GoPro dominates the action cam industry. In terms of extreme-sports brand recognition, it basically goes hand-in-hand with the lifestyle energy drink Redbull.
And there is some justification for that reputation: the Hero cameras like the Hero4 Black are arguably the most compact and best-performing on the market.
So how does a brand leader, the Coca-Cola of action cams, make something new without skewering itself?
With the Hero4 Session, the answer’s been to go radically smaller. This new mini-cam is 50% smaller and 40% lighter than the Hero4 Black or Silver, and is compatible with all your existing mounts.
The brand-new chassis also hides the built-in battery, and is impressively waterproof straight out of the box – no need for a case.
Sit a naked Hero4 Black (or Silver) side-by-side with the Session and, while the older Hero4 is a little shallower, it’s also substantially wider. Look at them in their mounts (the Session in its cage, a Black in its waterproof housing) and the older model looks lumpy; laughably out of style.
However, keen on-street pricing for the Hero4 Black and Silver range means that the Session is barely cheaper, despite it being specifically designed to attract the more affordable market.
It’s worth thinking about how you want to use it: if you’re looking to strap a camera to yourself, this is the better action cam thanks to its reduced weight and more balanced design, and its certainly less obtrusive. If you’re going to strap it to a vehicle, you have a harder choice to make.
GoPro aficionados will notice that there are only two buttons – Record and Options – which are totally flush with the body of the camera. What the company wants to really focus on is one button control. Stab Record and the camera turns on, and starts filming at 1080p at 30 frames per second.
Hold the button down and you’re capturing burst photography at half-second intervals. Press it again and everything stops and the camera shuts down.
You’ll also notice that the screen size has been slashed, and now sports a simple two-colour alphanumeric display, which only serves to show you basic information, such as your frames-per-second count and resolution. The only way to alter video and still resolution is to fire up the accompanying app on your smartphone, or grab the bespoke remote, (not included).
Although the Session loses a button, it gains a microphone on the rear to combat excessive wind noise. During our tests – mounted on a motorbike travelling at up to 80km/h – it worked well, keeping the noise of the elements you want to hear (the bike, other cars) in focus and scrubbing out most of the rushing wind.
So while the camera has been tweaked, it’s also important to note that the cage it sits in (which you will need, as unlike the other Hero4’s there isn’t a mounting thread for a standard camera tripod) really helps its cause.
Cleverly, the camera can be mounted three different ways, and will automatically detect which way up it is – you no longer need to fiddle around in the options to set its orientation.
Of course, once it’s recording, the image won’t suddenly flip 180º if it goes upside down. This, in turn, means you can set the cage in more secure positions rather than relying on elbow joints and similar accessories.
It’s not perfect. The biggest problem is that the camera takes too long to turn on, and to register that it’s turning on. Press the record or options button and the unit does nothing for roughly 2.5 seconds; eventually a flashing light comes to life and emits a few short beeps.
It’s disconcerting the first time you use it, and could ultimately mean the difference between capturing the next viral video, or looking at the gap where your jetpack-equipped squirrel was.
Plus, turning the camera off doesn’t mean that Wi-Fi is off – that’s a separate option you’ll need to find, and if you don’t then you’ll come back to a Session with a dead battery.
During a media demo (before our independent testing) we were told that the Session would handle rapid rotations with no blurring or wobble. That’s true for the most part.
While neck-breaking twists will see the image blur, and there were still some ‘shimmering’ wobbles during our test, there was nothing that lead us to be overly distracted.
Ultimately, this is as simple as action cams get, and despite being a plain black cube the design is friendly and the matte-finish feels good in the hand. The Hero4 Session isn’t meant to be a replacement to the all-conquering Black, with its future-proof 4K capabilities, but its flexible design more than compensates for its narrower video options.
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