Almost every year, GoPro releases a new action camera, and for the last few years, they’ve been pretty disappointing. Also, every year I seem to fall for their marketing and buy one of their action cameras only to lament that decision. I understand it’s my fault, I should know better. Clearly, I’m operating with heaps of wishful thinking.
Earlier in 2018, there were reports that GoPro was looking for a buyer. The company has been hemorrhaging cash and is struggling with debt. Their drone division has been completely killed off and their action cameras have been getting nothing but lackluster updates every year. Is GoPro doomed to fail?
Their latest action camera, the HERO 7 Black, is yet another disappointing minor update to the previous model. Most of the complaints people had about the previous model have not been addressed and the main draw for this year is “hypersmooth” video stabilization.
To be fair this feature is actually pretty awesome and very useful. Hypersmooth allows you to produce super smooth footage without the use of a gimbal when filming up to 4k resolution. The HERO7 also offers far better audio quality, which was one of the complaints, but this is where the differences end. If you already own a gimbal and don’t mind using one, or if you prefer shooting at the higher frame rates that are offered in camera, then you’re probably better off owning last year’s model.
Video quality is still pretty bad, and not much better than the HERO4. The camera is horrible in low light and in my testing, I’ve found that my smartphone offers far better image and video quality. The camera still overheats and still suffers from glitches and random shutdowns. To make matters worse, GoPro decided it was a good idea to change the battery again; therefore existing customers need to replace them all. This is frustrating.
Problems with Current GoPro Cameras
The current GoPro design is a small waterproof camera. On paper this seems like a great option because without a housing, the camera can be submerged underwater and be completely fine. The problem is that this design is preventative when it comes to offering proper meaningful updates.
For one, the sheer amount of heat that’s generated in the camera means that using a larger sensor is out of the question. Even with the current sensor, when you start filming with higher frame rates the camera struggles with heat.
What’s interesting is that considering the actual size of the camera, the sensor is relatively tiny. Smartphones utilize similar sized sensors and their camera modules are significantly smaller. The annoying thing is that even though the camera does not require a housing to be waterproof, it still requires a proprietary case to mount.
The idea of not needing a housing but then still needing a case makes usability rather frustrating. Anytime you need to charge the battery, change the battery or SD card you need to remove it from the case. I’ve also had situations where the battery will suddenly be drained for no apparent reason and this has been an issue with the HERO6 too.
The most recent firmware update has also caused an issue for my camera too in that now my GoPro won’t shut off on occasions exacerbating the battery issue. The only sure way I’ve found to shut my camera off has been to remove the battery, which is quite an effective yet impractical solution.
Overall, GoPro cameras tend to have the most incremental updates of any camera that’s currently on the market.
Suggestions for GoPro
GoPro has a number of cameras in their line-up, with their flagship being the HERO7 Black. This camera currently retails at $399 with their other variants sold at a slightly cheaper price with fewer features. I think GoPro should produce a camera which costs $499 that offers actual good quality video. GoPro should also get rid of the White line of cameras and make their Silver line their entry level priced at $179.
With regard to the new flagship model, I would suggest making it a few millimeters larger and maybe avoid trying to make it completely waterproof. GoPro as a company has a significant market of creatives that aren’t filming extreme sports or filming underwater. Having a camera that’s splashproof is more than enough for most people and waterproof housings are still available if required.
Speaking of the housing, stop making this a usability requirement. GoPro cameras are in dire need of a tripod mount. Having a slightly larger camera that isn’t completely waterproof may allow for a larger sensor which in turn means that you produce much better video quality. A larger sensor can also help allow for a wider angle of view and this may help prevent the need for a fisheye lens. Another benefit is the potentially increased quality in low-light situations.
Fisheye Video Has Got to Go
I seriously can’t understand how this type of video distortion is still acceptable. This may have been okay 5 years ago, but the gimmick has ended. GoPro still does not offer a linear mode for 4k and I really think they need to move on from fisheye.
Fisheye video stands out in such an unappealing manner. It’s almost impossible to mix footage from a GoPro camera with any other camera due to its distinct look, and this is not a positive thing. When something has been filmed with a GoPro camera you can immediately tell due to the lesser quality and the distortion. It feels cheaper having that kind of footage in your video and for that reason, I avoid using my GoPro cameras.
Footage from almost any current smartphone looks far better and sits much more comfortably with footage from “proper” cameras. Getting completely rid of fisheye video would be a far more useful upgrade than having hypersmooth stabilization. Don’t get me wrong hypersmooth as a feature is incredible and extremely useful, however, you’re still left with the same kind of distorted video as any other GoPro camera so what’s the point?
A Larger Sensor
One of the key areas where GoPro cameras do not perform well is the actual footage. If you compare footage from a GoPro camera to any current smartphone, it’s easy to see just how bad the performance is. Low light is one area where GoPro cameras can’t compete even against smartphones and this is odd when you consider they use a similar sensor size. This could be down to processing or AI, however, I believe a larger sensor could dramatically improve performance for GoPro cameras.
Sure, this would mean a larger overall camera which may not be ideal for action and sports, although the question I would ask is, how large is the action and sports market compared to the rest of the industry? What I’m not suggesting is that they should replace all GoPro cameras with a larger sensor camera, instead offer an option which is geared towards better video quality in a small compact body. Imagine a camera that had better quality video than a GoPro both in normal and lowlight with hypersmooth.
GoPro’s are supposed to be easy to use cameras that offer the ability to quickly get the shot. This is relatively true when everything is set up and ready. The ability to simply press the record button and start the camera is extremely useful and a great feature.
The problem is that if you need to mount the camera you need to use an outer case. This outer case prevents access to the battery the SD card and also prevents you from charging the battery. The case also doesn’t offer any real protection for the camera because the screens and the lens are still exposed. Essentially, it’s purely there so that you can mount your GoPro onto something; which makes it a ridiculous and convoluted system.
This also makes the camera less practical when it comes to mounting on anything other than the proprietary mount. GoPro continues with their proprietary mount because they want to sell accessories for their camera. I have no issues with that, the problem I have is that the whole system is prohibitive when it comes to usability. It’s frustrating to use because you have limited access and considering the terrible battery life you need regular access to the battery and ports.
I assume the income GoPro generates from accessories has taken a huge hit in the last few years because of cheaper alternatives. Due to this, I believe GoPro needs to move on from this system and offer a universal tripod mounting system.
Why GoPro is Failing
GoPro is in quite the slump; I get the feeling that GoPro is trying, but they’ve pushed themselves into an ever-receding corner. When times were good, it seems they didn’t invest enough into new meaningful products or different product lines. They had the opportunity to develop drones before the market was essentially cornered by DJI, but they didn’t. Now we’re seeing the remnants of a brilliant and innovative company produce lackluster updates year on year to combat waning sales.
The only real update GoPro can realistically provide is a camera that offers linear video for all resolutions and frame rates. If fisheye video is removed entirely that could be a really useful update. The other suggestions are difficult or not at all possible for a company like GoPro. It’s difficult to produce a small durable camera with a larger sensor because that could require better autofocus features and much larger optics in order to keep the same aperture. This, in turn, would make the camera into something entirely different and comparable to an RX100 type camera; which already exists on the market.
Even adding something like a tripod mount would drastically change how GoPro cameras operate. This would make all of their current mounting accessories obsolete meaning GoPro would need to develop a whole new line of accessories. Unfortunately, even suggestions that we can think of which might improve GoPro cameras aren’t really feasible because of the current system they work with. The system they have is so limiting that as a company it feels as though they’re stuck.
I’m aware that I’m negating most of the points I make above by saying this but that’s essentially the problem with GoPro. There isn’t a great deal they can do to get out of this corner. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it seems as though GoPro is a one trick pony that’s been running the track for too long.
Updates like the ones I’ve suggested will require more research and development and that will cost money that they may not have readily available. For this reason, they continue with their current line and have not offered any new product lines or significant updates. This could also explain why there are rumors of them wanting to be bought out because they see their current limitations. Being bought out by another much larger company could offer them the investment to develop products they might already want to. This could actually be a great thing for the company and their customers on a whole; although the number of companies that may want to purchase a controlling share in GoPro isn’t many.
Personally, I believe getting rid of fish eye video from their flagship model would go an extremely long way. This individual improvement would make all previous GoPro cameras less desirable and push customers to want to upgrade en masse. Sales could comfortably increase to a point where they can kick start a new chapter for the company and offer much more meaningful updates and potentially even new products for the future.
About the author: Usman Dawood is the lead photographer of Sonder Creative, an architectural and interior photography company. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube.