But what does a price cut like that entail? A lower-quality sensor, reduced features, and an integrated battery. It's not as full-fledged as the top-tier GoPro Hero 4 Black, but the this Hero can still get the job done—which you can see in our lab results below.
These days you can't hear the term "action cam" without thinking "GoPro." The company has become a household name—as much a lifestyle product as a consumer device—and if you've got kids it won't be long before they're asking for one.
But with GoPros usually starting at around $400, a lot of people would be a bit wary investing in a camera that will be put through the ringer–even though they are designed for just that. GoPro is finally addressing this problem with the new GoPro Hero (MSRP $129.99), a barebones GoPro perfect for entry-level users.
Though the price is low, the performance on offer is good enough for anyone looking to casually get into capturing HD video. But just how well does a cheap GoPro stack up to the competition? We took it into our labs to find out.
Waste not, want not
If you're not familiar with the GoPro formula, it's basically a small box with a wide-angle lens and a tiny, monochrome LCD on the front. There's no viewfinder or rear LCD, so you can't see what you're shooting; you simply set it up, point it at something cool, and start shooting.
What makes the GoPro special is its case, which is waterproof, shockproof, and lets it survive all manner of beatings. It also comes with an array of different mounting solutions letting you attach it to anything from a car to a surfboard.
With the GoPro Hero, all the usual bells and whistles have been shaved off. The camera itself has also been permanently affixed to the plastic case—instead of removable like higher-end versions. Most people leave the case on all the time anyway, so this isn't a huge deal, but it does mean that you can't remove the battery, or use GoPro's extended battery adapter.
Given that the current flagship, the GoPro Hero 4 Black is already minimalistic at heart, it's no surprise that the dead-simple Hero doesn't feel much different. With a whopping two buttons total, a lens, small LCD screen, SD slot and USB connection in the back, the Hero keeps things simple enough that anyone can shoot as soon as you get it out of the box.
Sharpness is something that GoPro has improved vastly with the new Hero4 Black edition, but the Hero is simply nowhere near that level. This isn't surprising as it is about 1/4 the price of the Black edition, but the Hero is closer to a $200 point-and-shoot than a $400 camcorder.
In our tests we recorded 475 LPPH horizontally and 500 LPPH vertically while shooting 1080p at 30 fps in bright light. This is average at best, but we must say again, the camera is only $130. While the image isn't as sharp as the Hero4 cameras it was released with, it is good for the price.
Solid performer for bargain price
To put it simply, we didn't expect much from a $129 action cam. The Hero actually surprised us when we got it in the lab as it generally stood up to the higher-end—and vastly more expensive—Hero 4 Black and Silver editions. In our tests, the Hero showed a slightly higher color accuracy than the Silver and Black editions.
This doesn't mean you should expect better color from the Hero, but in perfect settings it was at least on par. Noise also scored a bit better by showing less noise in both normal and low-light, though we believe this to be due to more noise reduction being employed with the older sensor.
Unfortunately, that noise reduction comes at a penalty: fine detail. We saw only around 475 LPPH horizontally and 500 LPPH vertically while shooting 1080p at 30 fps meaning it was much softer than the other GoPros of the 2014 class.
This isn't a strong showing, and without full 1080/60p video motion isn't much better. Shooting in 720/60p will show better results while filming motion due to the higher framerate, but even so the footage just isn't very sharp. It's about on par with most waterproof point-and-shoots, though admittedly even those are more expensive than the Hero.
If there's one shining light here it's battery life. In this regard the Hero is better than its higher-end siblings thanks to the lack of power-hungry features. When we tested the Hero, we got a full three hours while shooting HD footage. That is far and beyond what most GoPros will give you—though with no interchangeable battery, it's necessary.
Smaller sensor cameras will always fail to handle low-light conditions when compared to large sensor cameras. It is simple physics that—all else being equal—the larger the sensor, the larger the pixel sites, the more light that is collected at a time. That doesn't mean small sensors can't perform well in low-light, though, as we saw great low-light sensitivity out of last years Hero3+ Black.
That said, the Hero just doesn't live up to its latest siblings. It took 8 lux of light for the Hero to produce a usably bright image, and even that was of very low quality. Furthermore, the Hero is at a distinct disadvantage compared to the Silver and Black Hero4 cameras because it does not have ProTune capabilities–allowing users to control ISO and quality to a higher degree in post-production.
Back to the basics
The Hero is a pared-down version of the GoPro lineup and if you're looking for a premium experience, it comes up short. Unlike its fellow GoPros of the class of 2014, the lowly Hero can only shoot 1080 at 30 and 24 fps as well as 720p at 60 and 50 fps. With top-tier GoPros recording 1080 at 60 and even 120fps, this is the main area where the Hero gets left behind.
The resolutions aren't the only thing that got hacked down with the price, with still images also dropping from 12 MP on other 2014 GoPros to just 5 MP here. This means you will have low quality still images that are only going to be used for the web. But, let's be honest, what else are you going to do with a GoPro still image? Post it on social media and call it a day.
If you want still photos of an action sequence, the Hero lets you capture 10 photos in 2 seconds. There's also a simple time lapse mode, which will automatically capture a series of photos at 0.5-second intervals. You miss out on Night Lapse, ProTune, and other custom options that you get on the higher end GoPro cameras, however.
Possibly the biggest missing feature—understandably so—is WiFi. Normally WiFi doesn't mean much, but with GoPros—which lack an LCD monitor—you have no way to see what you're shooting until after you've shot it. Normally you'd have a way to combat it with a remote connection, using an external LCD or WiFi to monitor your shot from your smartphone. The Hero isn't compatible with either solution. It's a simple set-it-and-forget-it camcorder, but it's also not much more than that.
The Hero doesn't offer a ton of options for high fps shooting like its brethren, but it does allow for 720/60p recording, which is your best bet for action shots. The 1080p mode maxes out at 30 fps, which is good for normal motion, but that won't allow you to slow down playback very much.
When we did shoot 1080/30p we saw generally smooth video with minor evidence of trailing and artifacting while shooting on our test setup. In real world applications we'd recommend using 60p for capturing precise action, however. It won't be as detailed, but you can slow that down to 24 fps on playback for a better look at whatever you shot.
A good introductory camera for entry-level users
While there are not a lot of features on the Hero, it's important to remember the price point we're talking about. For only $129, you are getting a very nice value. You aren't getting the amazing action camera performance and features that the GoPro Silver and Black editions offer, but you do get a solid little action cam for less than half the price.
It's not all grim, however, and there are a few places where the Hero will shine above the competition–and even other GoPros. The biggest area is the three-hour battery life, which could be used for amazing time lapses. The Hero also soars over its non-GoPro competition like the Polaroid Cube, which only gives you half the continuous shooting time. Coupled with the endless possibilities offered with the GoPro mount, the Hero is easily worth the extra $30.
We wouldn't recommend picking up the Hero for serious filmmakers, but if you want a camera to take with you to Disneyland or to pop on your board when you're learning to surf, this camera will get it done for cheap. A name doesn't usually count for much in the camera space, but when it comes to fulfilling your kid's wishlist without breaking the bank, this GoPro gets the job done.
Battery is always a downfall for GoPro cameras; like sensors, smaller batteries just can't cut it like bigger packs can. But the fact that the Hero is mostly featureless gives it a huge boost in battery life. We recorded 1080p at 30 fps for 3 hours straight on a single charge.
That's much longer than your typical GoPro these days. It may come at the cost of WiFi, improved processing, and a more detailed sensor, but at least the Hero doesn't give out easily.
Meet the tester
Photographer / Producer@JacksonRuckar
As a photojournalist, Jackson has had stints working with bands, the military, and professional baseball teams before landing with Reviewed.com's camera team. Outside of Reviewed.com, he can be found looking for the next game to relieve his "Gamer ADD" or growing his beard.
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