Action cameras have, since their introduction, been great at helping users to record previously difficult-to-capture moments. They are generally small enough and tough enough that they can be mounted on your bike, skateboard or body without getting in the way. But new cameras are also beginning to address the shortcomings of earlier models by offering improved image quality, higher resolutions, and stabilization to cut the distracting wobbles from your footage. They can also make the tedious act of editing footage faster, along with making the resulting clips easier and quicker to share.
Here we'll look at our pick of the best tough action cameras currently available, while highlighting notable features and reasons why one model might suit your intended use better than others.
GoPro Hero5 Black
It will come as no surprise that the flagship GoPro Hero5 Black features in this roundup. If you're looking for an action camera you will almost certainly have considered this 4K shooter. It records 4K at up to 30 fps (frames per second) in a number of fields of view, and has higher frame rate and slow-motion recording options at other resolutions. It also shoots 12-megapixel stills.
Key improvements over previous generations of GoPro see it being waterproof (down to 10 m, 33 ft) without the need for an extra housing, and the addition of voice controls which let users operate it by saying things like "GoPro, start recording." The camera also has a rear touchscreen monitor for composing shots and reviewing footage.
The GoPro Hero5 Black features GPS along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and is able to automatically upload footage to the subscription-based GoPro Plus cloud service. It's also compatible with the Karma drone. The GoPro Hero5 Black is available for US$400.
Product page: GoPro Hero5 Black
GoPro Hero5 Session
Joining the Hero5 Black is GoPro's smaller and more affordable action camera, the Hero5 Session. The second generation of the cube-shaped camera offers a number of improvements over its predecessor. It shoots 4K video at 30 fps, though only with a wide field of view, and again offers higher frame rates at lesser resolutions.
The diminutive dimensions of the Hero5 Session mean it can be mounted in more places than the Hero5 Black and is less obtrusive, while being just as waterproof. However, the savings in size comes at the cost of the rear monitor, meaning that you need to use a paired smartphone or tablet to view your content.
As with the flagship GoPro, the Hero5 Session also benefits from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and is compatible with the GoPro Plus cloud service, and the Karma drone. The GoPro Hero5 Session will set you back around $300.
Product page: GoPro Hero5 Session
Garmin Virb Ultra 30
Showing off your extreme activities doesn't need to just be about the footage you captured. For the past couple of years Garmin's action cameras have also captured metrics such as GPS location, speed, altitude, and G-force, which can be displayed on your footage as overlays. They can even pair with some heart rate monitors to show how your ticker was pounding as you hurtled down that hill, or pulled that stunt.
The new Garmin Virb Ultra 30 also introduces voice control (which it launched before GoPro revealed the feature) allowing users to give commands to the camera such as "start recording" or "take a picture." The high-end camera also shoots 4K video at 30 fps, and features a 1.75-inch touchscreen on the rear which will work even when the camera is in the included waterproof case.
Wireless connectivity (which includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ANT+ and GPS) means the camera can be used with the Virb mobile app for Android and iOS which lets users view, edit and share videos as well as stream footage live on YouTube. The Garmin Virb Ultra 30 currently costs around $400.
Product page: Garmin Virb Ultra 30
Sony FDR-X3000 4K Action Cam
Annoyingly wobbly footage has been a problem for action cameras since their launch; it's hard to keep your camera steady when hitting a mountain bike trail. While some try to fix this with electronic stabilization, Sony has gone down the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) route with its FDR-X3000 Action Cam which has technology that causes the lens to move to counter bumps and shakes. From what we've seen, it's about the best all-round action camera stabilization available.
Flagship specification of the FDR-X3000 Action Cam include 4K video recording at up to 30 fps, and Full HD 1080p shooting at up to 120/100 fps. The camera is splash proof on its own, but comes with a waterproof housing for even wetter occasions. Other optional accessories include a quirky but useful finger grip and a live-view remote which can be worn like a watch.
There's Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS connectivity, and the camera offers live streaming and control via Android and iOS apps (or control via the new live-view remote). The X3000 comes in at US$400 body-only, or $550 with the remote as the X3000R.
Product page: Sony FDR-X3000 4K
YI 4K Action Camera
The YI 4K Action Camera, as you might expect from the name, is a 4K-shooting action cam. While its 4K 30 fps recording matches that of other high-end devices, and it boasts a high-resolution touchscreen, its real standout feature is its price. At $250 it's considerably more budget friendly than many rival devices.
Unlike most action cameras, the YI 4K comes in a range of color options including black, white and rose, though you'll need to pop it in a waterproof case if going underwater. Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth allow the camera to be used with the iOS or Android YI Action Camera app for editing and sharing footage.
Other features of the YI 4K worth noting are an impressive two-hour battery life, and a dual-microphone setup which offers better-than-average audio recording. The YI 4K Action Camera costs $250 for the camera only, or around $275 bundled with a waterproof housing.
Product page: YI 4K Action Camera
Nikon KeyMission 360
The Nikon KeyMission 360 is different to all the other cameras here in that it has two lenses. These face in opposite directions enabling you to capture your activities in 360 degrees, which can be experienced with a VR viewer. It's a bit like a tougher and higher resolution Ricoh Theta S.
4K 360-degree video can be captured at 24 fps using both lenses, while 360-degree stills come in at 23.9-megapixels, and all stitching is done in-camera, so you don't need to worry about editing it together. The camera is also waterproof to 30 m (98 ft), shockproof to drops of 2 m (6.6 ft), and freezeproof to -10° C (14° F).
The KeyMission 360 uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connecting with Nikon's SnapBridge 360/170 app, where you can edit, frame and share your images and video footage. Though we've included this camera in our pick of the best action cameras, it's worth remembering that this is a first-generation product and probably one best suited to early adopters who want to play with 360-degree video. The Nikon KeyMission 360 costs $500.
Product page: Nikon KeyMission 360
As you can see, there are some great action cameras out there, each offering slightly different features which might make one the right fit for you and the sort of activity you plan on recording. It could be that for mounting reasons you prioritize size and don't mind missing out on a monitor, or that you need voice control as your camera is going to be out of reach. Maybe you really want to capture yourself in the footage and think a 360-degree camera is the way to go.