Can GoPro Hero4 Make You a Vacation Hero?
GoPro, the company known for rugged little cameras used by extreme surfers and snowboarders, has new models that might appeal to a more timid demographic.
In stores Oct. 5, the first new cameras since GoPro's blockbuster summer initial public offering aren't big reinventions. They're subtle but important improvements to help the less extreme among us create the whoa-check-that-out perspectives that made GoPro a cultural phenomenon.
One is a $400 version called Hero4 Silver that adds a touch screen, finally making GoPro as easy to use as normal cameras. Another is a new version of its palm-size camera that's cheap enough-$130-to lose or break on vacation. (A third, the $500 Hero4 Black, will appeal to pros, with a faster processor for shooting video at four times the resolution of high definition.)
I've had a chance to dangle two of the new GoPros out of a cable car, clamp them to a go-kart, and strap them to a 'selfie stick'-among other vacationing challenges-and the experience was eye-opening. The cameras suffer from a short 2.5-hour battery life, but GoPro is now worth considering as the go-anywhere camera for the rest of us.
Don't we have smartphones for that? Those cameras have gotten remarkably good at taking photos and video, and are usually close at hand to capture a moment. But GoPros can do two things most smartphones can't: First, you can stick them places a phone might not fit, or you might not like. Second, GoPros have a 170 degree wide-angle lens that makes it easy to capture most situations in focus.
Here's the problem: Nobody really wants to watch our boring vacation videos. Does a GoPro help produce footage of a less thrill-seeking life that is worthy of Facebook and YouTube?
To answer, I spent last Thursday as a tourist in my town of San Francisco, with one GoPro in my hand and another strapped to my head. The day's events were planned by GoPro for training but all the footage you see in this review is my own. Our itinerary included riding a cable car and go-karts, taking a boat ride around San Francisco Bay, and trampolining-yes, trampolining-by the Golden Gate Bridge.
I continued testing the cameras through the weekend, capturing more ordinary moments: a mountain hike, a drive around town and a sunset. Even then, I found myself taking shots with the GoPros I couldn't-or just hadn't-with other cameras.
GoPro isn't the only small camera on the market; Sony and Garmin make models that are only a tad larger, and smartphone maker HTC has hinted at a coming waterproof camera.
What makes GoPros so effective is solid imaging technology in a tiny package that doesn't feel precious. You accessorize them with a collection of straps and clamping doodads that encourage-actually, demand-experimentation, like the 'Chesty' chest mount and 'Fetch' dog-harness mount. There's even a line of mounts for guitars and drums.
The new cameras tout improved sensors and processors that mean better shots and more creative options.
Since the top-model Hero4 Black shoots 4K video at 30 frames a second, I used it to zoom in on the Golden Gate Bridge when I couldn't get close enough to fill the frame. (Warning: the video files it produces at that resolution are gargantuan-five minutes takes up more than two gigabytes on a storage card, sold separately.)
The image quality isn't as professional as a digital SLR camera but it is impressive for such a portable package. In my tests on a swaying boat at night, the Hero4 Silver's wide-angle lens picked up clouds above a cityscape more dramatically than the iPhone 6 but wasn't as good at capturing neon signs. I also made a cool time-lapse video of a sunset by making the GoPro take a 12-megapixel photo twice a minute over a few hours; both Hero4 models can take up to 30 of those a second.
For video, you're able to shoot up to 120 frames a second, which lets you use GoPro's editing software to slow down the action and make anyone look like a character from 'The Matrix.' (It helps if you have a trampoline handy.)
A button lets you tag interesting moments that you want to find quickly when it comes time to edit. I wish GoPros also had GPS technology so I could tag locations, too.
Previous models may have helped extreme athletes capture insane video but they didn't have LCD screens and were cumbersome to use. The addition of a display to the Hero4 Silver makes it much more user friendly. Controlling the camera from the screen on the back means you can preview shots, and get less up-the-nose footage of you fiddling with buttons while the camera is rolling.
Alas, the built-in screen is only on the new Hero4 Silver model. The Hero and Hero4 Black have streamlined their menus but still must be controlled with three buttons and a dim black-and-gray screen on the front. I recommend the Silver model for anyone but the pros.
My biggest reservation is that both Hero4 cameras I tested still have too-short battery lives--about 2.5 hours. (I burned through three or four batteries in a day of heavy usage.) The screen on the Silver model is an even further tax; anyone thinking about taking one on vacation will want to carry a few battery backups.
I wasn't able to evaluate one other important factor: how easy it is to get footage from the new GoPros online. GoPros have wireless connections, and the company is building a new version of its smartphone app that will let you control your camera, view what you've taken, and share photos via Instagram and Facebook. I couldn't test it-the app isn't finished-but it was clear from a brief demo that using the app will be yet another drain the camera's lightweight battery.
To get video and photos online, I used GoPro Studio on my computer. GoPro's editing software is powerful but lacks a simple way to post to the Internet.
My time with the cameras did produce Instagram-worthy footage. But could I have done the same thing without a GoPro if I put my mind to it?
When I was crossing San Francisco's Bay Bridge on Saturday, I attached a GoPro to one of its '3-Way' stick mounts, and poked it out of my passenger window like a periscope. On such a windy bridge, this felt unwise at first, but the driver of a car next to me flashed me a broad smile that read, 'Righteous, dude.'
The camera stayed in its mount and captured the whole span. It's an amazing video, especially when sped up. I've always dreamed of taking that shot but never would have done it with my phone or, God forbid, fancy DSLR.
Having a GoPro gave me the excuse to go out and try more interesting shots, which is ultimately the key to less-boring footage.
-Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at Geoffrey.Fowler@wsj.com or follow him on Twitter @geoffreyfowler.