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GoPro's new cameras look great, but the company's future still lies in software

GoPro's new cameras look great, but the company's future still lies in software


Greater than the sum of their parts

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At first blush, GoPro’s new Hero 5 Black looks a lot different from the Hero 4 cameras. It’s rubbery and it’s chubbier, mostly because it’s now water resistant out of the box — no more bulky housing necessary, unless you really want to dive deep or give it some extra protection.

The new camera (and the new Hero 5 Session that was released alongside it) has a host of other new features too, all of which I got to try out during this week’s launch event. The Hero 5 cameras are even cloud-connected, which — combined with GoPro’s relatively new software efforts — might wind up being more important than the new hardware.

Of course, GoPro's new cameras are still going to appeal most to enthusiasts or athletes. The Hero 4’s massive sales would lead you to believe it was adopted by a wider swath of consumers, but those sales also hit a wall because most buyers don’t need more than one GoPro camera. GoPro’s been trying to figure out how to get around that wall ever since, and the Hero 5’s ruggedization might be the most compelling reason to choose one over, say, your phone’s camera. The new cameras are cheaper and have other new features that are supposed to make them more accessible, but from a distance, there's not that much different about what these cameras do. For now, a GoPro is still a GoPro.

If you are part of GoPro’s target demographic, though, and you’ve been waiting for the Hero 5, we’ve got a lot to talk about.

A GoPro is still a GoPro

One thing is surprisingly still the same about the new top-tier camera — GoPro says the Hero 5 Black uses the same image sensor from the Hero 4 Black. That’s why the camera has the same 4K at 30 frames per second ceiling for video, and the same 12-megapixel still image capability. The important change, according to GoPro, is a new image processing chip, which allows the camera to hit those ceilings while offering new stuff, like voice control, digital image stabilization, and — finally — better battery life. GoPro says the Hero 5 Black will offer 50 percent longer battery life in most modes.

The Hero 5 session is essentially the opposite story. The original Session, released last year, was a big departure from GoPro’s rectangular camera design, and was water resistant out of the box. The Hero 5 Session keeps the same exact shape and form factor this year, with big changes happening on the inside. GoPro fit a slightly bigger image sensor inside the Hero 5 Session, which allows the camera to shoot 10-megapixel stills and up to 4K footage at 30 frames per second. It’s still not going to rival the quality of the Hero 5 Black, but the Hero 5 Session is a clear step ahead of its predecessor, which is why the price has gone back up to $299.

A Hero 5 Black image on the left, and the same scene taken with the Hero 5 Session on the right.

I used both cameras during GoPro’s day-long launch event at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, and the gap between the quality of the Session and the Black has definitely closed up. Even when I zoomed in 100 percent on images taken of similar scenes, it was harder to tell the difference than I expected.

For people who aren’t pixel enthusiasts, choosing between the two cameras is going to be more about how you want to use them. If you want a touchscreen that lets you see what you’re shooting, you’ll have to pony up an extra $100 for the Hero 5 Black. If you don’t mind using a mobile app to frame up a shot, the Hero 5 Session is one of the most compelling compact cameras on the market.

In my short time with the Hero 5 Black, it really did seem like the battery was better, especially considering it now has a screen. At this point, watching the battery meter drain uncontrollably felt like an unavoidable part of the GoPro experience, but this time around it seems like the anxiety will be harder to come by. Of course, the Hero 5 Black uses a new battery, meaning you can’t use any spare Hero 4 batteries you might have laying around. It also uses USB Type-C. (Okay, maybe there will still be some anxiety.)

Hero 5 Black footage shot in 4K using the new Karma grip.

The screen on the Hero 5 Black didn’t feel any more responsive than the one on the Hero 4 Silver, though. This was exacerbated by the fact that GoPro threw a whole new menu system in this camera, one that will definitely take some time to get used to. There is more swiping than ever before — you can swipe in a different menu from each side of the screen, for example — and it just didn’t feel quite fast or accurate enough considering these were final production devices. GoPro has been good at pushing firmware updates to fix problems like this in the past, so here’s hoping there’s some optimization on the way. Of course, you can always cycle through the menus using the physical buttons, and the addition of voice control — which seems to work really well — will alleviate this.

New features are nice, but the biggest changes are to GoPro's software

The focus of GoPro’s event was on the cameras and the drone. But you could argue that the biggest changes that GoPro made this week weren’t even specific to all that new hardware. GoPro also announced a bunch of updates to the software that it ships, including a new subscription-based cloud storage service called GoPro Plus. It also updated and rebranded its desktop importer / editing app again, which is now just called Quik (after the company’s automatic editing mobile app of the same name). Quik has all the features I got a preview of when I profiled the company’s growing software efforts in May.

The company has spent the last few years acquiring small software companies and building out a team to support those new efforts, so things like GoPro Plus and the Quik desktop app are the first time we're seeing it all come together. Teasing out the real value of this stuff will take some time, but it looked great at the launch event — even if there are some hangups, like how you can’t use your own music in the Quik desktop app. In a world where the competition has caught up with (and, in some respects, passed) GoPro’s cameras, the company’s software is one of its most clear advantages.

GoPro's cameras now use USB Type-C.

GoPro Plus is now the most intriguing part of that new ecosystem. Part of the problem with any digital camera these days, whether it’s a GoPro or a DSLR or the camera on your phone, is figuring out what to do with all the photos and videos you’ve taken. GoPro Plus is an attempt to tackle that problem. For $4.99 a month, your cameras will automatically upload everything you’ve shot each time you plug the camera in at home. You can then access those files on any one of GoPro’s desktop or mobile apps, edit them, and save or share them.

GoPro Plus’ early success will hinge on that integration with GoPro’s other apps, because otherwise, it’s not all that different from other cloud services. It even comes with the same familiar limitations: GoPro Plus users will be limited to uploading 35 hours of video, 62,500 photos, or a combination of the two, according to GoPro’s website. On top of that, videos are stored at 1080p, regardless of what resolution they were shot at. If GoPro doesn’t build on the initial experience, customers could just wind up paying for another place to forget about their footage.

There are some obvious ways to spice up GoPro Plus: create premium tiers that let users store original resolution files; allow users to start editing on one device and finish it on another; find a way to mitigate the problem of duplicate photos. GoPro has hinted that more is coming, but until features like this are added, it runs the risk of being just a slightly better Google Drive.

The new Hero 5 cameras and the Karma drone are exciting products, and the way that they all play nicely together is the other huge advantage GoPro has over the Sonys and DJIs of the world. But, as is the case with all hardware, it won’t be long before they’re replaced. GoPro’s real future, the one that lies beyond just whatever product comes next, is all about the new software, the ecosystem it creates, and whether the company can get people to care.