Action cameras are continuing to get smaller and more powerful with the usual jumps in resolution and frame-rates. But they're also gaining new skills such as the ability to communicate with external sensors, and automatically edit your extreme video in-camera. Gizmag compares the key specs of the current crop of action-cams to see which might be right for you.
This specification-based comparison is intended as a starting point to help you identify what you want or need in a camera. We'll look at key features which are easily compared, rather than more subjective factors such as image quality. That said, we'll also highlight any particularly noteworthy or unique features a certain camera might have along the way.
The cameras we'll be looking at are:
This selection represents our pick of the best action cameras on the market as of October 2015, but that's not to say others might not suit your needs and budget just as well. We've chosen devices which we consider being able to deliver the goods for their respective price points. While cheaper devices are available, this will usually come at the cost of image quality and/or performance.
Action cameras nowadays are considerably more petite than they were way back in 2010 and, as such, any of these devices will be small enough to be deployed on your helmet, surfboard or bike without getting in the way too much.
Note that these measurements are oriented as if you were looking through the lens. They also denote the naked devices, so those that require additional cases will bulk up when used in their protective housings.
Another consideration might be whether the shape – rectangle, cube, or bullet – will be best suited to how you intend to use it and where you will mount it.
There's quite a range for the weights of these action cameras, with the TomTom Bandit weighing more than four times the Panasonic HX-A1. As a general rule, the heavier cameras are carrying the extra weight because of bigger sensors (and therefore lenses) and beefed-up protective housings.
Again, the measurements given here are without optional protective housings, so when a camera like the GoPro Hero4 Silver is popped in its standard waterproof case, it jumps in weight from 83g to 147g. Also, the weight of the Muvi K2 NPNG includes its detachable LCD screen.
If you're using an action camera to record your extreme endeavors, chances are it will at some point encounter water. As we mentioned earlier, some of these cameras have a built-in level of waterproofing and protection, so we've given figures with and without standard cases.
Obviously, if you are planning on diving with an action camera, rather than just using it in the rain or splashing about at the top of the water, you'll need to look at those with better water resistance ratings. Many of these cameras can also be used with even more serious (optional) underwater housings if you plan on going deeper.
All of these action cameras use wide angle lenses which make them good for shooting with the immersive perspective we've come to expect from action cameras. This means images of more traditional photographic scenes can and will be more distorted than you are used to seeing with other cameras.
Reasonably fast apertures across the board allow shooting in a variety of lighting conditions, though the small sensor sizes of action cameras, which we will look at next, is going to impact performance and image quality.
Along with the lens, the sensor size (all other things being equal) is one of the main factors affecting image quality of action cameras. Bigger sensors are able to use more light, this also allows improved low light performance.
As such, you can expect the cameras with 1/2.3-inch sensors to perform better than those with smaller sensors, like the Drift Stealth 2, GoPro Hero4 Session, and Panasonic HX-A1. Indeed with these cameras this is the main trade-off for their small form-factors.
However, it's worth remembering that even the larger 1/2.3-inch sensors in the likes of the GoPro Hero4 Black or Sony X1000V 4K are small when compared to traditional cameras.
4K video recording
If you want to shoot in 4K resolution, the only sensible options are going to be the GoPro Hero4 Black or Sony X1000V 4K with their higher frame-rates. While the TomTom Bandit and GoPro Hero4 Silver can record 4K, they only do it at up to 15 frames per second, which isn't going to give you very smooth video.
If you want better resolution than Full HD, but are not necessarily ready to jump to 4K (do you have anything to watch 4K footage on yet?), cameras like the TomTom Bandit and GoPro Hero4 Silver also offer 2.7K video recording at better frame-rates.
Full HD video recording
As you would expect of devices vying for a place on your handlebars in 2015, all of these devices are capable of shooting at Full HD 1080p. However, again we can see here that higher-end models will give you better options in terms of maximum frame rates.
Most of these cameras are capable of recording a buttery-smooth 60 fps 1080p with only the Drift Stealth 2 and Panasonic HX-A1 maxing out at 30 fps. The GoPro Hero4 Black and Sony X1000V 4K again show their pedigree with 1080p at up to 120 fps, allowing you to produce silky Full HD slow-motion footage.
Frame-rates above the usual 30 or 60 fps allow action camera users to produce slow motion footage of their exploits – because the only thing better than pulling off an impressive trick is watching the slow-mo replay.
The good news is that all of these action cams are capable of filming footage at speeds of up to 100 fps. However, once more this is a specification which varies greatly depending on the level of camera. High-end models are able to combine high frame-rate with high resolutions up to 1080p 120 fps or 720p 240 fps, while others are limited to sub-HD WVGA resolutions when recording at 120 fps.
Still photo resolution
With their small image sensors and inherent lens distortion, action cameras are not the ideal option for those in search of optical perfection. But if you're halfway up a mountain, or bobbing around in the sea, you're not in a position to be picky and an action camera can still do a job.
The resolutions of these cameras vary from the 16-megapixels of the TomTom Bandit and Muvi K2 NPNG, down to the 2.7-megapixels of the Panasonic, which show that these devices are far more focused on shooting video than stills. It's also worth noting that while the Drift Stealth 2 outputs 12-megapixel images, it only features a 3-megapixel sensor.
The speedy 30 fps burst rates of cameras like the GoPro Hero4 Black and Silver, or the Garmin Virb XE, mean you have a better chance of capturing a still image of something which happens quickly, like that awesome trick you have been trying to perfect.
Even the 10 fps of the Sony X1000V 4K, TomTom Bandit and GoPro Hero4 Session is comparable to the to top speeds of many DSLR cameras. Panasonic not publishing a burst still rate of the HX-A1 again highlights that the camera is all about video and not stills.
Because of the diminutive size of action cameras, few of them have a built-in monitor, despite the advantage one can be for composing shots, reviewing them or adjusting settings. In fact, of our bunch only the GoPro Hero4 Silver and Veho Muvi K2 NPNG ship with one, and the screen on the Muvi K2 is detachable.
Optional dedicated monitors can be used with the likes of the GoPro Hero4 Black, and wireless capabilities mean many of these cameras can stream live view information to smartphones of external monitors.
Built-in Wi-Fi across the board enables these action cameras to boast features including easy sharing, remote control and viewfinder functionality, and in some cases easy editing. However, some of the cameras have additional wireless tricks up their sleeves. For example, the Sony X1000V 4K has NFC for easier pairing with compatible devices, along with built-in GPS.
That said, it's the ANT+ capabilities of the Garmin Virb XE which are potentially more interesting. This allows it to communicate with various external monitors and use their readings (as well as those from internal sensors) to present activity information as dynamic image overlays. The TomTom Bandit also offers in-video data visualization from internal sensors and Bluetooth connected heart-rate monitors.
Given the size of action cameras, it's no surprise that microSD cards are order of the day, with all of our line-up using them. The Sony X1000V 4K can also use MS micro cards.
Battery life has never been a category action cameras are known for excelling in, and a look at these numbers shows why. Where possible, we've given battery life for 1080p 30 fps recording (as all of the cameras are capable of this setting). However, the 4 hour battery life of the Muvi is a maximum figure, so unlikely to be denoting 1080p at 30 fps.
It's also worth remembering that while some cameras have removable batteries, the Drift Stealth 2, GoPro Hero4 Session and Panasonic HX-A1 have fixed batteries which mean no quick-switching when one runs out. The Panasonic can, however, use a longer-life battery, which attaches and also extends the physical length of the camera, while the TomTom Bandit uses an integrated battery and memory card housing which can be removed and connect to a USB port for charging and accessing content.
Notably there has been no new flagship GoPro camera released this year and its top camera was the Hero4 Session.
The GoPro Hero4 Black is still the most expensive action camera here, though closely followed by the Sony X1000V 4K and then the TomTom Bandit, Garmin Virb XE and GoPro Hero4 Silver.
Interestingly, the GoPro Hero4 Session has been reduced from its original US$400 asking price to $300.
This is the first year since we started our annual action camera comparisons, that we've not seen the launch of a flagship GoPro. While GoPro has released the Hero4 Session and Hero+ LCD, as well as offering firmware and app updates enabling improved settings and the ability to create short video clips on the go, it's arguably given rivals the chance to catch-up and better them at the top-end.
The Sony X1000V 4K can now challenge the GoPro Hero4 Black in the specification department and boasts XAVC S for pro-level recording, live streaming via Ustream. For those looking for the best resolution and frame-rates it offers a very viable alternative.
Meanwhile, Garmin and TomTom decided to compete with the dominance of GoPro by doing things differently. A standout feature of the TomTom is its shake-to-edit feature which uses a built-in media server combined with sensors for speed, G-force, altitude and rotation, to automatically compile an easy-to-share video of your action highlights. The Garmin Virb XE also uses an array of internal sensors, along with ANT+ sensor compatibility, to display additional information, such as video overlays, to tell the story of what you were doing such as your speed as you hurtled down a mountain.
For many users, the GoPro Hero4 Silver will still be the camera to beat as it offers solid video options and quality, a built-in rear screen, and comes from the brand that, for many, epitomizes action cameras. Indeed, for the majority of users we would say this is still going to be the best option.
However, would-be action camera wielders on a budget also have quality options available to then with the likes of the Drift Stealth 2 and Panasonic HX-A1. The GoPro Hero4 Session is also now $100 closer to these budget options than it was when it was released just a few months ago.
Once you've made your pick, you might also want to take a look at our guide of the best action camera accessories. While biased towards GoPro cameras, many of the accessories included will work with a variety of devices.
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