Battlemodo: The Best Action Camera

Action cams have always sounded great. Just strap them to a bike, a surfboard, a car or a helmet, and record a ride from the daredevil's point of view. Now they're getting fancy, with full 1080p HD recording, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. So which is the right one to capture your classic runs and epic wipeouts?

Note: Watch the above video in 1080p.

Testing Methodology

We strapped all four cameras to the handlebars of a mountain bike and went zooming around Brooklyn, New York. One street ride, one trail ride and one night ride. We also did a few static shots. Note that because the cams were crammed so tightly, none of them were mounted optimally (especially the Hero 2). Because of this, they all shake worse than they would normally. Plus, for bike stuff, you really want the camera on your helmet, because the handlebars impart too much vibration even under ideal circumstances. We wanted to strap them to a surfboard, but the Atlantic Ocean, she would not cooperate. Instead, those that are waterproof were given an eight-hour soak test in a metre of water. As far as weighting goes, we looked at ease of use, mounts, features and accessories, but video quality is king.

4th Place: Drift HD

There's a lot of really great stuff about the Drift HD. For starters, it's the only one with an integrated LCD screen, so you can see your shot before you start recording (or during). This also makes it adjustable on the fly. Switching between modes (1080p or 720p, frame-rates, stills, etc) is easiest on the Drift, thanks in part to a remote control. The lens is rotatable, so you can get a level shot even when the camera is mounted askew. Other features include modes for time-lapse and burst photos. Without a special housing, it's only billed as water-resistant, not waterproof, but a) it floats, and b) we submerged it under half a metre of water for an hour and it came out just fine. Nice.

Unfortunately, video quality is where the Drift falls flat. It's easily the worst of the group. Images are not at all sharp, and there's noise all over everything (especially in the night shot). It also handles contrast very poorly. Colours are way off and just very muddy. You see that skipping in the first video for the Drift? That's not your browser acting up, that's in the raw video file. It didn't do that all the time, but the fact that it did that at all is troubling. If you want to go surfing or diving with it, you've got to buy a waterproof case for an additional $65. It's also somewhat limited in terms of available mounts. Also, there was some weird, shrieking sound that persisted throughout the video, though that may be unique to our unit. For the price you can do way better.

Drift HD

Video: 25/30fps in 1080p, 25/30/50/60fps in 720p Angle: 170 degrees in 1080p Waterproof: water-resistant w/o case Storage: microSD Battery: 1100mAh Price: $319 RRP in Australia

3rd Place: Ion Air Pro

This is the baby of the bunch. The coolest thing about the Ion is that without any additional housing, it's waterproof to 9m, which should suffice for most non-scuba aquatic activities. All that in the same sleek form factor as the Contour, which gives it the lowest profile. It also has a unique and very versatile mounting kit. With the ball and socket setup, you don't have to detach and re-attach anything in order to turn the camera around (which would be great for surfing). It's very intuitive to use for both shooting video and firing off stills. Possibly the best feature of all is that it vibrates when it starts and stops recording, so you know you're rolling even if the camera is mounted to your helmet. Really nice touch.

Again, video quality is where the Ion stumbles. It's not as bad as the Drift HD's, but it's not much better. There's just lots of fuzz all over everything. Sharpness is a major problem (though colours are better than the Drift). Noise is very bad in low light. It also has a narrower angle in 1080 and 720 modes (127 and 150, respectively). The camera knows if it's upside down and will flip the video accordingly, but that's as far as it goes in terms of adjusting the angle. While the mount is easy to use and adjust on the fly, it's hard to crank it down hard enough so that it doesn't wobble when bumped or shaken. Also, like the Contour, you need another device (a computer or an iPhone) in order to change settings (frame-rates, etc), which sucks. But this also allows you to control the camera with an iOS device or web browser. If you're committed to buying an Ion, skip the $420 Wi-Fi model, and the pared-down $320 Pro — go for the $370 Pro Plus kit with its included mounts for bikes and helmets.

Ion Pro HD

Video: 30fps in 1080p, 30/60fps in 720p, 30fps in 960p (4:3) Angle: 127 degrees in 1080, 150 degrees in 720 Waterproof: up to 9m w/o case Storage: microSD Battery: 1100mAh Price: $369.99 RRP in Australia

2nd Place: Contour+

The Contour+ offers really nice video quality — images are extremely sharp. It was the favourite in the low-light test. While it was darker than the others, it didn't artificially brighten images into horrible noise. Speaking of noise, sound quality on the Contour+ is easily the best. It has a nice, low profile, and it's generally very easy to mount securely on either of its sides. It has a simple on/off switch (like the Ion) so it's pretty easy to tell when you're recording, and it starts shooting quickly. The Plus is Contour's high-end solution with built-in Bluetooth, so you can use your iPhone or Android as a monitor while you record. There are tons of optional accessories, including some that let you broadcast live to USTREAM. Also, the rotatable lens will allow you to adjust to any angle, and it has built-in GPS for automatically geotagging your videos.

With a recommended retail price of $699.95, the Contour+ is by far the most expensive of the cameras we tested. For all that money, it's not even waterproof. It says "water-resistant", so we gave it a quick dunk. It instantly filled with water. Oops. If you want to take this thing in the water (or anywhere near it) you need to drop an extra $70 on the waterproof case. There's a switch to flip between two settings (1080p @ 30fps or 720p at 60fps by default), but beyond that, settings can't be changed without attaching to a computer. Really, really annoying. Also, if you want the full 170-degree angle, you can only get that in 720p mode. Connecting to a phone via Bluetooth yielded mixed results — you had to stay pretty close to the camera, and most of the time it displayed choppy video. For the best value, go with the Contour ROAM. For only $299 (or $349 with the waterproof case and surf mount) it has the same optics/image sensor as the Plus, but it's actually waterproof for up to a metre — better than nothing. You don't need the Plus's GPS and Bluetooth.


Video: 25/30fps in 1080p, 25/30/50/60fps in 720p, 25/30fps in 960p (4:3) Angle: 170 degrees in 720 only Waterproof: not waterproof w/o case; up to 60m w/ $70 case Storage: microSD Battery: 1050mAh Price: $699.95 RRP in Australia

BESTMODO: GoPro Hero 2

In terms of image quality, the Hero 2 simply won out. It's about on par with the Contour in terms of sharpness, but when it comes to colours, the Hero 2 simply dominates. It also handles contrast better than the others. All of the kits come with a waterproof housing, which keeps the camera dry up to 60m deep. There are heaps of mounting options and accessories — battery extenders, strap-on LCD screens and a Wi-Fi BacPac that lets you control up to 50 GoPros at once from a distance of up to 180m (iPhone and Android apps and live web streaming is coming soon). The built-in screen ain't much to look at, but you can adjust settings on the fly, like frame-rates, stills and time-lapse, which is clutch when you're in the field. The LCD BacPac lets you instantly play back video. This is the only camera that uses ubiquitous, high-capacity, full-sized SD cards. The 170-degree angle in 1080p is great, and it easily produces the best daytime video. (If you want to see surf footage from the Hero 2, check out our lightning review of it.)

That said, it isn't without its flaws. The boxy design gives it a more awkward profile. Sometimes it's harder to mount because of that, and it increases water resistance while swimming. Also, you can flip video 180 degrees, but there is no incremental adjustment. As you can see in the video, the Hero 2 was off-kilter (which wasn't its fault — it went on last and there wasn't enough room on the handlebars), so a twistable lens would have been great. Night-time footage isn't amazing, but it finished a solid second behind the Contour. The most annoying thing about the Hero is that buttons are very hard to press, so adjusting the settings takes some work (and it's hard to do with gloves on). Also, if the camera gets pressed into the ground or another object, accidental button presses can occur. It takes a while to scroll through the GoPro's menu, but it's certainly better than no onboard menu at all. Despite the gripes, the Hero 2 remains is the clear winner.

GoPro Hero 2

Video: 30fps in 1080p, 30/60fps in 720p, 48/30fps in 960p (4:3) Angle: 170 degrees in 1080p Waterproof: up to 60m w/ included case Storage: full-sized SD card Battery: 1100mAh Price: $399 RRP in Australia

Video shot by Brent Rose, edited by Michael Hession



    You can also pair hero 2's to make an awesome and relatively cheap 3D camera

      Yes, I have been using GoPro 3D for 12 months now. 3D Underwater and timelapse too.

        Can I have a link? I do motorcycle video, thinking about trying 3D

      GoPro HD Hero2's FTW. I have the motorsport one and always have it attached to my GT-R for launch vids. Oh, and I've just received my Wifi Backpac + wireless remote which is simply awesome!!! Gotta hand it to GoPro for setting the standard with loads of awesome accessories!!!

    What ever, Contour+ video was way better than Go pro.
    Now to do underwater test (which I have), Go pro cant get the colors and focus is no good. Contour+ video under water is far better.

    This is just like MAC vs Windows, Would not be surprised if the editor of this has Gopro at home.

      and you have a Contour+ ?

      With the GoPro, for underwater you need to replace the bubble lens covers with flat ones. Focus then no problem. If there is colour problem underwater, it can be corrected in an editor.

    I have own both GoPro Hero 2 and Contour+, I would have to agree that Contour+ has better footage and overall results than GoPro.

    Can somebody tell me just how good the contour+ is for real life into the wind noise from a motorcycle ?
    I've found the GoPro to be good at speed (lets not talk how fast) but not the contour+
    For under$700 you can also get a VIO POV for $650 it has a review screen and remote or two GoPro HeroHD's and do spliced footage.....O_o
    For the rest of us just sharing what we do, we use what we can afford

      Sorry "but not the contour+" means I haven't tested one so I'd appreciate hearing from another motorcycle person not a mountain biker as the noise levels are vastly different :)

    GoPros are bloody indestructible though. I've dropped mine off a skateboard at 50kph, thrown it around, and my drunk friends have submerged it in alcohol and cooked it in a frying pan. The little beauty just keeps chugging.

      Cooked it in oil??? what on earth..... was it recording?

        Yeah, it was. When we saw it later, I wasn't sure if I should high five or punch him.

    Why no ReplayXD???

      Actually after reviewing the footage in the video, I think the ReplayXD is on par with the contour and GoPro

    The main concern with the GoPro footage from this little experiment is simply the mounting. I've noticed that everything else was mounted pretty close and snug to the bar, but the GoPro was on an extension arm. I had the same issue mounting mine on the car with a long arm. It wobbled and vibrated. Once I bit the bullet and relocated it so it was a short, almost direct mount, the footage stabilised to perfection.

    I was nowhere near as satisfied with the Contour+ that I got rid of as soon as my GoPro HD Hero2 arrived.. I'm just revelling in the quality of footage it delivers and all the extra little accessories. To the point that I have the full skeleton front & backs as well as the waterproof front & backs, with the LCD backpack and the extra battery backpack.. Haven't got the remote yet.. Considering it though...

    I'd like to add my two cents in order to save others the frustration I've experienced. I generally agree with and appreciate the Gizmodo reviews and have often followed the advice offered in my tech purchases. However I couldn't possibly recommend the GoPro. So here goes...

    The biggest flaw with the GoPro is the button operation and menu system.
    These cameras are for recording in unusual environments. This means they are often mounted on helmets and in other awkward positions where it is not convenient to look at the tiny front LCD. The beep alert system is anything but intuitive and in outdoor environments is frequently inaudible over wind/road/surf noise.
    The buttons are small and as mentioned in article users wearing ski gloves will often have to suffer frozen digits.
    Finally, the shape of the unit means knowing what's in frame when mounted is not guaranteed.
    I own a GoPro but if I was choose a Action Camera now I'd choose a Contour. Image quality is fine on the Contour and importantly you are more likely to catch what you intend to.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now