Technology

Product overview

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Action cams

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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.

From our test

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Why use one?

When you think about action cameras – small, ultra-portable, rugged, high-definition digital video cameras – you usually think of them being strapped to skydivers, surfers, mountain bikers and anyone else who could potentially be sponsored by Red Bull.

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.

Death proof

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.

Versatile

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.

Action cam vs DSLR

For action cams, we use the same test and rating scale as used in our DSLR camera tests.

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Accessorise

Protecting your action cam from dust, water, and knocks and drops is crucial.

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.

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Hands on

Poles and hand grips are the easiest way to get yourself in the frame.

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Hands free

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.

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The next dimension

The newest innovation in action cams is the ability to take 360° images and video.

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About our test

How the lab assessed the 40 action cams in our test.

Image quality

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.

Image stabilisation

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.

Durability

Our durability test has two components: the drop test and water resistance.

Drop test
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.

Water resistance
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, portability and versatility

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.

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