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Nowadays, a camera is a must-have. Whether you attach it to a drone to capture a scenic view, or clip it to your helmet as you cycle through rush hour, the obscure and fantastic footage caught on action cameras today is must-see viewing — especially for those who live it and wish to relive it.
GoPro changed the camera industry years ago with tiny cameras that could produce quality videos in the most rugged of conditions. Today, the name “GoPro” is synonymous with action cameras in general.
But GoPro isn’t the only name on the market, and those seeking an action camera have many products from which to choose.
That’s where we come in. At BestReviews, our goal is to provide our readers with honest, unbiased reviews of the best products out there. We consult experts, buy and test products, and solicit owner opinions in order to present a clear picture of what you can expect from each product on our shortlist.
So focus your lens, zip up your jacket, and head out into the elements as we present the fruits of our research: our guide to finding the best action camera to suit your needs.
One of the main advantages of having an action camera is that it’s small and easily equipable. Adhering your camera to your parachutist helmet before taking the plunge, for example, should pose no problems. And the footage you get should be phenomenal.
For these reasons, the first feature a lot of consumers look at is size.
Our shortlist features two GoPro models: the HERO and the HERO4. The HERO4 is the smaller of the two, measuring 1.53” x 2.79” x 2.8”. Oddly, the HERO is the size of a standard camera, measuring 9.72” x 4.09” x 4.02”.
The iON Air Pro 3 and the Polaroid Extreme Edition HD both take a cylinder shape, with the Polaroid being two inches smaller than the iON in every aspect and measuring 1.65” x 1.66” x 4.25”.
The final action camera on our list is the Black Box Mobius, measuring 2” x 1” x 1”. It’s one of the smallest action cameras to pass our rigorous selection process.
Because of the cylindrical design of the iON Air Pro 3 and the Polaroid Extreme Edition HD, you can mount and attach them to whatever you’d like. In a pinch, a simple zip tie will do.
Action camera battery power varies from product to product. Unfortunately, manufacturers aren’t always forthcoming about all of the battery details. Here’s what we know about the action cameras on our shortlist.
It’s tough to gauge which battery would last the longest in any given situation. But in terms of pure power, the HERO4’s battery is the best on our list.
Previous buyers have noted that once the iON’s battery dies, the camera dies with it. This unit will need constant charging to ensure that it stays active.
Nothing quite matches the video quality of the action cameras made by GoPro. This company leads the pack with its movie camera-like HD video quality. In fact, In 2016, Aerospace Inc. sent a HERO camera into space with a small rocket launch. Needless to say, these cameras can withstand a lot!
With an 8.3-pixel photo-like video, the HERO4 outshines its competitors in video quality. The rest of the group bounce between 7.2 pixels (the HERO) and 5.0 pixels (the Polaroid).
Each camera on our shortlist has the ability to work like a regular still camera. Pixel quality may vary, but ultimately, not a single one of them is bad. In fact, if you were to get a bad still photo from one of these cameras, it would probably be due to user error and not a camera flaw.
Each camera has its own special type of lens. Some companies are open about what they offer; others are not. Here’s what we know:
The Polaroid Extreme Edition has a 170° ultra wide-angle lens.
The iON Air Pro 3 comes with a 160° fisheye lens.
Both of the GoPro series products boast an “ultra wide-angle glass lens.”
Unlike a standard camera, most of the lenses that come with these cameras are not interchangeable.
Every action camera has a built-in microphone to record audio with your video. But not every device records and operates the same way.
The GoPro HERO and HERO4 both have high-quality microphones situated at the front of the camera, by the lens. The HD audio they record matches the picture.
The iON Air Pro 3 has a microphone system similar to both GoPros, but its mic is located on the side.
The Black Box’s microphone is located along the bottom. According to owners, its audio recordings have a CD-like quality.
The Polaroid’s mic is located on the back of the device in order to pick up the voice of its user. However, this mic has had problems with muffled sound.
If you’re looking for quality audio to match your video, the iON and GoPro cameras on our list are the best choices.
The Black Box Mobius and iON Air Pro 3 are the two best-equipped to download directly via WiFi. The iON has the ability to connect to cloud services and download up to 10 GB instantly.
All cameras come with a memory card, and that card has a limited amount of recording space.
For example, the GoPro cameras on our list come with either a 64GB or 32GB SD card. The iON comes with a 64GB card, while the Polaroid and Black Box come with 32GB cards.
While it’s nice to know you have a ton of recording space to start out with, that initial figure doesn’t mean much if you’re a seasoned recorder. These cards are easily removeable and interchangeable, so you can always add more space if you’d like.
If you plan to shoot lots of video or take a large number of photos, we highly recommend checking out the type of card your chosen camera uses. It’s a great idea to then purchase a card with more storage space on it and keep the original as a backup card.
With 24 FPS in 720p, GoPro HERO4 and HERO have many recording options — even 4K Superview in HERO4. The other models work between 30 and 180 FPS.
No matter what the situation may be, you want an action camera that is durable and able to endure some punishment. The only device on our list that has issues with surviving the elements is the Black Box, simply because it wasn’t designed to be anything more than your standard action camera. The Mobius isn’t even waterproof.
The remaining four, however, are extremely durable and can take a beating on both land and sea. In fact, most of them come with long-term warranties that reaffirm the manufacturer’s confidence in their durability. That doesn’t mean you should throw your camera into a swimming pool for no reason; it simply means that it can take some rough treatment before needing repair.
The HERO or HERO4 would be your ideal choices for drone mounting, as they were designed with harder, tougher casings than some other models.
While a top-of-the-line camera is going to have everything and then some, it comes with a hefty price tag. And the truth is, you might not need all of those fancy features. So, which price point is right for you?
Top-tier action cameras cost hundreds of dollars. The most expensive product on our list, at a cost over $300, is the GoPro HERO4. Is it worth it? If you’re just planning to shoot occasional videos for fun, the answer is probably no. But if you’re a weekend warrior who plans on taking lots and lots of footage, the steeper price tag could be worth it.
Of all the products mentioned in this shopping guide, only the Black Box has a removeable battery. The remaining four are self-contained and need to be recharged.
The GoPro HERO costs less than the HERO4, though it’s still a significant investment at close to $200. (Occasionally this camera goes on sale, in which case it could actually dip into the “Budget” category.) If you choose to go this route, you’re buying a ticket into the world of GoPro, but it’s an “economy” ticket rather than “first class.”
The iON Air Pro 3 and Polaroid Extreme Edition typically sell for a little over $100. In spite of their lower mid-range prices, they still give you good quality and lots of options.
The cheapest camera on our elite list is, by far, Mobius. It has some issues, as we’ve addressed above, but if the specs suit you, you really can’t go wrong, even with the low price tag.
If you intend to use an action camera on a drone, you’ll want one with a strong exterior.
For those who are buying an action camera for the first time, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your camera:
Q: Why would I want an action camera if I already have a camera in my phone?
A: If you want a hearty device that can record “action” without breaking easily, this type of camera should be on your shopping list. A smartphone camera or other type of device simply can’t withstand the rigorous environments (high speeds, extreme weather, and so on) that an action camera is designed to handle.
Q: Is there a way to hear what’s being recorded?
A: Only if you have a headphone jack adaptor. GoPro sells one that plugs into the side, but for the other models on our list, you’d have to find a third-party model. None have a jack built into the device.
Q: Can I edit my footage while in the device?
A: Possibly. It depends on the software that comes with each camera and whether it needs to be hooked to a computer or not.
Q: What happens if I record more footage than the device can hold?
A: Usually the device will stop recording and give you some kind of indication that the memory card is full. Always begin a recording session with an empty card.