In the beginning, there was GoPro and there was everything else. In recent years, GoPro hasn’t always been top dog of the action camera world, with more and more names – both big and small – putting canines of all sizes and shapes into the fight. This level of competition has created several niches of fast-motion cameras and recording devices. Everything from the underwater world to cameras capable of going into space has been offered up for consumers to record their many, many adventures. With so many options, the market can be an oversaturated place with many high-res promises and claims of incredible framerates.
Identifying the right camera for you is more about hands-on experience than specs. A company can run all the biased testing it wants in order to assert that their action cam does something (e.g. run for 18 hours using a 60 frames-per-second – aka fps – rate), but until it’s in the mitts of a real person, all numerics are nothing more than lies on a page. Since you aren’t likely to have the time and money to check out every one of the hundreds of shooters on the grid, we found the 7 best action cameras for you; free of charge.
SJCAM Original SJ4000
Pro: Can be used as a dash cam
Con: Never breaks 60fps
Capital Clone: Meant to emulate the build and feel of the standard GoPro, the SJ4000 can easily be tossed away as just another weak-sauce pretender. When put through its paces, it proves that it’s a smart, savvy, rugged little survivor that is an excellent entry point for the action cam fan working with limited funds. When running at full-bore and recording with 1080p resolution, it can only hit 30 fps, but at any lower setting – including bare-bones high-def 720p – it clicks along at 60fps, which is plenty smooth for filming anything short of a hummingbird. In addition to video, the still shots have a wide range of settings that pop even when blown up, and keep noise to a bare minimum. Simple mounting that apes GoPro make it easy to slap this onto drones, handlebars, and helmets with little more than a screw.
Sony HDRAS100V/W Video Camera
Pro: Quality internal image stabilization
Con: A microSDXC card is required to record at a high bitrate
Line of Fire: Rather than the clunky construction that adorns the GoPro line and many other action cams, Sony gave this a shotgun body that just feels good when it hits your hand. The slender mounting serves up a streamlined, aerodynamic feel that cuts down on wind shear during snowboarding sessions or days showing the sand and surf from the helm of your yacht. It fights off splash with aplomb (and an IPX4 rating) and the vibration dampening leaves jitters and jumps far behind. Sony made sure this could grandfather in many accessories from previous action cam models and is kind when connecting to older batteries, memory cards, or Sony-branded accessories. At the end of the page and the end of the day, it’s a light-heavyweight contender at a flyweight price.
GoPro HERO Session
Con: Battery cannot be removed
Homeless: The lack of a housing makes this the smallest of the GoPro cameras, and will surely quiet detractors to the GoPro line who hate the boxy build; while full waterproofing prevents the Session from leaving your footage all wet. The slimmer size makes it less likely to be knocked off or askew when mounted to helmet or handlebars, though it also reduces some of the functionality of other GoPro models in favor of size reduction. With very little built into the camera itself, tethering it to an Android or iOS device is a must. This gives you greater control than you would find with action cameras that take an “all-in-one” approach, but only when operating in concert with said device. Good for going anywhere and grabbing video that ranges from 1,920×1,440 at 30fps down to 1,280×720 at 100fps it also captures burst and still shots with acuity that belies its small size and sensor.
Pro: Exceptional editing and cutting features built in
Con: Underwhelming resolution
Production Manager: Like the Sony listed above, Graava realized that they weren’t going to unseat the best in the business by following the pack, so they swerved. The app that comes along with the Graava works in sweet symphony with the camera itself to allow you to do a full studio production while working in the field. Adding music, effects, tagging highlights, and pulling out the best and the brightest from your footage is where Graava eats. A shotgun-style build gives the Graava a “Grip it and rip it” feel that’s also heavy-duty. When you wipe out, it won’t be the Graava in need of emergency care. Photos come in at 8MP and video lands at a slightly disappointing 30fps when using 1080p/720p. It does technically shoot in 4K, if you want to call it that.
Garmin Virb XE
Pro: Many bundled options for different activities
Con: Proprietary cable (c’mon Garmin)
Globetrotter: It’s hard to consider the Virb XE a standalone piece of hardware, because it is built to operate in cooperation with other Garmin products or ANT+ devices. As far as the intended purpose goes, it handles full HD at 60fps, which is good enough for research and personal video. Downgrade it to 720p and it comes alive, shooting everything at 120fps for motion that slips and slides across the screen with balletic grace. We found the GPS to be a surprisingly nice feature, as is the ability of the XE to detect speed and location for tagging footage. Syncing the footage over the vívosmart or other Garmin pieces is as user-friendly as such things come. If the original Virb Elite disappointed you the way it did us, the XE is redemption paid in full.
Pro: Shoots 2.7K at 30 fps
Con: 4K option runs at 15 fps
Action Editor: The Bandit gets beat by the GoPro Silver and Sony’s action cam offerings when it comes to pure video resolution, and you can’t trust the mounting plate without some modification. Where it distinguishes itself in an overcrowded market is by eliminating the difficulty of going through hours of footage with an app that will give you a sizzle reel just by shaking your smartphone. Out of the box you can easily edit your footage and it will spit out remarkable results in record time, no experience needed. It can take a serious beating with a splashproof housing that can quickly convert to full waterproofing with the addition of a single lens cap. Swapping the battery out of the back is as simple as finding porn online, and recharging is done through standard USB 3.0, which is deadly fast and will have you back on set in no time. Highlight tagging, easy navigation, and ports for adding on sound equipment are just a few of the standard features.
GoPro Hero4 Black
Pro: Best video capture on the market, period
Con: Battery life during 4K shooting is tiny
The Legend Continues: Capable of shooting 4K video at up to 30 fps, the Black is no drooping daisy. Even when it’s forced to downshift to standard HD and handle 1080p, it goes along at a screaming 120 fps, giving it as much of a manic intensity as you desire. Most people aren’t going to need the resolution that the Black offers until 4K is the bar to clear, but the incredibly smooth motion capture can handle shots in eye-popping high-def that manage to outperform our eyes in many cases. A load of mounting options and on-board features, like the one-button highlight tag, make the Black the choice for professionals, leaving the competition scampering behind. Those who prize a more user-friendly experience with a touchscreen should grab the GoPro Silver for similar quality without all the K’s.
Check out last year’s picks on the next page.