Smell that pumpkin spice in the air? That means the fall is coming, and with it, new action cameras.
GoPro—aka the Band-Aid/Kleenex/Q-Tips of action cameras—is here with the latest entry in its category-defining camera platform, the Hero7 Black. I’ve spent the last few weeks banging around (and getting banged up) with it, and while it feels more like an iterative upgrade than a sea change, it’s gotten noticeably better in a few key ways.
First, you’ll note that the Hero7 Black looks almost identical to the Hero6 Black, aside from a slightly different-looking mic and a darker finish. It’s still waterproof to 33 feet without a housing, and it works with all the same GoPro mounts and accessories you’ve been using for years. Even on the inside there are more similarities than differences. The Hero7 has the exact same image sensor, and it shoots at the same resolutions and framerates as last year, maxing out at 4K60 or 1080p240. What it does have, however, is twice as much on-board memory, which it uses to make some smarter decisions on the fly.
You can pre-order a Hero7 Black now for $400 (GoPro has wisely made it $100 cheaper than the Hero6 was at launch) and it will be available globally on September 27. It will arrive in the US three days later, on the 30th.
The smartest new feature is an improved in-camera image stabilization mode, which GoPro, in its GoPro-y way, has dubbed “HyperSmooth.” Now, it’s still electronic image stabilization (EIS), which means it crops 10 percent of the image as it zooms in a little to mitigate shake, so you lose some field of view. That said, it’s a very clear improvement over last year’s EIS. It does a really nice job of eliminating smaller shakes and vibrations. For those who do fast-moving activities (think racing cars), you’ll notice that the notorious rolling-shutter effect is all but eliminated. Even when riding my mountain bike over gravel that was making my arms jiggle like crazy, I found that the Hero7’s image stayed extremely stable. It even works at 4K60, which the Hero6 couldn’t stabilize. It’s really quite impressive.
That being said, GoPro is claiming that this is “gimbal-like” stabilization, and that’s definitely an overstatement. It smooths out little bumps and shakes, sure. But when I was going over bigger rocks on my bike, jumping off of things, or even running down a street with a gimbal and the Hero7 in the same hand, you can see a very clear difference in the stability of the output. Gimbals are much, much better at eliminating the shake from big bumps and jolts. Of course, there are a lot of disadvantages to using a gimbal: A good one is going to run you at least a couple hundred bucks, they’re bulky, you have to charge them, they suck in high wind, and you can’t take them in water. So yeah, stabilization that even approaches gimbal territory is great… but I still would stop short of calling it “gimbal-like.”
One thing to note: Two days before this review published, GoPro sent me a firmware update for the camera, claiming that it further improved HyperSmooth performance. Obviously, I couldn’t re-test everything, but I did re-run my test against the gimbal (a Hero6 Black in a GoPro Karma Grip), and I found that my original assessment stands. The HyperSmooth feature may have improved a bit with the last-minute update, but it’s still not as good as a gimbal when it comes to stabilizing the bigger shocks.
HyperSmooth is also being transported over to the time-lapse videos, and it actually makes for a huge improvement. The feature is now called “TimeWarp,” and it applies the new stabilization algorithm to time-lapse video making them way, way smoother. The horizon is now locked in place and the focal point of the image no longer bounces around all over the place. This is basically just the “Hyperlapse” feature we’ve seen on smartphones for the last few years, but it’s great to finally see it come to wide-angle POV footage.
Sound and Sight
The only real physical difference (aside from the darker paint job) is that GoPro has rebuilt the microphones to be more sensitive while still remaining waterproof and reducing wind-noise. The problem with the Hero5 and Hero6 is that with a waterproof membrane over the mic, audio tended to sound muffled. For people who actually care what their videos sound like, it’s been a real pain point. The redesigned mic in the Hero7 is noticeably louder and clearer, with deeper bass and lifted mids. It’s still not as good as the mic on a non-waterproof camera, but it’s getting a lot closer.
For you Instagram addicts, vertical video is now supported.
For still photos, there’s a new auto mode called SuperPhoto. (Oy, GoPro, these names!) Basically, it tries to read a scene, expose for faces, switch to HDR when needed, and apply noise-reduction to low-light shots. I took several dozen test shots, comparing it to the Hero6, and I’d say it works OK. Faces are maybe a little better exposed, low-light pics maybe have a little less noise. I’d call it a minor improvement, which is understandable since the camera uses the same exact image sensor as last year’s. For stills, I really recommend shooting in RAW, which gives you way more flexibility in the edit.
What else? For you Instagram addicts, vertical video is now supported. For the last several generations, the camera could sense when it was upside-down and auto-rotate, but now it can do that when it’s on its side, too. All of the onscreen displays and controls rotate, too, which is handy. Previously, if you wanted vertical video, you’d have to rotate it manually by 90 degrees in post. Now, the files that come out of SD card are good to go into your ‘grams. I don’t see myself using this mode too much, because I generally want my videos to look good across all platforms (vertical video looks terrible on anything other than a phone), but it’s good to have options.
Livestreaming is now supported across a number of platforms, including YouTube and Facebook. Previous GoPros could only stream to Periscope. Now it will work with pretty much any platform that has an open API. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet include Instagram Live, but hopefully Instagram will fix that in the future. This is all done via the smartphone app, so you need to have your phone handy, too. Videos will stream at 720p and will be available for instant playback. Nothing like adding a live audience watching along at home when you’re doing something dangerous to ratchet up the pressure a little more. I wasn’t able to test this feature since my testing was completed while the Hero7 was still unannounced, and I didn’t want to accidentally leak the news that the camera was coming out. But we’ll update this review if the feature it doesn’t work as advertised.
The UI has been revamped a bit to be more swipe-based. GoPro’s CEO Nick Woodman said they wanted the experience on the camera’s screen to be more phone-like, since that’s what people are most familiar with. I found it a bit hit-and-miss. Overall, the new UI does a good job of putting the most commonly adjusted features front and center. But sometimes you just can’t just swipe to select something, but you have to tap it too, which screwed me up a few times.
There are a couple other smaller additions, like quick video mode, which sets a limit on how long video clips can be (e.g. 15-second clips, maximum). Basically, this is for parents, so they can give their kid a camera while keeping them from burning though the whole card by accident. It also finally has a photo timer for group shots and selfies that don’t prominently feature your forearm, which is a long overdue addition.
Ultimately, there’s nothing not to like here, but it feels more like an iterative upgrade rather than a whole new camera. It’s like when iPhone goes from the 6 to the 6S, or from the X to the XS. That’s not a bad thing. The Hero6 Black was our number one recommended action cam last year, and the Hero7 Black is the same camera, but better. What’s unknown is if these updates will be enough to keep the Hero on the throne throughout another year.