How to buy the best GoPro, Sony or other action camera
Capture and share your thrills and spills.
A buying guide for HD action cameras
Whether you're carving up the slopes on your longboard or eating dirt after attempting a huge jump, there's nothing quite like being able to share your successes and lament your epic fails with friends. Strap on an action camera next time, and you can relive the moment to your heart's content.
- We no longer test action cameras at CHOICE, but this buying guide will help you decide which one is best for you.
- You can also check out our article Should I buy a GoPro?
Why an action camera?
With an action camera you can capture every adventure, experience the thrills over and over and easily share the proof on Facebook or Instagram. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in grinding on a rail or riding goofy foot with the grommets, there's another great reason why an action camera might still be the right choice for you.
Durability. It's why action cameras have become so undeniably popular in a time when most people have a smartphone and don't see the need for an everyday video camera too. You'd (hopefully) think twice before strapping an $800 smartphone to the bonnet of your car, or sticky-taping it to your helmet before hurtling down a bike track though, right? That's where action cameras come in extra handy.
You don't actually need to be Evel Knievel, a weekend warrior or an extra on the set of Jackass to get some use out of an action camera. They can be great for people who just want a sturdy camera to take to the beach or throw in a backpack for travelling overseas.
Are they any good?
Action cameras won't deliver better video than a top-performing video camera, or take still photos that come close to those shot with the best digital cameras available today. But remember, action cameras are built for durability and, when combined with the accessories to mount the camera to pretty much anything, they can be used in ways a regular camera can't be – or at the very least, really shouldn't!
And although they won't give you the best quality, they can still capture videos and stills good enough for most personal use.
Are they hard to use?
Overall, action cameras still have some way to go in the ease-of-use department although the ability to use your smartphone as a preview screen has helped improve the situation. When we last tested action cameras in January 2017, we found that even the best-performing models had relatively poor usability out of the box. Models that offer smartphone apps that act as both a remote control for the camera, and a remote monitor will make the experience much more pleasurable. These apps are more user-friendly than most on-camera controls and allow you to not only view your shot before recording but also operate the controls remotely.
Your phone will need to be taken out of harm's way if you're planning on being an extreme action hero yourself, obviously, but you'll still be able to set up everything on the camera through the app before packing it safely away.
What to look for
A quick look at the manufacturer's website will show you what mounting options are included with the basic product and what are available as add-ons. Aside from the standard waterproof housings, you can choose accessory bundles to suit your adventures, whether that means clamps to mount your action camera to your BMX handlebars, or suction mounts for the side of a car or your helmet. Due to their market dominance in this area, you may find your action camera supports GoPro mounts, giving you a wide range of choice when it comes to accessories, even if the action camera you select is not well known.
Video storage capacity
Most models use removable Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC), Extended Capacity (SDXC) or MicroSD cards that can be bought separately in sizes up to 64GB. An hour of HD video will probably take up around 1GB of storage.
Water and drop resistance
Some models claim to be water resistant, and generally deal better with a fall than a full-featured video camera. But most require housing for use under water, such as the GoPro Hero4 Silver, which has a housing waterproof to depths of 40 metres. The latest GoPro 5 offers some waterproofness without the housing but you would be advised to use the housing for any filming in extreme situations.
All models shoot at the same 16:9 aspect ratio found on most flat-screen TVs, but some also have the option to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This can be handy when you're showing your shots off to the grandparents on their old square-shaped TV or computer monitor.
Most action cameras record at 1080p resolution, which is pretty much the same quality as Full HD TV or a Blu-ray movie. More models are now available delivering 4K resolution, which has four times as many pixels as a Full HD video. Don't make decisions based on this as file sizes of the recorded 4K videos are large and not ideal to stream over the internet. Basically, look at the video quality rather than the video resolution.
Most action cameras come with a mini HDMI connection to link them directly to a flat-screen TV, or an AV cable to connect to the video and stereo inputs of any TV.
The bulk of models available will let you take digital still photos up to the quality of the effective resolution of the camera.
In our January 2017 review (now archived), we tested action cameras that ranged in price from $149 to $650.