GoPro Hero4 Session action camera - major components

Teardown: GoPro Hero4 Session action camera

Extreme engineering meets extreme sports. GoPro has gone for an extreme shrink on its latest product.

When the first digital SLRs appeared, a friend who is both a professional photographer and an accomplished pilot took one up in a microlight to see what the new technology could do. It damn near killed him. The weight of the camera and lenses was enough to upset the aerodynamics of his craft. One ‘interesting’ circle of the airfield was followed by a thankfully safe landing and then a few calls to the microlight’s manufacturer, calculator in hand.

Today, he’s still got an arsenal of ‘proper’ kit, but is also a big fan of the GoPro series of action cameras. These lightweight, comparatively cheap products have taken video especially to all sorts of new places. Not just on microlights but, more popularly, into such realms as skiing, skateboarding, motocross and other riskier sports. They help put much of the ‘You WHAT?!’ onto YouTube.

This summer, GoPro unveiled its fourth-generation cameras. Two models retain its traditional form factor, but the GoPro Hero4 Session is an exercise in really shrinking down the action camera. A cube that fits between finger and thumb and weighs just 74g (50 per cent smaller and 40 per cent lighter than the other new additions), it is also waterproof to a depth of 10m and ruggedised. Some compromises have been made. The two other Hero4 cameras, branded ‘Silver’ and ‘Black’, boast 4k resolution, whereas the Session tops out at 1440p at 30fps.

The shrink and waterproof encapsulation have also seen GoPro opt for a non-replaceable 3.8V, 1,000mAh battery (initial battery life on the Session is two hours, which needs to be seen in the terms of declining efficiency over recharge cycles). Similarly, if your plans involve pushing the Session to its limits – and with GoPro’s own team talking about fitting one between the spokes of a bicycle wheel, that isn’t exactly being discouraged – this is not a realistically repairable device.

We have dropped the usual image of a teardown motherboard, to show you two images that illustrate just how much GoPro’s engineers have squeezed into a tiny space. First, look at the motherboard being pulled away from the main chassis by the iFixit teardown team. Given that the lens housing has already been removed, you can see how every available cubic millimetre has been put to use. The Session’s design density is then further emphasised in the x-ray of the whole, supplied by iFixit and Creative Electron.

Particularly notable is the need to angle in the Session’s microSD storage slot. Meanwhile, though the device has on-board Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, there is no room for the standard GoPro accessories slot (some dedicated Session accessories are however available – there always has to be an upsell). This is extreme engineering for extreme sports. Since achieving it has required a lot of glue rather than screws (particularly for waterproofing) and intricately folded ribbon cable, iFixit assesses the Session’s repairability at a mere 1 out of 10. That brings us to the price: around £330. That is the same as the larger but higher resolution Hero4 Silver, and a lot of money for something that once broken is pretty certain to stay that way (and what insurer is likely to sell warranties to, say, Red Bull Birdmen).

What’s the real point here? GoPro launched a £100 entry-level camera last year. So that niche has been addressed. Given the brand’s association with action – selfies that actually might be worth looking at – it needs to keep supplying the top end of its big fanbase with products to use in new and novel ways. In that context, form factor is arguably more important than resolution (and, let’s not forget, 1440p is hardly shabby). To the professional or semi-professional sports user, the Session can be mounted in places they couldn’t shoot footage from before. New angles can make for more exciting images and more for an editor to play with.

Anyway, the athletes who wear this kind of kit always want it to be lighter and smaller. Then perhaps GoPro has an eye on the point where its hardware starts to challenge the professional cameras used in film and TV production. As audiences grow wary of CGI, there is a trend back to ‘real’ stunts like those performed in the latest Mission Impossible movie and throughout the Bond series. So, Hollywood camera companies such as Arri and Red are also frantically trying to reduce the electronics footprint for high-quality digital capture. GoPro isn’t there yet – and there is also the question of lenses – but the Session does send a message.

Certainly you need to see the user ROI on a Session from those perspectives, because GoPro’s core users are embracing the camera. Initial stocks have already ‘Sold Out’ on the company’s website.

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