GoPro HERO4 Session
Update December 4, 2015: GoPro has dropped the price of the session to $200. We now feel comfortable recommending it.
 
Well this was a surprise. Half way through the normal release cycle, a new camera is injected into the HERO4 line. And after years of using the same basic form factor, we get the cuboidal GoPro HERO4 Session: a camera that aims for simplicity but somewhat misses the mark.
 
We were first in line at our local Best Buy on release day. Strangely, there wasn't the typical center-cap display and none of the employees seemed to be aware of the camera's release — they had to search in back to find one from the small shipment they received. Maybe our local store was an outlier, but it sure seemed like GoPro is sneaking the Session under the radar.
 

Form Factor

At first glance, the HERO4 Session seems like it is aiming for Apple-level simplicity. There's one large record button, an inconspicuous screen and a somewhat hidden menu button. The HERO4 Session is almost perfectly symmetrical, and in this reviewer's opinion, is probably the best-looking GoPro yet.
 
The new, cuboidal form factor is a breath of fresh air for a GoPro. Many, including us at Videomaker, have been critical of GoPro's traditional asymmetrical shape, but you won't find those criticisms here. We love that you can rotate the camera in 90-degree increments inside the housing without having to re-fit anything to your chosen mount. This makes attaching the HERO4 Session to the side of just about anything, from helmets to car doors, a dream. Also, since the case does not completely enclose the HERO4 Session, access to the charging port and microSD card slot is possible without removing the camera from its case.
 
 
Additionally, because the HERO4 Session is completely water-poof up to 10 meters without additional protection, safely mounting the camera for anything other than SCUBA diving takes essentially no forethought. Combined with the Chesty, wrist strap or a selfie stick, this may be the most fun GoPro for use in the backyard pool or slip-n-slide.
 
We cant emphasize enough how convenient everything about the shape of the HERO4 Session and it's mounting case is. Finding a good place to mount the camera is so easy, it's difficult to go back to the traditional GoPro form factor and deal with the hassle of dealing with what should be simple 90-degree rotations. It's easily the best part of the HERO4 Session.
 
We cant emphasize enough how convenient everything about the shape of the HERO4 Session and it's mounting case is.
 
The new form factor isn't all roses, however. Thanks to the minimalist mounting case, the record button is completely flush with the camera. This is problematic for shooting on the go while wearing gloves, as it can be difficult to find by feel alone. Furthermore, the menu button is also flush, and is so small, pressing it with gloves on is effectively impossible. While external control with a smartphone or GoPro remote is all but required, and in an ideal world, using the menu button on the fly is unlikely, the HERO4 Session often loses connection with a smartphone. This occasionally requires the Wi-Fi to be either turned back on after it's turned itself off, or cycled off then on again. Guess how that's done. That's right; with the super-small menu button.
 
Another unfortunate major downside to the new form factor is that there is no longer an external microphone input, which makes the HERO4 Session a non-starter for moto-vloggers, unless they plan on recording audio to an external device. Of course, we would argue that that defeats the point of the minimalist form-factor.
The HERO4 Session form factor diverges from previous GoPro models.
The HERO4 Session form factor diverges from previous GoPro models.
 

Usability

Speaking of audio, the HERO4 Session has two internal microphones: one on the front, one on the back. This allows the camera to dynamically switch between microphones in order to filter out wind noise. To test the wind noise reduction, we took the HERO4 Session to the road, attaching it onto the side of a car and in several places on a motorcycle, including the handelbars, frame, rear foot pegs and helmet. 
 
The one-two punch of having two internal microphones and no solid enclosure seems to have worked. Does the two-mic setup make the Session's audio capture truly windproof? In our tests, this system was not enough to counteract strong winds from one direction, which you might experience when shooting motorsports or while having the Session car-mounted. The wind noise makes the audio completely unusable, just like previous generation GoPros. Light breeze? Different story. The two mic system cuts about as much wind as a standard wind screen you might find on a traditional microphone. We did experience a general improvement in the overall sound quality over previous GoPros, but don't expect miracles from the Session.
 
We did experience a general improvement in the overall sound quality over previous GoPros, but don't expect miracles from the Session.
 
Despite the simplistic form factor, the GoPro HERO4 Session is not terribly easy to use. Out of the box, you can record video using the factory settings, but changing them is impossible without the aid of a smartphone or the GoPro Smart Remote — sold separately. The in-camera menu can only be used to activate wireless control and power the camera on and off. Considering the control system of using two buttons and a screen is no different than any other GoPro, we found it strange that they would limit the menu options as much as they did.
 
There is no way to add an accessory LCD to the GoPro HERO4 Session. Not only is there not a dedicated dock for one like on the HERO4 Black, but there is also no HDMI out for third party monitors. This is unfortunate, but it does fall in line with the philosophy of the HERO4 Session, which actively encourages users to manage the camera with a smartphone. That said, the HERO4 Session is the same price as the HERO4 Silver, which includes an LCD screen right out of the box, so if you must have the LCD, there's no reason to buy the Session.
 
Setting the HERO4 Session up to work with a smartphone is as easy as any modern GoPro. It uses a combination of Bluetooth and WIFI to make a secure connection. One snafu we encountered, which was not addressed in GoPro's online support, is that having two different GoPros with the same name saved in your App prevents either from working entirely. This isn't so much a criticism, as a word of caution.
 
Perhaps the biggest downside to the GoPro HERO4 Session, and the biggest reason not to buy it, is the non-removable battery. GoPro advertises a one hour, 45 minute battery life when recording 1080 60p non-stop with no WIFI enabled. In our tests using the same settings, we experienced battery life of about one hour, 40 minutes — pretty close to what GoPro claims. This would be acceptable were it not for two factors: First, the HERO4 Session practically requires the use of Wi-Fi, and second, it's quite rare to use an entire battery without stopping and starting the camera. Considering it'll take about two hours to recharge the battery, active GoPro users will need to rotate two HERO4 Sessions if they hope to shoot all day.
 

Image Quality

For our tests, we compared the Session to the HERO4 Black. While not the best comparison, due to the $100 price differential, we were able to validate that the differences in image quality between the Session and the Black are comparable to the differences between the Session and the Silver. For that comparison, see this video by MicBergsma. To examine the difference in image quality, we took shots of a busy street, a quiet courtyard, and a dense vegetation. 
 
While the GoPro HERO4 Session does technically have ProTune as an option, enabling it only reveals two settings: ISO limit and Sharpness. Within those settings, the options are just as limited. ISO Limit is limited to 400 and 1600 and sharpness is either on or off. Considering the wealth of options on the equally-priced HERO4 Silver, the Session's Protune settings are really disappointing. It's got no white balance adjustments, no EV compensation and no color profiles.
 
The image quality is equally disappointing. Since there is no flat profile, images are more contrasty than we like to see from a GoPro, making them difficult to adjust in post-production. This is most evident in the fine details like leaves, dirt, gravel, sand or concrete. It all looks a bit muddy and soft.
Some fine details in the Session’s image appear muddy or soft
 
It's odd to think that an image that is overly contrasty would have a soft look, but that's definitely the case here. Fine details end up looking like someone applied the water color effect in Photoshop.
 
On another odd note, it seems that the HERO4 Session's highlights tend to bleed over darker areas when they are adjacent to each other. This gives the footage a bit of a hazy look. At first we thought it may have been due to fingerprints on the lens cover, but the haziness persisted after cleaning it off. 
 
Considering the wealth of options on the equally-priced HERO4 Silver, the Session's Protune settings are really disappointing.
 
The color on the GoPro HERO4 Session is a bit more saturated than the HERO4 Black on flat mode, but not overly so. In our tests, there was still plenty of usable color data to manipulate in post.
HERO4 Session image is slightly more saturated than that of the HERO4 Black
 
The HERO4 Session doesn't shoot in 4K. We had initial hopes that we could pull 4K video from the Session using the Time Lapse feature, but that's not the case. Even though the session shoots 8MP stills for time lapse, they lack the horizontal resolution required to meet 4K requirements. That said, thanks to the downscaling of the 8MP stills to 1920 x 1080 video, the sharpness we got from Time Lapse mode was a nice improvement over the Sessions lackluster native video.
 
Rolling shutter distortion is not improved over previous GoPros, but considering everything else is notably worse in terms of image quality, we are happy to see that rolling shutter has stayed about the same. It's still not advisable to put the GoPro on something with excessive vibration, as you will experience more of the jello effect than is usable, if you're used to shooting with GoPros, you're already used to working around this.
 

Ecosystem Compatibility

Fortunately, despite the dramatic change to the form factor, the HERO4 Session is compatible with all existing GoPro mounts, and it adds one to the lineup: the ball-joint mount. This mount gives you 10-20-degree angular movement and 360 degrees of rotation. It's an amazing mount for leveling the camera when it's just off bubble.
 
Also added to the lineup of accessories is the Floaty, which is exactly what it sounds like: a life preserver for your HERO4 Session. Unfortunately, as mentioned, batteries, the battery BacPac, and monitors are not compatible. Another unfortunate absence is any sort of dive case for using the Session at water depths exceeding 10m. Until one comes out, there's frankly no reason for SCUBA divers to even consider the HERO4 Session.
 

The Bottom Line

On one hand, we commend GoPro for making such a dramatic change to the form factor of their popular HERO line. On the other hand, they seem to have had to sacrifice so much to get to this point that it hardly seems worth it. There fact that there's no microphone input, no removable battery, inferior image quality and the lack of a dive case make the HERO4 Session a hard sell.
 
That said, we can't deny that the cuboidal form factor and minimalist mounting case are nothing short of amazing. If the downsides mentioned don't bother you, you'll certainly have a lot of fun with the Session. It simply fits places previous GoPros can't, thanks to its small size and lack of a need for 90-degree mounts. However, if you buy the Session, one thing may leave you regretting your decision: the HERO4 Silver is a better GoPro in almost every way, and it's the exact same price.
 
In reality, the HERO4 Session isn't a terrible camera, but it is overpriced. If it were $200 or even $250, it'd be a no brainer. But at $400, sitting right next to the HERO4 Silver, and just $100 shy of the industry-leading HERO4 Black, we imagine most consumers will have a hard time trying to justify sacrificing function for form. Update December 4, 2015: GoPro has dropped the price of the session to $200. We now feel comfortable recommending it.
 

Strengths

  • Convenient Form Factor
  • Waterproof to 10m

Weaknesses

  • Poor Image Quality
  • Minimal Protune Settings
  • No Removable Battery
  • No Dive Case
  • No Microphone Input
    
Sensor Size & Type: 8MP
Video Format: H.264 codec, .mp4 file format
Resolution & Frame Rate: 1920 x 1440 (30p, 25p); 1920 x 1080 (60p, 50p, 48p, 30p, 25p); 1280 x 960 (60p, 50p, 30p, 25p); 1280 x 720 (100p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p), 848 x 480 (120p, 100p)
Recording Media: microSD
Display Size and Resolution: N/A
Optical Zoom: None
Lens: "Ultra Wide"
Audio In: None
Audio Out: None
Video Out: None
Other Interface: USB Micro-B
Internal ND: None
Shutter Range: Not Provided
Shot Assist: None
ISO: 400, 1600 
Manual Exposure: None
Image Stabilization: None
Battery: Internal
 
GoPro
www.gopro.com
Price: $399
 
Mike Wilhelm is Videomaker's Director of Content.

1 COMMENT

  1. Terrific evaluation, Mike. Your weighing of the Session’s pros v. cons should lead any savvy shooter to the same bottom-line . I appreciate your even-handed assessment of what does work about the camera, though it seems clear that GoPro’s engineers failed to heed Dr. Ian Malcolm’s/Jurassic Park error in judgment, focusing more on “can we” instead of “is it a viable concept”. In their zeal to compress the form the factor, they seem to ignore the massive user feedback regarding clumsy access to functions on the “normal” size Heroes. Wish those R&D bucks had gone into improving battery life, alternative virtual focal lengths and more exposure finesse. Be interesting to assess the sales number at the 1 year mark. Anyway – keep those great reviews coming.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here