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GoPro Hero4 Session review

GoPro are the defining company with regard to the action camera market. BUT to date their products have unashamedly put function over form. The results have been rather…visually unappealing. Boxy, brick-like cameras that are very prominent no matter where you locate them. But now GoPro have the Hero4 Session, a tasteful, subtle little black box. Has the smaller package affecting GoPro’s defining image quality? Read on for the TitaniumGeek GoPro Hero4 Session review!

GoPro Hero4 Session Review

GoPro have not changed their camera design, in any significant way since the original GoPro Hero. So it was not entirely unexpected that they would finally release a new design. What I’m not sure, is that many people expected GoPro to produce such a radical change, nor drop their long standing use of waterproof cases.

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Ditch the waterproof case ?

Instead the company has produced a startling 1 inch x 1 inch black rubber cube, that is waterproofed down to 10m right out of the box – which naturally I tested by taking the camera scuba diving (any excuse ?)

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Testing the Sessions in the deep – well deep, whilst above 10m!

But before we dive (sorry couldn’t resist) into the review of the camera in use, let’s take a look at the specs

GoPro Hero4 Sessions Specifications

As I’ve already mentioned the camera is waterproofed down to 10m.

The diminutive Sessions is capable of videoing in the following resolutions:

  • 1440p @25/30FPS- so below 2k resolution, but also better than “standard” 1080p
  • 1080p @ 25/30/48/50/60FPS- So you can capture The Hobbit-esq refresh rates taken from very tight places
  • 960p @ 25/30/50/60 FPS
  • 720p @ 23/30/50/60/100 FPS
  • WGA @ 100/120FPS

The sensor can also be used to take 8MP images, and in Timelapse can be told to photograph every: 0.5,1,2,5,10,30,60 seconds
Burst mode takes 10 shots together
Battery is good for 2hrs of recording
Connectivity is WiFi or Micro-USB. No ANT+ ?

MAX SD micro card size of 64gb

So that’s the internals. But as we know from the Shimano CM1000, imagine quality can’t be determined from specs alone. So onto the using the Little Black Box

Hero 4 sessions usability

Honestly, that size of the camera is quite astonishing in the hand. I thought that the Shimano CM1000 was probably pushing the envelope in terms of size, but the GoPro Sessions really takes it to another level

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The main camera – I put the lanyard on for diving due to the size!

The Sessions camera feels really dense when you hold it in your hand, at 74g, that density makes it feel like a really quite a solid product. The outside of the camera is coated in a soft touch rubber coating making the camera feel really robust as well. In the top RIGHT of the picture is the status button, which goes solid red for charging and flashes blue for WiFi mode. Plus in the top LEFT is the first of two microphones on the unit

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Red Charge light

There is a secure flap located to the side of the unit, underwhich is located the micro SD card slot (Card not included, and limited to 64GB max) – and the micro USB port that allows the charging of the two hour battery, non-replaceable battery. You can also see evidence of the waterproofing here, with the white rubber seal that lets the camera go down to watery depths of 10m.

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Charge port and SD card access hatch

Controlling the camera

In order to shrink the device, GoPro have limited the camera to only two buttons. One large button on the top used to switch the camera on, and control the shooting

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Main button

A second button is located on the back of the device, tasked with toggling the information display on the OLED screen, and controlling the WiFi broadcasting. When you are filming, pressing this secondary button also allows you to “highlight”, or “tag” parts of your film, which makes finding supposedly interesting parts of your adventures easier when back on the computer.

To the LEFT of the second button is one of the two microphones put on the GoPro that allow intelligent selecting of the audio feeds to provide clearing audio, and less wind-noise. Although when you take the camera in the water, its REALLY worth blowing across each mic to get the water out, otherwise it sounds like you are filming in a fish bowel!

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Secondary control button

If you look in the top LEFT on the back of the camera, you can see inscribed instructions, essentially saying switch on with the big red button, which also starts the recording. Long press on the same button for 3 seconds will change the unit over the photography mode.

This may seem very simple, but I actually found controlling the camera from the buttons, other than simply switching it on and off, surprisingly tricky. Basically if you have fingers used to getting a standard GoPro under control, those elite skills are going to be wasted here.

Connectivity

To try and support people of low IQ , such as myself, and thus who have trouble with the two button setup, GoPro have built Wifi into their little box to enable you to control the camera from a phone app.
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Camera app

Unsurprisingly, this is where all the missing buttons and settings are. However starting up the WiFi can still be a pain in the neck as you have to use the buttons on the back to initiate the Wifi connection in the first place. I’m not that technologically challenged, it just feels that the system GoPro have opted for is unintuitive/temperamental.

I appreciate that there is not a lot of space on the device for buttons, but perhaps something like a single long press to toggle WiFi on and off, when you have already setup the network using the current button configuration?

Similarly when using the camera, maybe long press on the secondary button on the back to take a photo? As it is, to take a photo you have to completely come out of the video mode first, which frequently isn’t possible in the environment you are using an action camera!

But these are probably just very personal, and certainly minor, irritations. However I do feel the button configuration is one of the bigger downsides to the GoPro Sessions currently. Something that could easily be addressed through firmware perhaps.

Unlike the VIRB, the GoPro Session has an auto rotate function to help with the video orientation, however I couldnt manage to get this to work ? and just had to rotate the video on the laptop after

I appreciate that the Garmin VIRB elite is more than twice the size of the GoPro Sessions, but the inclusion of a few extra buttons does make it VASTLY easier to use. But then you are sacrificing some usability for an amazingly small device!

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Garmin Virb vs GoPro Session

The size of the unit does really inspire you. As is usual with GoPro you get a series of connecting attachments in the box, and two camera mounts. One of the things I considered was seeing what video I could get from putting the camera in odd places – get your mind out of the gutter! – I was meaning like on the bottom bracket of the bike. Due to the small size of the unit, I think people will start to make some really interesting videos, as you can literally stick it anywhere.

But the lack of protective case does make you consider the unit for a second, but if you look on the very front of the unit the front glass of the unit is user replaceable with8 screws, meaning I’m more likely to take risks with it

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Bundled accessories

I’ve taken the Session swimming, biking, and Scuba. Certainly for Scuba and swimming, you can just strap it to your wrist and go. Which is still possible with the larger GoPros, but they are much more unwieldy in this configuration.

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Swimming with the unit on the wrist

As you can see in the above picture, although the Session has no case exactly, it does have a holder/enclosure that is needed to mount it to the various GoPro accessories. But this does add very little size to the unit. GoPro includes two cases, with the GoPro mount in different locations to help with mounting the unit.

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Sessions case

GoPro Session film quality.

This is basically the crux of the review. Looking at the camera is all well and good, but if the video is naff, well, its an expensive brick.

I took the camera out for a spin around Wellesbourne, which has become my regular testing route. The advantage, particularly when reviewing action cameras, I know where the various places are that cause issues for cameras sensors, and challenge them.

In this test I’ve compared with the Garmin VIRB elite.

The above video is the whole 5 minute clip around Walton Hall, and I think stands as a good benchmark for an action camera.

GoPro Session films

The first video here compares the ability for the camera to handle going directly into the sun. Right from the offset, I’d say that the microphones are considerably better than those on the Garmin Elite – But then, they were a considerable weakness when I reviewed the VIRB

One of the issues that became apparent with the GoPro Sessions is that the colours can look very flat and muted outside of good lighting as seen here:

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Flat colours

Similarly I would argue that the detail is slightly down, compared to the VIRB, which is strange, given that the GoPro can film at a higher resolution. However the GoPro does not over expose in the way that the Garmin does, but has more flare as a consequence. Certainly at the edges of the Garmin Virb there is greater distortion, which is impressive given the small size of the GoPro.

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Garmin VIRB full res detail

I would also argue that the GoPro here is showing greater detail to the clouds and tarmac. Certainly more “true” colour reproduction, if a little flat.

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GoPro Session full res detail

Update – 31/8/2015

After having reviewed the Sessions, I have done a review of the Garmin VIRB XE, and looking at some of the video there, I think I was a little harsh on the GoPro quality. I still don’t think the Sessions deals with changes in light very well, BUT the detail is impressive, especially from such a small box.

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Session detail shot

Zoomed in 100%

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100% Zoom – GoPro Session

Garmin Virb

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Garmin Virb Xe detail

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Garmin Xe 100% crop

I think there is a slight edge to the GoPro in terms of detail and colour here – remembering that all images are unprocessed. BUT the GoPro is now loosing lots of detail to the clouds with overexposure, which is a change from the previous shot.

I think a lot about the GoPro depends on what you want to do with it, and now easy it is to use (not very!)

Finally down in the water

I genuinely feel that this is the best part of the unit – its waterproofed to 10m and still gets excellent video. The Garmin is a comparatively bulky unit, which also needs a case to go diving, making it even bigger. Yes the Garmin VIRB is water resistant down to 1m, but I’ve had water inside the unit just messing around in the pool, and not going anywhere near 1m in depth. The GoPro is just ready to go.

Now this was my first time scuba diving, so I was limited to 10m in depth anyway, and in reality, probably didnt go much below 8m. But certainly the camera was absolutely fine throughout. Plus given the size, I feel I was able to direct the camera, at times, were I wanted, rather than just having a chest strap, or the like, which would have just filmed the rock bottom for an hour. Not that this is particularly scintillating, but you get the idea!

The video under water is a little murky, but that is due to the water sediment as much as anything else.

Conclusion

The GoPro here is an amazing achievement. So small, and rock solid. The buttons are a pain in the neck to get your head around, and compared to larger cameras, and in some situations the video quality has deteriorated – mainly in terms of light handling. BUT LOOK AT THE SIZE!! The GoPro Sessions is waterproofed out of the box to 10m!! No case!

Oh and probably one of the more important aspects is that the microphones work, well!

I think depending on what you are doing, determines the market for the Session. If you are going something where you want a small unit, the Session is for you. If you are really doing something intense, the Session is for you. I could see someone using the Session much more effectively, with an arm strap, to run something like Tough Mudder than any of the current action cameras

Certainly when diving, the size allowed me to use an easy arm mount, and swim around as if the camera wasn’t there. When I wanted to, I could direct the video where I desired. From a filming and control point, I dont think there is a camera on the market that comes close.

By comparison, if I want a video from the bike, or a fixed position where location is not an issue. Or going for a run where I might want to have a “just in case” video, that can quickly snap off still pictures. I’ll take the Garmin Virb.

So the GoPro Session can be considered exactly as the original GoPro, a true action camera, that will push the boundaries of what people can do with the camera. Like that original GoPro, there is a slight image quality reduction compared to bigger cameras of the moment, but you really are paying for that size and extreme usability here. Which in turn will allow you to get a shot that probably wouldn’t even be possible with a different camera.

Full GoPro Ride Video

Here is the link to the whole of the GoPro ride for comparison if people want it:

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James Gill

Author of TitaniumGeek, which started after smashing off my RIGHT elbow. Feel free to drop me a line about sports tech, medicine, or frankly anything that you want to chat about!!