The new GoPro Hero 9 Black has skydived into a very different world to the company's original "re-usable wrist camera" from 2005.
Back then, the world's biggest-selling smartphone was the Nokia N70 and the closest thing to a global pandemic was a World of Warcraft blood plague. Action cameras have had to evolve, fast – and it's a trick that the GoPro Hero 9 Black has pulled off, if not for the reasons you might think.
Not that GoPro had any alternative. Right now, the whole concept of an 'action camera' seems slightly at odds with a time when adventure is, for most of us, a trip to the supermarket.
But the Hero 9 Black hasn't just shoehorned in features for the sake of it – from a webcam mode to its new 'Power Tools' and GoPro Labs, there are genuinely useful tricks that open up new paths beyond its traditional dirt trails.
- Read our in-depth GoPro Hero 9 Black review
This is no coincidence – it's the result of a strategic shift that started with GoPro Labs, a new platform that lets you try out unreleased beta tools, earlier this year. Collectively, these changes turn the Hero 9 Black into a surprisingly versatile Swiss Army Knife of a camera.
It's no longer just a pocket, waterproof Instagram Story generator – thanks to these new skills, it has the potential to be your webcam, body cam, dash cam, security cam, anything cam. As well as your phone's stunt double.
The Hero 9 Black isn't quite there yet. But its new features and the GoPro Labs platform show that it's definitely evolving promisingly in that direction. And that's a big deal for those of us who are still fond of owning a versatile little waterproof camera in a world with slightly less action than usual.
Of course, this isn't the first time that GoPros have had to evolve. Incredibly, the first GoPro in 2005 was a disposable 35mm film camera stuck inside a waterproof case, with a strap for surfers to mount it on their wrists. You had to wind it on manually and there was no video.
The company's founder and CEO Nick Woodman has admitted that he didn't think GoPro would be anything more than a niche surfing accessory. But that was before social media got us hooked on producing airbrushed daily edits of our awesome lives* (*cleaning timelapses not included), and GoPro rode a monster wave of internet one-upmanship that sold action cameras by themselves.
That all came crashing down in the mid-2010s, when GoPro's success went to its head and it overextended itself with launches like the GoPro Karma drone. Still, in what is something of a recurring theme in the GoPro story, the fallout from the Karma, and a subsequent stock market battering, was a blessing in disguise. It set the company on a more focused, sensible path that's led directly to the Hero 9 Black.
With this new flagship, it's fair to say action cameras have finally grown up. And just like CEO Nick Woodman's original Hero line maturing just as social media took off, the timing couldn't be better.
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Lights, camera, pandemic
It might seem incredible that action cams are relevant at all during a year when smartphones were cited by Olympus, a company that's been making cameras for 84 years, as the main reason for its decision to exit the camera business.
But there is a flipside to the smartphone's all-conquering rise. Our shiny rectangles have become so important, with a recent survey's respondents revealing they'd rather lose a finger than their phone, that we daren't put them in harm's way. Enter the GoPro, your phone's stunt double, the mate who's always prepared to try out that ropey-looking zipline first.
While the Hero 9 Black's evolution from earlier GoPros is mainly about adding 'sensible' features like 'scheduled captures' and a webcam mode, there's no doubt its USP is still capturing video you can't quite shoot with any other camera.
This comes down to its unique combination of three things: its pocketable size, waterproof durability and class-leading software features like TimeWarp and HyperSmooth stabilization (now in their third iterations on the Hero 9 Black). A lot of cameras have two of these things, but GoPros are still pretty unique thanks to the development of slick software tricks after that mid-2010s wobble.
A bigger competitor for GoPro is actually one much closer to home – itself. As I found when putting together our GoPro Hero 9 Black review, it actually struggles to improve on the GoPro Hero 8 Black when it comes to traditional video features. That's why the most interesting thing about the Hero 9 Black is its radically improved versatility.
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Dressed up to the nines
GoPro's popularity has always been rooted in its cameras' versatility, but the Hero 9 Black (and GoPro Labs) take this to the next level.
The most obvious example is the new flagship's front LCD, which makes it a much more compelling waterproof vlogging camera. But this was really just GoPro playing catchup with the DJI Osmo Action – the more interesting stuff is tucked away in its menus and app.
Here, you'll find the first fruits of GoPro Labs, a platform that arrived in May to let you test-drive experimental software features. There's scheduled capture (which lets you set the Hero 9 Black to turn itself on at a certain time), in-camera horizon leveling (previously only possible in the app), and HindSight (which lets you capture video during 15 or 30 seconds before you actually hit the shutter button).
All of these are practical and useful, unlike the shiny baubles GoPro got distracted by a few years ago.
GoPro told us that GoPro Labs will be made available for the Hero 9 Black (and GoPro Max) later this year, so this will just be the start of its tweakability. For example, one new Labs feature is motion capture, which means you could turn it into a little security cam or garden watcher.
It's not just those Labs-driven features that are powering the Hero 9 Black's evolution either. There's a new Webcam mode, a job for which the Hero 9 Black is a well-qualified due to its handy wide-angle lens (which can be made even wider with the incoming GoPro Max Lens mod).
And lastly, the Hero 9 Black also has boosted livestreaming powers, with the likes of Twitch added to its compatible platforms, alongside GoPro's own platform. Sadly, Instagram still isn't compatible yet, but if GoPro manages to nail this area it could mean not having to invest in a separate streaming camera from the likes of Razer or Logitech.
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Last action Hero
With the Hero 9 Black and GoPro Labs, GoPro has gone from selling action cameras as your key to unlocking an adventure sports utopia, to reframing them as waterproof lumps of video-shooting putty that you can shape into pretty much whatever you want.
Of course, this is what it had to do, given the Hero 8 Black was already an excellent, traditional action camera and the fact we've all had to put high-octane travel adventures on the backburner, for now. But despite some of my misgivings about the Hero 9 Black, like its unresponsive rear screen, I'd say the evolution is going pretty well.
In fact, another thing going in GoPro's favor during times like these is its infuriatingly infectious marketing videos. While I've never felt like I lead an exciting enough life to justify buying a GoPro, it's certainly tempting to see a Hero as the spark you need to put down the PS4 controller and dust off your wetsuit. For many of us, this glossy escapism has never been more alluring than it is now.
In the tech world, GoPro is perhaps second only to Apple in the extent to which it's evangelized by its fans. It claims to be the most engaged consumer brand on YouTube and Instagram, which goes some way to explaining why the company has been as rugged and indestructible as the cameras it makes. But now it needs to broaden its appeal beyond action sports, and the Hero 9 Black is a solid first step in that evolution.
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