something like it is coming. After all, the decision to wait two years between releasing the Hero 4 and Hero 5 cameras was partly why the company took such a financial hit in 2016.

This is another reason why the Hero 6 Black is important to GoPro. It not only represents more independence and control with the GP1, but it’s a sign that the company’s back on offense. That’s a huge deal for a company that’s gone through multiple rounds of layoffs, had to immediately issue a recall for its first drone, and has seen its once soaring stock price flatline.

“You’ve got to have exciting new things for your customers every year. It may not be a complete revamp of every product that you make. But if you’re light in innovation in one area of your business, you’ve gotta be heavy in innovation in another area of your business,” Woodman told me last week. “Otherwise you just don’t have something new and exciting for your customer. And we work for our customers.”

“The majority of our customers aren’t hucking double backflips off cliffs.”

Woodman believes that GoPro’s at the point where its product lineup has become diverse enough that it can always have something new for customers, even if it’s not always from the same place. “Now we can be advancing in spherical with Fusion, we can be advancing in drones with future generations of Karma. There’s opportunities, obviously, to advance with the Hero line,” he says. “And then, as we’ve shared, we see opportunities for new form factors of GoPros. Those would be yet another new product line that we could be making advancements in.”

Hero 6 Black in ProTune with high dynamic range on.
Hero 6 Black in ProTune with high dynamic range on.
Hero 6 Black in ProTune shot with GoPro color mode .
Hero 6 Black in ProTune shot with GoPro color mode .

He wouldn’t say what those form factors might be, but vague ideas were teased throughout the day: smaller, lighter, different. Maybe something like Snap’s Spectacles, maybe not. Whatever they become, the point is that GoPro is thinking about building for a broader audience. “The majority of our customers aren’t hucking double backflips off cliffs and aren’t throwing big carves on their motocross bike in the desert,” Woodman says. “We know that we need to do a better job designing products that appeal to those people, to those customers that are maybe a little more casual.”

This new approach is a departure from two years ago when the company offered as many as six different “Hero”-branded cameras at slightly different price points, and it started in early 2016 when the company culled half of those cameras before moving into drones and spherical capture. And yes, Woodman is aware that it seems like a pretty obvious reshaping of the company’s strategy.

“I mean, we’re only 15 years old, and we’re learning.”

“I would imagine somebody listening to this from a larger, more established consumer electronics company might be smiling and saying, “You’re finally figuring it out,” but you know, I mean, we’re only 15 years old, and we’re learning. You can only grow so quickly, and you can only do so many things at a time,” he says. “In many ways a business is like a person. You grow, and you mature, and you improve, and I think GoPro is becoming more of an adult these days.”

If GoPro hopes to find renewed success that even vaguely resembles what the company experienced during the Hero 4 era, this is the point where things have to turn around. If that success doesn’t come, this will just be the latest time the company has bumped up against an increasingly visible ceiling. Every time GoPro tries to show its more than just a camera company, it stumbles. And every time that happens, more competition enters the ring — like Google, which sank GoPro’s ailing stock when it dipped into the market this week with the Clips camera. Woodman may see his 15-year-old company as young and ready to grow, but it’s only getting older, and it can’t keep sprinting forever.