It’s that time of the year again. Fall brings us, along with decorative gourds, new GoPros. Other brands such as DJI have been threatening to eat GoPro’s lunch, recently, while the past couple of revisions of GoPro’s signature camera have largely been iterative.
Let’s start with the body. Since the Hero 5, GoPro cameras have been waterproof up to 33 feet without the need of an additional housing, but in order to attach it to anything, you needed to put the camera in a plastic frame. The frame provided the two little loops at the bottom, which you’d put a screw through and attach it to any number of bracket-type things. No more! The Hero 8 is designed to be frameless. It has its own built-in loops at the bottom of the camera that fold in and out. This is very convenient, as I have several times found myself digging through everything I own to find a frame. The caveat is that you do need to tighten the screw down a bit harder than normal or you may get some wiggle with the camera.
The redesign makes the Hero 8 slightly thinner than the naked Hero 7 front to back (28.4mm vs. 33mm), but it’s also slightly wider and taller (66.3mm by 48.6mm vs. 62.3mm by 44.9mm, respectively). It’s smaller than the Hero 7 when it’s in a frame, though, and considering you need the frame to do pretty much anything, the net result is that the Hero 8 is a lot more pocketable. One of the ways it achieved this was by making the lens slightly lower-profile, but the trade-off is that the front lens element is no longer removable. Since the Hero 5, you’ve been able to remove that and buy a cheap replacement if it ever gets scratched or cracked. The new front lens element is thicker and made with Gorilla Glass, and GoPro claims that it is twice as impact-resistant. But on my first review unit I managed to get a little nick on the lens, and I’m honestly not even sure how. It wasn’t enough to mess up the image, but still. The camera being 4.6mm more svelte doesn’t feel worth the risk.
The other major physical difference is that there is now just one big door on the side of the camera that covers your battery, microSD card, and USB-C port. GoPro will soon be releasing a handful of Mods that will snap in where the door goes. A Media Mod adds a higher-quality shotgun-style microphone, a 3.5mm mic port, and two cold shoes. In those cold shoes, you can slot a front-facing external monitor (“Display Mod”) or a 200 lumen LED “Light Mod.” You’ll lose waterproof capabilities when the Media Mod is on (though the light itself is waterproof and can be used separately from the camera), but this is a play to attract more vlogger types, and I think it will appeal to a lot of them. I wasn’t able to test these accessories, though, so the jury is still out.
I did have an unfortunate incident with the camera, in addition to the mystery lens scratch. A few days ago, I put the Hero 8 on the back bumper of my van while it was parked. I accidentally nudged it off, and it fell onto the dirt road, where it must have hit a tiny, sharp piece of gravel. When I picked it up, the back screen was totally shattered. That seemed very weird to me. I’ve found many ways to beat up prior GoPro cameras, and it usually takes a lot more to do real damage. I went back with a measuring tape and the surface of my bumper is just 18 inches off the ground. GoPro sent me a new one to finish the review and swore that mine is the first they’ve seen with a broken screen. Might have just been a one-off accident. Further testing will tell, and we will update if we discover anything else.
The other physical thing that worries me is that this GoPro tends to get pretty hot. After recording a 15-minute clip at 4K24 with stabilization, the bottom of the camera was very hot to the touch. I didn’t have a laser thermometer on hand, but I held a meat thermometer to it and it read 107.4 degrees F. I tried it again with stabilization, Wi-Fi, and GPS disabled and it got up to 112.9. That’s hot! And that was a couple minutes after recording ended, and that’s not a great way to measure temperature, so I would suspect that it was significantly hotter inside. I never had it fully overheat and shut down, but it’s still troubling, especially if you are shooting on a hot day.
The Hero 8 Black also uses a new type of battery. It’s the exact same size and shape as before, and it packs the same amount of power (1,220mAh). Aside from the blue bottom, it isn’t immediately obvious what has changed. “The difference is that the new battery allows for a higher discharge rate,” GoPro’s rep told me. “That higher discharge rate helps enable HyperSmooth 2.0 in all resolutions and frame rates. The HERO8 Black battery is, however, backwards compatible to cameras back to the HERO5 Black. And likewise, batteries from HERO5 to HERO7 are compatible with HERO8 Black, but the user will get a warning that certain features will not be enabled.” So, that’s kind of a bummer for those of us who have collected a bunch of batteries from the last few generations.
I did two battery rundown tests, with the first in 4K24 linear, HyperSmooth 2.0 on High, plus Wi-Fi and GPS turned on. In that power-hungry mode, it lasted 72 minutes. When I shot at 4K24 Wide, with everything turned off and the low bit rate setting, it made it 90.5 minutes. I’d call that respectable, but not spectacular.
Overall, I like the new design. I’ve always found the frame to be a pain, so I’m glad to be rid of it. I like the new side door, too, as that makes it easier to swap batteries or SD cards without dismounting the camera. That being said, the slightly smaller footprint is a bad trade for the irremovable lens cover. PolarPro and other companies will be making stick-on lens covers (as well as ND filters and such), which I would definitely recommend you buy. The heat issue is concerning, but I haven’t had one overheat and shut down yet, so for now I’d just advise caution if you’re going to be shooting on a hot day.
With the new lens on the Hero 8, GoPro elected to redesign its auto white balance and color tuning. This is especially evident in skin tones, the reds in dirt, the blues in the sky, and greens in leaves. Overall, the default GoPro color has a punchier, more dramatic look. Skin and dirt are both warmed significantly, while skies remain super vibrant. Detail is excellent overall. But at the same time, I think the contrast is pushed a bit high. Highlights are nearly blown out, while shadows are significantly darker than they were with the Hero 7. I think it generally has a nicely graded look, and footage looks more lively and cinematic, but I imagine most DPs will want to use the flat color profile to have more flexibility in post.
Because the camera no longer has to sit in a frame, GoPro was able to move the main mic to the front of the camera, just under the lens. It definitely has the nicest sound for any GoPro since before the Hero 5, when the built-in waterproofing required that a membrane be added to protect the mics. Even when I was riding a bike with the mic pointed away from me, into the wind, it picked up my voice far better than before. It’s a noticeable improvement. I suspect the Media Mod will perform even better, too.
Last year, with the Hero 7, GoPro introduced its new electronic image stabilization which it called HyperSmooth. GoPro claimed it gave “gimbal-like” stabilization, so I tested it against an actual gimbal and yeah, no, sorry. It was good, but it wasn’t that good. Amazingly, HyperSmooth 2.0 actually is approaching gimbal level.
It’s wild how much bounce and shake this thing can eat and still make the footage look good. Handheld pans look like they were shot with a Steadicam. I stuck my hand out of a car window going 65 mph (don’t worry, my friend was driving), which made my hand wobble like crazy, and the shot came out looking like the camera was locked on a crane. I took my mountain bike on a bumpy, rough dirt road, and from the footage, you’d think it was paved. It’s at least two levels up from the original HyperSmooth, and that was pretty good.
There are now four options you can choose for stabilization: Off, On, High, and Boost. On is a slight improvement over last year’s stabilization. High, though, is where the camera really shines. It is a massive improvement over last year’s feature and the best thing about it is that it doesn’t crop any more than the regular On mode (10 percent crop). It’s pretty amazing. One of the things I really dinged DJI on in my Osmo Action cam review was that while the stabilization was excellent, it cropped the footage dramatically and there was a drop in quality. With the Hero 8, we still get that nice, wide field of view you want for action footage. If you don’t mind a more severe crop, though, you can turn HyperSmooth to “Boost,” which narrows the FOV about as much as DJI’s does, and it stabilizes the shot even more.
You can use at least some form of stabilization at every resolution and frame rate, but you won’t have all of the options. For instance, you can now stabilize 1080p240 for super smooth slow-motion (which wasn’t an option on the Hero 7, and it looks pretty amazing), but you’ll be limited to the On mode. The same holds true in 4K60, or if you use the SuperView FOV at all. When possible, I’d opt for the HyperSmooth 2.0 High mode. If I were following someone on a snowboard or mountain bike, though, where a closer crop doesn’t hurt, I’d use Boost.
All that being said, it still isn’t quite as stable as a gimbal. HyperSmooth 2.0 High and Boost modes do really well with pitch and yaw, but roll is a bit tougher for it to compensate for, while a gimbal just swivels its robotic neck to keep the horizon straight. That being said, gimbals are a pain to use. They’re bulky, they aren’t waterproof, they get disoriented in high winds, and you need to keep them charged. The convenience of this tiny camera easily outweighs the slight drop in smoothness, and the result is that I’m finally going to stop lugging a gimbal around. I’m shocked, honestly.
GoPro’s in-camera menu system has also gotten a lot better with the Hero 8. The biggest improvement in my book is the addition of presets. Say you’re wearing the camera on your helmet, then you want to switch it to a selfie-stick, then you want to follow a friend down a trail. Formerly, you would have to manually tweak each of the settings for field of view, frame rate, resolution, and stabilization options each time you changed. Now you can preset some go-to profiles so you can change between modes with just a couple of taps. Everything is laid out more intuitively, and I spent less time searching through menus. DJI did presets first with the Osmo Action and I loved it then and love it now. I do wish you could choose your own names for profiles, though.
There’s a new burst photography mode called Live Burst. Once you switch to this mode, the camera is recording on a cache. When the moment you’ve been waiting for finally arrives, you hit the shutter button, and the camera captures a three-second clip, as well as 1.5 seconds before you pressed the button and 1.5 seconds after. The result is a 4K clip with 90 separate frames to choose from. You can either pop out the one photo you want, or you can save the three-second video if you’d prefer. It’s slick, but three seconds is a bit short and I hope GoPro will add an option for longer Live Bursts.
TimeWarp (GoPro’s name for a hyperlapse feature) has been improved, too. TimeWarp 2.0 benefits from the better stabilization of HyperSmooth 2.0, but the real innovation here is that in the middle of shooting the time lapse, you can tap the back screen and go to real time. Say you’re shooting a time lapse while kayaking across a bay and suddenly a pod of dolphins show up. You can tap to shoot them in real time, and then tap again to go back to time lapse once they’ve passed. The one issue is that, for some reason, there’s no sound in the real-time moments. I was shooting a time lapse of a sunset when my friends there started singing happy birthday to me, I went to real time to capture the moment, and then flipped it back to get the rest of the sunset. I was bummed when I realized there was no audio. Now how am I supposed to know if my birthday was, indeed, happy?
Improvements have been made to SuperPhoto, which is basically GoPro’s name for an intelligent auto mode. In general, the camera reads the scene a bit better than it did with the Hero 7, and will decide if it should go HDR or if there’s too much movement to make the effect usable. HDR is slightly improved, too, but I still find that the HDR images look a bit soft and I’d only use it for scenes with no motion and if you have a very steady hand. Really, the best option is to shoot in RAW and tweak your photos later in Lightroom, but if you just want to shoot and post straight from your phone then SuperPhoto creates a nice, usable shot.
Back to movies, the quality of the footage actually takes a nice jump up with GoPro’s highest bit rate yet. When shooting 4K or 2.7K, you can choose to shoot at 100 Mbps. Other action cameras (such as Sony’s) have shot at that rate for years, but GoPro is doing it in the HEVC h.265 codec, which packs in a lot more data for the file size. The combination of HEVC and 100 Mbps is noticeable when watching your videos on a 4K monitor. On the other side of the spectrum, this is the first GoPro to ditch 720p since the original Hero HD. The minimum resolution is now 1080p. This probably won’t matter to most people, but I was still hoping we’d see a super slo-mo option of 720p480. Sigh.
With the camera comes a new GoPro app. The biggest change is that GoPro’s video-editing companion Quik is now built into the single GoPro app. That’s certainly a lot simpler. I’ve always found GoPro’s apps to be problematic (possibly because I’m on Android), and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the final build of the new app ahead of this review. What I can tell you, though, is that the UI feels a bit more intuitive. There is now built-in horizon leveling and more options for music, text, and video templates. GoPro claims it now uses metadata to “better identify meaningful moments” in the auto-edited videos within the app. I had it cut together a video from the clips I gathered after a short surf session, and anecdotally it seems like it could have picked better highlights. I still had to move a lot of bits around, manually select more interesting highlights, and cut out plenty of boring moments, so I’m filing this one under Requires Further Testing.
One really nice feature is that you can now live-stream in 1080p. In the pre-beta version of the app I was using, I was only able to stream to Facebook, but the video did indeed look good when it came through. YouTube should be supported by the time the camera ships and hopefully more will be added soon (we’re all still waiting on Instagram to open up its live-streaming).
Overall, the Hero 8 Black’s most impressive thing is its improved stabilization. It was good on the Hero 7 — on the Hero 8 it’s great. HyperSmooth 2.0 in High mode is ultra-smooth while remaining nice and wide, and I still don’t know what kind of dark magic they used to keep from cropping it any more than last year. The new lens is sharp, and the added bit rate and poppier color science make your videos look more dramatic right out of the camera (even if I think they went a bit heavy on the contrast). I’m also excited about the Mods, which should make this an even more versatile camera (though a built-in, front-facing screen like DJI’s would still be way more convenient).
My biggest concern is the durability of the body. No removable lens feels like a mistake. Yes, Gorilla Glass is hard, but I’ve seen a lot of shattered phone screens made with Gorilla Glass over the years. When I asked GoPro about it, the rep suggested people look into the GoPro Plus subscription service, which costs $5 a month, but includes free camera replacement with no questions asked (in addition to some other benefits). The company is also planning to sell a $20 kit that comes with two screen protectors and two lens protectors. I didn’t get a chance to test this kit, but if you’re looking at the Hero 8, it’s probably not a bad idea to pick this up, too. But now your all-in total is $20 more than the $400 sticker price.
Overall, the Hero 8 Black is a worthy successor to the throne. It’s easily going to be my go-to action camera starting now (at least until I get my hands on the GoPro Max in a month or so), and I’m more likely than ever to use it as a B-camera on upcoming productions. Just wait until vloggers get their hands on this thing.