Having a hard time deciding which best action camera to buy? Overwhelmed by the abundant of different specs and features you know nothing about? After spending a considerable amount of time, we’re finally able to put together a complete buyer’s guide for action cameras. Not only will you find out the top 15 action cameras in 2017, but you can also learn what essentials to look at when you’re buying one.
With people becoming more eager to show off their outdoor hobbies to the world, action cameras have become all the rage. They’re not necessarily rugged but it’s their small and lightweight dimensions that attract many outdoor enthusiasts. Some action cameras also come with a batch of different mounts and cases, allowing you to use them for a lot of different activities from skateboarding to deep sea diving.
In the past, the only action camera we knew was GoPro, but today more options are pushed into the market. Serious competition comes from Sony and Olympus as both manufacturers start to channel their resources to produce well-performing action cameras. Less popular brands like Veho and Olfi also come to play, offering us with more affordable choices while still delivering acceptable image quality. Below is a list of what we considered as the best action cameras of 2017 (in no sequential order).
- Top 10 Best Action Cameras of 2017
- Best Action Camera under $200
- Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Best Action Camera
Top 10 Best Action Cameras of 2017
GoPro Hero 5 Black – Best 4K Action Camera
Hero 5 Black is the latest addition to the award-winning GoPro’s action camera, so naturally it packs loads of goodies under its hood. Capable of recording 4K videos at 30 frames per second, this action camera sets quite a notable gap from its predecessors in terms of photo and video quality. GoPro Hero 5 Black is also armed with the proprietary Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) that can render your videos less bumpy. Sadly, this EIS cannot be turned on if you’re recording in 4K.
In terms of build quality, GoPro Hero 5 Black is claimed to be completely waterproof up to 10m. You no longer need to buy a separate waterproof housing, should you want take it for sea diving. It also features a 2-inch touchscreen interface. It does make the camera much more user-friendly, but it seems to suffer from unresponsiveness when it’s wet. The price is a bit steep, but you’ll get many cool features that you won’t find on any budget action camera, such as GPS, Wide Dynamic Range, Double Microphones, RAW photography, and many more.
Yi 4K Action Camera
Would you like it if I tell you that there’s a camera with features almost identical to GoPro Hero 5 Black but nearly half of its price? Yep, it’s Yi 4K Action Camera. Manufactured by the relatively unknown Yi Technology – a Chinese company supported by Xiaomi – this camera has anything you need to make your outdoor hobby more appealing. As you can guess from its name, the camera can record 4K videos at 30fps. But that’s not all about it. It also supports full HD 1080p video recording at ultra smooth rate of 120fps. Higher rate of 240fps is available for 720p resolution, which is fun enough for slow-motion videos.
Yi 4K Action Camera is also capable of capturing still images of up to 12MP resolution, which is crazy good. No more small details left in the dark. If you want to record a video while capturing some still images in the process, you can just switch on the Video+Photo mode. The default field of view on its lens is 155-degree, which is good enough to capture all the action but it can’t be adjusted to meet your needs. But don’t be too concerned about it. Touchscreen that’s even larger than that of GoPro Hero5 Black is fixed on its back panel. Moreover, the battery life is much longer as well. Seriously, for its price, you can’t really complain about it.
Sony FDR-X3000 4K
Sony FDR-X3000 4K is the most premium action camera from the Japanese company. It aims to compete directly with GoPro’s latest member, the Hero 5 Black. The major drawing feature from Sony’s 4K action cam is it’s armed with BOSS, a technology that gives the camera superior image stabilization through the use of tiny mechanical parts. This is even better than GoPro’s software-based electronic stabilization. You can finally say goodbye to the shaky videos that ruined your greatest moments. On itself, the camera isn’t necessarily big, but once you put it into the waterproof case, you’ll notice that it’s a tad bigger than common action cams.
If you’re in United States, you can buy Sony FDR-X3000 4K without the remote control, which significantly discounts the price. It doesn’t seem to be possible in Europe, though. The Live View Remote does offer many benefits and is far better than the ones made for Sony’s lower end action cam. However, you can just replace it with your smartphone. Video and audio quality is among the best you can get from an action camera. The multi-coated lens paired with the 1/2.5-inch 16:9 Exmos R CMOS sensor reduces the barrel distortion that’s quite apparent on other Sony’s cam. 4K video recording is available at 30 and 25fps. Highest bit rate possible in XAVC format is up to 100Mbps. All in all, it’s a solid alternative to GoPro Hero 5 Black, though not necessarily cheaper.
GoPro Hero4 Black
Second only to GoPro’s current flagship action camera – the Hero 5 Black – is GoPro Hero4 Black. Although it lacks some of the new advanced features, the Hero 4 Black equally rivals its successors in terms of video quality. For your information, this action camera is the first model by GoPro to offer 4K video recording at 30 fps. Prior to its launch, all GoPro cameras were only able to produce 4K videos at only 15 fps. The results were very jumpy. So, what I’m trying to say is if you want an action camera that can make you buttery smooth videos at less price than Hero 5 Black, you must consider GoPro Hero 4 Black.
GoPro Hero 4 Black is compatible with various mounting kits from GoPro itself and third-party companies. You won’t have a hard time finding the right accessory to help fine tune the camera for your particular activity. The camera itself is not waterproof, but once you equip it with the included case, you’ll be able to take it down as far as 40m under water. It has no digital image stabilization like the Hero 5 Black, so expect the end of result of your videos to be a little shaky. Good thing is with such feature being absent, you can save more on the battery life.
Garmin Virb Ultra 30
On paper, you will notice little to no difference at all between Garmin Virb Ultra 30 and GoPro Hero 5 Black. Both are top-of-the-line action cameras capable of recording 4K videos at 30fps and also operable via voice command. They also come with a built-in touchscreen that allows for easier navigating and changing settings. So, now the question is why should you choose the former? If you’re an extreme sports enthusiast, you’re going to find Garmin Virb Ultra 30 more likeable. The action camera is equipped with abundance of sensors that can track various valuable data to improve your achievement in the sport. Not just that, you can also pair external sensors using its ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity to get even more detailed information about your action.
Electronic image stabilization is available on Garmin Virb Ultra 30, but you can only use it when you’re shooting videos in resolution other than 4K. The maximum bit rate in 4K mode is 60Mbps. If you turn on all the sensors, it’s going to be compressed down to 35Mbps. High-speed recording options are abundant. You can even record a slow-motion video in full HD resolution. The camera itself has no built-in waterproofing layer. You’re going to have to count on the included housing for that, but don’t worry about it too much because the touchscreen is still completely operable even with the case on.
Sony AS100V Action Camera
The AS100V is not the highest end POV camera offered by Sony but it’s become a serious threat to GoPro’s line of full HD action cams such as the Hero 3 Black. In fact, depending on your preferences over the image colors, Sony AS100V might appear to be the better of the two. The Pro mode that enables the camera to record in XAVC S format with high bit rate of 50 Mbps gives you a very strong color palette. Note that this mode can only be turned on if you’ve inserted a microSDXC card into the slot, instead of regular microSD card.
The field of view on Sony AS100V is set at 170-degree by default. However, it will be reduced to 120-degree, should you decide to enable the built-in image stabilization feature called SteadyShot. GPS is on-board as well, which is nice as it stores the precise location data on the video automatically. The camera itself is splash-proof, but you’re going to need the included housing if you want to submerge it underwater. It allows you to take the camera to a depth of up to 5m. Lastly, it’s compatible with Sony’s Live-Preview Remote too. Although it looks cool – as it resembles a digital watch – I don’t think it’s worth the extra price, given the limitations that comes with it.
GoPro Hero 5 Session
GoPro Hero 5 Session is the mini version of the original Hero 5 Black. Being the cheaper model, this action camera misses some of the features given to the original. Still, as far as recording capability is concerned, this little guy can surprisingly stand up to its older brother. Although it has much less frame rate options, recording on its highest resolution (4K at 30fps with bit rate of 60Mbps) gives you almost identical result as with Hero 5 Black. The SuperView FOV can’t be used when the camera is in 4K mode, however. Again, this shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
GoPro Hero 5 Session has a good deal of similarities with the original Hero 5 Black. It comes with digital image stabilization (can’t be used in 4K, which is the same case with Hero 5 Black), supports voice command, and doesn’t need a case to stay waterproof (up to 10m). On the other hand, it’s also stripped off of some other goodies, which is kind of a shame. First off, it has no GPS. Second to that, the 1,000mAh battery is irremovable. Next, it doesn’t support Wide Dynamic Range and RAW files capture, making it far less capable in taking photos. The touchscreen on the original Hero 5 Black is missing too, but that contributes to its smaller size. In short, the Hero 5 Session is a good camera if you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative to the costly Hero 5 Black.
There are many things to appreciate from Olympus TG-Tracker action camera. Sure, its size might be a little too big, but its rugged and waterproof construction means it’s ready for some real action outdoor. The small flip screen combined with smart layout of the operative buttons makes it very easy to use too; not to mention it’s capable of recording smooth 4K videos with superb image quality as well. Add the ergonomic pistol-grip mount to the equation, anyone who is new to using action camera will love it for sure.
For die-hard outdoor fans, Olympus TG-Tracker offers loads of sensors that can give them a good deal of data to analyze. From something as common as temperature and speed to metrics only relevant athletes such as elevation and barometric pressure, this cam has it all. Now, naturally, turning on all of the sensors at the same time will rapidly drain its battery, so use them with caution. You also need to know that the field of view is set at 204-degree. This will help make for great action shots on itself, but the fact that you cannot change the FOV means your video will always have the same looks and feels.
Sony HDR-AZ1 Mini Action Cam
When we’re talking about mountable action camera, we will all agree that smaller and lighter design is better. In that case, you might want to check Sony HDR-AZ1. It’s the most diminutive action camera from Sony, measuring at just roughly 2/3 of the company’s well-known POV camera. Naturally, the on-board controls are kept to minimal to fit its tiny size. You will only find two buttons on its side (power and Wi-Fi) and one record button on top. As for other settings, they can only be done via Live-View Remote that can be bought in bundle with the camera or separately. If you’re not keen with the extra fee for the remote, you can just use your Android or iOS device.
The video and photo quality of Sony HDR AZ1 mini action cam is comparable to Sony’s more expensive POV camera, the AS100V. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it’s better than GoPro Hero4 Silver. The highest resolution it supports is full HD 1080p at 60fps. For the best result, make sure you record the video in XAVC S format using the highest bit rate setting (50 Mbps). This will require an external microSDXC card, but it’s completely worth it. This camera is also armed with digital image stabilization. While turning it on will reduce the field of view to 120-degree, it makes sure you won’t get any jelly-like mess.
TomTom Bandit 4K
You might know TomTom as a sat-nav company, but the GPS maker isn’t too shy to venture in the increasing market trend of action camera. TomTom Bandit 4K is the first of its offering. Coming into the game with a neat bullet-like design, this action camera quickly makes its own mark by taking on GoPro Hero4 Black head-on. Although the 4K videos it’s capable of shooting are only possible at much lower frame rate (15fps), there are still many other recording options that you can play with. Full HD 1080p at 60fps, 2.7K at 30fps, and 720p at 120fps. The latter allows for smooth slow-motion editing up to four times the original speed. Still image can be captured up to 16MP too.
Using TomTom Bandit 4K is pretty intuitive, especially if you’ve dealt with a TomTom sports watch. There’s an LCD screen at the top of the camera that displays menu settings as well as status information. Navigating is facilitated by a D-Pad placed right below the LCD. Built into the device is a GPS receiver that enables you to store location data into the video and still images. Thanks to the Smart Bluetooth connectivity, you can also connect the camera with TomTom’s heart rate monitor.
Best Action Camera under $200
Olfi one.five Action Camera
Yi 4K is not the only affordable-ish camera that can record 4K videos in this list. Even cheaper than the China-made camera is Olfi one.five. It’s the second iteration from Olfi’s original action camera that was launched last year. The improvement brings not only better image quality but also a very user-friendly operation. On its back panel resides a small LCD screen that replaces the touchscreen from the previous model. It displays menus and other setting options accessible via to arrow buttons at its side. Selecting and deselecting are done using the shutter and power button respectively, both of which are placed at the top of the camera. It’s so easy to navigate you hardly need to read the manuals.
GPS and other sensors are absent from Olfi one.five, but you should know that it’s also the reason why this 4K action camera can still be had for less than $200. The battery has been improved from the original version. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to please general crowds. Would you be pleased to find the camera needs recharging only after 30-45 minutes? That aside, image capturing performance on this little guy is far from disappointing. Offering loop record function, not only can you shoot nice timelapse videos with it, but you can also turn it into a dash cam for your car. Image is stabilized using a gyro and the default color palette is flat, which is the best option if you want to make some dynamic range editing later.
ThiEye T5E 4K Action Cam
You’ve probably never heard of ThiEye T5E before, but as soon as people realize of what it can do, it can be a serious competition for the already popular Yi 4K. The camera is manufactured by a Taiwan-based company and as its name suggests, it’s capable of recording videos with ultra HD 4K resolution at 30fps. That’s just a feat not all budget action cameras can do. In addition to 4K, it also offers some other resolutions, including 1080p at 60fps and 120fps. That means you can now edit intense and smooth slow-motion footage in full HD. Still image capture is made up to 12MP and you’re provided with a nice LCD screen on the back for quick viewing.
The video quality in 4K is not disappointing at all. ThiEye T5E is definitely on par with the more expensive Yi 4K. Audio quality is not bad as well, but expect it to be plugged up a little when you equip it with the waterproof housing, which is included in the box with the rest of other accessories. Speaking of which, the company is not too generous with the camera mounts. You’ll only get some adhesive pads and basic mount bracket. Still, it’s hard to not appreciate it once you find that there are two batteries among those accessories, each of which can last over an hour. All this being sold for less than 200 bucks is a fantastic deal.
Kodak PixPro SP1
Kodak PixPro SP1 is one of the best action cameras that you can buy for less than $200. Obviously, the image quality it produces is pale in comparison to high end action cameras by GoPro and Sony. But in general senses, it’s more than acceptable. The highest resolution video it’s capable of recording is HD 1080p at 30fps. Small details are rendered pretty crisp but you’ll notice a good deal of distortion around the edge. It looks just like a fisheye effect. That aside, I like how the stabilization in this camera works. Given its mid-range price tag, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that the videos it produces aren’t too shaky.
When it comes to build quality, Kodak PixPro SP1 feels very solid in hands. It’s more on the heavy and bulky side, but I’m sure you won’t notice it if you mount it on bikes or boards. The excess weight will be more apparent if you put it on top of your helmet. That can be easily forgiven, I suppose, considering that the camera is already waterproof to 10m without any separate housing. You’ll appreciate it even more once you find that it has a nice built-in colored LCD screen for easy operation and quick checking of your videos.
GoPro Hero Session
GoPro Hero Session entered the market shortly after the Hero 4 Black. At that time, it was still sold for $399. As the company tried to change its game plan by unveiling its new flagship action camera, the Hero 5 Black, the price for this little guy is slashed down by a half to only $199. If you can find a good deal, you can get it for much lower than that. Anyway, saying that it’s an alternative to the original Hero 4 Black would be an overstatement. You just can’t compare the two of them as they have a rather large specs gap, and both are good in their own right.
GoPro Hero Session has maximum resolution of 1440p with frame rate of 30fps. You can forget about recording 4K videos with it. Still, just so you know, a lot of action camera users out there shoot only in full HD resolution (1080p at 60fps). The quality is more than acceptable and it doesn’t consume the space on your microSD card like crazy. Lower than that, the camera offers resolutions of 720p at 100fps (good for smooth slow-motion videos) and 480p at 120fps. Operation is made simple with this camera, thanks to the multi-function shutter button at the top. There’s an LCD that informs you regarding the battery life and the active shooting mode. GoPro Hero Session can definitely make a splendid action camera for first timers.
The HDR-AS50 is on the low end of Sony’s action camera. Targeting entry-level users, this camera comes complete with a number of features that can please general crowds; from full HD recording to the on-board image stabilization. Included in the base package is the rugged housing. Not only will it make the camera waterproof to 60m, but it will also protect it from shock and dust that may compromise your footage. The camera itself is pretty small and lightweight, but once you pop it into the case, you’ll notice quite a drastic change in both size and weight. An LCD screen is located on its side along with a couple of buttons. You can’t use it to playback your videos, let alone stream a live view. It’s solely for navigating purpose.
As expected, the resolution and frame rate options on Sony HDR-AS50 are not as many as high profile action cameras. It maxes out on full HD 1080p / 60fps. Nicely enough, you can still shoot and edit slow-motion videos using its lower resolution of 720p at higher frame rate of 120fps. Maximum bit rate is 50Mbps but the end result of your videos will be in XAVC S format, instead of the regular MP4. Although image quality is nowhere near special, it’s still acceptable (GoPro Hero Session is better). Low-light performance is a bit of a letdown with noise being quite apparent in the footage. Audio is good enough but for some reason, Sony won’t allow users to attach an external microphone.
Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Best Action Camera
We’ve laid out our top picks of best action cameras that can give you the best bang for your bucks. They’re considered to be the top-of-the-line models and have received tons of positive reviews both from sports extremists and also casual users. Still, before you make the decision to buy any of them, it’s best that you do some due diligence yourself. After all, no matter how sophisticated an action camera is, it will perform differently depending on your needs. In this guide, you can learn about several key factors that you must take into account before buying an action camera.
#1 Video Quality (Resolution, Frame Rate, Bit Rate, Stabilization, and Field of View)
The first and foremost consideration is the video quality. After all, you buy an action camera to visually capture and record the moments you enjoy in your sports. Resolution, frame rate, and bit rate; those three contribute the the overall video quality of an action camera. Other factors like image stabilization and field of view may also change your judgement.
The standard resolution is 1080p and 720p. High profile action cameras, however, offer video shooting in 4K resolution, enabling you to capture even the most diminutive details. Now there are many cheap cameras claiming to be able to shoot videos in 4K. This is rather misleading. You can’t get true 4K videos with cameras under $100. That’s just too good to be true. What they can do, instead, is recording in 1080p (sometimes in 1440p) and then interpolating the pixel, which means they enhance it to 4K by creating fake pixel. It’s not too hard to tell which are true 4K videos and which are the fake one.
Frame rate goes hand in hand with resolution. Basically, the higher it goes, the smoother your footage will look, and also the more data is written on the card. That’s why high resolution videos can only be recorded at lower frame rate; 4K at 30fps (any lower, your videos will look jumpy), 1080p at 60fps (and at 120fps on high end cameras), 720p at 240fps. In some budget action cameras, frame rate of 240fps is only available for 480p videos. If you want to create a cool and smooth slow-motion effect, the best frame rate to opt for is 240fps. Acceptable still images can be captured with minimum frame rate of 120fps.
Bit rate is the amount of data written on the card in any given second. It directly influences the video quality. Two cameras may shoot videos at full HD 1080p resolution, but if one has much higher bit rate than the other, then you will certainly notice substantial difference in the quality. Recording at higher bit rate will give you better video quality, more vibrant colors, with less distortion. However, you’ll also get shorter duration as it will eat up the free space on your memory card more quickly. Standard bit rate in action cameras is 24Mbps. In more expensive models, you can get up to 50-60Mbps. Some even offer recording at 100Mbps, which is crazy. With such bit rate, three-minute footage can be as big as 3Gb or even bigger.
Image stabilization is often present only on action cameras above $100. It’s a neat feature that can reduce that wibbly wobbly looks on your footage. Depending on your preferences, this can be a game changer. Some people don’t mind watching shaky videos, some others including myself think it’s a major pain. The best image stabilization is offered by Sony’s high end action cameras. GoPro’s expensive models also have such a feature, but it’s done by software, thus likely compromising the video quality, though very slightly. Affordable-ish action cameras use a gyro to stabilize the footage. While it works in some cases, it’s rendered almost useless when the action becomes tense.
The field of view (FOV) may differ from one camera to another, depending on how big the sensor it uses. Commonly, it goes from 140-degree to 170-degree. The wider the field of view is, the closer it resembles the view of human eye, the more realistic your footage will be. However, it will also mean the fisheye effect will be more apparent. Most action cameras won’t allow you to change its default field of view, which is good for beginners as it’s easier to use. GoPro cameras and some others, in contrast, let you customize everything.
#2 Build Quality (Size, Shape, Weight, and Waterproofing)
While all action cameras all smaller than regular camcorders, you can tell that some of them are notably bigger than the others. Bigger action cameras have the advantage of being more rugged and having more space for an LCD screen; Olympus TG-Tracker, for instance. It’s rather big and heavy for an action camera, but its waterproof body (no need for a case) and the flip touchscreen are worth considering. On the other hand, smaller action cameras like GoPro Hero 5 Session are more versatile, in a way that they can be mounted virtually anywhere. You can even mount it under your skateboard. It’s also perfect for pets. The only catch is smaller body often means smaller battery too.
Thanks to GoPro, most action cameras today come in a boxy or cuboid design. The have the benefit of being compatible with many third-party accessories and mounts. Some manufacturers, however, opt for something different. Sony’s action cameras, for example, resemble mini camcorders. There are also action cameras with tube or bullet-like design, such as TomTom Bandit and Contour’s cameras. They generally have less mounting options (mostly mounted on a handlebar or helmet), so choose wisely.
Waterproofing on action cameras is largely handled by a separate housing. This is not an ideal setup actually, as enclosing the camera in a rigid waterproof housing may compromise your experience. The mic might not be able to capture sound perfectly. Navigating between menu settings may not be as easy as when the camera is used without the case. The camera size can be bulkier too. That’s why a camera that’s waterproof right out of the box, such as GoPro Hero 5 Black, is always better.
#3 Available Mounts
Having the largest market share, GoPro cameras are the most flexible in a way that they can be used for virtually any outdoor activity. The number of proprietary and third-party mounts for GoPro cameras is staggering. From essential starter mounts like suction cups, to more niche-y mounts used for specific activity like ski mounts, and drone mounts; all is available for some extra cost. Those that have similar design to GoPro usually have the benefit of being compatible to most of these mounts.
For other actions cameras, however, you’re going to have to check beforehand if there’s an available mount for your specific activity. In most cases, you will be able to find the essential starter kit easily. For something more niche, you might need to do a bit of research. If you’ve already had in mind which camera to buy but then find out that there’s no suitable mount for the activities you like, go look for other action camera. There’s no point in buying an action camera that you can’t mount properly for your activity.
Not all action cameras are user-friendly. A number of them come with navigating system so clunky, that you’re going to need 10 minutes to change even the simplest settings. Action cameras that offer an integrated display – either a touchscreen or a regular LCD display – are easier to deal with. They allow you to navigate from one menu option to another quickly. Also, with a screen on board, you don’t need to connect the camera to your smartphone to playback the footage you just recorded. Everything can be done right on the camera itself.
Another thing to note is some action cameras are more like a point-and-shoot camcorder, while some others are far more sophisticated featuring comprehensive settings that you can tweak to your liking. If you’re not a tech-savvy person and don’t like reading manuals, it’s best to choose a simpler camera. It won’t give you any headache and you can still record a nice full HD video all the same.
#5 Battery Life
The battery on many action cameras commonly span from one to three hours before it’s completely depleted. Obviously, it also depends on how you use the camera itself. Recording in high resolution puts more pressure on the hardware, hence draining the battery faster. Likewise, if you turn on all the miscellaneous features, such as image stabilization, GPS and other sensors, Wi-Fi, then expect the battery to last much shorter.
Some action cameras come with replaceable battery, which is nice since you can quickly replenish its power by bringing some spare. In fact, some manufacturers are generous enough to include the spare battery with the camera, so you don’t even need to buy one. The real bummer happens when the battery is non-removable. This is often the case with smaller action cameras. You’re going to have to recharge it every now and then, which can effectively ruin everything.
Believe it or not, some action cameras still don’t have Wi-Fi connectivity. The only way you can connect them to your smartphone or computer is by using a micro USB cable or Bluetooth. Personally, I would stay away from them. Wi-Fi connectivity has been a must have feature on all action camera, in addition to Bluetooth. As a matter of fact, some company has begun to squeeze in more connectivity options – via ANT+ and Smart Bluetooth – to their action cameras, so that users can easily pair them with external add-ons. Garmin Virb Ultra 30, for example, allows its users to hook it to various external sensors via ANT+ to track different data and overlay the video with it.