Who needs an action camera these days? That’s the question I found myself asking while testing GoPro’s latest Hero 6 Black. With modern smartphones now so good at shooting video and taking pictures, and also becoming more resistant to the elements, the number of people for whom action devices are appropriate (or attractive) appears to be dwindling by the day.
Still, there are some circumstances in which only a rugged head-, body- or bike-mountable device like this will do. I’m not sure I’d want 180g of glass slab attached to my head while bungee-jumping off a bridge to an early coronary, or while descending some twisty, wooded Welsh singletrack on my ageing mountain bike to the painful accompaniment of creaking knees. And although many modern smartphones are waterproof, I’d hazard a guess that not many are as faceplant-in-the-dirt-proof or as waterfall-resistant as a proper action camera like the GoPro Hero 6.
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It’s waterproof to 10m depth, pretty darned light at 117g, and as compact as you need a wearable camera to be at about the size of a small child’s fist. On a more serious note, the Hero 6 Black also has exactly the same physical proportions and features as before: the same 2in colour touchscreen, protruding lens housing and rugged cubic chassis, plus the same ports (USB Type-C, HDMI and microSD) and buttons, so it will fit into and onto all the same mounts and attachments.
That may not be especially useful for consumers, but it’s great for professional videographers who may have already invested in a few Hero 5 Black units and want to add some 6 Blacks to the fleet as well.
GoPro Hero 6 Black review: What’s new?
So what is new? Why should the discerning extreme-ironing enthusiast consider buying one over the previous model (which, incidentally, is still on sale)? Well, that’s almost as tough to discern as the physical differences between the cameras, but it mainly boils down to performance and video formats.
The headline is that the Hero 6 Black 4K can capture 4K video at 60fps (or 50fps if you’re shooting for a PAL audience) rather than 30fps, as was the limitation for the GoPro Hero 5 Black. This is thanks to the camera’s new, more powerful GP1 processor.
That’s not all, though. The other big news is that this footage is encoded with the new HEVC H.265 video-compression format. That’s the same one that the new iPhones use and it means 4K 60fps files occupy roughly half the space on your hard disk than with H.264.
To prove the point, I shot a couple of 27-second 4K 60fps videos on both the Xiaomi Yi 4K+ camera, which shoots 4K/60fps in H.264, and the Hero 6 Black. The former ended up being 461MB in size, while the GoPro’s file was 213MB.
A huge difference. It’s worth noting, though, that older PCs and laptops may struggle to play the new format without converting back to H.264 first. My 2013 MacBook Pro couldn’t manage it, despite the fact it’s running macOS High Sierra. Having said that, when recording 4K footage at 30fps and below, the camera still encodes using good-old H.264 most of the time, which is much more universally supported.
Another thing you might want to be aware of is that you can’t use the Hero 6’s excellent image stabilisation in 4K 60fps mode. The good news, though, is that you CAN use stabilisation when recording 4K footage at 30fps, which you can’t do on the Hero 5 Black or the Xiaomi Yi 4K+. And that stabilisation is superb, smoothing out handheld footage with uncanny effectiveness.
Elsewhere, the changes are somewhat less exciting. The camera has a new 240fps frame rate that you can apply to 1080p (encoded in HEVC again) footage, although oddly that isn’t available for 720p shots. There’s smartphone-style HDR for stills, which are captured at up to 12 megapixels in size and, as before, there’s a handful of modes aimed at making timelapse shots easier.
GoPro Hero 6 Black review: Software and app
I loved the ease of use of the GoPro Hero 5 Black. It’s a fantastically intuitive device to operate and the Hero 6 is no different. You can do pretty much everything from the 2in touchscreen on the rear of the camera which, despite being about the same size as a couple of first-class postage stamps, is amazingly usable.
Swiping across, up or down the screen gets you to the various settings, modes and playback options and, from them on, you prod and swipe to drill down to what you want. Despite the myriad shooting modes and settings, I was never confused about where to find what I needed. It’s a triumph of software design.
The same can’t be said, unfortunately, about the accompanying smartphone app – on Android at least. The app connects to your phone via 2.4GHz or 5GHz Wi-Fi, and you can preview and download clips and photos over the link with your phone and view a live feed from the sensor as well.
That’s the theory. However, it failed completely to pair with my Huawei Mate 10 Pro. And while it did work better with the Google Pixel 2 XL I tested it with next, it didn’t play particularly nicely with it. The preview function, for instance, doesn’t fill the whole screen if you rotate the phone halfway through playback, presumably because it hasn’t been properly optimised for the Pixel 2 XL’s 18:9 display.
The camera isn’t particularly stable, either. Despite running the latest firmware, there are some combinations of settings that cause an unrecoverable crash whenever you hit the record button. Every time I set the resolution and frame rate to 2.7K 4:3 at 30fps, for instance, the camera froze and only a battery removal to reset the camera got it working again. That’s a pain if you have the camera mounted in its clip-in frame.
I prefer to use the accompanying desktop Quik software. This offers only basic video-editing capabilities but does provide automatic highlight-reel creation and also allows you to overlay data from the camera’s GPS radio – speed, elevation, GPS track and compass heading – on top of footage before exporting it. It’s effective and works more reliably than the app.
GoPro Hero 6 Black review: Video, audio and image quality
Image quality, however, is unreservedly excellent for both video and stills – although not dramatically different to the Hero 5 Black. The 60fps mode is superb for action shots, reducing blurring during fast-moving scenes and, despite the fact that the HEVC compression cuts file sizes dramatically, quality is still superb.
In low light, noise encroaches noticeably – this is not a great performer in dim or dark conditions – but all-round the GoPro Hero 6 Black is the best action camera on the market for quality. Its automatic exposure algorithms are superb, capturing all the subtleties in bright skies without blowing out highlights, and it adapts incredibly quickly when the camera is moved from bright to dark scenes.
Then, when you want to tweak the settings, the excellent ProTune mode is still on hand, offering control over all sorts of parameters, from colours, white balance and sharpness to shutter speed and ISO sensitivity.
The camera can also capture stills in RAW format, giving photographers a better chance of rescuing over- or under-exposed shots in post production. Don’t expect miracles here, though; as with video, photographs taken in anything but good light will likely be spoiled by an unhealthy dose of ugly noise and grain.
GoPro Hero 6 Black review: Verdict
The Hero 6 Black is an accomplished action camera, and the best on the market in my opinion, but there are a couple of serious issues that prevent it from gaining my wholehearted recommendation.
The first is the price. Even though it’s £100 cheaper than the original, £399 is still too much. You can pick up the Hero 5 Black for £295 and the Xiaomi Yi 4K+ for £299, both of which are very nearly as good. The second is the iffy software implementation on the app side and the instability with some of the modes.
If you need an action camera and only the very best will do, then buy a GoPro Hero 6 Black, but do be aware you can get one that’s very nearly as good for much less.
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