GoPro Hero4 Black Review: Great 4K for a Price

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There's good reason why GoPro is synonymous with action cameras: Its models deliver the best overall performance. The Hero4 Black is GoPro's premier cam, and it mostly earns that title, with detailed image quality, steady-looking video and true 4K/UHD recording (up to a best-in-class 30 frames per second). GoPro also offers advanced recording modes with tools for professional photo and video editing. But there are some compromises — primarily the hefty price, but also the lack of a touchscreen (which the cheaper Hero4 Silver has). Ultimately, though, if you really want 4K recording, this is the action camera to get.

Design: Case Required

The Hero4 Black continues the now-classic GoPro design – a solidly built block measuring 2.3 x 1.1 x 1.6  inches and weighing just 3.1 ounces. But that's misleading, as you'll need to place it in a protective case that provides a mount, some ruggedizing and waterproofing, bringing it up to 2.8 x 2.6 x 1.5 inches and 5.4 ounces (There are lighter case options, though.)

In its protective case, the GoPro Hero Black (or any GoPro) is well protected against pretty serious shocks, as I learned after wrecking my mountain bike while testing it. The case also makes it waterproof to SCUBA-grade depth of down to an impressive 40 meters (about 131 feet). But beware GoPro's scary warning in the user manual: "Keep the camera housing’s rubber seal clean. A single hair or grain of sand can cause a leak and damage your camera."

Controls and Usability: Helpful Mobile App

Unlike the cheaper $399 Hero4 Silver, the Black doesn't have a touchscreen LCD, so you’re forced to contend with a lot of button presses using the Power/Mode, Settings/Tag and Shutter/Select button and a tiny 0.8-inch monochrome screen. The layout of the menus and use of the keys is logical, but is tedious to navigate.

Fortunately, GoPro's wireless smartphone app (Android, iOS and Windows Phone) is a great alternative. Wi-Fi pairing to the camera's built-in hotspot was fast and reliable. The app quickly connected, and stayed connected, to the camera.

The app provides a live view and the ability to select among recording modes, including photo, standard video, slow-motion video and timelapse. You can make basic adjustment such as field of view (from Narrow to Superwide). By enabling Protune mode, you can also make advanced photo and video settings such as White Balance and Sharpness or enable Flat Color, the starting point for Hollywood-style custom color grading.

Video and Photo Quality: Top Notch

Overall, the Hero4 Black and (if you don't need 4K) the Hero4 Silver provide just about the best video quality among a half-dozen action cameras we tested — tied with Sony's action cameras, like its 4K model, the FDR-X1000V. GoPro does not overdue color saturation or contrast. That may make the video look a bit flat, but the trade-off is more fine detail in colors and shading. I could make out individual leaves on trees and blades of grass in the fields on a mountain-biking trip outside San Francisco, for example.

If you like more saturated colors, you may prefer the video from Sony's competing HDR-X1000V.

One annoyance is a starburst effect around any bright light, such as the sun or a streetlight.

GoPro cameras don't have image stabilization – optical or digital – so if the camera shakes, so does the scene. But shaky video didn't have the wobbly, Jell-O-like appearance I saw from lesser cameras.

I appreciate the different field-of-view settings: Superview, Ultrawide, Medium, and Narrow. Superview shows the widest sweep, but it's also the most distorted, and distortion increases the farther you get from the center. I preferred Ultrawide (the default), and sometimes even used Narrow. This flexibility allows you to shoot anything from skydiving to a theater monologue.

Low-light image quality was lackluster. My street in Brooklyn is admittedly quite dark at night, but the GoPro shot some of the least-useful video among the models I was testing.

Sound quality was pretty poor, as the case obscures the built-in mic. Action photography doesn't necessarily need audio, and some enthusiasts will lay a soundtrack over clips of their awesome skateboarding or surfing moves – nor would you hear much underwater, anyway. But if you are recording something, like a family gathering or a street performer, where sound is critical, opt for the open Frame mount ($40) and, if you don't mind more gear, add an external mic.

Photo quality tracks pretty close to video, with a few exceptions. The flat look of video (which I found OK) is a bit more pronounced in still images, making them look rather hazy.

GoPro Hero4 Black

GoPro Hero4 Black

You can see the difference in a comparison with Sony's competing 4K/UHD camcorder, the FDR-X1000V.

Sony X1000V

Sony X1000V

GoPro does have a Night mode for photos (but not videos) that helped low-light image quality a bit.

Battery Life and Storage: A Bit Short

The included 1160mAh Lithium-ion battery lasts for 1 hour and 30 minutes of 1080p/30 fps video recording, without Wi-Fi enabled. With Wi-Fi and the smartphone app, battery time drops by 15 minutes. A good plan is to set the camera as you want it using the app, then shut-off the Wi-Fi while you are riding/surfing/skiing, etc. This is a bit short for a full day of shooting (even though it's best to shoot many short clips than a few giant ones - as that makes sorting the video easier). The Garmin Virb XE, for example, manages 2 hours at the same resolution.

MORE: GoPro Hero4 Session Action Camera Review

The Hero4 Black doesn't feature any built-in storage, but it can accept microSD cards up to 64GB, enough to hold about 4 hours and 40 minutes of 1080p/60fps or 2 hours and 20 minutes of UHD/30fps video. GoPro publishes a list of recommended cards.

Livestreaming: A Cool Option

The Hero4 Black (and some other GoPros) can send video to a Wi-Fi connected smartphone or tablet running an app such as Livestream or Meerkat, which convey the stream right to the Web. Livestream added the option to its iOS app in late 2014 to select a Wi-Fi connected GoPro instead of the built-in iPhone or iPad camera as the video source. (Meerkat, another streaming service, also can accept GoPro streams right from its iOS app.) Videos on your Livestream channel have about a 10-second delay.

Rival Sony's action cameras have a similar capability using the rival streaming service Ustream, with either iOS or Android devices as the video conduit.

If you already use Livestream or Meerkat, a GoPro Black could be a handy addition to your gear. If not, the best way to start sharing your GoPro video may be the old fashioned method of picking the best clips and posting them to YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook or some other site. Unless you are covering breaking news, your videos will probably be more enjoyable for viewers when posted after you've trimmed them down to the best parts.

Accessories: A Bonanza

Action cams, especially GoPros, are all about the accessories, as you will need different cases and mounts depending on what--and where--you shoot. The standard kit I tested comes with the waterproof housing, a curved mount (say, for a bicycle helmet) a flat mount (say, for a car hood), and a three-way pivot arm so you can point the camera in pretty much any direction. GoPro also sells versions with special mounting hardware for surfing or musical instruments (for your own music videos).

The $80 LCD Touchback touchscreen module is well worth it, as the controls on the camera itself.are hard to navigate. If you are happy controlling the GoPro Hero4 Black wirelessly, though, stick with the smartphone app, unless you want to control the camera while in motion, such as to snap a photo or start and stop recording. For this purpose, it's much safer (for you and your phone) to use the $80 wireless SmartRemote. Extra batteries sell for $20 each, and for $50, you can get an extra battery and the Dual Battery Charger for topping off two cells at once.

Bottom Line: The Best, If You Need 4K

The GoPro Hero4 Black offers top-notch performance. And it's worth the price under certain conditions: If you want to shoot 4K video or are an image aficionado who would like to make extensive edits to photos or videos. If are less fussy, though, you can do well with a cheaper camera, such as the $399 GoPro Hero4 Silver or even some budget models such as the $200 Kodak Pixpro SP1. But if you’re looking for the best there is, the GoPro Hero4 Black can’t be beat.

Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.