ANOTHER AUTUMN, ANOTHER GoPro. All across the country, the leaves are turning colors and hideous sweaters are emerging from storage. That means it's action-cam season, and the new GoPro Hero 8 Black is available for order.
This year the Hero 8 gets a new form factor, with a shorter lens extension and built-in mounting rings. That's right, you can mount your GoPro on your helmet or handlebars without a cumbersome cage. It's the first major redesign the Hero has seen in years.
Now that it's cage-free, GoPro has created a line of accessories called Mods. They attach thanks to a rubberized band that's wrapped around the camera body. GoPro has three Mods to go along with the launch of the Hero 8—an attachment with more ports (that's needed to attach the others), a flip-up display, and an LED light—but expect third-party accessory makers to quickly jump on the idea, extending the action camera to new realms.
Breaking Out of the Cage
The Hero 8 is marginally larger than the Hero 7 by itself, but not enough to make it much different in the hand. If you count the 7's mounting cage, the new Hero 8 is actually smaller. Because, again, it doesn't need a cage!
The new cage-less mounting design is one of those changes that makes you wonder why it wasn't this way all along. It has folding mount rings on the bottom of the camera that tuck away when you don't need them. It makes the entire GoPro experience less cumbersome. Changing batteries or memory cards can still be tough. Both of them share space in the new, single side hatch—a tight fit. If you have large hands, you're going to have a difficult time getting the tiny MicroSD card in and out, but it's less cumbersome than taking off the cage every time you want to change the battery.
The less welcome trade-off is the loss of the HDMI port. You can get the HDMI port back with the Media Mod ($80), GoPro's basic add-on, which adds some extra ports.
The new lens design changes the shape of the lens housing—it's now square, and your old filters will not fit—and the cover is no longer removable or replaceable, which is a shame. GoPro has beefed up the glass on the cover with 2 mm of Gorilla Glass, but action cameras tend to live rough-and-tumble lives. The Hero 7 had a removable lens, a sort of insurance policy against damage. The Hero 8 has no insurance.
GoPro does sell a tempered-glass protective cover ($20) for both the lens and the back. I highly recommend it if you're using your GoPro the way you're supposed to—rough.
The big win of the cage-less design for many will be the new Mods that can be added to the Hero 8. We mentioned the Media Mod. It adds a 3.5 mm mic jack, HDMI port, and a mic, along with two cold-shoe mounts. (The "cold" in cold shoe means that the mount point does not provide power, as opposed to a hot shoe, which does.) It's also needed to attach other Mods, like the flip-up screen for previews and the LED light.
The new Hero 8 design and Mods make it feel like GoPro's target market is shifting from the strap-it-to-your-head-and-shred crowd to the vlogging crowd. It's a move that makes sense—YouTube has a lot more vlogging than shredding going on—but it also speaks to how well GoPro has already solved the hardcore adventuring side of the equation.
Still, it does have some new features that will tempt those who put the action in action cam. HyperSmooth 2 stabilization is incrementally better than before (it was already great), and the wind-optimized microphone keeps audio cleaner.
Almost all the software-based features of the GoPro have been updated and improved. HDR (high dynamic range, or high contrast) handling in SuperPhoto looks more natural and does a better job with moving subjects, which tend to blur. There's now an auto TimeWarp mode, which makes high-speed videos easier to create, and time lapse mode was updated.
I was also happy to find that RAW images are available in all photo modes that use the wide lens, including time lapse.
The design of the new Hero 8 is slick, and the various in-camera software improvements make it even easier for non-pro users, but my favorite thing about the Hero 8 is the new ability to customize menus.
Tapping a tiny touchscreen while treading water or standing in the icy winds atop a cornice of snow is not anyone's idea of fun. The less you have to interact with the touchscreen the better, and with the new menu customization I hardly touched it at all.
In previous GoPros, tapping the currently selected presets would open up the settings page where you could clumsily navigate to make changes. It was cumbersome, and there was almost no customization possible. The Hero 8 swings the other way, letting you customize everything. Tap the selected preset and you'll now get a list of all your presets. It's a simple change that makes it super easy to switch between video modes with all your favorite settings dialed in.
You can even customize which options show up on the home screen for each preset. At first it's almost overwhelming, but once you spend some time placing everything the way you want it, day-to-day use becomes so much easier. Like the cage-less design, it feels like the way things should have always been.
Simpler design that requires less fiddling is a running theme for the changes between the Hero 7 and the new Hero 8. GoPro has addressed the pain points in the Hero 7, improved the software, and turned out a camera that's better for action-cam enthusiasts and vloggers alike.