GoPro. Picture: ISTOCK
GoPro. Picture: ISTOCK

YOU’D expect GoPro’s newest tiny 4K cameras, called Hero 5 Black and Session, to take better shots and withstand more abuse. And they do. But this upgrade does something surprising: it makes home movies less terrible.

No, the new GoPros can’t make a dreary vacation suddenly sunny. But they can make it easier to take interesting shots, and actually do something with footage that otherwise languishes on some forgotten memory card.

Say out loud, "GoPro, start recording," and the camera starts recording, no futzing with buttons. Come home and your footage starts uploading to GoPro’s cloud storage service, no futzing with cards and cables. Launch GoPro’s Quik app to transform a day of video into a highlights reel complete with soundtrack, no futzing with editing software.

There still is some futzing when using the new GoPros. You need to learn their lingo, use their software and buy into their $5-a-month GoPro Plus storage plan.

After testing the $400 Hero 5 Black and tinier cube-shaped $300 Hero 5 Session for a few days, I can report making cool videos is easier than ever — not that I’d call it easy.

As its fortunes hang in the balance, GoPro earns my respect for finally making a stand-alone camera that’s at least as smart as a smartphone. Most traditional cameras take no responsibility for your shots after they’re taken. But the Hero 5 line does, by marrying hardware that’s harder to kill than a cockroach with some of the best phone capabilities, like a background connection to the cloud. That’s why I think GoPros are a good purchase not just for action-sports athletes, but also parents, weekend adventurers and globetrotters.

GoPro calls its new lineup an "end-to-end solution", techno-jargon I don’t expect from a company run by a surfer. The best way to understand what that means is to break down what the new cameras can do for you: capture, store and create.

GoPro’s original appeal is that its cameras are small enough to capture perspectives from places you wouldn’t be able to — or want to — stick your DSLR or smartphone. That could be on a surfboard or a skybound drone, like GoPro’s forthcoming Karma. Among the company’s plethora of lucrative accessories is a mount for dogs. Its cameras have a wide-angle lens that captures almost everything.

The Hero 5 line comes in two sizes, so why not buy the smaller, cheaper model? The Session is a good choice for many people, and comes closer to the ideal of an almost invisible camera. Like its predecessor, it is waterproof and has just two buttons. But versus the Black, its image quality isn’t quite as good, and it has no rear screen to preview shots or adjust settings.

My preference, the Hero 5 Black, got rid of one of its buttons and replaced it with a touch screen, which is a little finicky but a big improvement over buttons.

In my tests, the shots I took on the new Hero 5 Black were superior to the Hero 4 Black because the new camera digitally stabilises bumpy action (like when attached to a car) and captures more in uneven-light conditions.

I still found it confusing to know when the cameras were recording, so I lost a few potentially awesome scenes. Anyone familiar with the Hero 4 Black camera will be happy to know the new Black comes with GPS, and it is waterproof without any external housing. The downside is that the Hero 5 Black is slightly larger and heavier. And no, it won’t float. I learned this while frolicking in the Pacific: my loaner Hero 5 Black slipped out of my hands and became the property of Poseidon. (Sorry, GoPro!)

Voice commands are where both Hero 5 cameras flex their smarts. They know a good dozen phrases in multiple languages, but you have to say things just the right way. (Yes: "GoPro, take a photo." No: "GoPro, take a picture.")

In my tests, it often responded quickly. For noisy or windy situations, though, you may want another GoPro accessory: the $80 wireless voice remote. When they work, voice commands don’t just mean arm-free selfies. Imagine setting a Hero 5 inside your kitty condo, then calling out "GoPro, start recording" when Wynona begins stalking her new toy mouse.

If the camera features were it, I might have had a hard time recommending GoPro over lower-priced knockoffs. But that’s just the beginning.

Apple and Google set a new bar for managing our growing smartphone photo and video collections: they just take care of themselves. With the Photos app from either tech giant, your shots just upload to the cloud, where you can pull them up at any time on many different devices, organised in lots of handy ways.

GoPro’s new Plus subscription service, which stores footage in the cloud, is a big step in that direction. When you plug either Hero 5 camera into a charger, it will automatically begin uploading your photos and video to the cloud over WiFi. Why can’t every camera in 2016 do this?

The time it takes varies wildly depending on your internet connection, but once your shots are in the cloud, they’re available to edit in apps on your computer, phone or tablet.

GoPro Plus launches in beta in October, so I wasn’t able to test it. But I spent a fair amount of time using it with its creator, CJ Prober, GoPro’s senior vice-president of software and services. The system still had glitches, but the company clearly has long-term ambitions for it.

At launch, Prober said, there will be a few important limitations: Plus downscales all video files to a maximum resolution of 1080p/60 frames per second at a file quality of 15 megabits per second. That’s enough for HD, but it might disappoint people who shoot in 4K. The storage in Plus is limited to 250 gigabytes, roughly 35 hours of video.

You can view any clip online, but to edit it you have to download the entire file, a time-and storage-consuming proposition.

GoPro intends to offer a way to download just the bits you want to edit — and eventually edit whole videos in the cloud.

If monthly cloud subscriptions aren’t your cup of tea, GoPro also made it easier to wirelessly connect your camera to your smartphone to transfer footage. And its forthcoming Quik Key accessory ($30 for iPhone; $20 for Android phones) lets you plug your GoPro’s MicroSD card directly into a device, making file transfers much faster.

Sorting through hours of footage is boring, and pacing clips so that viewers don’t fall asleep is an art. GoPro’s revamped software can help with both of those. In the past two years, GoPro has acquired five software companies and doubled its software team — and it shows.

On a Mac or Windows computer, GoPro is rebooting its multiple editing systems into a single program called Quik. Using a beta version, I spent just 15 minutes creating a zippy one-minute highlights reel of my testing.

Unlike most video-editing software, there aren’t a ton of knobs and dials and tools. You can look at your videos and stills in chronological order, whether they’re stored on your hard drive or in the cloud, and cut clips out to share. You can also tag highlights you want to feature in your movies.

(Easter egg alert: If you yell "Oh, shit" or "That was sick" while filming, the voice-activated camera will add a highlight tag.)

Click Create, and Quik brings up a window where you tap your favourite moments. Tagged highlights appear with a little dot on them. As you tap, your awesome movie assembles itself. You just choose whether you want 15, 30 or 60 seconds, and which song you want to sync video to.

The Quik app lets you reorder and remove clips. But you can’t zoom in, crop, speed up or adjust the length of clips. I appreciate the simplicity, but I found myself wishing I had a bit more control. (You could still use GoPro’s clunky older software, or a program like iMovie, of course.)

You get more control on phones and tablets, where the Quik app offers the same basic tools but also filter effects and even longer clips that GoPro hasn’t yet brought to the desktop.

GoPro also has an app called Capture for remote-controlling your camera and managing clips when you’re away from Wi-Fi. For most of us, the key to good video editing is to not even try.

That’s why GoPro says their next step is to use machine learning to do it all for you.

Hey, it’s not the effort, it’s the Instagram likes that matter, right?

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