Not long ago, action cameras were the hottest gear. Small enough to fit into any pocket and easy to use, these little point-of-view camcorders could capture surprisingly good video. The ability to mount the camcorders on a variety of surfaces only bolstered their original appeal, along with their rugged and waterproof builds. GoPro — the company that essentially created the action cam industry — found its Hero cameras were in-demand by everyone, from daredevil teens to professional filmmakers.
Fast-forward to the present and things have changed somewhat. 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 and Garmin, which sell cameras that rival GoPro in terms of image quality and features.
Each is fun to use and adept at shooting quality movies, but each also has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Below are our picks for the best action cameras.
At a glance
|GoPro Hero7 Black||Best action cam overall||Not yet rated|
|Sony FDR-X3000||Best action cam with image stabilization||Not yet rated|
|Garmin Virb Ultra 30||Best action cam for fitness and data freaks||4 out of 5|
|Olympus Tough TG-5||Best action cam with optical zoom||Not yet rated|
|GoPro Hero Session||Best cheap action cam||3.5 out of 5|
GoPro Hero7 Black
Why should you buy this: Super smooth electronic image stabilization, great user experience
Who’s it for: Extreme athletes, travel vloggers, and professional filmmakers
How much will it cost: $500
Why we picked the Hero7 Black:
Each year, GoPro finds small new ways to improve on the best, but the Hero7 Black has made a giant leap in electronic image stabilization. Sure, this feature has been around for several generations now, but its implementation in the Hero7 Black is a significant improvement, to the point where GoPro has even coined a new name for it: HyperSmooth. It even allowed us to capture perfectly stable footage of a downhill mountain bike ride.
GoPro’s new flagship action cam also now features native live-streaming, so you can show off your stunts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Vimeo, and more. The sound recording capabilities have also been improved, promising less vibrational noise and better dynamic range (the range from quiet to loud sounds the microphone can capture without distorting).
And of course, the Hero7 Black includes all the standard features we’ve come to expect from GoPro, like waterproofing without the need for a case, a nice touch screen and interface, and the ubiquitous GoPro mount that lets you attach the camera to virtually anything with the right accessory.
The best action cam with optical 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: $400
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 shoot 4K video. It doesn’t offer the fine-tuning features that the Hero6 Black does, but the X3000 one-ups it (and all other action cams) with built-in optical image stabilization. Other action cameras that advertise built-in stabilization all use electronic IS — even Sony’s other cameras have had it for some time — but the Balanced Optical SteadyShot (BOSS) in the X3000 is true stabilization.
In optical stabilization, the lens and/or sensor physically moves to counteract motion. Compared to digital stabilization, which basically crops and then “pans and scans,” this doesn’t result in a loss of resolution. Optical stabilization therefore leads to better image quality than cameras that use electronic IS.
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.
Garmin Virb Ultra 30
The best action cam for fitness and data freaks
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 fast you rode or how high you jumped. Released in 2016, the Virb Ultra 30 is growing old — a sign of the slowing pace of action camera development — but it remains the best for data logging.
And a bonus: It can live-stream to YouTube for all the world to see.
Olympus Tough TG-5
The best action cam with optical zoom
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: $450
Why we picked the Tough TG-5:
Yes, we admit this is a stretch: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is technically a rugged point-and-shoot camera, and while it is compact enough for a pocket cam, it’s bigger than your typical action cam. That said, the TG-5 has some notable action cam attributes. Its body is built to withstand the elements without a 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 for adventurers, and those who want some standard camera capabilities that go beyond capturing POV footage.
It also has a larger sensor and a wide-angle lens with true, 4x optical zoom with sensor-shift image stabilization. For action sequences, it can shoot bursts up to 20 fps. Finally, the TG-5 lens also has a microscope mode for capturing things incredibly up-close. It shoots RAW photos and 4K video, 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
Why should you buy this: An affordable action cam with top-notch specs
Who’s it for: Anyone looking for a high-end value buy
How much will it cost: $209
Why we picked the Yi 4K+:
You can find plenty of action cams for around $100, but the Yi 4K+ — which began its life as a $340 flagship model — is a much better buy at just over $200. It was the first action camera to offer 4K/60p recording, and its image quality actually bested GoPro for sharpness in our tests. It also offers decent electronic image stabilization, although it’s nothing compared to the Hyper Smooth tech found in the Hero7.
The 4K+ features similar dimensions to a GoPro Hero, with a similar 2.2-inch touchscreen and straightforward interface that’s easy to navigate. Beyond video, it also shoots 12-megapixel photos, complete with the option for RAW files for maximum quality. The biggest drawback is that it is not waterproof or even weather sealed without a case, but the case is included at no extra cost.
Yi is known for pumping high tech features into affordable devices, and the 4K+ continues to be an example of this a year into its life — mostly thanks to the price reduction. You’ll have a hard time finding more bang for your buck.
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.