News Tech Gadget Update : GoPro Shrinks The Camera Again: Hero4 Session Review

GoPro Inc., the popular maker of tiny video cameras, is making them even tinier.

How tiny? The new GoPro Hero4 Session is the size of an ice cube, about half that of previous GoPros. It can fit into the spokes of a bike, hang onto the end of a fishing pole or turn a toddler into a documentary filmmaker.

The Session goes on sale July 12, and GoPro gave me one to try over the past week. It isn’t the best-quality camera GoPro has ever made, but it’s so small and simple, I’m likely to keep using it.

Just brace for the sticker shock: $400. That’s the same price as an Apple Watch, not to mention last year’s Hero4 Silver, which has a touch screen and better picture quality.

With the Session, GoPro is going for its iPod Shuffle moment. In 2005, Apple upended its own booming music player business with the Shuffle, an iPod small enough to wear on a necklace. Its main selling point was what it lacked: no screen, no removable battery and no complex controls.

The Session is the first new design in nearly a decade for GoPro, which has an astounding 70% of the U.S. video-camera market, according to NPD. Like the Shuffle, the Session sheds features to slim down and broaden its appeal. It has no screen to view pictures, no extra buttons to change modes, no way to swap its two-hour battery.

But the refinements in the new design are, for the most part, worth the sacrifices. They go a ways toward addressing my longstanding complaint that GoPros require too much futzing.

The Session still takes full-HD video, but is pool-party ready without the waterproof housing its predecessors required. The Session’s lens is covered by a clear shield, and the USB ports for charging and swapping out memory cards are pressure sealed (safe to an undersea depth of 10 meters). The microphone drains like a human ear when you take it out of the water, so you can go from the pool to the picnic table in seconds.
The Session also cuts GoPro’s number of buttons from three to two—really just one big one you use regularly. Tap the shutter button once to power it up and start recording video, or hold it down for still shots. (A tiny digital readout next to the button gives you confirmation that it’s working.) Press the shutter again to stop recording and turn it off. This is a significant speed improvement over older GoPros and competing action cams from companies like Sony.

A few aspects of the new design did aggravate me. The 1.5-inch, 2.6-ounce cube is cute, but when all sides are equal, how can you tell which way is up? The Session can sense its orientation, and will flip its video in 180-degree increments. But it can’t rotate 90 degrees. I held it wrong initially, and took video you have to watch with your head tilted like a confused puppy.

The session holds enough power to shoot about two hours of HD video, and doesn’t waste any juice when it isn’t shooting. But the sealed battery means you must be conscientious about charging it. That takes about 90 minutes.

The big question, of course, is why you’d need a GoPro at all when you already have a smartphone. The answer is that you’re willing to stick them in places you’d never put your phone or regular camera.

I had no problem handing the Session over to a 2-year-old who, transfixed by its cute shape and blinking red light, produced incredible footage of his afternoon. Seen from the Session’s wide-angle lens, the tyke looked like a giant stomping around toy trains.

I also stuck it on the bottom of a skateboard, on a puppy and in a cocktail glass. GoPro Chief Executive Nick Woodman says he’s fond of holding it in between his teeth to document playing with his children.

Compared with other GoPros, the Session’s ruggedized, compact design made it easier to think of it as camera I can just keep in my bag. If you’ve got a pool in the backyard, it’s a no-brainer.

The Session’s design has plenty of appeal, but if you’re fussy about your cinematography, it isn’t the right choice. The image sensor GoPro put into the Session is fine, but not as good as the Hero4 Silver and Black, which can take higher-resolution shots and pick up more light in dark scenes.

The Session also requires you to be OK with filming without a screen to frame your shot. You get over this limitation when you realize the super-wide-angle lens does a remarkable job capturing whatever’s interesting. You can also use the Session’s second, smaller button to connect it to your phone via Wi-Fi to preview, download shots or change modes.

GoPro has long encouraged perspective creativity by selling an array of mounts, all of which are compatible with the Session when you clip on its included plastic frame. It has also introduced a few new ones, like a $60 glove called the Strap. GoPro has even announced plans for its own quadcopter drones and 360-degree virtual-reality rigs.

Now that the Session plots a new design direction for its cameras, GoPro’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have an answer to what to do with all that footage. Sure, the camera comes with an editing program; it’s a bit buggy, but who even has the inclination to edit their videos anymore?

The Session ought to be smart enough to upload all your footage to the cloud as soon as you get home and plug it in, for storing and sharing those moments. Mr. Woodman says his company is working on such a cloud service. That GoPro can charge $400 for the Session without it is a testament to its quality design and powerful marketing, but it is sorely needed now.

GoPro’s marketing has always been about extreme athletes. Like Nike, I suspect the message is aspirational for most customers. Its actual base looks increasingly more like extreme parents. For them, the Session is the best camera on the market for documenting the rough and tumble of family life.
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