Action Camcorders Review
Why Buy an Action Camcorder?
The top performers in our review are The GoPro HERO4 Silver, the Gold Award winner; the GoPro HERO4 Black, the Silver Award winner; and Drift Innovations Ghost-S, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 action cameras.
Action camcorders, also known as action cameras or action cams, are compact, rugged video cameras that capture footage in places that conventional video recorders can't go. Whether you're a skydiver, surfer or musician, there's an action camera designed to capture footage of you doing what you love.
Action cams are different from conventional video recorders in a number of ways. They're much tougher, often featuring thick shockproof exteriors that are sealed to keep water out and your camera functioning properly even when submerged. They also have a much wider field of view than a traditional video camera, which allows you to capture all the action in one shot. Most action cameras also shoot at higher framerates than conventional video cameras, which makes it possible to slow down footage and emphasize the action in your recordings.
The devices we reviewed differ in design features and image quality. Some cameras provide better shock and water protection than others, some provide a wider field of view and some provide faster framerates for even slower slow-mo. These factors, in combination with resolution, battery-life and convenience features like built-in Wi-Fi are exactly what you should consider as you choose the best action camera for you.
If you're still unsure of exactly what these specifications mean or how they translate to use in the real world, continue reading our in-depth action camera review here or check out our other articles on action camcorders.
Action Camcorders: What We Tested, What We Found
Imaging: Resolution, Framerate and Field of View
Image quality among action camera brands and models has a lot to do with available resolutions and framerates. Higher resolutions make for pixel-dense videos that you can clearly display on large screens, while higher framerates make for smoother action footage – especially when you slow it down. When ranking these action cameras, we took both of these into account. While framerate and resolution give us a good idea of the imaging capabilities of each camera, image quality is about more than raw specifications.
In order to get a real-world perspective on each of these cameras and compare them fairly, we first set each camera to shoot at 1080p at 30 frames per second. We then attached the cameras to a luggage-rack mount that would allow us to record the same scene with each camera at the same time. With all the cams mounted to the roof of our vehicle, we captured footage as we climbed through a snowy canyon. Capturing this side-by-side video allowed us to compare cameras based on their dynamic range, sharpness and color accuracy.
In a second test, we used a chest mount to attach two cameras on our tester – one for testing, one for reference – and had him climb routes at a local indoor climbing gym, switching out the test cameras as the evening progressed. This allowed us to get a better perspective of how each camera performs with typical use. The lighting was dim, which allowed us to compare the low light performance of each camera.
Most action cameras have a field of view between 150 and 170 degrees. Because of this small variation between models, you should consider field of view to a lesser degree. Just keep in mind that the wider the angle, the more you can capture in your frame.
Design: Battery Life, Waterproofing and Ease of use
Battery life among action cameras is typically short, ranging between an hour and a half and three hours. Although battery life is important, it's not the only thing to consider here. When it comes to action cameras, longer battery life often means a bulkier and heavier camera. If you want something small and light to blend more seamlessly into your experience, you may want to sacrifice some battery life. After all, you can bring spare batteries along.
Waterproofing varies significantly from brand to brand and often depends on how much you're willing to spend and what kind of casing you're willing to deal with. Large waterproof cases, like those found on the GoPro HERO series, provide the best water protection, but they also have their drawbacks. First, without this casing, some of the devices are hardly more durable than a normal camera. Secondly, buttons become much more difficult to use, and touchscreens are impossible to use through a case.
Features: Wi-Fi, Mobile Applications and Automatic Editing
Most modern action cameras come equipped with Wi-Fi. These cameras broadcast a wireless signal that you can find and connect to using your smartphone or tablet. Then, using a mobile application, you can change settings, preview and capture video or download footage for editing and sharing. For cameras that lack a preview screen, this can be particularly useful.
Automatic editing is one of the newest features to make an appearance in the action camera market and is, as of yet, only supported by one model on our lineup: the TomTom Bandit. The Bandit makes use of its GPS and motion sensors to tag the most exciting sections of your footage. Once the video is uploaded to your smartphone, TomTom's app uses these tags to automatically edit content using only your most exciting moments. This saves a lot of time and works pretty well. If you're worried about missing something, you can also tag things manually at the touch of a button. Though auto-editing is still in its fledgling stages, we're excited to see where the technology goes from here.
What Else Is Important When Selecting an Action Camera?
Action Cameras: Mounts and Accessories
You can mount an action camera to almost anything. From handlebars and helmets to kayaks and cars, an action camera can go anywhere that you can – provided you have the correct mounts. Aside from the actual specifications of your camera, it's a good idea to make sure that the accessories you need are available from your chosen action camera manufacturer.
Also, look out for replacement batteries, chargers and remote controls. Although you might not need these add-ons initially, it's better to go for a model that gives you more options than one that limits you to what you get out of the box.
Action Cameras: Dimensions and Design
The dimensions of your camera can influence where and how you can mount your camera. Thin or barrel-shaped cameras, for example, work well when mounted on the side of a helmet because they don't protrude far from the mount. Square cameras, on the other hand, can stick out awkwardly when mounted on the side.
In addition to this, the sheer size and weight of a camera can make a camera more or less convenient to mount. While most action cameras are fairly compact, it's up to you just how small you need to go. Just keep in mind, weight savings often mean increased prices or the loss of axillary features.
Action cameras typically come with the same set of base features, but every model integrates these features differently. This can make a big difference in the way you interact with your camera. Some cameras are water resistant out of the box, and so their controls and screens are easily accessible at all times. Others require an additional waterproof housing to be safe for use in and around water. Although these models are often better protected, they often give you less access to the camera's primary functions.
Action Camcorders: Our Verdict and Recommendations
All action cameras perform the same basic function – they are all durable, mountable and feature wide-angle lenses for capturing all the action in a single shot. If this basic functionality is all you're after, then there's no need to spend more than $100 on an action camera. For that, you can get a camera like the SJCAM SJ4000 that's waterproof, shoots HD video and mounts to just about anything. It's great for kids and adults who simply don't need the highest quality video.
For people who want a little more out of their camera, however, the best action camera has to be the GoPro HERO4 Silver. Although it doesn't boast the incredible 4k/30fps resolution/framerate combination of the HERO4 Black model, it's no slouch, offering up to 2.7k at 30 frames per second. In addition to this, it includes a built-in touchscreen that you can use to frame and review your shots. Up until recently, a screen was something that most GoPro users simply did without, but the usefulness of a built-in screen really can't be overstated.
If you need the best possible image quality, go with the GoPro HERO4 Black. In addition to its previously mentioned ability to shoot 4k video at 30 frames per second, the Black model also boasts some of the highest framerates available. In fact, it's the only camera on our lineup that can capture 120 frames per second while shooting full 1080p HD video. Unfortunately, there's no preview screen to review you shots.
If you're looking to save a little money but you still want premium features and a well-made, reliable camera, check out the Drift Innovations Ghost-S. This camera doesn't offer the best resolutions or framerates, but it does offer full HD video at 60fps, 720p video at 120fps and a built-in preview screen to help you frame shots. If you've tried a GoPro and decided it's not for you, this is good option.
Whether you're looking to capture high quality video to incorporate into a personal film project or just to capture some memories, there's an action camera for you. Check out our matrix for direct comparisons of features and recording capabilities and read our individual product reviews for even more in-depth product information.