GoPro has spent years crafting its image as the go-to for action cameras, with its HyperSmooth stabilisation offering a stark improvement over much of the competition. But, as smartphone cameras have improved over the years, it’s become harder to justify spending hundreds on a dedicated action camera.
GoPro’s solution? Add 5K video recording, a bigger battery and a front-facing colour display to its latest flagship, the GoPro Hero 9 Black, along with a handful of much-needed feature updates. The question is, is that enough to justify the high price? Well…
Design and build
Redesigned form factor
40% bigger battery
New 1.4in front-facing colour display
Laggy touchscreen performance
The GoPro Hero 9 Black is still instantly recognisable as a GoPro, sporting the same hallmark design elements as its predecessors, but the latest in the line offers a redesigned form factor compared to the GoPro Hero 8 – with both benefits and drawbacks.
The most instantly noticeable change is that it’s big. It’s the biggest GoPro has released so far in fact, measuring in at 71 x 55 x 33.6mm compared to the Hero 8 Black’s 62 x 45 x 33mm, and it’s 41g heavier at 158g too. That’s partly down to a 40% larger battery – more on that later – but also the introduction of a new colour display on the front of the action camera.
The 1.4in square colour display, housed to the left of the lens, offers a big change from the basic monochrome display on previous models that’d only show stats like current battery life, how much space is left on the card and current resolution/framerate.
It’s a welcome addition for vlogging, giving you an easy way to frame up a shot, but the square display means you’re not seeing the full image from the front camera – just the central area of the shot. It does still show the key information of previous monochrome displays in the corners too, so you’re not losing out on any functionality.
Still, at least it means you’ll be able to make sure your face is in shot, and it gives those nearby an idea of what you’re capturing too. That’s also aided by the addition of a bright red LED on the front, alerting you and those around you that you’re currently recording.
The rear-facing 2.27in touch display, though bright and vivid, has its drawbacks. Despite being slightly larger than the Hero 8 Black, the display is still surrounded by thick bezels. While that’s a relatively minor complaint, the bigger issue touch responsiveness.
The camera system relies largely on touch input, tapping and swiping your way around the user interface to change various settings, switch shooting modes and watch captured footage, rather than using physical navigation buttons.
That’s not unheard of, but there’s a bit of lag when tapping and swiping through the various menus, and sometimes it doesn’t respond altogether. That makes for a frustrating experience at times, especially when you consider how much the Hero 9 costs. The issue was supposed to be rectified with a late 2020 update, but it’s still noticeable at times as of July 2021.
The redesigned form factor makes for a sturdier and more robust feel in the hand, giving you the confidence that the Hero 9 Black can handle just about anything you can throw at it. That includes taking it for a dunk, offering water resistance up to 10 meters deep without the need for a case, and the inclusion of a new drain microphone helps drain excess water out of the camera more efficiently too.
Of course, there’s a range of GoPro accessories that allow it to perform in even more extreme environments, including a chest mount perfect for mountain biking. The problem is that the tweaked form factor means the GoPro Hero 9 Black is incompatible with some older accessories, making the new action camera a harder sell for those with an existing accessory collection.
All that aside, it’s business as usual for the GoPro Hero 9 Black; there’s a red button on the top to trigger a video or capture a photo, a power/mode button on the left and a well-hidden side door housing the battery, USB-C port for charging and the microSD card slot.
Overall, the GoPro Hero 9 Black offers a much-needed upgrade with a sturdier build, bigger battery and front-facing colour display – it just needs to work on the rear-facing touchscreen to iron out the touch lag a little more.
Features and software
Boosted 23.6Mp resolution for 5K video recording
HyperSmooth 3.0 stabilisation is amazing
New shooting modes via GoPro Labs
The GoPro Hero 9 Black is the first GoPro since 2012’s Hero 3 Black to get an increase in resolution, with the latest model sporting a 23.6Mp resolution in place of the traditional 12Mp. The increased resolution allows the Hero 9 to shoot at [email protected], and introduces HyperSmooth Boost stabilisation to both 5K and 4K recording – something not possible on the Hero 8.
Of course, increased resolution doesn’t mean an improvement to overall image quality. There are other factors that influence the final result, including image processing, sensor size and lens quality, and it’s important to note that the Hero 9 Black sport’s the same 1/2.3in sensor as its predecessor. I’ll go into detail about what this means for image quality a little later.
There are action cameras of all shapes and sizes, many of them much cheaper than the GoPro Hero 9 Black, but GoPro’s secret sauce – the incredible HyperSmooth 3.0 stabilisation – is what keeps fans coming back time and time again.
It really is incredible technology, making even bumpy off-road BMXing look like Hollywood-recorded footage with in-camera horizon stabilisation and it’s much the same when you change direction, with a smooth panning motion free of shaking or shudder much of the time.
TimeWarp 3.0 is a similar concept, offering super-smooth stabilised timelapses ideal for long car journeys and the like.
The impressive electronic and software-based stabilisation is made possible by cropping into the footage slightly, giving the camera the wiggle room to ‘move’ the shot around and smooth out the footage as it records. It’s not optical image stabilisation, but you certainly don’t notice in use.
There are also a bunch of smaller features added to the Hero 9 Black that were first teased in GoPro Labs, a platform for GoPro users to trial upcoming software features.
One of the more interesting is Hindsight, which makes the camera constantly record and overwrite video in anticipation of something happening. Once something cool happens, you can simply hit the shutter button to save the past 15-30 seconds of video – no more trimming excessively long clips. There are also scheduled capture and duration capture options which further expand the action camera’s possible uses.
The GoPro software hasn’t changed too much this time around; you’ll find on-screen icons to quickly enable features like HyperSmooth or HyperSmooth Boost, switch recording mode or change the crop/focal length. There’s also a pill-esque tab at the bottom of the screen that houses the various shooting modes available to you, both preset and custom depending on your needs.
Swiping up from the bottom of the display will take you to your gallery, allowing you to quickly review recently captured videos and photos, and swiping down from the top of the screen provides access to the expansive Settings menu. It is a little laggy at times, as mentioned earlier, but it’s fine if you need only change shooting mode or adjust the crop on the fly.
There’s also compatibility with the GoPro Quik app for iOS and Android that, in addition to offering a suite of video editing tools to make the most of the footage you capture, boasts a live view of the camera, access to basic recording settings and allows you to wirelessly transfer footage from the camera to your smartphone for sharing.
Produces well stabilised, detailed videos in well-lit outdoor environments
Multiple shooting modes and resolution/framerate combinations
Poor indoor/low-light performance, as with previous GoPros
The GoPro Hero 9 Black captures incredibly well stabilised, detailed videos and it’s decent on the photography front too, but with the same sensor as its predecessor, there isn’t much difference in overall performance.
That said, the new [email protected] mode captures more detail than 4K, especially when combined with the 100Mbps bit-rate code for maximum capture performance. The use of HEVC means storage files aren’t much bigger than 4K counterparts either, meaning you likely won’t need to invest in a high-capacity microSD card to capture 5K footage.
The bigger question is whether you really need a 5K resolution. If you’re watching it on a smartphone, PC monitor or even a 4K TV, you’ll struggle to notice the extra detail offered from 5K – in fact, there aren’t many 5K monitors on the market that could play the file at its native resolution. One benefit is the ability to crop into the video without much loss of detail, though it’s worth asking if you’ll actually make use of that before shooting.
Resolution aside, the camera performance is generally on a par with its predecessor thanks to the inclusion of the same 1/2.3in sensor. With that in mind, you can expect the same great video performance in sunny outdoor conditions, capturing sharp detail and vibrant colours that blow much of the competition out of the water.
It’s not the perfect shooting experience though; highlights (like the sky) can look bright and overexposed, and it’s not quite as capable in low-light conditions either, with noise levels creeping up as light levels decrease – issues prevalent on its predecessors too.
Where the Hero 9 Black does shine is with the variety of shooting modes on offer. Aside from the headline [email protected], you can shoot 4K at up to 60fps, 2.7K at up to 120fps, and if you drop down to 1080p, you can access a dedicated slow-mo shooting mode capturing up to 240fps. You’ve also got a choice of 16:9 or 4:3 shooting modes, and a digital zoom to get closer to the action too.
You can save your go-to shooting modes for easy access, with combinations available to suit a variety of situations.
You might assume that the larger 1,720mAh battery – 40% larger than its predecessor – translates to longer battery life. After all, GoPro claims a 30% improvement to overall battery life compared to the 1,220mAh Hero 8 Black.
However, the combination of higher resolution capture and the introduction of a full-colour display on the front means you’re unlikely to see a significant change on the battery life front.
In my experience, I got around five hours of intermittent use – taking the occasional video, still and timelapse on a trip to Colchester Zoo, turning the camera off between shots – before running low on battery. I managed to capture over an hour’s worth of footage as well as a handful of stills, but those that want to capture more footage over a longer period of time will need to invest in a backup battery.
It’s worth reiterating at this point that the larger battery of the GoPro Hero 9 Black means you can’t use any spare batteries from older models – you’ll have to buy a new one regardless.
The GoPro Hero 9 Black comes in at a not insignificant £379.99/$379.99, making it more expensive than most options in our best action camera chart.
The good news is that you can bundle the GoPro with GoPro Plus – a £49.99/$49.99 per year subscription that provides unlimited cloud storage and replacements for broken cameras – along with a 32GB microSD card, a floating hand grip, spare battery and more, for the same £379.99/$379.99. The deal is exclusively available from the GoPro website for those interested.
The GoPro Hero 9 Black is also available to buy from retailers including Amazon in the UK and Best Buy in the US.
The GoPro Hero 9 Black is a great all-rounder, offering a rugged, waterproof action camera experience that can capture up to [email protected] – even if that high a resolution will be wasted on most screens. The more exciting addition is the front-facing LCD display, giving you a preview of what’s being captured, making it ideal for vloggers on outdoor adventures.
Combined with an array of accessories, the Hero 9 Black is a versatile, well-protected action cam suited to a variety of scenarios.
That said, the GoPro Hero 9 Black doesn’t offer much to tempt Hero 8 or even Hero 7 owners, offering the same all-round experience, albeit without the shiny new 5K shooting mode, and there is no significant headway on low-light performance either.
GoPro Hero 9 Black: Specs
71 x 55 x 33.6mm
2.27in rear-facing touchscreen
1.4in front-facing display
Up to [email protected] video recording
Wi-Fi & Bluetooth-enabled with app connectivity
Built-In Mounting with Folding Fingers
HyperSmooth 3.0 Video Stabilization
TimeWarp 3.0 Video
SuperPhoto + Improved HDR
Night Lapse Video
Digital Lenses (SuperView, Wide, Linear + Horizon Leveling, Linear, Narrow)
Live Streaming in 1080p
Rugged + Waterproof to 33ft (10m)
Rechargeable Battery (1,720mAh Lithium-Ion)