Why you might choose to wear a camera -- and which ones wear the best
Action cameras -- also known as sports cameras, wearable cameras or POV cameras -- are small camera/camcorder hybrids that you can use to shoot video while leaving your hands free. Most action cameras today are designed for sports use. They mount to a helmet, goggles or other equipment, such as the handlebars of a bike, and record video as you ski, bike down mountain trails, race go-karts and more. Action cameras aren't just for sports enthusiasts, though; owners also report using these compact cameras for travel and home movies, and even for shooting documentaries.
Action cameras are small and lightweight, typically 0.2 pounds or less, and usually come with a rugged case that can stand up to the rigors of outdoor use. Most are also waterproof, so you can shoot photos or footage while you surf, snorkel or scuba dive. And, while the best camcorders can run $1,000 or more, action cameras typically cost between $150 and $400 (though accessories can add to the price). The benefits of an action camera come with some trade-offs, however: While most models can shoot HD video, they can't match the performance of a regular hand-held camcorder. Even budget-priced camcorders, which cost no more than an action camera, will be superior in terms of video quality, audio quality, still shots and ease of use. Also, many of the best action cameras lack features that are standard on a hand-held camcorder, such as auto focus, image stabilization and an LCD display.
One wearable camera that's been getting a lot of press lately is Google Glass. This tiny camera -- currently available only in a beta Explorer Edition that costs around $1,500 -- mounts to a pair of eyeglass frames and can be worn as you go about your daily activities. It responds to voice commands to take pictures or shoot video on cue. However, the Glass is much more than a camera; it's more like a wearable smartphone that you can use to get directions, make and receive calls (both voice and video) or search the web. Yet while the Glass is more sophisticated than other wearable cameras in many ways, it's more limited in others. Although Brent Rose of Gizmodo.com says the Glass "makes a pretty excellent POV action cam," he acknowledges that it can't match the video quality or the durable, waterproof construction of action cameras. The CEO of GoPro, a leading manufacturer of action cameras, notes in an interview that because the Glass can only be worn on your face it doesn't have the versatility of his cameras, which can shoot from practically any angle depending on how they're mounted.
For years, the sports-camera realm was dominated by two brands: GoPro and Contour. However, Contour suffered some financial setbacks and shut down in August of 2013, and the company that bought its assets is still struggling to rebuild the brand. Meanwhile, other manufacturers, such as Drift Innovation, Sony and JVC, have jumped into the field to challenge the supremacy of GoPro. Models from all these manufacturers appear among our Best Reviewed action cameras.
To identify the best action cameras, we looked at two main types of sources. Expert reviews, mostly from technology-oriented publications such as CNET and PCMag.com, subject cameras to detailed and often grueling tests that may involve taking them onto ski slopes, down mountain biking paths and underwater. Reviewers then analyze the cameras point for point, discussing video and audio quality, design, features and ease of use in detail. Some expert reviewers even compare several different cameras in a head-to-head matchup. These reviews can't always assess long-term durability, so we also consulted user reviews from retail sites to see how top-rated cameras perform in the real world. Our top picks offer the best combination of performance, ease of use, durability and design.
Best Action Cameras
Crash-testing the toughest action cameras
Every reviewer acknowledges that in the field of action cameras, the GoPro HD Hero3+ Black Edition (Est. $400) sets the bar. In test after test, its video quality is excellent, with true color and subtle detail in both high and low light. The camera offers a wide range of shooting modes, including a wide-angle SuperView mode, and a variety of options for resolution and frame rate. It offers lots of choices for mounting as well: the enclosed mounts can attach the camera to the top, front or side of a helmet, and additional accessories are available for just about every imaginable use. Reviewers praise its sturdy construction, which Paul Davies of The Telegraph calls "nigh on indestructible."
Although the Hero3+ Black Edition clearly leads the pack, it's not without its flaws. Although it's small and lightweight, its boxy shape is less streamlined than most of its competitors. Its battery life, though much improved from last year's Hero3, is still not the best; users say it can go about two hours on a charge, which some consider great and others find inadequate. Another complaint that pops up in several reviews is that you'll most likely have to buy extra accessories for the Hero3+, including a microSD card, in order to use it. Also, CNET says the camera's menus can be tricky to use.
Another drawback of the Hero3+ Black Edition is its high price. GoPro offers a less expensive version, the HD Hero3+ Silver Edition (Est. $300), which can do most of what the Black Edition does for less. It has the same compact size and wide variety of mounts, and its battery life is comparable to the Black Edition's. It doesn't have as many shooting options, however, and reviewers agree that its video quality, though still good, is decidedly inferior to its pricier sibling's. Although reviewers agree that the Black Edition is the best pick for serious videographers, most owners of the Silver Edition consider it a better overall value. (An older GoPro model, the HD Hero3 White Edition, is also available for around $200. Although it gets fairly good reviews, it doesn't have the features or performance quality of the Hero3+. It's still a good camera, but there are better in this price range.)
The Drift HD Ghost (Est. $300) is priced about the same as the Hero3+ Silver Edition. Although some think its video quality is comparable to the Silver Edition's, reviewers agree that it can't match that of the Hero3+ Black Edition. However, the Ghost offers some advantages that neither Hero3+ model has. First, unlike most action cameras, it includes an LCD viewscreen -- just a tiny 2 inches, but many owners find it very useful. Second, the Drift can run for nearly three hours on a fully charged battery -- the best battery life we've seen for an action camera, and about 50 percent better than the Hero3+'s. And third, while the Hero3+ cameras require a waterproof housing to be used underwater, the Drift HD Ghost is waterproof right out of the box -- though only to a depth of 9 feet. On the downside, at 5.9 ounces, the Ghost is the heftiest action camera we've seen, and more than twice as heavy as the Hero3+ cameras.