Since the HERO7 Black, GoPro has used a new codec for compressing and encoding vides. It’s most commonly known as HEVC (for High Efficiency Video Coding) or H.265. It’s a newer, better codec, but it’s still not universally compatible in the same way the older H.264 codec is. If you’re having trouble opening videos shot on the HERO8, HERO7, or HERO6 Black, this might be why.
There are now more GoPros that use HEVC H.265 encoding. All the previous and lower models use an older H.264 AVC codec that is much more widely compatible.
It’s also worth noting that GoPro videos encoded with the HEVC codec still uses the MP4 video container, so you can’t tell them apart just by looking at the file extension.
HEVC (H.265) Compatibility
The H.265 codec has been around for a few years now but has only gradually been making its way into wide use. Some of the early implementations included FaceTime since the iPhone 6 and Windows 10.
If you’re using Windows 10 or later or Mac OS X High Sierra, support for HEVC (H.265) is baked right into the operating system, making it available for video editing apps running on those platforms, such as Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro.
But there are still a lot of common devices and software that doesn’t support it yet. If you’re not able to open the HEVC files on your computer or device, you have a few options:
- upgrade your operating system (a potentially painful process that might have collateral consequences with other apps and hardware)
- open the files in an app that has its own built-in HEVC (H.265) support (limiting what you can do with it)
- convert the file to a different format that your computer and video editor can use.
I’m focusing here on the last one: converting HEVC files to another format. Or, in video jargon, transcoding.
There are a number of paid apps that can do the conversion. I’m focusing here on one that is free and cross-platform: the venerable Handbrake.
Converting HEVC (H.265) Video Files with HandBrake to H.264
The target formats available in Handbrake are quite limited. The most logical to choose from the available options is H.264 (x264). That’s not ideal, because it’s recompressing a compressed file (more on that below), but it will result in a file that is still very good quality and very widely compatible.
- Download and install Handbrake. You can download it here. If you’re installing it on Mac OS X, you might get an error message because it’s not being installed from the Mac App Store. To allow the installation, you can go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > General. If it’s just blocked you from installing it, you should have a convenient “Open Anyway” message specifically for Handbrake.
- Click on the Open Source button.
- Select the file or files to convert. After you’ve selected them, Handbrake will do a quick scan of them to gather the information about the encoded file and enter some of that information into the appropriate fields on the screen.
- Choose encoding settings. The defaults aren’t a bad place to start, but you’ll probably want to make some tweaks. You can use one of the built-in presets, if you like, but since not every preset is available in every version, here are some suggestions for getting good results quickly. They provide a good foundation for your own tweaking.
Source and Destination:
- Destination: Wherever you’d like to save the resulting file/s
- Format: MP4 File
- Video Encoder: H.264 (x264)
- Framerate: Same as source / constant frame rate
- Quality: Constant Quality.
- Quality Slider: (NB: lower numbers apply less compression and therefore produce higher quality results; these are starting point suggestions only)
- 1080p: 22 (or between 20 and 24)
- 2.7K or 4K: 25 (or between 22 and 28)
- Encoder Options: Fast is the default. If you have a newer, faster computer, try medium. If you have an older computer, choose fast or faster.
- Storage Size: Set to match the source size (unless you want to reduce the size)
- Cropping: Automatic
- Leave the other settings at defaults
- Hit Start. This starts the encoding. You can see the progress in the bar at the bottom of the screen or by opening the queue panel but clicking on the queue button at top right.
6. Workflow Tweaks. There are things you can do to tweak this workflow to your preferences.
If you want to batch convert several files at once, hit the Add to Queue button instead of the start button in step 5.
If you want to save the settings as a preset to reuse again and save time, open the preset panel if it isn’t already there. Then hit the + button at the bottom of that panel and proceed from there with naming and saving the preset.
If you want to resize the resulting video smaller, do that in the Picture > Storage Size field.
If you want to preview the video, hit the Preview button at top right.
Converting HEVC to ProRes or Other High-Quality Codec
Handbrake has a lot going for it, but unfortunately it’s quite limited in the formats you can convert to. The most logical one to use is H.264.
But converting HEVC (H.265) to H.264 isn’t ideal if you’re aiming for the highest quality, especially if you’re planning to edit the files in something like Final Cut Pro X or Premier Pro. It’s recompressing one compressed file into another compressed file, meaning the quality is going to take a further hit with that second-generation compression.
For the highest quality, you’ll be better off converting it to something like Apple’s ProRes 422 codec. ProRes and other high-quality video codecs like Avid’s DNxHD aren’t much good for sharing–the files are way too big for sharing on the web conveniently–but the compression is minimal so the quality remains very high. But they’re excellent choices if you’re going to edit the video and then export yet another version, which will be a third-generation compressed version.
The catch is that not all transcoders can encode to ProRes or the other “professional” codecs. And the choices are further narrowed down because you need a transcoder that is coming with its own codecs rather than just relying on those built into the operating system. I’ve yet to find a good free transcoder that meets those requirements, but there are some paid apps that can do it.
The world of paid video transcoding apps is quite a mess. Some are very good, but some are downright dodgy. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole, but there are two that I use personally that I know work for this:
- Video Converter Ultimate by Wondershare. There are versions for Windows and Mac.
- Adobe Media Encoder. If you’re using Adobe Media Encoder on an operating system that has built-in HEVC support, you’ll have no problem–it works (and this whole page isn’t especially relevant to you in the first place…). But you can also use Adobe Media Encoder to transcode HEVC files even on an operating system that doesn’t have HEVC support. When you import an HEVC file into AME in that case, it will prompt you to install the HEVC codec. There’s no messing around–it’ll take care of it for you. And then it just works.
There are no doubt other apps that can do this (but developers, that’s not an invitation to spam the comments with them–thanks!).
Playing HEVC Files on Non-HEVC Compatible Computers
If you’re using an operating system that doesn’t yet have built-in support for the HEVC codec and just want to play the files, I recommend VLC as an excellent free, cross-platform app that can work with H.265 (HEVC) files. You can download VLC here.