I've said it before and I'll say it again. Full disclosure: I've been a GoPro fanboy since day one, so don't be expecting a completely unbiased review of their new Hero 7 Black. This exact launch event was once the stuff of this boy's teenage dreams, and not long ago at that. Poor journalism, you may be thinking? Yeah well, tough titties. One of the perks of being an independent publication.
That being said, it's not all praise for the biggest improvement in the brand's tech since the Hero 4. It almost is, but not quite. More on that later.
First, we have to rewind 10 days to the adventure playground of the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand's south island. I wasn't explicitly told what antics we were getting up to, actually, it wasn't even confirmed that 30 of Asia-Pacifc's hottest GoPro content wizards were descending upon Christchurch for the launch of the Hero 7, we just assumed that's what we were there for.
I had my suspicions, naturally; the action-camera Gods had to be pulling out all stops for a reason.
Enter, the GoPro Hero 7 Black.
A few hours before the international reveal of the product, the GoPro family were reunited in our hotel conference room with the new Hero 7's sat patiently in the palms of our hands as we eagerly awaited a presentation from GoPro HQ's Pablo Lema, VP for GoPro Product & User Experience.
Cheers and claps erupted from everyone in the room. At first glance, the Hero 7 seemed to have perfected any shortfalls of the Hero 6 and reset the bar higher than it had ever been before. This here is my cue to shut up and let the GoPro boys do what they do best - make epic advertisements. Exhibit A:
So, now what? For a camera that's bread and butter has forever been awe-inspiring scenes with a cheeky side of adrenaline-fuelled fun, it was New Zealand's turn to step up to the plate and deliver on said front. Six groups divided from our huge team of 30 split up to take the challenge to the island's far corners by flipping, jumping, drinking, eating, driving, climbing, paddling, falling, soaring, and sending it all in the name of the new Hero 7 Black.
A few days before Kyle & Taiyo's now global seal-slapping sensation literally blew everyone else's content out of the water, our dream team cruised out to the South Island's effortlessly beautiful West Coast on a mission to sample some of the most photogenic environments you'll ever come across in the most dramatically GoPro way possible.
Pre-dawn on the crisp Saturday morning and I'd already awoken from a restless night's sleep. I was now all too aware of what we were soon to get up to in the 12 hours about to follow. Just a single one of the hair-raising activities we had planned for the day would have been enough to keep the regular holiday maker excited for six months.
But this wasn't a regular holiday, this was a GoPro launch, and the sun had only just cracked the tops of the surrounding pine trees before I found myself wading out into the biting cold water of Mirror Lake for a morning paddle to kick off the madness. Not a single ripple was in sight. The four kayaks, sans octopus encounters, sliced through the still water as we glided out into the pond and away from the shadows cast by the frosted Alps towering behind us.
The serenity didn't last long, however, as I should have expected from GoPro by now. No, this was just a warm-up. As if on cue, a sharp and unnatural sound pierced the blissfully silent air above our heads, echoing across the lake.
Helicopters. No sooner were we out of the water, scoffing down lunch and running up to the helipad with our heads down as the rotors sliced air mercilessly overhead. Our next objective was to take on the behemoth that was Franz Josef Glacier - and what more appropriate way to get up there than a chopper straight onto the ice? Standard GoPro.
It was quickly clear that the hype reel we'd seen only 24 hours earlier was no joke - the Hero 7's built-in gimbal-like stabilisation was undoubtedly its best asset. In fact, I'd argue it was even better than a gimbal.
If you really think about it, gimbals aren't natural. They keep a straight horizon. To have a camera that can share the steadiness of a gimbal but keep the genuine motion of a kayaker, a mountain biker, or a skier, actually makes what people see on a screen real. If GoPro's weren't already immersive enough, the floaty trance of the Hero 7 Black definitely gets the job done.
Paddling hard across a lake or battling the insane downforce of a helicopter's rotors while moving across slippery ice, you can imagine the horrific instability a Hero 5 or even a Hero 6 would have suffered in the past. Those worries had completely disappeared with the Hero 7. At one point I even ran flat out across a bouncing suspension bridge - what should have been the most turbulent footage ever - and the Hero 7 made it look so fluid it was almost too stable. I never thought I'd ever be saying that.
Back on Franz Josef glacier and the clouds were now coming in fast. Our guide had started to raise his voice, urging us to push along the ice quicker following an awesome hike up into the melting icefall. Helicopters aren't legally allowed to fly in clouds throughout New Zealand, but right now all I could see was thick cloud engulfing the valley.
Things were getting a little tense.
Our rapid heartbeats were in sync with the chug-chug of the heli as we booked out quick smart and returned safely to the village below. Time to catch a break, I naively thought.
Boy, was I wrong. After all, if you haven't figured this out yet, that's not how GoPro operate. If there's still light left in the day there's still something better to be done. No sooner had I removed the crampons from my boots had I found myself being weighed for the Southern Hemisphere's highest commercial skydive - a literally breath-taking 19,000ft up.
Over a glacier. At sunset. 20 minutes after stepping off a helicopter.
It was almost too surreal to believe. The stoke levels among the team had never been higher. If we hadn't adequately put this new tech through the wringer already, we were bloody well about to.
GoPro's have been infamous for their almost useless sound recording in the past. What surprised me most about hurtling towards Earth in a free fall was the Hero 7's vastly improved audio capabilities. Sure, nothing sounds shit hot when nearing terminal velocity, but as the canopy opened and we soared under the parachute through the crisp sunset skies, I was genuinely amazed at how awesome my shouts and screams sounded echoing into the abyss.
Alright, so now for the shortfalls. They're few and far between, but if I noticed them after just two days of road testing the product I feel like they should be mentioned. When shooting in 240 frames per second in dusk lighting I got a flicker in the top corners of my footage. It came and went for a few seconds, and seemed to be a one-off occurrence, yet no one had an explanation for it.
The Hero 7's portrait shooting mode is a very handy feature, however, on many occasions the screen rotation lagged to the point where it became quite frustrating when time was of the essence to get a particular shot. Keep in mind that these are presumably easy bug fixes that GoPro R&D will be ironing out over the first few months of launch.
GoPro as a company has an interesting business model. It appears to be the only tech giant these days to make products so durable that people don't need to upgrade every year, unlike, say, Apple and its iPhone. GoPro's cameras aren't daily use devices, either, so the demand isn't as high as other players in the market. The real question most people find themselves asking then is, 'Oh cool, another GoPro, but why should I upgrade this time?'
I still have my GoPro Hero 4 I bought while studying at university. It's sitting right next to me in my desk drawer as I write this. I can't remember the last time I turned it on, but I can tell you for sure it still works perfectly fine, and to be honest, as a casual user of the product, I wouldn't have had the need to justify the upgrade had it not been for this job.
That was until now. I'm lucky I get to play with a new one of these toys every year. But if life had taken me on a different path where I was still sitting on that same Hero 4, it would be me asking that exact question right about now. I'd also be hoping someone out there in my position would deliver the verdict that the new Hero 7 Black did, in fact, tick enough boxes to warrant that well-deserved upgrade.