Whether you want to shoot outdoor sports or underwater excursions, here’s what you need to know when buying an action video camera, along with the top-rated models we’ve tested.
Action cameras are small, lightweight, wearable, mountable, portable, and sometimes waterproof camcorders. They’re useful because you can mount them to pretty much anything—from skateboards, surfboards, bicycles, and drones, to helmets, body parts, and even your pets.
Sure, you can also mount a traditional camcorder, which could very well feature better functionality and performance for the price. But regular camcorders are too heavy and bulky to strap onto yourself, your apparel, or your equipment. Plus, the gap between traditional camcorder and action camera performance is narrowing as technology improves. Action cams are forever getting smaller, lighter, and less expensive. Here you’ll find the top-rated action cams we’ve tested. We haven’t hit every single camera on the market—there are also models from Olympus and Sony that we haven’t tried out.
Before you start digging into the reviews, a few notes on choosing a cam that’s right for you. You’ll definitely want to consider frame rate, expressed as frames per second (fps) . Some action cameras offer up to 120fps recording, while others only go to 30fps. For standard playback, 30fps is perfectly fine. It’s when you want to slow footage down in editing to create dramatic scenes that frame rate matters. Footage captured at 120fps can be slowed down and played back smoothly at one quarter speed.
Then there’s resolution and video quality. At this point, the best action cams on the market capture footage at 4K, most at 30fps. YI’s latest, the 4K+, shoots in 4K at 60fps, currently the only action camera on the market that does so. Shooting in 4K does have some advantages, notably in the ability to crop footage and maintain 1080p quality at output—it makes the ultra-wide view of a typical action cam lens a bit more versatile. Cameras that support 4K can be set to record in lower resolutions as well, if you want to keep file sizes down.
You’ll also want to keep your specific needs in mind. Not all cameras are suitable for every sport, and certain form factors lend themselves better to certain activities. On top of that, different shapes allow for different mounting accessories and possibilities. If you want to catch a unique perspective, like an under-skateboard shot, you’ll want to pay close attention to size.
Waterproofing is important to consider if you’ll be recording footage underwater or even around water. Some waterproof cameras can go deeper than others, and some have built-in waterproofing so that you don’t need to think about extra housing. And if you’re already invested in a system, like GoPro, which uses a proprietary mount, then sticking with what you’ve got can help save money on extra accessories.
Some drones have gimbal mounts that work with GoPro Hero3 and Hero4 models. Only GoPro’s Karma, which is back on the market after a recall, is the only one that offers gimbal stabilization for the Hero5.
We’ve reviewed several drones that work with the older GoPro models, including the Yuneec Typhoon G, the Blade Chroma, and the Xiro Xplorer G. The best of the bunch, as far as GoPro integration goes, is GoPro’s own Karma, but it has some room for improvement.
There’s some appeal to using a modular action cam with your drone—but it looks like integrated cameras have won out. The aircraft that we’ve seen released in the past year have shown that DJI is just as capable of making a small video camera as GoPro, and the lenses are better tuned for aerial use, with narrower fields of view and no fish-eye distortion.
On-camera controls and wireless features should also be considered. GoPro’s least expensive camera (the Hero Session) focuses on simple, one-button operation, but relies on a connected mobile device to adjust settings. Kodak’s cameras have LCDs and controls built-in, but can be a bit more cumbersome to use. There’s a lot of give and take when you’re dealing with such compact devices.
A great app can supplement a poor on-camera control system, and even elevate the camera’s usefulness. For instance, some apps let you use your phone as a live viewfinder to frame your shots, and some even let you transfer files to your phone wirelessly. On top of that, many apps let you use your phone as a wireless remote, so you can easily control that helmet-mounted camera without all the fuss of dismounting or taking off your gear.
Ultimately, your choice in action camera should come down to performance and ease of use. We’ve filmed hours of footage with many of the major contenders to determine where each device stands in the increasingly crowded field. Some excel in all manner of extreme situations, while others can fall apart underwater or once the sun goes down. And what good is an action cam if it’s not built for action? We sussed out the best cameras overall, and you can’t go wrong with any of the choices listed here.