At $199, GoPro Hero is a great family camera; but will it make you put your phone down?

Posted July 11th, 2018

There’s a great Erykah Badu song that was released a few years ago, “Phone Down,” about the digital-distraction era. 

She sings:

I can make you put your phone down
As we cruise through the city
I can make you put your phone down
You ain't gonna text no one when you wit me
I can make you put your phone down
So you can show me attention

It’s a song that kept popping into my head for the past few months as I was playing around with a new Hero camera on loan from GoPro. It’s a tiny waterproof camera that looks like pretty much every other GoPro camera (small, squarish, gray), with a few key difference, mostly in what it can’t do. It can’t shoot 4K-quality video, which is pretty standard even on newer smartphones, or shoot in certain camera modes that its pricier GoPro siblings can, such as super-slow motion.

But here’s the interesting approach GoPro has taken with this $199 camera: By stripping out some features and pricing the camera to practically a pre-vacation impulse buy, it has created a compelling family camera with a form factor that allows buyers to pair it with dozens of GoPro accessories already out there.

Omar L. Gallaga /'s Omar L. Gallaga reviews GoPro's $199 Hero camera, which is good for families needing a durable waterproof camera. You can try it out at the Austin Central Library's Technology Petting Zoo.

Looking at it that way, and we will in a bit, it’s easy to make the case for the Hero (not the Hero 5 or the Hero 6; just call it “Hero 1” ) as a smart buy even if you already own an expensive phone with a fancy camera in it. 

The Hero is the camera you want to hand to your kid when they decide to stick their arms out over Niagara Falls for a selfie or as they’re about to dive into a swimming pool. It’s the camera you’d clip to a bike or surfboard without stressing that it’ll get damaged or lost and cost you $500 to $1,000 to replace. And, if we’re still talking about kids, it’s the camera you’ll feel more comfortable handing over for pictures and videos rather than your $1,000-plus iPhone X again and again.

But smartphones are also the best argument against cameras like the GoPro Hero. Like Badu’s distracted subject, you might find yourself unable to put your phone down to use the GoPro Hero, even when it’s readily available. 

GoPro Inc.GoPro's Hero camera shoots HD video in several formats and resolutions, has a set of touchscreen controls that are easy to learn if you’re already used to swipe-based navigation on smartphones, and it’s durable even if you’re rough with it.

That’s not the camera’s fault, though. It shoots perfectly good HD video in several formats and resolutions, has a set of touchscreen controls that are easy to learn if you’re already used to swipe-based navigation on smartphones, and it’s very durable even if you’re rough with it. 

The Hero has some remarkable software that I fell in love with, specifically an add-on app called “Quik” that can auto-edit fantastic videos and slide shows off the GoPro or your smartphone’s camera roll, sometimes completely of its own volition. (It’s shocking and kind of awesome the first time you find out some of your random photos and videos have been put together into what looks like a professionally  edited action video without you having to do a thing.)

Check out our Tech Petting Zoo review of the iZotope Spire recording system, which you can also try out at the Austin Central Library

The camera also has built-in voice controls. You can tell it to snap a photo from across the room or ask it to start and stop recording video. And there’s an optional cloud backup service called GoPro Plus for $4.99 a month if you need a place to park all those videos and photos.  

But, like almost every stand-alone camera out there, it will always be competing with the smartphone you might be holding in your hands right now. You will have to decide, if your phone shoots 4K, whether you’d rather use that for ultra-HD video than what the Hero can shoot. When you just want to take a quick snap or video to post on Instagram, you’re probably not going to go through the hassle of shooting on the Hero and then transferring to a phone. 

And while “Quik” is a software marvel, complete with slick transitions and music, that also allows you to adjust and fine-tune videos that it makes, transferring GoPro video footage to your phone is an absolute pain. One 12-minute video shot on the GoPro Hero of me biking with my kids -- part of a series of three videos I shot with a handlebar-mount accessory -- took more than 45 minutes to transfer to my phone over Wi-Fi. Ain’t nobody got time for that. The GoPro Hero also gets very warm, sometimes for no apparent reason, as if it really wants you to throw it in a pool of cold water.

GoPro Inc.

It’s nice to have a camera and a large-capacity SD card that you can just shoot and shoot video on without worrying about running out of space (unlike your phone, perhaps), but to do anything interesting with that video footage in “Quik,” you’ll need to put it on your phone. 

There’s a compelling case to be made that GoPro might need to lose its hardware business entirely (or focus on its core niche of extreme athletes) and double down on its remarkable video-editing software. Our phones are ever-more waterproof and durable, particularly if you buy a strong protective case, and with Hero, it feels as if reaching for the low-end camera market might be self-defeating except for those with kids who are prone to breaking things.

If you like to take vacations where you completely unplug from the Internet, it might also be a good way to get your photos and videos without being tethered to your phone.

I like the GoPro Hero a lot. It’s fun to use. It takes great photos and videos in a super-compact little box. But on several gorgeous hiking trips and family river outings, I simply forgot to bring it. I had my phone, and that seemed like more than enough. 

Sorry Erykah and sorry, GoPro. The Hero is a great product that feels like it might be two or three years behind the curve. It’s practical, it’s fun -- but it didn’t make me put my phone down.

Want to play around with the GoPro Hero yourself? The Austin Central Library Technology Petting Zoo will have the camera on display. Visit the 5th floor of the library through July and August. We’ll be reviewing gadgets regularly on 512tech that will also be on display there in partnership with the library.