By now, we’ve all heard of those popular high-quality sports and action cameras. Even as far back as 5 years ago, they were all a bit obscure and less-known unless you were relatively deep into the new electronics and camera culture. The largest association with the term “action camera” is most likely GoPro — and for quite a few reasons. However, as time passes and competitors begin to evolve, there are some super high-quality sports and action cameras that should be considered “the best” by a few other brands out there as well.
The rise in popularity of the best action cameras
If you haven’t seen those point-of-view videos taking the internet (and even TV with some sports here and there) by storm, you’re now considered to be an outsider. If so, no worries — we’re going to review what they are for a few sentences before we delve into the best models. An action camera is a digital video camera that is usually compact, rugged and proof of different fears many would have when holding a camera (water, dust, shock). They’re great for filming action scenes, whether you’re playing sports, exercising, or any other type of common use you can think of where you need a smaller-sized, versatile camera to use for filming video clips in HD. What’s even better is the ability to mount them to different parts of your body, gear you’ll be wearing (helmets, wrists, etc.), or even movable objects you may be riding (bicycles, motorcycles, cars, etc.).
They’re typically used for more action-oriented (obviously) applications (our best video camera for sports outlined this) but can work for anything you want to film. Although the majority of people prefer DSLR cameras for video if you aren’t planning on moving around and have more stationary uses, they can even work for that if you need it down the road. Since it’s still a novel market to many, we decided to write a guide today to focus on the best sports and action cameras for the money. We’ve constrained our list to 10. The best however is up to a few factors listed below.
How to pick the best sports and action camera
- Budget – This is pretty deciding factor as always listed in our guides. However, we do recommend surveying the models first to see if one of them catches your eye and may cost a bit more than you had predicated. However, there may also be a budget-friendly camera you decide on grabbing instead to save a few bucks. We list all price-points in here to give you options. Even our best action camera under $100 article gave us some cheaper models, but those all appeared to be lesser-known brands some didn’t like.
- Video quality – Do you want it to film in the latest 4K video resolution? Or is that a bit overkill? This will determine which models you’ll begin to throw out the window, since only a handful offer 4K. However, the standard today is still 1080p, which pretty much all action cams offer nowadays.
- Intended use – The best action cameras (PCMag’s guide) really depend on what you intend on using it for. Although most of these are relatively versatile when it comes to different applications, there are some that are designed for a more niche-like use. It all depends on the person.
- Extra camera features – Do you want some built-in editing features? Low-light sensitivity? Photography options? Some other popular cam features include: touch-screen, continuous shooting, larger degrees of lenses (to capture a larger frame of view), higher megapixels in the pictures (if you’ll be using it for that as well), and more. We’ll highlight these for each model below.
- Accessories\mounts? A lot of these cameras either come with or will require you to purchase additional accessories and mounts to get it working before you use it. This again depends on intended use since many of the best action cameras are versatile and are applicable to many environments, but will require you to buy the particular mounts\accessories that are compatible with what environment you’ll be filming in. You may need some video editing software as well.
The top 10 best action cameras
The following is our list of the best action cameras in the market today. We took quite a bit on time on this to make sure we didn’t just pick a few we liked — we paid close attention to user reviews, popularity, overall quality (and word on the street in terms of stability and longevity) and more. Let us know in the comments if you think we got the list wrong (or right), or if perhaps there is a model we missed that you’ve used and have been happy with. Happy filming!
GoPro Hero 4 Silver
Yes, we’ve listed GoPro as the #1 best sports and action camera in the market right now but it wasn’t just to follow the norm — this particular model is still the best (in our opinion) when it comes to the highest quality for the price as compared to everyone and we couldn’t ignore it. Let’s get down to the features and specs: built-in touch display and video trimming, 4K and 1080\60p video resolution, 12MP burst photos (and a cool time lapse feature), specialized settings for dark and low-light environments, and of course, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality to share and upload your videos very quickly. This is a top 10 guide for a reason, so we won’t completely claim that this is your answer, but these specs and features really don’t lie — GoPro still dominates when it comes to the best action cameras int he market. Not to mention they now have enough mounts and accessories to cover almost any intended application you can think of (they even include the essentials and most popular mounts in the box when you buy it). Oh, the Hero 4 Silver also made it into WireCutter’s best action camera article, so there’s always that.
A few other versions of their popular action cams include the Hero 4: Black Edition (a bit more expensive but higher quality) as well as their new GoPro Hero Session (very budget-friendly) if you wanted some options in terms of GoPro cameras and price-points. Here’s a popular video demo:
Up next, we have another one of the best sports and action cameras that has surprisingly given GoPro a run for their money (considering they’re Sony and made it into our best mirrorless cameras for video article and a few others, perhaps surprising isn’t a great word to use). Although Sony’s action cameras also come in different versions, this is one of the most popular for a few reasons. The main features and specs are listed as 13.5 MP Exmor R CMOS sensor, a built-in Advanced BIONZ X processor, high-quality 170 degree lens (ZEISS ultra-wide), waterproof, shockproof (you need to use the case that comes with it for these proof-features), Wi-Fi and NFC one-touch sharing and video control, and you can shoot in 1080/60/30p. Some would say the lack of 4K video filming is a con, but others who have used the GoPro 4K feature say it really drains the battery (we checked and it lasts a little over 2 hours). It’s also a little bit cheaper than the Hero 4 Silver, so it all comes down to your preference, really.
For those aren’t all in for a GoPro or Sony model, TomTom’s Bandit is considered by a lot to be the best sports and action camera out there, especially if you’re into filming in 4K. The Bandit continues to rise in popularity as user reviews start to add up when it comes to the quality and build of this thing. It has very quick and efficient editing features built-in (which you can use on your phone — super cool and convenient), built-in motion sensors (rotation, acceleration, speed, etc.), 16MP photos and 4K video (as stated previously), waterproof (up to 40M — you’ll need a dive lens that comes in the box), as well as different “packs” that come with various accessories and mounts as we had spoken about earlier.
This one was actually #1 in TechRadar’s best action camera guide — they were high on the easy editing, mounting and positioning for those who need some tough angles and don’t want to mess around with post-production on a computer before sharing your clips with your friends.
The Polaroid brand name is a classic, and if you were like us, the first and foremost look of this camera caught our eye. So what’s it all about? For one, the shape is pretty nifty and convenient if you were looking for a camera that gave you ease of use, but it also offers a compact-size (35mm tall), wide-angle lens (124 degrees of coverage), shockproof, splash-resistance (this means you shouldn’t completely dump it in water, keep in mind), mountable, 1080p HD video, and it supports Micro SD memory cards up to 32GB.
If you hadn’t heard of it before reading our guide, give it a chance first if you didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg on your cam. This is one of the cheapest action cameras in the market right now that’s worth looking at, and if you can sacrifice a few fancy features that the more popular models offer, it may be the perfect solution for you. It also has a few color options if you’re into aesthetics (who isn’t at least a little?).
Garmin Virb XE
Here’s a sports and action video camera that has quite the reputation among a lot of users out there. This one is compact, waterproof, has something called “G-Metrix” (GPS and sensors to track movements in real-time which then shows you the data in gauges, graphs, etc. — pretty cool for runners, bicyclists and others), and video resolution from 1440p30, 1080p60, 960p100 and more. If you’re into photography for your sports cam as well, the MP is only at 12 but can still get the job done, while the audio is pretty clear (a lot of action cams audio just aren’t good, period) even if it’s underwater (you can also pair it up via Bluetooth into headsets or microphones).
The Virb XE is praised for its GPS features, so if you really enjoy tracking your movements and logging them in graphs to see where you were for the day, this may be the perfect solution for you. It has all of the necessary features in an action camera (aside from 4K video quality — 1440p is still high!) and some extra on top of that (image stabilization, Wi-Fi, etc). They also have a few bundles available to help you save some money and grab a package that’s geared towards a particular application.
When they first came out, Contour action cameras were supposed to be the big competitor that was going to give GoPro a run for their money. Flash-forward to today, and that’s just not true at all; however, they’re still a solid action to keep in mind when considering the entire market. This is their latest model and it offers an instant on-record switch, 1080p video resolution, 270 degree rotating lens, 170 degree wide-angle lens, “laser alignment” (self-explanatory we suppose), some GPS video mapping (not as advanced as the Garmin, but still pretty good), and some live streaming capabilities.
They have their own set of mounts and accessories available, and although not as expanded as GoPros, includes a waterproof case in the box and some others you can buy separately. CNet’s Contour+2 review was pretty happy about it. It’s pretty budget-friendly as compared to others out there that film in 1080p with similar extra features this one has.
Drift HD Ghost-S
Here’s one that may really catch your eye. Drift may be a bit less known by some, but their latest Ghost-S action cam is very solid. 1080p Full HD video (60fps), a 2″ LCD screen, 12 MP photos, 300 degree continuously rotating lens, a 3.5 hour battery life, waterproof (no need for extra housing — the camera itself can go under 9 ft. with no problem), and some time lapse photography at your fingertips. The specifications of this thing are quite impressive, especially if you’re planning on being near water and don’t want to fiddle with an extra case. You can also grab a Drift remote that allows you to control it wirelessly with less hassle.
A few other available models by them worth mentioning are their Drift Stealth 2 (a lot lower in price with fewer features) and their Drift Compass (this thing is awesome — small size, pins onto your shirt, and films videos at a super cheap price).
We all know that Olympus brand name, and here’s their spin and entrance into the worth-the-money action camera game. The TG-Tracker is pretty awesome, and besides the unique and versatile look and build of the unit, offers some pretty great numbers and features. You have high-quality Ultra HD 4K video quality, 204 angle lens, 90 degree tilting LCD monitor, 5-axis image stabilization, an LED headlight, and some GPS and sensor while you’re at it.
In terms of protection, this thing is super rugged, and is recommended for those in more extreme conditions (or those who are fearful of dropping the thing and don’t want to worry) — it’s waterproof (up to 100 ft.), shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof (up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit), and dustproof. If you were looking for the best action camera with the most stable build that isn’t going to break on you regardless of the conditions, check this one out. It’s a tank.
Here’s another option (and attempt at competing with the big hitters) to give you guys some more choices to compare. Their latest model, the Replay XD Prime X, offers a nice Hyperion CinePrime X lens, 140 degree wide-angle video capturing, impact resistant lens, 16 MP CMOS sensor, 1080p\60fps video resolution, 4K time-lapse sequences (just time lapse, not 4K videos), and their own app (is pretty standard now among action cam creators). What’s most impressive with this action camera is the battery — it lasts about 3.5 hours on a single charge, which is a lot more than many others out there (as we had said GoPro’s 4K lasts nearly two hours). Although the price range to quality ratio is a bit below-average, the sleek size, low-profile design and battery life may appeal to you (especially cyclists).
We actually first heard about this since it was ranked as Gizmodo’s best low-profile camera. Check out their Replay XD Mini (a little cheaper and smaller) or Replay XD720 (films in 720p but is very budget-friendly if you’re OK with sacrificing some video quality).
Up last, and certainly not least, we have a different spin on an action video camera you may not be familiar with. This is considered a “360 camera” — a cam that can see in all directions (usually created with a system of multiple cameras that record all of the angles at the same time — check out our best 360 degree cameras article if this catches your eye). The 360fly is still a bit new in the market but the user reviews are starting to slowly accumulate and back up the quality claims for this one. Although the price tag is quite high, it may be what you were looking for. The specs are as follows: filming in 4K video resolution, the ability to switch to regular video filming (16:9 format to take a break from the 360 degree video), dustproof, shockproof, some custom apps to use the camera, and thankfully, quite a few options at available additional accessories and mounts to pertain to your specific needs.
Wired’s 360fly review sheds some light on the unique video camera — do some more reading if you want to get a better feel for it before you drop all that cash. This may or not be the start of a new movement in video cameras, particularly action cams. We’ll keep our eyes open just in case.