For the past couple generations, GoPro's Black model has been the one to buy because like the majority of top-of-the-line models, it had the best features and best performance and was markedly better than the step-down model, the Silver.
That's what makes the GoPro Hero4 Silver a bit of a head-scratcher. The Silver is still the step-down model, but has more than a little in common with its pricier linemate, the Hero4 Black , as well as the Hero3+ Black , the company's previous top camera.
For $400, £289 or AU$549, the Hero4 Silver records video at up to 4K at 15fps, a more useful 2.7K resolution at 30fps, and perhaps most importantly 1080p at 60fps and 720p at 120fps. Those are what the Hero 3/3+ Black was capable of, too, but the Hero4 Silver is using updated components and has a host of new recording options found in the Hero4 Black, too.
By the way, GoPro is also leaving two older models, the Hero3+ Silver and Hero3 White, in its line, and has the new $129 Hero as well, but none of them can touch the Silver's quality for the price.
The Hero4 Black still has the edge when it comes to resolutions, frame rates and bit rates, but the Silver has a built-in touchscreen -- a first for a GoPro camera. Having the screen not only makes framing up your shots easy, but it also means you don't have to rely on the small front screen for setting changes and you can view your results immediately on the camera. Just to be clear, it's not the only action cam with a screen, but it's nice that it's not just an add-on and that it doesn't make the camera any larger.
Considering all that it does and its generally excellent video quality for the category and that it's all topped off with a touchscreen, the Hero4 Silver earned our Editors' Choice Award. Still, there are some things to know before you buy.
For your money, you'll get the camera, a waterproof housing that's good down to 131 feet (40 meters), skeleton and touch back doors, two adhesive mounts (one flat and one curved), horizontal and vertical quick-release buckles that attach to the bottom of the camera's housing and a three-way pivot arm, so you can mount the camera on the top, front, or side of a helmet.
A small locking plug (also included) can be used to help prevent the buckles from accidentally releasing from the mount from force or vibration. There is no charger in the box for the camera, just a Mini-USB cable for charging via computer or USB wall adapter if you have one. There is also no microSD card included for storage, so plan on getting at least one of those.
GoPro kept the basic dimensions the same as the Hero3/3+, so if you have one of those, you can still use those housings as well. What you can't use are your old batteries.
The battery compartment was redesigned so that you just slide open a door on the bottom and load the pack into a slot. It makes swapping batteries out much easier, but it also required a new battery design. The conspiracy theorist in me says GoPro did this to force you to buy new batteries at $20 a pop (£16, AU$34) and a new external charger (though Blue Nook already has its non-OEM Wasabi packs in production).
On the left is a removable easy-to-lose cover protecting Micro-HDMI and Mini-USB ports and a microSD slot supporting cards up to 64GB. The Mini USB port is used for charging and transferring content off your microSD card, but can also be used with an optional 3.5mm stereo mic cable so you can attach an external mic. Also, next to the touchscreen is the Hero port that lets you attach GoPro's Battery BacPac, though you'll be blocking the screen if you do.
The camera's button layout remains the same, but what was the Wi-Fi power button on the right side is now a "Hilight Tag." Going through hours of video looking for that one cool moment can be tedious. While recording with the Hero4, you hit the button immediately after that cool moment happens and it's tagged so you can find it fast later when viewing in GoPro's free mobile app or desktop Studio software. It's not the first action cam to have a feature like this , but it's a nice addition.
When not recording, the button accesses your settings menus. The menus on past models were a mess, but GoPro made things a bit easier by making everything sensitive to which mode you're in. That means if you're in video-capture mode and press the settings button, you'll only get the settings options for video.
Given that there are so many resolution, frame rate and other shooting options, this cuts down significantly on the menu hunting. Plus, now that you have to go into a separate settings mode to turn on Wi-Fi it means that it won't accidentally kick on in your bag and kill your battery.
The 1.5-inch touchscreen on back can be used for changing modes and settings, too. Just swipe in from the right and select your mode. Then swipe up from the bottom and change your mode settings.
It's way more efficient than all the button mashing required when using the buttons and small screen on front, which still isn't lit in any way making changes at night a pain. The touchscreen lights up just fine, though, and as mentioned earlier it can be used for previewing before you shoot and for reviewing after.
You can also change settings, preview and review and transfer content using GoPro's mobile app. Just connect the Silver via Wi-Fi directly to your smartphone and you're set. Bluetooth has been added to the Hero4 to make reconnecting faster and easier. The app can also be used to update the firmware on the camera, which is much easier than the old procedure of loading up a microSD card.
The camera's Wi-Fi can also be used to connect to an optional wireless remote that mimics the front LCD and three-button controls on the camera (a new version of the remote supports tagging, too, with the Hero4 cameras).
Wi-Fi, of course, doesn't help battery life any, so if you're not using it, you'll want to shut it off. Battery life in general isn't great, but that's the price you pay for getting a camera this small and powerful. In my tests of continuous recording at 1080p at 60fps in Protune mode with Wi-Fi off, I averaged about 1 hour and 30 minutes, give or take a few minutes.
The possible resolution and frame rate combinations seem nearly endless and I'm just talking about straight-up video. Add in stills and time-lapse options and you'll quickly find there's no shortage of things to experiment with. I could list them all out here, but you're better off popping over to GoPro's specs page for the full details.
Again, although you can record at resolutions up to 4K, the most important settings for most people will be the 1080p at 60fps, 960 at 100fps and 720p at 120fps. However, if you're willing to drop down to 30fps for 1080p or 60fps for 720p, you'll be able to record video and capture time-lapse photos simultaneously at intervals of 5, 10, 30 or 60 seconds.
One other important update is the availability of Protune for videos and photos at all resolutions. Along with enabling the camera to record at its highest bit rate of 45Mbps, Protune lets you set color to either GoPro's color profile or Flat, which is a neutral color profile that makes post-production easier; select a white balance for your lighting conditions; pick an ISO sensitivity limit of ISO 400, 1600 and 6400 for video and ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800 for photos; adjust sharpness and exposure compensation (+/-2EV); and control of shutter speed for the new Night Photo and Night Lapse modes.
That's all more control than you get with most action cams, but if you're expecting full manual controls, that's not available. For example, shutter speeds can be set to 2, 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 seconds, but you can't set it for 1/25th or 1/10th of a second, you can't select a specific ISO sensitivity and you can measure white balance manually.
Above is a series of sample videos shot with the Hero4 Silver set to 1080p at 60fps using GoPro's SuperView option that digitally stretches 4:3 video so you end up capturing more of a scene, but still have a 16:9 format. It was edited and exported with the company's free GoPro Studio software.
The bit rate at these settings is about 30Mbps, so it's not the absolute best quality possible from the camera (you'll have to turn on Protune for that), but more likely what you'd use for uploading to YouTube or Vimeo for sharing.
At small screen sizes the video looks great, considering the size of the camera and sensor. The camera adjusts quickly and smoothly to exposure changes and handles fast movement (though extreme highlights will blow out) and vibration relatively well, but it's not without its Jell-O-ey moments. There's no option for digital image stabilization, but you could crop in when editing to help.
Viewed closely at larger sizes, it's easier to see compression artifacts, and fine detail starts to fall apart at high speeds. (Unfortunately, the clips above look worse than the raw files and we're working on a way to make those downloadable.) If you're going to be recording for playback on a large TV or monitor, I suggest using Protune; the higher bit rate improves fine detail and reduces the compression artifacts.
Photo quality is good, but as soon as you start to enlarge it, details look painterly and artifacts are readily visible. The sensor is no bigger than your average point-and-shoot camera, after all, so don't expect dSLR quality. (You can click on the image above to take a closer look.)
If you want the GoPro with the best of the best video quality, you'll still want to go with the Hero4 Black. Thanks to an expansive feature set that now includes a built-in touchscreen, the Hero4 Silver is likely the better choice for most people. It's not cheap, though, and if its feature set sounds like overkill for your needs, it's far from the only option out there.