Hands on: GoPro Max Review

It's the second 360-degree GoPro, but don't think of it as a sequel to the Fusion

First Impressions

The GoPro Max may not be the Fusion upgrade everyone was after. While there are image quality differences, the lenses and sensors have not changed significantly. Real-world usefulness for someone after a do-all action camera has changed hugely, though. GoPro has made the editing process easier, the camera itself is smaller and lighter and you can use it like a non-360 Hero 8 Black if you like. Its raw video quality isn’t a match when doing so, but the superb stabilisation offers pro-looking results as long as you don’t look too close. The GoPro Max may not be a must-have upgrade for occasional Fusion users. But it is a much more useful and friendly camera for those looking to capture bike rides, holidays and family events. This is a 360 camera with mainstream appeal.

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £479.99
  • 5.6K 360 degree video (30fps)
  • 1080p (1440P 4:3) action cam video
  • Horizon lock
  • 5ATM water resistance
  • Single microSD card
  • 6x microphones
  • Integrated mount fingers

What is the GoPro Max?

The GoPro Max is GoPro’s second 360-degree camera, following 2016’s Fusion. But to think of it as a straight sequel to the GoPro Fusion is to get off on the wrong start.

“This isn’t Fusion 2,” says GoPro Vice President of Product Management Pablo Lema.

In many ways it is, of course, but the GoPro Max’s big win is that it feels like what we kinda wanted in the first place – a 360-degree camera that feels like a natural extension of the GoPro Hero Black line, not a niche experiment.

Don’t expect radically improved image quality, but the GoPro Max is radically more useful and more fun to use than Fusion was when I used it following its launch.

The Fusion will benefit from the huge workflow improvements here, which were also some of the biggest complaints. But having used Max, I would not want to go back to a Fusion.

Related: Best action cameras 2019

GoPro Max – Design

Why would I not go back to the Fusion? The two biggest hardware upgrades of the GoPro Max are its size and screen. I always felt quite self-conscious when out and about using the Fusion. 360-degree cameras were less common back then, but it was also simply larger than the average action cam, and leaked nerdy “newness” much like Google Glass (but thankfully to a lesser extent).

The GoPro Max looks and feels much more like a normal Hero camera. It’s a little taller, but not much thicker, than the Hero 8 Black. As such, it feels more at home in the standard GoPro mount situations. It is much lighter too: good news for drone owners.

The Max has 5ATM water resistance like the other Heros too. However, GoPro says the lenses are not well suited to underwater shooting as the image blurs. The message seems to be: you can try it, but don’t expect amazing results.

Related: GoPro Hero 8 Black vs GoPro Max

Control is much more like the Black cameras, because the Max has a screen. It lets you flick between the various modes without relying on beeps or a multi-colour LED to know what the Max is up to. The classic red “filming” LED is still present, though. It’s important because the display times out after a while when shooting.

This time out can be useful anyway, as a lit screen tends to draw even more attention when your action cam is mounted on a stick.

Go Pro Max – Shooting modes

The GoPro Max has two sides to its personality. They are not “video” and “stills”, but 360 degree shooting and the kind you might do with a Hero 8 Black.

It has four “digital lenses”, like a Hero 7 Black – from SuperWide to Narrow, which has a view closer to that of a normal phone camera lens.

“360 media is not what most of our users want,” says Pablo Lema, and I can’t imagine many casual action cam users would disagree.

360-degree footage is a fun concept, but “consuming” it without a VR headset generally isn’t fun, and a 360 camera like the Max can capture surround video, but not 3D, which limits the fun you can have in VR anyway.

So why have a 360-degree camera at all?

GoPro actually launched the Fusion with the clear message. Raw 360-degree footage wasn’t its main reason to exist – the editing potential it gives you was.

You can treat the Max like a normal GoPro most of the time, shooting ready-for-Youtube flat footage. And if you want to get a little more ambitious you can shoot 360-degree video and edit into a standard widescreen format with dramatic pans and zooms never made during capture.

This was arguably the purpose of the Fusion. GoPro came up with the concept of OverCapture to describe it. The idea was great, but the execution wasn’t as hoped. You had to spend ages to get the sort of results GoPro seemed to promise.

Lema talked about the “complicated workflow” of the Fusion, “which we knew wasn’t great” he said.

OverCapture has been completely redesigned and overhauled, rebranded as Reframe. This is radically simpler, and uses a timeline that lets you create neat-looking effects quickly, direct on your phone. Finer grain control will be available in the desktop apps, and through plug-ins for several video editing suites.

The Mac desktop app will be released first. “Windows will catch up,” says Lema.

Fusion owners will also get the same new editing style, as the entire GoPro app style is changing. But, added to the new non-360 modes, it makes the Max seem completely different to (and much more useful than) the Fusion was at launch.

Lema did tell me the Max also has somewhat better image quality, thanks to elements such as tone mapping improvements made possible by its use of the GP1 processor (used in the Black cameras since the GoPro Hero 6 Black). However, he also says the sensors and lens hardware remain roundly similar.

GoPro Max – Image quality

This also means the top capture resolution has not changed. The Max shoots 360-degree footage at up to 5.6K. And when you crop into the front (or rear) sensor to shoot in traditional action cam style, resolution is 1080p. There is a 1440p mode, but as this is at 4:3 it isn’t as good as it sounds. Its resolution is 1920 x 1440, not 2560 x 1440.

A GoPro Hero 7 Black or 8 Black is probably still a better choice if you want easy-to-handle normal 4K footage while a GoPro is attached to your bike handlebars or helmet.

So how does it the actual video look? Stabilisation is the most immediately impressive part of the Max. Like the Hero 8 Black it has HyperSmooth 2.0, but as the Max has an even wider lens, there’s more information outside of the captured scene to use for stabilisation.

GoPro calls it “unbreakable”, and it pretty much is, although some may prefer a little more control. Here you can either have stabilisation on off – extreme smoothness or a lot of judder. There’s also an excellent horizon feature that keeps your footage upright even if your camera isn’t.

The GoPro Max lets you shoot with almost brainless carelessness, and it will still deliver usable video, but how does it compare to the Hero 8 Black?

I shot a street scene at 16mm, the widest setting on the Black and the second-widest on the Max, at 1080p on both and at 4K resolution with the Black. Even at Full HD there’s a big difference between the two. Textures represented as a mush by the Max are rendered properly by the Black, and edge sharpness is far better.

The Black has an obvious advantage here, because 16mm is much closer to the sensor’s actual view than the Max’s, and therefore requires less sensor cropping. But the sensors and lenses are the main reasons for the difference, and the effect only gets more pronounced as you use the Max’s more “zoomed in” digital lenses. Narrow videos (27mm) kinda suck, but this is where the Max starts to overlap with your phone, so you could simply use that if you don’t need ultra-strong stabilisation.

What should we take from this? Play to the Max’s strengths, as GoPro has done its best to squeeze every bit of functionality out of the Max, and the hardware starts squeaking at the extremes. Not literally.

So how is the 360-degree video? It looks excellent and is a lot of fun to review on your phone. Editing it into an easy-to-share form now just requires to you set a few “keyframes” in the GoPro app. This means you fiddle with the view using pinch zooming and other finger-based manipulation to get the right field of view at a certain point in the video. The app then smoothly transitions between these states.

It is quick and easy, if also a little restrictive. A learning curve still exists, but it is a much friendlier one than that of Overcapture, the editing style originally used in the Fusion.

GoPro has not significantly improved the look of the “stitch” between the two lenses, though. I still find the stiching impressive, and in any one still frame you may be hard-pressed to notice the seam. But in motion there’s a darker or lighter border where the two camera views meet.

The more skilful GoPro user can shoot around this to a large extent, by pointing the lenses in-line with the movements you’ll make in the edit. If you don’t, you’ll still see some of this stitch interference.

GoPro has also brought the features of Quik into the main GoPro app. Quik let you auto-edit clips into a shareable form, complete with music and auto-timed transitions. It is pretty smart, taking the most interesting snippets within clips and using those.

The compression it uses tends to diminish the detail in TimeWarp shots, but these mini clips are the easily digestible snack food of the GoPro world. And they take all the effort out of editing.

What’s TimeWarp? It is GoPro’s own take on time lapse video, and the Max lets you tap a button to switch to 1x footage as you shoot. This was my favourite mode to play around with when I spent a weekend shooting with the Max. It’s an easy way to make not-that-interesting action more engaging, and the 1x sections offer an instant edited YouTuber-like look.

I was a little disappointed when I came to check out the footage a few days later, though. TimeWarp doesn’t record any audio. That’s fine for the fast movement sections, but I do wish there was an option to fade in the audio for the 1x sections. With any luck GoPro may add this in an update, as audio is otherwise a focus of the Max. It has 6 mics, arranged to record surround audio rather than the planar 360 of the Fusion.

I recorded some music played through studio monitors with both the Max and Hero 8 Black to have a listen to the raw quality of the mics themselves. While the results weren’t a slam dunk for the Max, it does seem to have a slightly lower bass floor, and perhaps better mid-range coherence, although the Black promoted the higher frequencies more significantly.

GoPro Max – First impressions

The GoPro Max may not be the Fusion upgrade everyone was after. While there are image quality differences, the lenses and sensors have not changed significantly.

Real-world usefulness for someone after a do-all action camera has changed hugely, though. GoPro has made the editing process easier, the camera itself is smaller and lighter and you can use it like a non-360 Hero 8 Black if you like. Its raw video quality isn’t a match when doing so, but the superb stabilisation offers pro-looking results as long as you don’t look too close.

The GoPro Max may not be a must-have upgrade for occasional Fusion users. But it is a much more useful and friendly camera for those looking to capture bike rides, holidays and family events. This is a 360 camera with mainstream appeal.

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