If I'm going to be doing stupid things that risk the health of my various important body parts — and I do, often — I want to make sure I capture those moments so I can relive them later. That's how I elbowed my way into the action camera beat more than three years ago, and I haven't looked back.
But see, I'm also a true-blue nerd. I'm not content with vague outlines and shadowy figures: I want the footage to match the reality as closely as possible, and not all action cams are equal to the task. In fact, most aren't. Luckily, I've used a gajillion of these things over the last few years, and I'm here to help you separate the bad ones from The Bests.
So, what makes the best action camera? Myself and Gizmodo's video guru Michael Hession are both sticklers for image quality. We want to see sharp images with accurate, rich colours, and a nice broad dynamic range. Next up is form factor. Is it light? Does it easily attach to your body, or surfboard, or wherever you're trying to stick it? Is it waterproof? HOW waterproof is it? Then there's audio quality. It needs to be clean and immersive.
An example of how I test. Note: the poor-performing Sony isn't the same one I recommend.
Then, of course, there are all the other features. Of those, shooting modes is one of the most important. How high can you push the frame rate without losing quality (can you get buttery slow motion)? Can you shoot in different aspect ratios? Are there different settings for field of view? Battery life is super important, of course, since none of the above matters when your camera won't turn on. Then there are features like Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and NFC, and don't forget about the price tag.
These are the cameras that stood out.
The Best Overall: GoPro Hero4 Black
When you absolutely, positively must have the very best image quality possible, it's the GoPro Hero4 Black by a landslide. Honestly, it's not even close. It can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second, and that video looks really, really good. It's rich, it's detailed, and the dynamic range is terrific. It looks like it came out of a much more expensive (and larger) camera. Its other banner shooting mode is your standard 1080p HD video, but at 120 frames per second. That means you can play back full frame 24fps video that is slowed down 5x. It's killer.
But it doesn't stop there. It also has a lot of additional shoot modes, including 2.7K video, 1440, time lapse, night lapse, raw video, and even more obscure squarer ratios. Basically, you can use one of the default settings and it will look great, but for people who really know what they're doing, it gives them a lot of granular control. The Hero4 also has much improved microphones, and the audio it puts out sounds excellent.
Now, it's not perfect. For starters, it costs $679 in Australia, the most you'll pay for any action cam other there. Then there's battery life. Shooting at 1080p 30fps you'll only get about two hours of juice on a charge, and that's way at the back of the pack for action cams. You can quickly swap out the battery, but that's not going to do much good if you're surfing or scuba diving. Also, for a device this high-end, it should have GPS. A lot of its competitors do. But those dings aside, the image quality is absolutely unbeatable by anything else currently out there.
The Best for The Average Action Enthusiast: GoPro Hero4 Silver
So, you still want super high-quality video, but you don't need the highest high-end features like 4K video or 1080p @ 120fps? And would you maybe like an LCD touchscreen for framing your shots and quickly playing back footage? Then the GoPro Hero4 Silver is what you want. It has the exact same optics and the exact same image sensor as the Hero4 Black. The only difference is that the processor isn't quite as fast, so it can't 4K at 30fps or 1080p at 120fps. That's basically it. Plus you get a screen!
Images shot at 1080p 60fps (or 30 or 24) look just as good as the Hero4 Black. It also has the timelapse and night lapse modes. It has the improved mic, and it has the insanely large ecosystem of mounts and accessories. The touch screen is bright and definitely sharp enough for viewing your footage. It's such a nice feature that you wonder why they hell they didn't include it on the Hero4 Black.
At $549 (Australian RRP), it's still not cheap, but damn it looks and sounds good. In fact, the only camera that beats it in image quality is the Hero4 Black when you switch it into 4K mode, and frankly, most people just don't need that yet. Someday, maybe, but not yet. So you're basically getting the best camera, plus a screen, and you're saving 100 bucks. Stellar.
The Best for Audiophiles: Sony Action Cam AS100VR
Sony's flagship action cam is really pretty excellent. While its image quality isn't quite on par with the Hero4 Silver, its audio is second to none, and in some use cases, that's extremely important. When you want to hear every bird chirp and every tire squeal, then the Sony Action Cam AS100VR is the way to go. When you play back the footage you'll be struck by how immersive the audio is.
There are some very good reasons to consider the AS100V over the Hero4 Silver, in fact. For starters, it comes with the Live View Remote Control, and it retails for $499 in Australia. No, the image quality isn't quite as good, and no, you don't get as many shooting modes, and also the waterproof case it comes with is only good to 5m as opposed to 40m for the GoPro. But then again the Sony has GPS, which gives you another layer you can add onto your videos. [Full review]
The Best Low-Profile Camera: Replay XD Prime X
Who? Yes, Replay XD. You may not have heard of them, but they make a pretty awesome little camera. Emphasis on the little. The Prime X is a small tube that's just under 10cm long and is 3cm in diameter. It's extremely unobtrusive. You could stick it to the side of your helmet (or really anywhere) and it would add almost no drag at all. But surprise, this little sucker managed to squeeze in some pretty impressive features.
For starters, it's waterproof to ten feet as is. Again, it's tiny, and yet it's waterproof enough for most people. I took it snorkelling past 3m, actually, and it had no problems. Of course, if you want to go deeper, you can get a dive housing that will get you to 60m. It also has some legit shooting modes, including 1080p at 60fps (or 30, or 25) and 720p as fast as 120fps. Add in a battery that gets you close to 3.5 hours, plus Wi-Fi and iOS/Android apps. It even comes with a slick little carrying case.
Image quality is definitely a ways behind the GoPro, but it's really very close to the above-mentioned Sony. Both the GoPro and Sony are way better as far as audio goes, but still, this sleek camera has a lot going for it.
The Best Cheap Action Cam: GoPro Hero
Yes, another GoPro. I know, I know, we wanted to pick something else too, but we couldn't. The newly released $130 GoPro Hero HD simply gives you the most bang for your buck. You don't get the high-end frame rates (it tops out at 1080p 30fps and 720p 60fps) or the larger still images (it only does 5MP). That's not worse than competitors at this price point, it's just not better. So what sets it apart? Simple.
This camera is waterproof to 40m and it works with the full ecosystem of GoPro mounts that are out there. Both of those things right there are massive advantages. Aside from that, image quality is pretty decent. I mean, it certainly can't hold a candle to our higher-end picks, but in terms of detail (and waterproofiness) it mops the floor with its entry-level competitors like the Polaroid Cube. It's also much easier to use. If you're not sure how much you'd really use an action camera, this is the one you should start with.
Contour Roam 3
The $300 Roam 3 is Contour's new entry-level camera, and it's really just a waterproof version of the Roam 2. It's got a sharp lens but the image sensor just isn't up to snuff. It struggles with dynamic range, and especially sucks in low light.
This was Contour's last flagship camera before it folded and then reopened. It doesn't have a new flagship yet. This one lost out to the GoPro Hero3 Black, which means it's two years behind the curve. Yet it's still selling for $480. Nope.
On the positive side, it has the longest battery life of any action cam we've tested, and it shoots 1080p at 60fps. But this $499 cam is big and heavy, audio quality is pretty bad and image quality is just ok. Do you really, reeeeally need that extra battery life?
The predecessor to the Ghost-S. Still selling for around $350. It had very bad image quality and even worse audio. Definite pass.
Garmin Virb Elite
This was a surprisingly good action camera, considering it was Garmin's first attempt. It tops out at 1080p at 30fps which is a dealbreaker for $369, but image quality is actually very sharp and the GPS overlay is excellent. Now it's big, heavy, not worth it.
GoPro Hero3+ Black
This model won our last action cam battle. It has a lot of great features and takes fantastic imagery. But you might as well spend the extra money and get the 4 Silver with a better mic, easier menus, a night lapse mode and a touchscreen.
GoPro Hero3+ Silver
For the better controls, the nightlapse mode, the improved lens and sensor, and the lovely touchscreen on the back, might as well skip the Hero3+ Silver and spend the extra money on the Hero4 Silver. Worth it.
GoPro Hero 3 White
Basically the only difference between the Hero3 White and the Hero HD is that the White has Wi-Fi and you can remove it from the case. The HD is married to its waterproof case and has no Wi-Fi, but it's cheaper. I just don't see the White finding a niche.
This… is not an action camera. This is some weird little tube that tries to be quirky and ergonomic, but really, really just sucks to use. Image quality is lousy and it's… just really not an action camera. It's more of a life-logging camera. Belongs in a different category. Even for under $249, don't do it.
Ion Air Pro 3
This one had potential, but it failed to meet my expectations in the last action cam battle. It's supposed to be waterproof, but it leaked slightly. Audio quality is very bad, and image quality is inconsistent.
JVC Adixxion GC-XA2
This was the dark horse in our last action cam battle. It's a funny-looking little bugger, but it's extremely easy to use, has a built in screen, and is waterproof to 5m. That said, image quality just isn't on par with any of my top picks.
Kodak Pixpro SP1
Yeah, it says Kodak on it, but don't get too excited. This is an entry-level camera masquerading as a mid-tier. The cam tops out at 1080p 30fps, and the image quality is just way, way sub-par. Doesn't matter that it's waterproof, it isn't good.
The only 4K competition for the Hero4 Black. Video actually looks really good. The problem is that this thing is super unwieldy. You need multiple straps and tie-downs just to mount it to anything (yourself included). Deal-breaker.
It's frickin' adorable. Just look how tiny it is! Now for the flaws: Image quality is well behind the Hero HD. If you want it to be waterproof (the Hero HD already is), you need to spend $49.95 on a case. Maybe if cute is your only priority.
The first action cam from Ricoh (formerly Pentax). It's waterproof to 10m, shockproof up to 2m, and has a built-in screen and Wi-Fi, but it tops out at 1080p at 30fps. That's lame for a mid-tier camera currently selling for $329.
Sony Action Cam Mini (AZ1)
Sony's miniature version of the much-acclaimed AS100V? Not remotely. Image quality isn't nearly as good, and the tiny LCD and missing buttons make it extremely hard to use.