The best action cameras you can buy

Kyle Schurman , Insider Picks

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First-person photography and videography grow in popularity every day. But why? Bear with us for a minute, because here’s where a chicken-and-egg argument begins.

Perhaps these videos are popular because of the explosion of social media and the ability to share videos instantly. A good wipeout video always generates tons of likes after all — as long as no serious injuries occur, of course.

On the other hand, the ease with which people can shoot first-person photos and videos, thanks to all of the best new action cams, may be the reason people are shooting more footage from this perspective.

Here, we’re going to argue that the growth of the features found in action cams has caused more videos to appear. After all, people have tried shooting crazy first-person videos and photos for many years. There’s a small mountain of broken and water damaged smartphones somewhere to prove it. Action cams are made for harsh conditions, meaning you can shoot some great first-person videos and photos without causing serious injuries to yourself or to your action camera.

How action cams work

An action camera works like any other digital camera in that it records still image photographs and videos. All digital cameras use a lens that gathers the light from the scene, focusing that light onto an image sensor. The image sensor measures the light and turns it into a digital signal, which computer software uses to recreate the image digitally onto a display screen.

Beyond basic operation, action cams offer plenty of differences from typical digital cameras. Let’s break down the differences.

Key features in action cams

The best action cams share some important features, as shown by Tech Radar, Misadventure Mag, and Choice.

If you're interested in action cameras, you should also check out our other great camera buying guides, including the best DSLR cameras, the best point-and-shoot cameras, the best SD cards, and the best microSD cards.

Although the GoPro Hero5 Black is our top action cam pick, for various reasons laid out in the slides below, you should also consider the YI 4K+, the Kodak PixPro SP1, the TomTom Bandit, and the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30.

GoPro

The best action cam overall

GoPro is the best-known action camera maker for good reason — its cams are the cream of the crop. GoPro action cams continue to grow in popularity and add new features. The latest and greatest GoPro model is the Hero5 Black, which wins the distinction of being our top pick. Video and still image quality truly shine with the GoPro Hero5 Black. Its 4K video resolution is among the sharpest you'll find on an action cam. The Hero5 Black creates amazing videos that you’ll be proud to show on a 4K TV. Additionally, maximum still image recording levels of 12 megapixels provide better than average results among action cameras. For divers, the GoPro Hero5 Black’s ability to work under up to 33 feet of water is outstanding, according to one Amazon customer review. Most of the negative Amazon customer reviews refer to poor customer service from GoPro when experiencing problems with the device. In its review, TechRadar’s biggest complaint against the Hero5 involves a slight downgrade in build quality from previous GoPro cameras. However, TechRadar found more to like in its review, including how easy it is to control the Hero5 Black, using voice commands or the touchscreen display. CNET’s reviewers were impressed with all of the advanced components that come with the Hero5, including a GPS chip and electronic image stabilization. Simply put, no other action cam offers the combination of useful features, mount accessories, video quality, and still image quality as the GoPro Hero5. Pros: Tons of above average features, crisp 4K video recording, strong still image quality, voice and touch screen control, waterproof to 33 feet, easily mountable and wearable Cons: Customer service is lacking, build quality lags previous models
YI

The best 4K action cam

4K resolution video recording, which is also called Ultra HD resolution, represents the future of video quality. Sure, HD video looks tremendous, but 4K video offers four times as many pixels. To give your action cam plenty of longevity, be certain to seek a camera that offers 4K video. The best pure 4K video action camera you can buy is the YI 4K+ camera. Although several action cams offer 4K video resolution, the YI 4K+ moves to the top of the heap by offering an excellent frame rate of 60fps. One way digital camera makers try to “cheat” and offer 4K video resolution without upgrading the performance speed of the camera is to limit the frame rate to 15fps. The YI 4K+ doesn’t cheat, and it even surpasses what’s considered a good level of performance at 30fps. Even though it records high-res video at a high frame rate, the YI 4K+ offers solid battery life. The YI 4K+ can record 4K video at 60fps for a full hour, which is really impressive for an action camera, as Digital Trends points out in its review. However, when recording long 4K video clips , PCMag points out that the YI 4K+ heats up quite a bit. Another drawback to this action cam’s design involves the lack of waterproofing. To use the YI 4K+ while diving, you must purchase a separate underwater case. One Amazon customer reviewer loves the upgrades YI included from the 4K camera to the 4K+ camera, as well as the inclusion of Gorilla Glass on the rear screen , which makes it scratch and crack resistant. Pros: Strong 4K video recording at 60fps, good battery life, easy to operate design with touch screen, strong photographic image quality, small camera body Cons: Needs add-on case to provide waterproof capabilities, camera heats up over long 4K recording sessions
Kodak

The best tough action cam

When using an action cam, you might as well just count on the fact that it's going to take some abuse. A lot of abuse, probably. That’s why we appreciate the toughness of the Kodak PixPro SP1 action cam, which features the ability to work in 32 feet of water without the need for an extra underwater case, to survive a fall of about 6.5 feet, and to work in temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Toughness isn’t enough, though, if the camera can’t create great images and video. As PC Mag points out in its review, the SP1 has excellent video quality during daylight hours, although you’re limited to recording 1080p HD video, rather than 4K. Kodak offers the SP1 in two configurations, the Explorer Pack, which includes handlebar and helmet mounts, and the Aqua Sport Pack, which includes a surfboard mount. As far as downsides go, Tom’s Guide notes in its review that the SP1 struggles in low light with video and still image recording. However, it records still images at speeds up to 10 frames per second, a strong performance level for an action cam. The PixPro SP1 has a good price point compared to some other action cams, too. One Amazon reviewer was impressed by the great performance of the camera given its relatively low price point . However, some reviewers on Amazon said the waterproof housing leaked , ruining the camera. It seems to be a rare occurrence, though. Pros: Offers tough features, can survive fall of 6.5 feet, works in water depth up to 32 feet, good video quality, can record still images at speeds up to 10 fps, good value for the money Cons: Struggles in low light situations
TomTom

The best budget action cam

Even with a low price, the TomTom Bandit 4K Action Camera offers quite a few interesting features that make uploading and editing videos very easy. This makes the budget priced TomTom Bandit a good value for your money. The Bandit excels when it comes to shooting video, and some reviewers compare it favorably to other more expensive action cams. You’ll receive a built-in GPS for tagging your videos with the location at which they were shot, strong 4K video resolution recording, and a slow motion capture option, all of which Tech Radar calls a great set of features in its review. Additionally, the TomTom Bandit 4K Action Camera has sensors that measure your speed, g-forces, and altitude. In its review, MacWorld highlights the interesting Batt-Stick battery included with the TomTom Bandit. The battery seals completely inside the camera, protecting it from rough conditions for the action cam. The rechargeable Batt-Stick provides excellent longevity, allowing you to record up to three hours of video when shooting in full 1080p HD resolution. The Bandit also records video at 4K resolution, but it has a 15fps limit. One Amazon customer dislikes the barrel-style design of the TomTom Bandit action cam, saying the unit is difficult to keep level while recording video. Still, if you don’t mind this style of camera body, the Bandit has some great features for the price. Pros: Low price point, plenty of advanced features such as GPS, 4K video recording, altitude sensor included, very good battery life, easy to use Cons: 4K video limited to 15 frames per second, can be difficult to hold camera level, small monochrome display screen
Garmin

The best aviation action cam

The Garmin VIRB Ultra 30's design makes it a strong aviation action cam, offering a three-axis image stabilization system, meaning it works well for keeping the video recording steady, even during rough flights. On the other hand, for those situations where you want to film some action while on the ground, the Garmin VIRB works great when tethered to gravity, too. With the VIRB Ultra 30 Aviation Bundle, you can measure your speed, altitude, and position, overlaying this data onto the video. Additionally, you can record audio through Bluetooth headsets, perfect for recording pilot conversations while flying. One customer reviewer on Amazon purchased the Ultra 30 for use during flying lessons , which the reviewer said worked great. In its review, Wired highlighted all of the sensors built into the VIRB Ultra 30, including a GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, barometer, and ANT+ capability. The only complaint Wired’s reviewer had was that the Ultra 30’s battery life wasn't as good as expected. DC Rainmaker’s reviewer had a lot of success in mounting the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 to various GoPro accessories, which is great if you’ve already invested in GoPro mounts. Additionally, DC Rainmaker appreciated the Garmin action cam’s ability to create unique shots. However, one Amazon customer reviewer said the Ultra 30 failed during use in water on a kayaking trip. Such occurrences seem rare, though. Pros: Large number of sensors for aviation recording, works successfully with many GoPro mounts, can record 4K video at 30 frames per second, three-axis image stabilization smooths video recording Cons: Poor battery life, higher than average starting point