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GoPro Hero Session Review

GoPro Hero Session Review
GoPro is still the king of action cameras, and we’re looking forward to the launch of its first drone later this year. The Hero Session is its smallest action camera – good for attaching to a drone, yes – but it has also drawn quite a bit of criticism.

You’d be forgiven for being slightly confused about the Hero Session. It was originally launched a year ago, called the Hero4 Session, at £329.

Today, it’s called simply the Hero Session and costs £149.99. Yet it’s the same camera: GoPro slashed the price after poor sales. It’s also had a fair few firmware updates which addressed much of the criticism at launch. We’ll get to that shortly.

For today only, you can get it even cheaper - it's just £119 from Amazon as part of the early Easter sale, but act fast, as the deal will be gone tomorrow.

One of the Session's rivals is the SJCAM M20. It's only waterproof when in its plastic housing, but it costs roughly half as much as the Session.

Quite obviously, the Session does not follow previous GoPro designs. It’s a cube and roughly half the size (volume) of the Hero4. Plus, it’s about 35 percent lighter at 74g. Better still, it’s waterproof without a separate housing.

This reduces bulk and weight, but also means better audio quality as the microphones aren’t sealed inside a plastic box. Notice we said microphones: there are two – one front and one rear. The Session automatically switches between the two to try and get the best quality and cut down on wind noise. It’s not entirely successful – wind noise is still an issue – but compared to previous generations of the Hero (particularly the second gen) and many rival action cams, audio is very good indeed.

There’s one missing feature: a preview screen. That means you have to either guess if your framing is right or use the free GoPro app on your phone. The app is also used to adjust settings and can also work as a remote control to start and stop filming (or take photos). If you don’t fancy using a phone, GoPro also sells a ‘smart remote’ – you can buy it from Currys for £58. This doesn’t give you a video preview, though.

Live previews aren't available in all video modes, such as when you enable ProTune (below, left). You can change the field of view in some modes, but in some, there's only Wide. The SuperView modes are distinct, so you have to select them when you choose resolution.

The Session does have a tiny LCD screen so you can check the mode and tweak a few settings, but with only two buttons, it’s more fiddly than breaking out your phone and launching the app. It's useful for a glance at battery life.

It won't shoot in 4K like its big brother the Hero4 Black, but it will do 2K (sort of). Here's the full list:

  • 1440p at 30fps
  • 1080p at 60 or 30fps (48 or 30fps in SuperView)
  • 960p at 60 or 30fps
  • 720p at 100, 60 or 30fps (60 or 30fps in SuperView)
So, there are a couple of points to note. First, 1440p is not the 2560x1440 you'd expect. Instead, it's 1920x1440, which is a 4:3 aspect ratio. 

The 720p100 mode is the most useful for slo-mo but it's a far cry from the 1080p120 or 720p240 modes which a lot of modern phones support. Essentially, there are better choices if slo-mo is a priority.

For photos, the Session can take single 8Mp stills, a burst of stills, intervals (for time-lapse) and it also supports loop recording so you could - in theory - use it as a dash cam.

In the box you get a meagre selection of accessories, including the open frame plus curved and flat adhesive mounts. The USB cable is useful as it’s used to charge the Session. The battery isn’t removable – shock, horror – which will be a deal-breaker for some. It means you can’t simply pop in a fully charged spare when it runs out; it takes roughly an hour to fully charge from empty.

The microUSB port and microSD slot are behind a sprung door so the camera isn’t waterproof while charging. You can use microSD cards up to 64GB, and GoPro says you need a Class 10 or UHS-1 card.

We mentioned drones at the start, but really the Session isn't a drone camera. It doesn't have a video output and you can't realistically use the Wi-Fi connection and the app for FPV. 

As the Session is square, you can put it  into the frame in any orientation you like. This gives you more mounting options, and the camera will automatically rotate video when it’s upside down.

The latest firmware update (v02.00) added quite a few handy features, including extra ProTune options including the ability to select Flat colours as well as GoPro Colours. One frustration when the Session originally launched was that you couldn’t take a single photo without using the app. Now you can switch between single and burst photo modes on the camera itself.

The update also improves the time it takes to connect to the camera over Wi-Fi and the camera now turns on quicker when you press the info button. It still takes a few seconds to turn on and start recording when you press the record button, but you quickly get used to this delay and instinctively hit the button if you suspect there will be some action worth capturing about to happen.

Understandably, video and image quality isn’t up to the level of the Hero4 Silver or Black. But it’s still good. Footage is recorded at a maximum of 25Mbit/s and details are a bit softer than on the Black. But colours are rich and generally accurate, and the Session deals pretty well with changes in lighting without abruptly changing the exposure.

Dynamic range is reasonably good – you’re less likely to see blown-out skies than on many of the cheaper action cams you’ll find for sale on Amazon and ebay – and you do get those ProTune settings which allow you to get the best possible quality with better highlight and shadow detail if you’re prepared to spend some time color correcting footage later on. (Note that ISO settings are restricted to either a 400 or 1600 limit.)

Useful on some occasions is the Spot Meter option which forces the camera to expose based on a spot in the centre of the frame. You can easily apply exposure compensation, too, but it can be tricky to judge over- and under-exposure using the live preview on a phone. It would be nice to have a ‘zebra stripes’ option to make it obvious when the highlights are being clipped.
We used the spot meter for this photo of St Pancras:
And this is a 100 percent crop of the centre so you can see the level of detail captured:

Another important point to note is the lack of any stabilisation. With the SuperView or ultra-wide angles you don’t notice too much shake, but when cameras such as SJCAM’s M20 include video stabilisation, it’s a shame the Session doesn’t have any. We might have to wait for the Hero5 for that.

In low light there’s the expected drop in quality, with footage becoming grainy and capturing less detail. One great feature, though, is Auto Low Light which will switch to a lower frame rate when there’s not much light. This can mean you end up usable footage even if you forget that you’ve left it set to 60 or even 100fps – modes which are essentially useless in the dark.

Battery life – a crucial factor for the Session – is good, under the right conditions. With Wi-Fi disabled and when shooting in 1080p30 in warm conditions, you should be able to record for around two hours.

In cold conditions, you’ll be lucky if it records at all: some users have complained that the Session won’t work for more than a few minutes. Others, though, say it lasts around half the time as it does when it’s warm. GoPro is cagey about the actual operating temperatures of the Session.

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