Review: GoPro Hero 5 Black

Introduction 

After suffering a major slump in sales due to a failed drone launch and aggressive competition from the likes of Garmin and Xiaomi, GoPro pulled all the stops in its latest iteration of its top-of-the-line camera model, the Hero 5 Black. The company added a swath of new features such as image stabilisation and a touchscreen, yet priced it nearly a fifth cheaper than its predecessor. However, making the camera better per se would unlikely be enough – GoPro still faces a colossal task of convincing the many GoPro users out there to upgrade their indestructible cameras, which are most probably still in perfect shape given their solid build quality. We take a closer look at the performance and features of the GoPro Hero 5 Black to see if it is indeed a worthy upgrade over the previous generation Black and Silver cameras.

Build and features

Housing

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While all previous Black and Silver models featured removable waterproof polycarbonate housings, this Hero 5 is waterproof on its own up to 10 metres underwater without any protective housing. Divers or extreme sportsmen may still wish to purchase a separate housing to bring the GoPro down to a depth of up to 60 metres. GoPro’s strategy is clear – the majority of GoPro users would not need the additional dive depth, so why not do away with the standard housing and reduce the price? Here’s a video shot with the Hero 5 Black underwater (without any housing):

Microphones

Doing away with the polycarbonate housing has another added benefit – no more muffled sound, even when underwater. GoPro equipped the Hero 5 Black with not 2, but 3 self-draining microphones. The camera is designed to automatically switch between the microphones depending on ambient conditions to provide the best stereo sound quality. I put this feature to the test during the recent Run Free 2017 10km race at Marina Barrage. When running outdoors at a pace of 5 minutes/km with the GoPro mounted 1.5 metres away from my face, it could pick up my voice amidst the ambient noise and wind with astounding clarity. In my opinion, this feature would appeal greatly to adventure vloggers, who may not wish to bring their expensive interchangeable lens cameras out into harsh conditions.

Durability

The downside of building the GoPro this way is that a user would no longer be able to simply swap cases should the camera suffer damage from a nasty impact. GoPro has mitigated this problem to a certain extent by implementing swappable lens covers and replaceable battery/charging door covers. While the Hero 5 certainly feels more solidly built than any camera I have ever used, it would arguably be not as survivable as a previous generation GoPro inside a default polycarbonate housing.

Touchscreen

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The back of the Hero 5 Black is dominated by a 2-inch touchscreen first seen on the Hero 4 Silver. GoPro claims smartphone-like operation that provides much greater ease-of-use than the fiddly two-button operation that has irked many GoPro users. It also gives the added benefit of allowing a user to frame the shot without guessing or using a smartphone as a live-view monitor. Unfortunately, the Hero 5’s touchscreen comes nowhere close to a typical smartphone’s smoothness of operation. There is a slight lag in touch response and not all swipes or taps are registered. I personally had no issue with two-button operation of previous GoPros and I think the old interface was easier to handle on the fly. Button operation also has the benefit of working underwater, which is something a touchscreen is incapable of. I do not think that touch controls belong on an action camera.

Voice Control

Voice Control allows a Hero 5 user to control the camera’s operation with specific voice commands, such as “GoPro, start recording”, “GoPro, take a photo”, etc. While it certainly worked as advertised, the camera had trouble picking up commands in noisy environments, or when it was on the end of a long stick, which is, unfortunately, a situation in which voice commands would be most useful. Overall, we are of the opinion that voice control could potentially be a killer feature if GoPro finetunes its implementation. 

Image and video quality

Technical image and video quality

GoPro says that the Hero 5 shares the same sensor as the Hero 4 Black and we see this as both good news and bad news. On one hand, the Hero 4 Black was already an accomplished device in terms of video performance – strong dynamic range, good resolution, and reasonable noise performance. On the other hand, most of the competition and even smartphones have come really close to matching GoPro’s technical image quality; GoPro certainly needs to do more to more than simply reusing its image sensor.

Although there is no improvement to technical image quality, GoPro has made the perceived image quality better, by adding features such as image stabilisation and linear mode.

Image stabilisation

Image stabilisation on the Hero 5 Black works electronically by cropping out a portion of the field of view to give the processor some space for shake correction. In my opinion, image stabilisation works as advertised but falls short of an optically stabilised device. While putting stabilised and non-stabilised clips side by side would reveal visible differences, the stabilised clips are by no means devoid of shake or vibration. The first video was taken during Run Free 2017 with image stabilisation turned ON. The second video was taken during Singapore Swim Stars 2017 with image stabilisation turned OFF (by accident). 

Linear mode

GoPro introduced a ‘linear’ field-of-view mode that cancels out the characteristic fish-eye effect that GoPros are known for. While the fish-eye effect provides an “immersive” viewing experience due to the extreme wide angle, it was also a tad unrealistic. The linear field-of-view mode trades some of the wideness for a more conventional look that is almost free of distortion. A quick search of Hero 5 videos on YouTube would indicate that most Hero 5 users shoot solely in linear mode. Here is a comparison of a photo taken in “wide mode” and another one taken in “linear mode”. Notice the difference in the field of view.

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Linear mode
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Wide mode

I would say that the slight tradeoff in the field of view is reasonable, especially for people who wish to use the Hero 5 as a vlogging device – the fisheye effect is anything but flattering when the camera is close to the subject’s face. On the other hand, people who attach their cameras on the end of a surfboard or ski and want the most immersive view can still opt for the wide or even the superview mode.

Conclusion

Has GoPro made the best GoPro ever?

With the added image stabilisation, voice control and waterproofing without a case, the latest GoPro is undoubtedly a huge improvement over its predecessors. We also think that these features alone may be compelling enough reasons for previous GoPro owners to upgrade to the Hero 5. However, without a significant improvement in image quality, GoPro may no longer be able to maintain its dominance in the action camera market. In the meantime, let’s enjoy a beautiful sunset time lapse captured in 4K resolution on the Hero 5 Black:


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