If you want to capture photos and videos of the sports you play -- from your own point of view -- experts say you need a sports camera. Also called action cameras or helmet cameras, these tough, tiny camera/camcorder hybrids are designed to mount to your helmet, body or equipment -- and take all the abuse you can dish out while skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, go-kart racing and more. Some sports camcorders are waterproof, so you can shoot photos or footage while you surf, snorkel or scuba dive.
When athletes try out these action cams in head-to-head shootouts, two brands consistently rise to the top. As Engadget.com's Tim Stevens says: "When it comes to the high-end helmetcam game, GoPro and Contour seem to have the market cornered." Both brands offer budget models priced at $200 or less (discussed below). But when experts test top-of-the-line sports cams, they usually prefer the GoPro HD Hero2 Camera (*Est. $300).
"Bottom line: This thing is killer," writes Brent Rose at Engadget.com, after taking it surfing and mountain biking. "I may never take it off." It wins every professional sports-cam shootout we found, and most owners at Amazon.com give it a perfect 5 stars.
GoPro took the original HD Hero camera -- which critics praised -- and made it "way better," Rose says, with a bigger image sensor and easier-to-use controls. While the original Hero's footage can look washed-out at times, "the HD Hero2 recorded rich, saturated images that popped off the screen," Scott Kennedy says in his test for CameraLabs.com. The Hero2 displays easy-to-understand commands on its small LCD control screen, too -- no more memorizing mysterious codes for every command.
And it's still as tiny, light and indestructible as the original Hero, testers confirm, after abusing the Hero2 in every possible way. Mike Perlman at TechnoBuffalo.com straps it to a hockey puck and takes a slap shot. Engadget.com's Tim Stevens straps it to the wing of a fighter plane.
"It's almost bulletproof," Stevens says. "I know of one that was run over by a tank and survived." Waterproof, too: Its included clear case is waterproof to 167 feet, so sea kayaking and jet-boating pose no problem in tests. In fact, Pocket-Lint.com notes, "The GoPro famously was lost at sea, turning up months later on a beach, still fully functioning."
In short, the GoPro Hero2 wins every single head-to-head test we found. Experts say it's the most rugged sports camera you can buy, with the best image quality -- simple as that.
GoPro's biggest rival, Contour, can't match the Hero2 for toughness or video quality, reviews say.
The Contour cameras' footage looks equally sharp, "but when it comes to colors, the Hero simply dominates," Rose says. Engadget.com's Brian Heater agrees, after blasting through a desert sandstorm on an ATV with both cameras. "The Contour gave the sand an artificial blue hue," he writes. "I expected a sand worm to leap out at any moment."
The Contour cameras aren't waterproof, either -- at least not until you spend $40 or $50 extra for a waterproof case. But they do have advantages. The little bullet-shaped Contour cameras are more discreet than the brick-shaped GoPros for helmet- or goggle-mounting, and the Contour cameras offer some extra features. Both the ContourGPS (*Est. $300) andContour+ (*Est. $495) have GPS video mapping -- in case "you're curious just what speeds you hit on the double-diamond," Stevens says -- and they can use an Android smartphone, iPhone or iPod touch as a viewscreen (there's none built into the camera). The Contour+ adds HDMI and microphone jacks.
New to the sports cam market, the Ion Air Pro (*Est. $230) looks like a sleek Contour camera, but it's waterproof like a GoPro (to 30 feet, without any protective housing). Its images and audio aren't as clear as the GoPros' or Contours' in tests, though.
The Drift HD (*Est. $295) looks promising at first in tests. Unlike other rugged sports cams, it has a built-in LCD viewscreen, so you can see what you're shooting and play back your videos. Testers find lots of problems with the Drift HD's video and sound quality.
Before the top-gun GoPro HD Hero2 Camera came along, the original GoPro HD Hero was critics' favorite rugged sports cam. It beat all rivals from Contour, Drift and other brands in tests -- and the price of the original HD Hero Naked Camera (*Est. $200) has been slashed into budget territory. Experts say it's easily the best budget sports cam you can buy.
"In fact, I like it so much that I will probably continue to use it for a very long time, perhaps throughout my lifetime -- when it gets lost, stolen, or destroyed; I will buy a new one," surfer Bruce Gain says of the original HD Hero cam, after testing it alongside a Contour action cam for TomsGuide.com. Motocross champ Brian Deegan prefers the GoPro camcorder to the Contour in his test for Men's Health, too: "It's something I've used for a long time," he says of the original HD Hero. "It's small, light -- you don't really notice it at all on your helmet." Snowboarder Brian Lam calls the original HD Hero "the best sports cam I've ever used" in his review for Gizmodo.com.
The ContourRoam Camera (*Est. $185) offers many of the same features as the GoPro HD Hero Naked. You'll be able to shoot full 1080p HD video and 5-megapixel still photos, and choose from the same array of mounts and waterproof cases as with the pricier ContourGPS camcorder. The ContourRoam doesn't have a GPS chip, but it offers the same svelte bullet shape and convenient instant-on switch as its big brother. It comes with two adhesive mounts -- one low-profile and one rotating. As usual, reviewers' main complaint about the Contour cameras is that their footage is shakier and weaker looking.
To find the best, toughest sports cameras, several top sources -- including Gizmodo.com, Engadget.com, TechnoBuffalo.com, AllThingsD.com, Pocket-Lint.com, TomsGuide.com and Men's Health -- test action cams head-to-head while skydiving, sea kayaking, bungee jumping and mountain biking, even strapped to the wing of a fighter plane. CameraLabs.com, PCMag.com and CNET publish thorough single-camera reviews, complete with test footage. Owners review sports cameras' real-life performance at retail sites like Amazon.com and REI.com.