Not long ago, action cameras were the hottest gear. Small enough to fit into any pocket and easy to use, these little point-of-vew camcorders also could capture high-definition video. The ability to mount the camcorders on a variety of surfaces or accessories only bolstered their original appeal, along with their rugged build components. Led by GoPro — the company that essentially created the action cam industry — its Hero cameras were in-demand by everyone, from teens to professional filmmakers.
Now, fast-forward to the present. While GoPro is still the undisputed champ, there are a lot more players — from no-name budget manufacturers that want a slice of the pie, to major camera makers like Sony, which sells cameras that rival GoPro in terms of image quality. In fact, action cams are now so ubiquitous that even GoPro is starting to see its sales decline.
GoPro still makes one of the better action cams, though it’s now joined by a few capable friends. Each is fun to use and adept at shooting quality movies you can share on YouTube, whether you want to capture wide-angle shots of your local half-pipe, the big waves down the road, or aerial footage from your drone or dog’s point of view. Below are a few of our current favorites.
GoPro Hero5 Black
Why should you buy this: It is the one action cam to rule them all.
Who’s it for: Casual users and professional filmmakers alike
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the Hero5:
If you are looking for a versatile action cam that’s simple to operate yet offers advanced features when you need it, the Hero5 Black is our favorite. GoPro’s latest flagship combines the best of the predecessors, the Hero4 Black and Hero4 Silver – 4K and a touchscreen LCD, to name just two –and has a lower launch price.
But it isn’t just a rehash of the old. While it still shoots great photos and videos, the touchscreen is much improved. Navigating through menus and screens is now far more fluid than previous Hero LCDs. Audio capture is better, thanks to three stereo mics also help with noise canceling. The body of the Hero5 is now rugged without a case.
For us, GoPro Hero cameras’ easy usability has been a big selling point, but it’s even better with the coolest new feature, voice control. Just say, “GoPro,” plus one of several preset commands, and the camera automatically does it. This frees you up from having to fumble with the camera while, say, zooming down a mountain on your bike or running through a trail.
A first for GoPro cameras, the Hero5 has electronic stabilization, which helps to steady vibrations. It won’t cancel out forceful shaking, but it’s a nice option for regular movements. As for image quality, in ideal lighting conditions the camera captures sharp and colorful photos. More advanced users can take advantage of the new RAW format and Protune adjustable settings, plus GPS for location data and telemetry. With built-in Wi-Fi, the Hero5 Black can share content to social media or back up to GoPro’s new Plus subscription-based, online cloud storage service.
Despite the increased competition in the action camera market, GoPro still makes the best. There are plenty of accessories to go with the Hero5, including the new Karma Grip three-axis gimbal and upcoming Karma Drone. And with GoPro’s new developer program, third-party companies are incorporating Hero cameras into their applications for new uses.
The best action cam with image stabilization
Why should you buy this: It has the steadiest image quality you can get from a small camcorder
Who’s it for: Those with jittery hands or who bounce around a lot
How much will it cost: $450
Why we picked the Sony FDR-X3000:
When it comes to image quality, we find Sony’s Action Cam products to be up there with GoPro. Models like the new X3000 are easy to use, and can capture 4K video. It doesn’t offer the fine-tuning features that the Hero5 Black does, but the X3000 one-ups it (and all other action cams) with built-in optical image stabilization. Electronic IS isn’t new in action cams – Sony’s have it for some time – but its Balanced Optical SteadyShot (BOSS) is true stabilization, and counters shakes more effectively.
The X3000 is on the pricier side, but if you don’t need 4K, Sony offers the Full HD 1080p HDR-AS300 for $300, which includes BOSS.
The best rugged action cam
Why should you buy this: It’s rugged right out of the box.
Who’s it for: For those who abuse their toys
How much will it cost: $300
Why we picked the WG-M2:
Unlike most action cams, the M2 has a small color LCD that lets you review your photos and videos. You can also use it to adjust settings. The design of the M2 is a departure from the typical action cam form-factor, but it’s still easy to hold in your hand. Its highlight is its rugged body that doesn’t need a special housing – much tougher than most action cams. It can dive all the way down to 65 feet (although you’ll need to swap the lens cover when filming underwater), is shock proof from 6.5 feet, and is freeze proof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
Compared to its M1 predecessor, the M2’s image resolution dropped from 14 megapixels to a paltry 8, but it can shoot in 4K at 30 fps, and the lens has a wider field of view (204 degrees).
Like all products mentioned here, the M2 also features built-in Wi-Fi, which lets you pair the device with your smartphone. We found the app to be lacking, however, because it doesn’t seem to let you adjust all the settings remotely. Still, at $300, it’s a capable camera with a good number of features, particularly its hardiness.
The best action cam for fitness and data freaks
Garmin Virb Ultra 30
Why should you buy this: This camera tracks your activities with real data.
Who’s it for: Health, sports, and outdoors enthusiasts who monitor their progress
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the Virb Ultra 30:
Any action camera can capture what happens in front of the lens, so Garmin went a step further and built a camera that also collects additional data like speed, position, g-force, hill grade, and more. When working in tandem with Garmin body sensors, it can also measure temperature and heart rate. So, not only can you watch a video of how fast you’re riding a bike, but also see the actual MPH and incline – displayed on top of the video.
Called G-Metrix, the Virb Ultra 30 includes five sensors that measure various aspect of your activity. If you regularly monitor your progress, it can show if you are improving (or not). This kind of data can also be evidence you can use when bragging about how high you bike jumped.
And a bonus: It can live-stream to YouTube for all the world to see.
The best action cam with optical zoom
Olympus Tough TG-4
Why should you buy this: It is a sporty camera with optical zoom and larger sensor.
Who’s it for: Those who don’t mind a larger camera in exchange for better optics and larger sensor
How much will it cost: $300
Why we picked the Tough TG-4:
Yes, we admit this is a stretch: The TG-4 is technically a rugged point-and-shoot camera, and while it’s compact enough for a pocket cam, it’s bigger than your typical action cam. That said, the TG-4 has some notable action cam attributes. Its body is built to withstand the elements without protective housing. That means you can drop it, take it into the water, get sand on it, or freeze it without worry. It’ll take the abuse, which is why it’s a good action cam option for those who want to shoot their sporting activities. It also has a larger sensor and a wide-angle lens with true, 4x optical zoom with sensor-shift image stabilization. Finally, the TG-4 lens also has a microscope mode for capturing things incredibly up-close. It shoots RAW photos and video in Full HD, uses GPS to record your location data; and leverages Wi-Fi to let you share to online.
An optional accessory, called the Sport Holder, also allows you to attach the camera to your belt or backpack strap, making it handy when used as an action camcorder. It may be large, but it’s more versatile.
The best cheap action cam
GoPro Hero Session
Why should you buy this: An affordable action cam that packs performance in a tiny body
Who’s it for: Anyone looking for a fun camera
How much will it cost: $200
Why we picked the Hero Session:
You can find plenty of action cams for around $100. Despite being labeled “cheap,” the Hero Session is on the higher end. However, compared to even cheaper offerings, we think the Hero Session offers a lot of value for the money. Even though it’s small, it’s durable and well built, waterproof without a case.
Its one-button-push recording makes it simple to use, and it’s capable of shooting really nice looking videos and photos. The size also makes it a good choice for those who want to mount an action in unconventional places, allowing users to capture footage with creative POV.
How we test
To find the best models, in addition to image quality, we factor in criteria such as usability, speed, low-light strength, video performance, durability, form-factor/compactness, and any unique features that help them one-up the competition.
Our selections are based on our long- and short-term testing; experience with earlier models; familiarity with the companies’ technologies; consultation with industry experts, fellow journalists, and users; online forums; lab results (such as DxO); and other third-party reviews. We look across the board – not just our own experiences – to find consensus on what we think are the best-performing cameras you can currently buy. We also look at list pricing to determine if a product is worth the cost, its availability, and is future proof enough to recommend. We may even recommend cameras that aren’t new, provided the features are still best-in-class.
The camera market evolves constantly, with manufacturers often introducing better models with new features. So, you can expect our picks to change, as well. But don’t worry: The models you see here will be with you for some time. If we anticipate that better models are on the horizon, we will state that upfront to help you decide whether you should buy now or wait.
What is an action camera?
An action camera is a compact camcorder designed to capture the perspective from its user’s point of view. They are generally simple to use, rugged, and can shoot both video and stills. The latest batch of action cams are incorporating more advanced features that differentiate themselves from one another and against budget offerings.
This type of camera was made popular by GoPro, and has become synonymous with extreme sports (hence the name). However, action cams can be use for any occasion (GoPros are even used in filmmaking and broadcasting). Their small size and light weight allow them to be used in many creative situations, and they can be mounted in places where traditional cameras and smartphones can’t, like the bottom of a skateboard, on a pet, or even space.
Because they are small, action cams rely on smaller sensors than typical point-and-shoot cameras, yet companies like GoPro and Sony have managed to pump great image quality out of their latest models, including 4K video. For optimal performance, they require a lot of light, but when conditions are right, they can shoot terrific photos too. Many also include Wi-Fi, allowing you to pair with a phone or tablet for remote live view and online sharing.