Action cameras are about more than just capturing crazy stunts these days — they’ve become a way to make anything you do look cool. You’ve probably seen people wave a selfie stick around while riding a bike, or strap a camera to their chest at a sporting event. Or maybe they’re even using them to see what their pet sees.
Sure, a lot can be done with your camera’s phone these days, thanks to burst-shooting modes and slow-motion options, but having a camera that’s more durable and more powerful can make all the difference in those amazing moments you don’t want to miss.
A good action camera should be able to capture all of what you’re doing with quality footage, have a great ecosystem of accessories and mounts, and offer tons of functionality that’s easy to tweak. It should also be able to take a hit or two (or three) while being small and light enough to fit wherever you want to capture the action from.
GoPro Hero 4 Black
The best action camera you can buy right now is also the most obvious: the GoPro Hero 4 Black edition. The $499 price tag is steep, but there’s no end to what you can do with this camera. It’s small, light, and durable, and every setting can be tweaked to fit the needs of whatever you’re filming.
In any mode, the quality of the footage is stunning. Whether you’re shooting at 720p or 4K, the GoPro’s dynamic range is able to keep the sky from looking blown out while not underexposing the subject you’re focused on. It also handles low-light situations better than any of its competitors.
Where GoPro also wins big is in its accessory ecosystem. The company makes just about every mount, strap, and suction cup you could want, and if they somehow don’t have what you’re looking for, there’s a number of third-party accessory makers who have been supporting GoPros for years. GoPro also has a great phone app, by far the best on the market in both design and functionality. Every little setting can be tweaked.
GoPro’s cameras aren’t without their own drawbacks though. The price isn’t easy to swallow, but that’s because you’re looking at the most capable action camera on the market, hands down. The on-camera menu system is still a chore to navigate with just three physical buttons, and the battery struggles to last more than an hour and a half depending on the settings — even with an extra battery pack. GoPro’s most expensive camera has done enough to keep it out in front of the competition, but there’s still room for improvement.
Luckily, there are a few good options for a little bit less.
The Runner Up
GoPro Hero 4 Silver
One of those is the GoPro Hero 4 Silver edition. For $100 less than the Hero 4 Black, you trade the ability to shoot in the highest resolutions and frame rates, but you gain a touchscreen that actually makes navigating GoPro’s menu system easy. It also means you’re able to compose your shot without needing to turn on the phone app or buy an extra accessory. That’s nice, but in most situations you’re going to want to use the camera with a protective housing around it which means the screen isn’t a surefire selling point.
The Silver edition works just as nicely with everything in the GoPro ecosystem, too, from the mounts to the app. It’s an extremely capable camera that edges out the competition on its own, but not without the two big flaws with GoPro: battery life and price. GoPro does make a bargain option now — the Hero — which retails for about $130, but it does too little for the price compared to what the rest of these cameras are capable of.
Sony Action Cam Mini
One of the only worthy competitors to GoPro on the market right now is Sony. With the $249 Action Cam Mini, it somehow figured out how to fit all of the capabilities from last years model into a compact size. The only sacrifices are a small bump in quality, on-camera controls, and the camera’s battery life, the last of which the Mini’s bigger brother was rightfully praised for. Otherwise the footage is impressive, and really should good enough for most people. The biggest problem with it is any fine-tuning of the settings has to be done through Sony’s phone app (which isn’t good), or through a wifi remote — which is sold separately.
Sony Action Cam AS100V
If on-camera controls and better battery life are what you crave, get the Action Cam AS100V instead of Sony’s Action Cam Mini. It lets you do more tinkering right from the camera — even though the LCD menu screen looks like a watch display from the 1980s. Where Sony definitely falls behind is with its ecosystem; there just isn’t the same variety when it comes to mounts and accessories, and Sony’s app doesn’t have nearly the same amount of control as GoPro’s.
ION Air Pro 3
The ION Air Pro 3 is a tough, cylindrical camera that produces rich images which need less tuning in an editing software, but its price is a bit steep for what little you get in return. ION makes a decent amount of accessories, and it does have a good phone app — which is a good thing because there’s little you can do to change them on the camera itself.
Garmin Wirb Elite
If you’re an adventurer looking to quantify every activity you record, Garmin’s Virb Elite holds its own. It comes with great battery life and offers the ability to overlay on your video your GPS, altimeter and other data from companion Garmin devices like a heart rate monitor. Compared to others, the Virb’s video quality isn’t a standout, and often captures colors that just look wrong. It’s a niche device in a market for the masses.
JVC’s Adixxion is a little older but does a decent job with its image quality, and it doesn’t even need a case thanks to its rugged build. It also includes an on-board screen for framing up shots and navigating menus, but its companion app is poorly designed and lacks the feature control that other companies offer.