GoPro Hero9 Black Review

The GoPro Hero 9 Black is the most powerful and versatile action camera you can buy, but collectively its new features don’t provide quite enough real-world benefits over its predecessor to justify the price.

The two biggest upgrades are its new sensor and front display. That new 23.6MP sensor shoots 5K video that does deliver slightly more detail than the Hero 8 Black, in the right conditions.

But perhaps the bigger benefit is to its electronic stabilization, with the Hero 9 Black able to provide HyperSmooth Boost – GoPro’s strongest stabilization – in all shooting modes. This makes it a top performer for those who demand high-quality 4K (and 5K) video.

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That new front colour display, while far from perfect, is also a very useful new feature for vlogging or general shooting. It’s a little laggy and no match for a dedicated articulating screen like the one on the Sony ZV-1. But if you like to frame yourself in videos a lot, then this is probably the GoPro for you.

However, some of the GoPro Hero 9 Black’s other new features aren’t quite as polished. The new battery boasts its stamina a little, but it’s an only minor improvement and we found the Hero 9 Black more prone to overheating than its predecessors.

While you get slightly improved stabilization with GoPro’s new flagship, the actual quality of its 4K video isn’t noticeably better than the Hero 8 Black‘s. Other features like Scheduled recording, while useful on occasions, aren’t yet completely reliable. And most frustratingly, we discovered the Hero 9 Black’s rear touchscreen to be pretty unresponsive at times.

Still, the latter is apparently going to be fixed by a November firmware update, and if GoPro can iron a few of the Hero 9 Black’s other minor kinks, it could yet become our number one action camera pick. Right now, the Hero 8 Black pips it for sheer value, but this feature-packed sibling is a close second.

Design

  • New 1.4-inch colour display on the front is useful for vloggers
  • Redesigned body is around 10% bigger and heavier than Hero 8 Black
  • The larger rear display isn’t as responsive while previous GoPros

The Hero 9 Black is the biggest redesign of GoPro’s flagship action camera since the Hero 5 Black, and the results are mostly positive (with a few caveats).

There are three big physical changes from the Hero 8 Black: a new 1.4-inch colour display on the front, a beefier body (to house its bigger battery), and a larger rear 2.27-inch back touchscreen.

Collectively, these new features feel like a response to the DJI Osmo Action, a fresh-faced rival that in some ways made GoPro action cameras feel a little dated. In some ways, the Hero 9 Black still does, and that’s partly because the new features all come with slight downsides.
First, the good news. That 1.4-inch colour display on the front is definitely a handy new addition for vlogging. It thankfully isn’t touch-sensitive, otherwise, your memory card would quickly fill up with lots of unhappy accidents, but it does provide a live video preview of your scene and some useful shooting info.

Being a square display, it certainly isn’t quite in the same league as the side-hinged screens seen on cameras like the Sony ZV-1, or your smartphone’s screen when mounted on gimbals just like the DJI OM 4. While the latter gives you a generous live preview of one’s whole shot, the Hero 9 Black’s is more of a rough guide. It’s enough to make sure your face is going to be in the frame, at least.

Previous GoPros have all had monochrome displays, which show shooting info like the remaining battery life, how much space is left on your memory card, and your current resolution/frame-rate. Not quite as exciting, but certainly more practical if you don’t shoot a lot of videos to the camera.
Naturally, the new colour display comes with greater battery demands, which is partly why GoPro has inflated the Hero 9 Black’s body size to squeeze in a fresh 1,720mAh battery. That battery’s capacity is 40% bigger than the 1,220mAh ones its predecessors, which GoPro says leads to a 30% real-world improvement. As we’ll see later in the ‘performance’ section, that’s slightly optimistic according to our tests.

Still, these changes do include downsides for anyone who’s upgrading from an older GoPro. The Hero 9 Black isn’t backwards compatible with older GoPro batteries, as they’re a different size, so you can’t use older types as spares. And the brand new design, which boosts its size and weight by about 10%, will also be too big for your old cases or housings.

A GoPro redesign was inevitable at some point, so we can’t be too critical about that, but one of our biggest disappointments with the Hero 9 Black is the responsiveness of its rear touchscreen. This 2.27-inch display is slightly larger than the Hero 8 Black’s, nonetheless, it still has large, dated bezels and feels noticeably slower when responding to touches and swipes.

It’s possible this is down to a processor bottleneck, given the GP1 chip now has to drive a more substantial rear display and colour front display simultaneously, while recording. Either way, GoPro has confirmed that a fix is coming in a November firmware update, but it’s not ideal for a flagship model with this price tag.

Still, GoPro offers at least reintroduced the removable lens cover, which is omitted from the Hero 8 Black. Whether you’re replacing a cracked zoom lens or adding an ND filter, this is a useful bonus, even if it can’t exactly be considered a ‘new’ feature.

The reason GoPro has backtracked on its removal is that it’s created a new Max Lens Mod, which screws onto the Hero 9 Black’s lens mount to give you a super-wide field of view and even stronger electronic stabilization. We’ll update this review when we’ve had the chance to take it for a spin.

Overall, the Hero 9 Black remains a handy, pocketable action camera that’s waterproof down to ten meters and is now much better for vlogging. We’d just like to observe some updates smooth out its slightly rough overheating and touchscreen edges.

Features

  • New 23.6MP sensor brings 5K/30p video and 20MP stills
  • This also helps boost its electronic image stabilization
  • New features trialled in GoPro Labs are built into the Hero 9 Black

GoPro’s special sauce has long been the combination of its class-leading HyperSmooth stabilization, first seen on the Hero 7 Black, and clever software features like TimeWarp. While the Hero 9 Black improves on these features and broadens its versatility, it doesn’t really introduce one killer reason to upgrade from the Hero 8 Black.

Not there aren’t some significant changes under the hood. GoPro flagships have had 12MP sensors going all the way back to Hero 3 Black in 2012, but the Hero 9 Black takes the radical step of pushing this resolution up to 23.6MP with a new sensor. This allows it to shoot 5K/30p video and take 20MP stills, while also supporting the more powerful HyperSmooth Boost stabilization mode (which crops your footage by 25%) in all resolutions and frame-rates.
Of course, the greater resolution doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality. Other factors, including image processing, lens high quality and sensor size, can all have an equally big impact on the final result. The Hero 9 Black’s 1/2.3in sensor is also exactly the same dimension as its predecessors, making it significantly smaller the 1-inch Edition module for the Insta360 One R.

But that new 23.6MP resolution is nevertheless the key that unlocks the Hero 9 Black’s headline features. In good light and the right conditions, there’s no doubt that it’s 5K/30p setting, particularly when combined with the ‘High’ 100Mbps bit-rate, can capture more detail than any GoPro so far.

That resolution boost also gives the Hero 9 Black the extra pixels needed to support HyperSmooth Boost stabilization, which can iron out judder from the bumpiest of mountain bike rides, in both 4K/60p and 5K/30p modes. This simply isn’t possible on the Hero 8 Black.

On the other hand, neither HyperSmooth 3.0 nor TimeWarp 3.0, which are GoPro’s moving time-lapses, are radical improvements on their Hero 8 Black equivalents. HyperSmooth 3.0 effectively just gives you Boost stabilization in those two higher resolutions and frame-rates, plus some handy horizon levelling that’s previously only been available in the GoPro app.

And TimeWarp 3.0, while still one of our favourite GoPro effects, really only brings the ability to add a ‘speed ramp’ during the middle of your video to briefly slow it down while adding some audio. It’s a nice touch that fast-tracks the editing process, but it’s more of a firmware update than a headline-worthy feature.

More interesting are the Hero 9 Black’s new ‘Power Tools’. These handy little software tricks were first teased in GoPro Labs, its new platform for GoPro users to trial fresh beta features. Some of the best ones have now been built into the Hero 9 Black.

Our favourite is ‘Hindsight’. Turn this on and the action cam will constantly buffer movie in anticipation of something GoPro-worthy happening. Once said incident occurs – your cat performing the perfect cartwheel, for example – you can press the shutter button and it’ll retrieve the previous 15 or 30 seconds of video. It’s definitely a good way to avoid filling up memory cards if you’re trying to catch your Rube Goldberg machine in action.

The other ‘Power Tools’, including ‘scheduled capture’ and ‘duration capture’, feel like they should have been on GoPros long ago, but work well and boost the Hero 9 Black’s versatility.

Still, it’s worth knowing that it is possible to bring some of these functions and others to your Hero 8 Black, albeit in a more rough-and-ready form, by loading the GoPro Labs firmware onto your camera.

Performance

  • Battery life is slightly improved compared to its predecessor
  • Built-in mics provide decent wind noise reduction
  • Still no improvements to high frame-rate modes

While the Hero 9 Black has lots of new features, it doesn’t bring many major performance enhancements over the Hero 8 Black – or ones that will be hugely noticeable in your videos, anyway.

This doesn’t mean that the Hero 9 Black isn’t a fine action camera, just that its upgrades don’t necessarily justify the premium over its two predecessors. For example, HyperSmooth 3.0 stabilization is still excellent and ideal for shooting first-person sports, as long as you don’t mind the ‘floaty’ look.

But the addition of HyperSmooth Boost to the 4K/60p and 5K/30p modes probably won’t be a huge deal for many people, because in most situations setting HyperSmooth to ‘high’ (which is a 10% crop, rather than Boost’s 25% crop) is enough to smooth out any judder.

What about the Hero 9 Black’s new, bigger battery? It does help boost its stamina, but probably not enough to make a huge practical difference to how you shoot.

In our side-by-side battery test with the Hero 8 Black, with both cameras shooting 4K/30p with HyperSmooth on, we got an extra 12 minutes from the Hero 9 Black (84 minutes, compared to 72 moments from its predecessor). And that included a short overheating break for the new model, which we didn’t get on the Hero 8 Black.

We did also get an overheating shutdown when shooting 5K/30p video, with the Hero 9 Black needing a cool down after 28 mins of continuous shooting. In both cases, it did recover enough after five minutes to keep shooting, and shooting 5K is significantly more demanding than any mode on any other GoPro. But it certainly still makes sense to carry a spare battery, or an external USB charger, if you want it to last the day. With mixed, intermittent use (shooting video, stills and time-lapses), our Hero 9 Black lasted around 4-5 hours.

Sadly, there are no real improvements to high frame-rate shooting, either. We’d have loved to see a 4K/120p mode for some crisp slo-mo footage, but that’s still only possible at 2.7K resolutions or below (the same as on the Hero 8 Black and Hero 7 Black).

Again, the Hero 9 Black does take some good quality slow motion clips that are great for breaking up your social media videos. But the usual rules apply – like its predecessors, this is best done in bright sunlight, because from dusk the higher ISOs will turn your clips into a noisy, smudgy mess.

One pleasant surprise we did find with the Hero 9 Black, though, was a slight improvement in its handling of wind noise. The Hero 8 Black made some big leaps here, and it seems the new model has improved the voice isolation in noisy environments even further, which could be handy if you like to provide live commentary over your action sports adventures.

Video and image quality

  • 5K video is the most detailed on any GoPro
  • Hero 9 Black’s footage looks more processed (out of the box)
  • The resolution supports cropping of both video and stills

The GoPro Hero 9 Black shoots some of the best video and stills you can get from an action camera, but it isn’t a huge upgrade over the Hero 8 Black.

The new 5K/30p mode certainly captures more detail than any other GoPro flagship, particularly when you switch to the high 100Mbps bit-rate mode. File sizes also aren’t noticeably bigger thanks to the use of the efficient HEVC codec in some modes, although they can very demanding on your computer.

But if you’re mainly looking to shoot videos to watch on smartphones or social media, then the extra resolution probably won’t be hugely noticeable. Even on a 4K monitor, you’ll only be able to see a significant increase in detail when cropping or pixel peeping. Of course, having the option to crop can be useful, but it’s worth considering whether or not you’ll really need this.

Needless to say, if image quality is your main concern and you want the best detail possible from any action camera, then your Hero 9 Black could well be worth the investment. But for most people, the Hero 8 Black and Hero 7 Black are perfectly good enough in this department. After all, the three cameras all have the same size sensor. And as good as GoPro’s Hypersmooth stabilization is, even tiny amounts of judder can be plenty of to negate that resolution boost.

When shooting 4K/30p on both the Hero 9 Black and Hero 8 Black, we sometimes actually preferred the latter’s video. Out of the box, the Hero 9 Black’s footage can look more processed and oversharpened, which is possibly down to some slightly more aggressive noise reduction. Having even more photosites crammed onto the same dimension sensor can improve detail, but it can also increase the amount of noise that needs to be managed.

We did furthermore find that the Hero 9 Black has a greater tendency overexpose bright scenes, particularly in the sky, compared to the Hero 8 Black. This may be fixed in a firmware update, but it’s another example of other factors being more important to image quality than resolution.

Still, you certainly won’t be disappointed with the footage you shoot about the Hero 9 Black, particularly in its 5K/30p mode. HyperSmooth stabilization remains the best you may get from an action camera, and the in-digital camera horizon levelling is a useful (if not entirely flawless) addition.

The new sensor does also let you shoot 20MP still photos, and grab 14.7MP frames from your videos. While this does deliver a slight increase in detail over its predecessors, there isn’t a major step up in the Hero 9 Black’s stills photography.

You get all the same options as before – the option to shoot in Linear mode to correct wide-angle distortion, plus SuperPhoto for regaining some highlight fine detail. In good light, the results are very good, with sharpness across the frame and crisp detail.

You do have the option of shooting in raw to lift the shadows a little, but on a sensor of this size, the amount of leeway you get is pretty small. The lack of zoom can also be frustrating, making the Hero 9 Black more of an emergency, waterproof backup to your smartphone for stills, rather than a genuine alternative.

Verdict

The GoPro Hero 9 Black is the most powerful and versatile action camera you can buy, but for most people, its predecessor offers better value. While the new sensor and front display are useful additions, the changes don’t collectively represent a big leap over the Hero 8 Black. Its unresponsiveness touchscreen is also a little frustrating, even if a firmware fix is en route. No other action can match the Hero 9 Black’s skillset, but others do beat it for value.

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