GoPro's Hero8 Black Is Boring, And That's What Makes It Great

No single upgrade in GoPro’s new flagship camera will surprise you. There is no “new killer feature” that sets it apart from either the competition or last year’s Hero7 Black. It doesn’t even have a built-in selfie screen (although you can buy one as a new add-on “mod.”) And yet, somehow, the Hero8 Black is the GoPro I’ve been waiting to see for years without realising it.

Everything you’ve come to know about GoPro cameras is still there in the Hero8 Black. Waterproofing (down to 10 metres), noise reduction, the ability to shoot up to 4K, GPS, Night Lapse (now processed in-camera), slo-mo and livestreaming options — all of that has carried over to the latest version. What’s new is new by a matter of degrees. But as a complete package, the Hero8 Black is the best action camera I’ve used to date, and the addition of some usability features makes it a viable option for anyone who wants a camera they can take anywhere but is more durable and feature-packed than their smartphone, regardless of how much skydiving is on your horizon.

GoPro Hero 8 Black

WHAT IS IT?

The new GoPro — like the older GoPros, but better.

PRICE

$599.95

LIKE

Super buttery image stabilisation, built-in mounting brackets, handy preset capture modes

NO LIKE

No built-in selfie screen or HDMI port

I spent a little more than a month testing the Hero8 Black, putting it through every real-world scenario I could think of. I filmed dirt bike rides, the New York Climate Strike, hikes with my dog. I even ended up on a surprise trip with a few other journalists from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe aboard GoPro CEO Nick Woodman’s private jet, which the company’s marketing team arranged (without telling us about it in advance) so we could test the Hero8 while zip-lining, as one does.

Hero8 Black’s biggest design change is a small but important tweak: You no longer need the plastic fame housing to attach your GoPro to a mount. Instead, Hero8 has built-in mounting brackets — GoPro calls them “folding fingers” for some inexplicable reason — that fold into the bottom of the camera. They’re nice and compact, and the mounts stay firmly in place when they’re folded in thanks to a couple of embedded magnets.

On the plus side, the built-in mounts mean you now have fewer accessories you have to pack on your way out the door. There’s also no chance you’ll forget to bring the frame, which with past versions would make it impossible to attach the camera to whatever mounts you like to use. The downside here is, if you somehow manage to break the brackets, it’ll be more of a rigamarole to get them replaced.

They’re attached by screws into the bottom of the Hero8, and you can’t just pick up a knockoff replacement on Amazon like you can with the mounting frame used with older Hero models. Fortunately, they’re strong and can take a beating or an overtightened mounting bolt no problem. At one point, I tightened the bolt mounting the Hero8 to my Harley so tight that the mount snapped off in my hand mid-right when I tried to adjust the angle. The Hero8's mounting brackets were fine. The mount itself, meanwhile, is cracked in half.

The addition of the built-in mounting brackets on the bottom of the camera means GoPro had to relocate the battery, SD card slot, and USB-C port to the side of the device. Fortunately, that also has the added perk of making it easy to swap out your battery or SD card without having to take the camera off the mount first. It’s these small-but-significant changes that help make the Hero8 such an easy-to-use little camera.

Relocation of the battery/SD card port required a newly designed door that seals in the Hero8’s guts. The door is fine in terms of keeping the camera water-tight and shuts with a satisfying click that lets you know it’s really closed. But it easily pops off the camera entirely due to the fact that it can’t swing open to a full 90-degree angle, and I found myself having to click it back on more often than I’d like. I also dropped the door quite a few times, which could be a problem if you’re in a location where dropping something means losing it forever, which I imagine the action-adventure crowd often is.

The last major upgrade to the physical camera is a much stronger glass over the lens. GoPro claims it’s twice as tough as the thinner version on its previous cameras (2mm thick Gorilla Glass as opposed to 1.3mm). And while I didn’t test its durability in any methodical way, the lens glass (and the rest of the camera) easily survived the half-dozen times I dropped it over the month I spent testing the camera. If you are worried about cracks and scratches, however, GoPro now sells a $30 kit that includes protective covers for both the lens glass and the display.

Hero8 Black (left) next to the Hero7 Black (right). Without the need for a plastic housing to mount the camera, the Hero8 is far more compact than previous models in a real-world usage setting. (Photo: Andrew Couts, Gizmodo)

But who really cares about glass hardness, mounting brackets, and hinges? Let’s get to the juicy stuff. The easiest thing to love about the Hero8 Black is its upgraded stabilisation feature, HyperSmooth 2.0. GoPro introduced image stabilisation years ago, but it gave the feature a huge boost with last year’s introduction of HyperSmooth in the Hero7 Black, which the company described at the time as “gimbal-like.” The new version might truly deserve that description. It’s not a drastic upgrade from the first iteration, but the footage produced using HyperSmooth 2.0 looks damn impressive.

In addition to creating a butterier image, HyperSmooth 2.0 also works in all frame rates and resolutions, removing a limitation I found mildly obnoxious with the Hero7 Black. HyperSmooth wasn’t available in 2.7k or 1080p resolutions at 120 fps, for example — not a setting I used often, but it annoyed me every time I hit that roadblock. When I tested it in the new “Action” setting (more on this later) while riding my dirt bike over large rocks, roots and many other types of terrain, the footage looked so great, I audibly gasped the first time I watched it.

On top of standard HyperSmooth stabilisation, the Hero8 Black has an enhanced “boost” option that promises additional stabilisation, but there are some tradeoffs. To get the extra stabilisation, the image has a noticeably tighter crop, which I didn’t like. I can see where boost mode might be useful if, say, what you’re shooting would otherwise be nauseating or unwatchable. But honestly, the default HyperSmooth 2.0 was good enough that I never once thought I needed to use boost or wish I had after the fact. That’s not to say you won’t, but it’s more of a nice option than a must-have.

The other improved top-line feature in Hero8 Black is TimeWarp 2.0, which allows you to stop the timelapse capture to go into real-time capture mid-shot, so you can really highlight particular moments. It’s a nifty feature that still needs a UI tweak. To go into real-time capture, you have to hit a button on the touchscreen, which is extremely difficult to do with any precision timing if you’re shooting a selfie video.

Hopefully, GoPro will move this functionality to the side button, which would make it easier to engage regardless of what kind of video you’re shooting. GoPro’s Woodman mentioned that he wanted to do this during our little escapade to Lake Tahoe, so we’ll keep an eye out for that update.

To make things simpler for those of you who, like me, hate messing around with settings, GoPro added four new setting presets: Standard, Action, Cinematic, and Slo-Mo. It also now offers four different digital lenses, from SuperView (extremely wide) to Narrow, which is new to the Hero8 Black and GoPro describes as similar to a typical smartphone lens. Using the Narrow lens, you’ll get an undistorted image that’s better for close-up shots, whereas SuperView uses digital processing to stretch out a 4:3 frame to 16:9, giving you both a taller and wider field of view than the other lens options and is better for capturing the landscape.

The presets make use of the different lenses as well as other settings, like resolution and frame rate, to give you distinct looks for your videos. Cinematic mode, for example, captures in 4K at 30 fps using the wide lens, which gives you an expansive field of view without the distorted wide-angle feel.

Each of the presets is editable, so if you don’t like a certain detail, you can quickly change it and keep the rest of the settings as they are. You can also create your own custom presets, which are added to the quick-access list, as well as customise your on-screen controls to quickly turn on or off functionalities like slow-mo and HyperSmooth boost. As boring as presets sound, I enthusiastically welcomed their addition, and they made it super-easy to quickly change to the look I wanted for a particular shot.

Lenses and presets enable some dramatic results, but sometimes it’s a little too much. I have a feeling most people will find SuperView a bit too wide-angle-looking for most of their videos, as there is definite image distortion. But I found the Action mode, which has SuperView as the default lens, to be the most satisfying overall, and I turned to that one the most. If you hate the wide look, Cinematic mode will give you a wide field of view without so much distortion, and I found myself gravitating toward that mode when Action mode got stale.

Two of the biggest GoPro additions this year won’t come in your Hero8 Black box when it goes on sale in October. The first is the completely revamped GoPro app, which is free and you can use as a remote to control your camera, edit your videos and organise your footage, among other features. The most significant addition here is GoPro’s new horizon levelling feature, which lets you adjust the orientation of your footage in case your camera goes cockeyed mid-shot. The app can be extremely handy in a lot of situations, but I often found it was easier just to use the controls on the Hero8’s touchscreen rather than screw around with the app, which has a penchant for disconnecting from the camera and freezing a bit more often than I could ignore.

The second major addition is three so-called mods, add-ons that you can buy for between $75 and $120 to really trick-out your Hero8 Black when they go on sale in December. This includes the Display Mod (a full-size selfie screen — a worse version of which you can find built into the DJI Osmo Action), a Media Mod (a 3.5mm shotgun mic and an HDMI port, which is no longer built into the camera itself), and a Light Mod (a bright-arse light). None of the mods were available for me to test, so I can’t say anything about how well they work. But unless you’re trying to produce professional-level vlogs or whatever, you’ll likely be perfectly happy without them.

The Hero8 Black feels like the final mature stage of the standard GoPro platform. It’s refined, tweaked, and polished to the point that it’s difficult to see where the company takes this small-form action camera from here besides additional nips and tucks that are better but iterative, with diminishing returns as the years go on. It’s hard to get too excited about minor upgrades.

But in the Hero8 Black’s case, boring is good: It allows you to focus on having fun capturing your cliff dives, mountain biking trips, beauty vlogs, and DIY projects without having to think too much about your gear and your settings. And having your action camera fade behind the action itself is really what this kind of camera should be all about.

README:

  • If you already have the Hero7 Black, save your pennies — this version is better, but probably not worth the upgrade.

  • Removing the HDMI port (which is now in the Media mod) from the camera body is going to irk some people, but for casual users, it won’t be missed.

  • GoPro is very proud of its new app, and it should be — it’s much better than the app ecosystem it had before. I found it a bit annoying, but it definitely came in handy.

  • I found the Hero8 so easy to use, it’s going to be on my go-to gift list for the holidays. My retired, jet-setting mum just might find one in her stocking.

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