Editors' note: Since its launch in July, GoPro has lowered the price of the Hero4 Session from $400 to $200. Parts of this review have been adjusted to reflect this new pricing and the overall rating has been increased from 7.6 to 8.0 as it is now a much better value.
Three years ago GoPro started work on a new project to answer one question: If a rival were creating a "GoPro killer," what would it be?
The result is the all-new Hero4 Session -- the smallest, lightest and most rugged GoPro video camera to date.
The Session fleshes out GoPro's current product portfolio to six models as the company attempts to further dominate the market for POV (point-of-view) cameras -- also known as "action cams" -- which are increasingly used to capture video from the likes of surfers, skydivers, snowboarders, cyclists and even drones in the most extreme situations.
The Session has a new cube-shaped form factor that distinguishes it from its earlier, more rectangular GoPro siblings such as the Hero4 Silver and Black . It's also 40 percent lighter than those models -- 2.6 ounces (74g) compared with 5.2 ounces (147g) -- and that square shape, included mounting frames and quick-release buckles let you rotate the camera so it's right-side up and lower profile, something that's not easily done with other GoPro cameras.
Another Session difference is that it's waterproof down to 10 meters (33 feet) -- without the need for an enclosure. By contrast, the Hero4 Silver and Black are almost twice as bulky when snapped into the wraparound housings that are required to keep them dry.
The more compact, rugged design really is the biggest reason to consider the Session, which currently costs $200 (£160, AU$300) following two, $100 price cuts from its original $400. At $400 it was competing with the company's Hero4 Silver, which offers better video quality, more shooting options, a removable/replaceable battery, Micro-HDMI output and a built-in touchscreen. (That late 2014 model snagged a CNET Editors' choice, and remains our most recommendable action cam overall.)
Now down at $200, the Session is competing with the GoPro Hero+, which has fewer shooting options than the Session. In fact, it's hard to see why you would bother considering the Hero+ unless you really want the design of the other Hero cameras and need something waterproof to 131 feet(40 meters). Also, Sony's Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 is very small as well and although it's just splashproof without a housing, it delivers overall better video quality and features than the Session.
So, yes, the Session's smaller dimensions force some compromises. But it also addresses some of the biggest criticisms leveled at the company's other Hero models. Like the name implies, the Session is GoPro's grab-and-go model -- the one that you'll take to shoot that skate session or ski session or hanging-out-with-your-family session, without having to worry as much about where and how you're going to shoot with it.
Again, the Session directly addresses some of the design advantages of GoPro's competition. Cameras such as the Replay XD Prime X, iON Air Pro 3, Contour Roam3 and Drift Ghost-S don't need a housing to protect them from water. Also, the Prime X is a cylinder and can be rotated within its mounts until its lens is upright and level, while the Roam3 and Ghost-S have rotating lenses to accomplish the same thing.
The Session joins this club. You might think having to use a housing isn't the end of the world and it's not, but there have been several times when I've needed my GoPro to be waterproof and only had the open, skeleton back. Or I've wanted better audio, but only had the completely sealed waterproof back. The Session's waterproof build solves this.
Also, the housings for other Hero models only have one mounting point and that's on the bottom. The included frames that are included for mounting the Session take advantage of the camera's cube design. This means that no matter how you attach the frame's mount -- to the top, bottom, left or right -- you just position the camera in the frame so it's right-side up. Or if you have to mount it upside down, the camera will automatically flip the video 180 degrees when you start recording.
There are two frames included with the camera. One has the standard GoPro two-prong mount on the bottom, while the other puts that mount to the back. Combined with the new included low-profile quick-release buckle, this allows you to put the Session in tighter spaces, such as under a skateboard or simply keep it tighter to the side or top of your helmet. Also included is a buckle with a ball joint so you can level out the camera or tilt it up or down.
Ideally, the frames or the Session itself would have a standard tripod mount, too, but you're not going to sell more GoPro mounts by doing that, right? Luckily, it's something that's easily remedied with an inexpensive GoPro 1/4-20 tripod mount and either frame.
To make the Session so small, you sacrifice some things found on the other Hero4 models. There is no Micro-HDMI output, for instance, and the battery is built in. There is a Micro-USB port for charging and transfers as well as a microSD card slot that supports cards up to 64GB. (No card is included and the slot is at an angle, which had me nearly breaking my card at first as I tried to force it in.)
There are just two buttons. Give the button on top a quick press and the camera will turn on and start recording in less than five seconds. Push and hold the button when off for three seconds and the camera starts taking time-lapse photos. Another quick press shuts it down again.
Though the other GoPro cameras have this feature, called QuikCapture, it happens much faster on Session. It's a battery saver for sure, letting you start and stop recordings fast without worrying too much about missing a shot.
The other button is on back. A quick press brings the small sliver of a screen on top to life and gives you some status information such as how many recordings you have, battery life and your video resolution. (While recording it also triggers the HiLight Tag feature for flagging key moments to make editing easier.) Another press lets you turn on the camera's Wi-Fi that can be used to connect to an iOS or Android device or to GoPro's wireless waterproof Smart Remote.
Despite being set to a default recording resolution of 1080p at 30 frames per second (fps), you can use the mobile app or Smart Remote to access all settings. It can record at up to 1,920x1,440 at 30fps, 1,920x1,080 at 60fps and 1,280x720 at 100fps, but there are many more options than just those. It does loop recording (so you can keep recording without worrying about storage space); time-lapse, burst and single photo capture; and ProTune for Video, which gives you less-compressed video and a little more control over results (but not as much as you get in the other Hero4 cameras).
It's a bit frustrating to have to connect to a smartphone or remote to change settings, but I imagine most people pick one resolution and stick with it. Still, it would be nice if perhaps a double button press let you access a second resolution setting so you could easily switch between recording in 1080p60 or 720p100 without taking out a second device.
The Hero4 Session body design doesn't allow for much heat dissipation and the best sensors and video processors give off a lot of heat. Whatever's inside the Session gets the job done well, though. Recording at 1080p at 60fps, the 25Mbps-bitrate video looks very good at small sizes, such as when viewed on a smartphone or tablet, delivering a fair amount of detail and the vivid GoPro color we're used to seeing.
If you really examine the video, you can see that's it's a considerable step down in quality from the Hero4 Silver and Black. Fine details just aren't as sharp and clean and there are more artifacts visible when viewed closely at large sizes. That said, it's likely you won't notice unless you're watching clips full-screen on a large monitor or TV. Well, with well-lit video at least.
Shooting indoors or in low-light or darkness will get you some noticeably softer results and color noise and artifacts are more visible. The camera does have GoPro's Auto Low Light mode, but that simply drops the frame rate to help with exposure. Basically, don't expect the same results indoors as you'll get in daylight.
In the end, if you truly need the best possible video for your money, you're better off saving up for a Hero4 Silver. Or, as I mentioned earlier, Sony's Action Cam Mini HDR-AZ1 , which is also very small and although it's just splashproof without a housing, it delivers overall better video quality and features -- including a removable battery. The category is exploding with other options, too, that might better suit your needs and budget.
As for audio, GoPro used two mics, one in front and one in back. To reduce wind noise, the camera will dynamically switch to the better mic. It works much better than you might think; you still end up with wind noise, but it's not as deafening. Considering the mics are completely exposed, it's pretty impressive.
The mics on waterproof cameras tend to sound muted due to the membranes needed to keep the water out. GoPro specially designed the mic ports to move water out as quickly as possible, clearing the membranes in a couple seconds. However, the combination of wind and water created a whistling sound and it didn't clear water as quickly when the camera was positioned upside down and stayed that way, but otherwise performed as promised.
Battery life is rated at 2 hours when recording at 1080p at 30fps with Wi-Fi off, which matched up to my anecdotal testing. However, using the Wi-Fi or recording at faster frame rates will likely drop that recording time. Your best bet is to take advantage of the fast start-up and shut-down feature and keep wireless off as much as possible.
If the goal for creating the GoPro Hero4 Session truly was to create a competitor to its other cameras, I'd say GoPro succeeded. It's not just a variation on what it already has in its lineup, but complements them, delivering a small, lightweight camera that can go where the other Heros can't. And now that its price is half of what it started at it's a much more compelling option, whether it's your only camera or as a secondary camera to get another point of view.