Who should buy one
If you spend a lot of time outdoors and want to be able to relive crazy moments, an action cam is essential. What sets an action camera apart from other cameras is its diminutive size, toughness, and wealth of mounting options when compared with a point-and-shoot, a DSLR, or a video camera. This makes action cameras uniquely suited to capturing footage from a first-person (or animal) perspective.
An action camera has a very wide wide-angle lens, so it can capture as much of the slopes or racetrack as you want. You can mount it to a helmet, fasten it to the tip of a surfboard, attach it to a hockey stick, or sit it atop a tripod standing super-close to the action. However, unlike a rugged camera, an action camera doesn't have an optical zoom lens, so what you see is what you record. But rugged cameras lack the mounting abilities, wide-angle lens, and compact nature of an action camera. They're also typically designed to capture stills first and foremost—video is where action cameras shine.
How we picked and tested
Top row, from left: Sony FDR-X3000, GoPro Hero5 Black, Yi 4K Action Camera. Bottom row, from left: Sony HDR-AS300, Garmin Virb Ultra 30. Photo: Ben Keough
Numerous action cameras have been announced since our last update, but ultimately we called in only five to test. Our ideal action camera has a bevy of mounting options, easy-to-use controls, excellent video quality, and decent Wi-Fi/Bluetooth functionality. Additionally, a top-tier action cam must offer multiple frame rates to choose from and include at least 1080/60p (that's Full HD resolution at 60 frames per second), though 4K/30p is quickly becoming the norm.
Many cameras we considered failed to meet our criteria, as they had inadequate resolution or frame-rate options, insufficient battery life, or big and heavy designs. A list of these cameras is in our full guide.
Action cameras are designed for use in all sorts of conditions, so we put our five test models through as many challenges as possible to gauge their toughness, video quality, and usability. A good action cam should respond well to changing light, cope well with water and dust, handle vibrations with aplomb, and remain easy to use even when you're engaged in strenuous physical activity.
We stress-tested cameras to see if they met our criteria by mounting cameras to a car for a winding sunset drive in Santa Fe, strapping them to a dog who romped around California's Huntington Dog Beach, and taking them on a strenuous hike through Washington's temperate rainforests. For more on our testing process, see our full guide.
We downloaded each manufacturer's app and checked out how difficult it was to connect a phone to each camera, and how much control each app gave over vital shooting settings. We looked at sharing options, and tried out each brand's desktop apps and editing tools, where available.
Finally, we put all of the cameras through battery-rundown tests at 1080/30p, 1080/60p, and 4K/30p to see how well they lived up to their promised endurance. Then, we timed how long they took to charge.
The GoPro Hero5 Black provides the best combination of UI, video quality, and value for most people. Photo: Ben Keough
The GoPro Hero5 Black combines everything we loved about our previous pick, the GoPro Hero4 Silver (excellent video quality, intuitive touchscreen interface, affordable price), with the pro features that made the high-end Hero4 Black our upgrade pick (most notably, 4K video). Then the Hero5 Black ups the ante with built-in waterproofing, image stabilization, and voice control, wrapping everything in a small and convenient package. Best of all, it costs the same as the Hero4 Silver, despite all the new features. All of that adds up to the best action camera for most people.
Although the Hero5 Black's video quality is more than good enough for most users and most applications, it's the intuitive interface and clever extras that push this camera ahead of the pack.
The touchscreen UI is vitally important, because it's how most people will interact with the Hero5 Black, and GoPro nailed this iteration. The screen provides direct access to all of the most-used settings, including shooting mode, resolution, frame rate, and field of view. Battery status is always visible, too. Swiping from the left brings up the playback menu, and swiping from the right accesses additional shooting settings such as ProTune adjustments, stabilization, auto low light, and audio control. Swiping down from the top produces less-used options like screen lock and voice control, plus deeper menus for Wi-Fi and basic device settings.
Runner-up: Better video quality, but harder to use
The Sony FDR-X3000 offers the best video quality and true optical image stabilization, but it's harder to use than the competition. Photo: Ben Keough
Both our main and budget picks produce beautiful 4K footage, but for the best possible ultrahigh-definition clips, the best choice is the Sony FDR-X3000. Not only can it claim the widest lens, the highest bit rates, and the sharpest footage, but it also offers optical image stabilization using Sony's BOSS (Balanced Optical SteadyShot) system. It's the only action camera available today that can shoot stabilized 4K footage, and for the right user, that's a huge advantage.
Whereas the electronic stabilization in the Garmin, GoPro, and Yi cameras we tested selectively crops the frame to mimic true stabilization, the Sony model actually does it with real live floating lens elements. This system provides dramatically improved stabilization, particularly when it comes to high-frequency vibrations—when you're running over rumble strips or dirt-road hardpan in your car, for instance. Pros will probably want to pair the X3000's optical image stabilization with a gimbal setup, but for most people BOSS will be more than enough.
Budget pick: High quality at a low price
The Yi 4K offers surprising quality at an affordable price. Photo: Ben Keough
The Yi 4K Action Camera is yet further proof that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover—or, rather, an action cam by its lack of a big brand name. Made by a company tied to Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, this upstart offers 4K/30p recording, electronic image stabilization, a simple and fluid touchscreen UI, fantastic battery life, a user-friendly smartphone app, and a surprisingly low price. For beginners and budget-conscious shoppers, the Yi 4K might be a smarter buy than more-expensive options like the GoPro Hero5 Black and Sony FDR-X3000.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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