We’ve tested 40 of these rugged little video cameras.
Tough little cameras for video on-the-go.
We’ve tested 40 of these rugged little video cameras, which are ideal for capturing images and video without endangering your camera or mobile phone.
While this is a core market for the devices, they are also useful for anyone who wants to capture images and video without endangering their camera or mobile phone. For every extreme sports video or action cam sent to the edge of space, there is a camera set up in someone’s backyard capturing time-lapse footage of a sunrise or stuck to the end of a trombone.
The little cameras are super tough or come with cases to make them super tough (like video camera versions of the Hulk or Iron Man). But that doesn’t mean their only use is being stuck to a skateboard.
By being resistant to most conditions, including water, these cameras have become the go-to option for capturing action at the beach or anywhere else outdoors where you may not want to risk a more delicate device.
If you want to take a beautiful, high-resolution video you’ll want to use a DSLR camera or a high-end specialised video camera. If you want a day-to-day camera for recording social media clips, use your phone.
Action cams are designed to take a licking and keep on ticking. But they are also very light and most come with accessories so you can attach them to whatever you like, from a bike helmet to the aforementioned trombone. In this way they are more versatile than other camera types.
Chances are whatever you mount the camera on will be moving. To combat the inevitable shake you’ll need image stabilisation. The difference between turning it on and off can be pronounced; the size of the effect is reflected in the Image stabiliser score in our test results. To capture the action, many of the cameras incorporate a wide-angle fisheye lens; using image stabilisation will cut down this angle by varying amounts depending on the camera.
We think the most important things for action cams are image quality, especially in low light, and image stabilisation. The popular GoPro line of action cameras don’t have image stabilisation, so good shots can be taken without image stabilisation or with the assistance of steadying devices (sold as extras).
To get cool slow-motion shots you need to shoot at a high frame rate and play it back at a slower one. For example, shoot at 120fps (frames per second) and then play back at 30 or 60fps. Shooting at a higher rate means less light gets to the sensor for each frame so the final product may be darker than you expected.
As action cams are mostly for “quick and dirty” shooting with smaller sensors, the image quality scores are low. We have kept the scores the same to enable comparison to DSLR performance, but altered our scale for “good”, “poor” and so on, to better reflect how the action cameras perform against each other. For more information on how we test, see About our test.
Most models either come with a protective case or have it available as an optional extra. To make the most of your camera, you’ll need accessories, such as poles and helmet mounts, or even more specialised attachments, depending on what you’re shooting.
Some accessories are specific to the model or brand while others are generic; check before you purchase any. It’s important to note nearly all these accessories attach to the protective case, rather than the camera.
Think carefully about what accessories you want, as not all will work for the shots you want or the camera you’ve bought. The shape difference between camera models changes how and where they can be mounted. For example, a GoPro is wider than it is long and better for mounting on the front of a helmet. A Sony Action Cam is longer and better mounted on the side.
Having a super-tough camera is good, but attaching it to your gear is just as important. Nearly all of the cameras in our test have attachments available. Some come with the camera, some are sold separately.
The most common ones are adhesive or suction cup mounts that attach your camera to a flat surface, like a skateboard or the side of a car. Helmet mounts are also common, though you may need to take note of how heavy the camera is if you use these mounts.
Chest mounts can be good for certain shots, such as shots back towards your face. But again weight can be an issue. We used a chest mount to film mountain biking and we could see the camera slowly starting to tilt forward as the rider went over bumps. Also, not all of the chest straps are comfortable for women.
If you’re thinking of taking your camera in or near water then you need to learn about IP ratings.
IP stands for Ingress Protection and is an international standard for how water- and dust-proof various pieces of technology are.
The basic rating is IPAB, where A is the rating for dust and B the rating for water. For example, the RICOH WG-M1 has a rating of IP68. The higher the number, the better the rating. (Sometimes the letter X is used to denote there wasn’t enough information for a rating - this doesn’t mean the rating is poor.)
The lowest rating in our test for waterproofness is 4. This means: water splashing against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effect.
Note that our lab does not test this rating standard, so “not stated” denotes that the manufacturer didn't state the IP rating. See About our test for details on how our lab looks at waterproofing.
Poles and hand grips are the easiest way to get yourself in the frame. These hand-held sticks are an easy way to carry the camera and can give you a different perspective, such as a side-on shot, much like a “selfie stick” for phones. Even a short pole (less than 30cm) makes holding a camera easier in extreme circumstances.
If you’re into water sports or skydiving, most sticks come with wrist straps and some float too. Meaning your expensive camera won’t be easily lost, even when you flip out of your kayak.
More interesting poles have articulated sections so you can get that unique angle. They can often double as a tripod.
When using an action cam, there’s a good chance your hands will already be busy keeping you from falling off a mountain bike or keeping your car on track. So you’ll want to strap, click or stick the camera to something, like your head, helmet, or vehicle.
There are scores of mounts and clips for your camera, so many it’s nearly impossible to not find a suitable one.
Many mounts attach with suction cups. This means they can be secured to your car or surfboard and removed with little problem. There are also harnesses and straps that place the camera on the centre of your chest, on your helmet or even on your dog.
Some harnesses help with image stabilisation. While mountain biking, we found a chest mount helped to absorb some camera movement, while footage taken from a handlebar mount was almost unwatchable, even with image stabilisation.
Because few action cameras have a viewfinder or display screen, some models have wrist-mounted remote controls with small LCD screens, which connect via direct WiFi. This means you can see what the camera’s viewing and get the right shot, even with the camera racing about on the back of your dog.
This requires an array of cameras being set into a sphere, which is accomplished either through a single specialised device with built-in cameras or as an accessory that holds multiple cameras. The number of cameras ranges from two (covering 180° each) to dozens for fuller immersion. For example, the GoPro Omni rig uses six GoPro cameras, with one on each side of a cube. The resulting footage can be loaded on to a computer and stitched together.
YouTube and Google Maps support this technology. It’s amazing to watch a video and then pan around while it’s playing. The more skilled you get at filming and editing, the more jaw-dropping the videos you’ll make.
Drones are the latest way to get aerial shots. Some drones have good built-in cameras, such as the DJI Phantom 3 Standard that topped our recent test, but on drones with lower-quality cameras or none at all, you can easily attach your own. Attaching your own camera might be a good idea too, because if you crash the drone, an action cam is much more likely to survive the impact.
Sony’s Action Cams are the best in our test. Their superior overall scores come via their built-in image stabilisation. This all but eliminates wobbles while you’re using a camera kitesurfing, skydiving or driving about on the golf course.
We put the Sony HDR-AS100VR Kit ($599) through its paces. We threw it around, attached it to a mountain bike, took it under water and strapped it to a bunch of dogs. While the camera handled all the punishment we dished out, it does have limitations.
Even at 120fps (frames per second), some action can be too fast to capture which can result in blurry footage. We found when throwing the camera in the air, as soon as spin was introduced to the throw the camera’s slow-motion mode created blurry images. However, for standard shots it worked fine.
Image stabilisation worked excellently on the mountain bike. The image is cut down to a smaller frame size (not the full-width fisheye lens) to accommodate for bumps. The difference with stabilisation was marked. However, it couldn’t compensate when the camera was strapped to the back of a sprinting dog. Watching the resulting footage almost caused motion sickness.
The kit comes with a wrist-worn remote that has a small screen. The remote wirelessly connects to the camera and you can view live images beamed to the screen. It’s big and bulky but useful.
All testing was done with the cameras set to their highest resolution; best encoding mode (using the highest possible constant bit rate); with automatic shutter speed; automatic aperture or exposure; automatic white-balance setting; automatic focus; image stabilisation enabled; and, any other automatic detection mode enabled (potentially with object and face detection). The recordings are made using 16:9 aspect ratio, when possible.
We record a scene featuring colourful stuffed animals, realistic artificial plants, and mannequins wearing colourful clothes with fine details. The camera is mounted on a tripod. The scene is then recorded in 3 different simulated lighting conditions: simulated daylight, artificial light, and low lighting. Each lighting situation is filmed three times: with everything still; with mannequins moving and fans blowing; and, with the camera being continuously panned from the tripod.
The recordings are judged by a viewing panel. The panellists compare the recordings to the actual scene.
Note that this is the same test and rating scale used for our DSLR tests. As such, the image quality scores are quite harsh for action cams. We have kept the numerical scores the same to enable comparison to DSLR performance, but altered our scale for “good”, “poor” etc, to more closely reflect how the action cameras score against each other.
For each camera 6 recordings are made. Each camera is hand-held and 10-second clips are recorded: while standing motionless; while standing and panning; and, while walking. Each version is recorded twice, once with image stabilisation on and once with image stabilisation off.
The panellists judge the recordings on how well the image stabilisation worked, and also what the effect, if any, was on the image quality.
Our durability test has two components: the drop test and water resistance.
We place each camera into a “tumbling barrel”, which simulates a drop of 50cm on to a “normal” floor surface. The camera is fully powered and set to standby mode before testing starts. The camera is tested for loose parts, visible damage and correct performance after 20, 40 and 50 drops.
Note that the unit used for this test in not used in the image tests for obvious reasons.
If the camera has a water-resistant or waterproof claim then we test it. We immerse the camera to a depth of 0.91m (3 feet) for 30 minutes. If the camera comes with a protective case, we will use that as per the manufacturer’s instructions. After 30 minutes we remove the camera and check for water intrusion and if the camera is still operable.
Ease of use scores are the average of three users evaluating the physical usage of the cameras.
The portability score is calculated from a formula determined from the camcorder’s weight, overall dimensions (“bulk”), and presence of a secure belt-type hand strap.
Versatility is based on the number of functions, both physical and digital, offered by the camera.