Two years ago, GoPro took its first stab at a 360-degree action camera with the GoPro Fusion. It wasn’t a particularly good stab. It was bulky, it required two micro SD cards, and the footage was a royal pain to work with. In the intervening years, we’ve seen decent 360 cameras from the likes of Garmin, Insta360, and Rylo, but this sub-genre of action cam hasn’t really caught on. The £480 GoPro Max hopes to change this by putting a focus on enabling creativity.
Let’s start off with the basics. The Max is 33-per cent lighter and 20-percent smaller than the Fusion. It requires only one micro SD card, and it stitches the footage from its two lenses together right there on the camera, thankfully. It also has a built-in 1.7-inch 16:9 touchscreen, which is great for framing shots and changing settings, but you can’t actually scroll around the full 360-degree world with it. It’s waterproof to 16.5 feet, and you can use it as a 360 cam or an action cam. It supports live-streaming (though not in 360 mode), it shoots killer 16.5MP panoramas, and it has the best stabilisation on any camera I’ve ever seen. Still, it’s many miles from perfect.
360-degree video on the internet is really still a novelty. Yeah, sites like YouTube and Facebook support it, and you can scroll around the perspective in these videos with your smartphone or mouse (or a VR headset), but it’s still pretty niche. So, while the Max does shoot 360-degree video, the big draw here is what you can do with that footage afterward: Pop out a 1080p frame and play director with a ton of flexibility. You can zoom, tilt, pan, roll, and really simulate a whole suite of cameras all using the same clip. It’s actually a lot of fun to play with.
The easiest workflow goes like this:
- Shoot your 360-degree footage with the Max.
- Use the GoPro app on your phone to transfer the footage over.
- Set your camera angles, moves, and transitions using keyframes.
- Export the video, which can be the traditional 1080p 16:9 clip, or more Instagram-friendly square or (God help you) portrait orientation.
That’s really it. The keyframing takes a little bit of time to learn, but I think most people will be off to the races within ten minutes. You can accomplish the same thing with the GoPro Player app for Mac (plus additional codec options for export). Windows currently just has a GoPro Exporter, which turns your 360 footage into a 5,376 by 2,688 pixel flat video, which you can then work with in Adobe Premiere using the GoPro-supplied Reframe plug-in, though that’s certainly the slowest and most-advanced option.
The net effect is that you can make your footage look really cool, even if what you’re doing wasn’t that spectacular. Things, like jogging up a hill or riding your bike down the street, don’t look all that exciting when filmed with a standard action camera, but the Max really invites you to get creative, and you can achieve eye-popping things even from things that are fairly mundane. I think GoPro sees this as an untapped market: People who might feel their lifestyles aren’t action-y enough to warrant an action cam, but who might enjoy filming things and making cool videos.
In addition to shooting in 360-degree mode, the Max can shoot from just the front or rear camera like a standard action camera. This has led GoPro to claim “it’s like three GoPros in one.” So, obviously you should get this instead of the Hero8 Black, right? Pump your brakes, Sparky. While the 360-degree capabilities are great, when in “Hero Mode” you are limited to 1080p60 (technically 1440p60). No rich, sharp, eye-popping 4K. No silky-smooth 1080p240 slow motion. The last time a GoPro was limited to 1080p60 was the Hero3 Black, even if image quality is infinitely better now.
So, there are some tradeoffs, but the Max in Hero mode has features that even the Hero8 Black doesn’t. For starters, there’s Max HyperSmooth. With the Hero8 Black GoPro debuted HyperSmooth 2.0, and it was fantastic. Max HyperSmooth is even better. Hand-holding a shot and pointing it straight made it look like it was on a tripod, and it pans that way, too, even though I don’t have the steadiest of hands. It’s unreal how good it is, and it can even apply that level of stabilisation to Max SuperView, which is the widest angle GoPro has ever put on one of its “digital lenses.” For strapping it to your chest while mountain biking, or putting it on a pole while snowboarding or skiing, it will be absolutely awesome.
It also has a new PowerPano mode. You know how taking a panoramic still with your phone requires you to slowly sweep your phone across the horizon, and if anything (a person, a dog, etc.) moves it will look all mutated? PowerPano leverages both lenses of the Max to shoot a 270-degree panorama in an instant. People jumping will be frozen in mid-air, cars won’t be blurred, and it’s all an instantly sharable 16MP photo. It’s a great feature.
The camera is waterproof to 16.5 feet, which half of the Hero8’s depth rating, but that doesn’t really matter, because while you can take the Max surfing or kayaking, you can’t use it underwater. This is a problem across all 360 cams, currently. Water on the lens changes the way light bends, and it messes up the stitching. So, this is not the camera for your next snorkelling trip. GoPro is working on a globe-like underwater housing for it, but there’s no word on availability yet. The Max doesn’t have replaceable lenses, either, so you’re going to want to be a bit careful. It does come with lens caps as well as some clear lens protectors that you can use while shooting. The protectors are just plastic, so they’ll reduce image quality slightly, but if you’re going to be doing something where crashing is a real possibility (mountain biking, say), I’d definitely recommend them.
In 360 mode, the camera does a pretty solid job of hiding the stitch lines, but it’s not flawless. GoPro recommends that the bottom of the camera be at least 20 inches (50cm) from the point where it’s mounted. GoPro is making a new Max Grip + Tripod (£60) which accomplishes this nicely, as it extends to 22 inches. GoPro already makes the El Grande (£50) which is an extra-beefy 38-inch selfie-stick that would be perfect for the Max if it weren’t for the fact that it uses a click-in mounting plate, which is just a bit too big to be cropped out. If GoPro would just (pretty please!) sell a replacement ball-joint with the standard three prongs on top so you could attach the camera directly to it, that would work incredibly well.
The 360 footage has very prominent lines when attached directly to a helmet or handlebar, but it’s not dreadful. I did get to try it out with a “narwhal” mount, which is basically a 15-inch metal bar that sticks out from your helmet like a horn. GoPro doesn’t sell this because if a user caught it on a branch it might break their neck, but it was fun to borrow and play with. It’s still just a little short to completely eliminate stitch lines, but this is what GoPro’s pro athletes use in a lot of the base-jumping and snowboarding videos. This one from Jeb Corliss is a pretty frickin’ amazing example:
When it comes to editing footage, the iOS app is definitely the most-polished. It has various “easing” options to smooth out the transitions between the digital pans, tilts, and zooms you’ll make while reframing, but it also has a jump-cut mode, which I found to be surprisingly powerful. It gives the illusion of having many different cameras mounted in different places and then cutting between angles. It’s so cool! Unfortunately, easing is still missing from the Android app, but I was told it will be added soon.
The only thing I really have to call GoPro out on is its claim that the Max has “shotgun-mic performance.” Oh honey, no. The audio isn’t bad, by any means, and it’s easily the best of any 360 camera I’ve tested, but it is nowhere approaching shotgun-mic quality. GoPro’s own Hero8 Black sounds cleaner, sharper, and louder than the Max. I ran five separate audio tests just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. I’m not. The Max has a Stereo + 360 mode which does a good job of isolating voices in action situations, and you can choose to use just the front or back mics (or both) when shooting in Hero mode, but no configuration made it sound better than the Hero8 Black, and that’s before we factor in the new mic accessories that are coming soon to the latter camera. This is a shame for a camera that’s being marketed to vloggers.
Another note about the Stereo +360-degree audio. What that means is that when shooting in 360 mode, the camera uses all of its mics to create a 3D soundscape (“spherical ambisonic” audio, if you wanna get technical). In theory, if you’re watching the footage with a high-end VR headset, and a branch snaps behind you, it should sound like it’s actually behind you. This is a very cool feature, in theory at least. Because you can’t use it yet. Well, the camera is recording it, and it’s saving that data, but none of GoPro’s own apps (on any of the four platforms) can currently make use of it. Eventually the apps will be updated to take advantage of it, but for now, it translates that sound to standard stereo.
The GoPro Hero 8 Black (left) versus the GoPro Max (right).
The GoPro Fusion (left) versus the GoPro Max (right).
It’s also worth noting that not all of GoPro’s apps have been created equal. At least not currently. While the iPhone and Android apps are arguably the easiest to use, if you’re trying to upload a 360-degree equirectangular VR video (for YouTube or Facebook), you’re limited to 4K resolution, which is roughly a 25-percent reduction in size from the footage’s potential. If you’re reframing to 1080p then that’s a moot point, but it’s worth noting that in order to do that (or anything with these videos) you have to transfer the footage to your phone, which eats up a lot of storage space until you manually delete the files. The OSX GoPro Player has all of the features that the iOS version has (including the easing options, which Android currently lacks), and you can go a full 5.6K in your 360 exports, as well as use other video codecs. The Windows GoPro Exporter lags far behind and is really just a tool to turn your raw files into equirectangular videos you can work with in Premiere (which not everybody has). I would really love to see parity among the apps.
The Max has GoPro’s TimeWarp (read: hyperlapse) feature in both Hero and 360 modes. In Hero mode, you can tap the screen to switch between real-time and sped-up time as you go. The 360 mode can’t do real-time yet, but it does an excellent job of stabilising everything in view and locking in on the horizon and north-south-east-west orientation. That’s true of all 360 footage, actually. It really does a tremendous job of stabilising everything in camera.
Shooting 5.6K 360-degree video is pretty taxing, but the battery faired better than I expected. Shooting in 360-mode the battery lasted 1 hour and 11.5 minutes. That’s about 20 minutes less than I get shooting the Hero8 Black at 4K24. If you’re going to be doing much shooting it’s going to be worth having at least one spare battery with you. The big caveat here is that the camera overheated and shut itself down 51 minutes into shooting. Now, it may be unlikely that you would want a single shot that long anyway, but it’s still a bit troubling.
Overall, I really like this camera a lot. I actually had fun going through clips, trying different angles, and figuring out how I wanted to tell the story. It just gives you so many more options to play with, and that feels novel and exciting. It’s worth noting that I’ve shot with other consumer-focused 360 cameras, including the Insta360 One X, the Rylo, and the Garmin Virb 360, and I think the GoPro Max produces the most vivid, highest-quality footage (though I do love the Garmin’s tough hardware), and that footage was the easiest to work with. The Insta360 and Rylo aren’t even waterproof without purchasing an additional case, and I had problems with both cameras eating footage. There are high-grade options that shoot 8K and above, but those cameras are typically far more expensive. So, if you know that you want a 360 camera, yes, the GoPro Max is the one I would recommend, full stop.
But, if you’ve only got the money for one camera, should you buy the Max (£480) or the Hero8 Black (£380)? That’s a trickier question because they’re ultimately such different cameras and it depends on what your needs are. If you’re primarily making videos for Instagram, TikTok, or stuff like that, then you might be better-served by the Max, simply because it gives you so many options to play with, and it will make your content stand out more. For me, though, I want to make sure my stuff looks good on larger screens, and so the quality (and flexibility) of 4K is very important to me. Footage from the Hero8 Black looks cleaner and more vivid, too, and it’s smaller, lighter, cheaper, and ready to shoot underwater. Ultimately, it’s up to your preferences, but I will say that despite its flaws the Max is a welcome entrant in the world of action cameras. Think of it as the artistic kid in the family that kinds stands out, but in a good way.
- You really can do incredible, eye-popping things with the footage.
- Almost like you’re using many cameras at different angles at once.
- Solid built-quality and waterproof to 16 feet.
- Medicore battery life, but not god-awful
- Stitching is now done in-camera, and on one SD card!
- Not all GoPro apps are created equal.
- Mic doesn’t live up to the hype.
All images: Brent Rose (Gizmodo)