What the best action cameras have

  • Compact size. This is the key feature of an action camera; it should be pocket-sized and no heavier than 6 ounces.
  • Great image quality. Most action cameras shoot full HD video at 1920 x 1080, but they vary considerably in color accuracy, low-light performance and quality of still photos.
  • Waterproofing. The best sports cameras can go surfing, snorkeling and more -- although many need to be tucked into a waterproof case first, which can hamper their performance.
  • Decent battery life. For this type of camera, two to three hours per charge is an impressive battery life -- though you'll get considerably less when connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Easy-to-use controls. Ideally, controls should be simple enough to use even while you're wearing gloves or have cold-numbed hands.
  • Built-in Wi-Fi. All our best-rated action cameras have built-in wireless connectivity, as well as apps for linking the camera to your phone.
  • A wide range of mounts. Different sports call for different types of mounts, so an action camera should either come with several or offer them as optional accessories.

Know before you go

How will you use the camera? Owners of action cameras say they use them for everything from snorkeling to motor sports to documentary filmmaking. Obviously, these different uses call for different feature sets. For instance, if you'll use your camera indoors a lot, then low-light performance should be a priority. If you plan to use it mostly during sports, by contrast, you'll want something that's rugged and comes with the appropriate mounts for your equipment (goggles, helmet, bike handlebars, etc.). If you're planning to use the camera underwater, consider how deep you plan to take it. Cameras with hefty waterproof cases usually can handle greater depths, but those that are waterproof without a case are easier to use underwater.

How will you use the footage? If you consider yourself a serious videographer, then you'll want a camera with the best possible video quality and the widest range of shooting options. However, if you're a more casual user who just wants to post videos on YouTube of yourself learning to ski, then it makes sense to trade off some video quality for a lower price tag, better ease of use or longer battery life.

What's your price range? The very best action cameras cost $300 or more. However, if you spend that much, you run the risk that your pricey camera could get trashed in a wreck or washed away at sea. If worrying about that risk would ruin your enjoyment of the camera, you may be better off with one of the very good second-tier cameras you can buy for $200 or less. This could also be a good choice if you'd like to let your kids use the camera without worrying that they'll destroy it.

What's to come

Most wearable cameras today are designed for sports use, but that may be changing. We've seen several reports about truly tiny cameras now in the works that you can simply clip to your clothes and use at any time. For instance, the MeMini, currently available for pre-order at $179, is designed to record continuously as you go through your day -- but it saves the video only when you tell it to. That way, you can capture every memorable moment without having to fumble for your camera. Google is also working in partnership with Amberella to develop a wearable camera that can stream video to its new Helpouts service, which provides live video assistance from doctors, teachers and the like. The matchbox-sized camera will stream directly to Google's servers with no need for another mobile device. Look for more on this new generation of wearable cameras in our next update.

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