There was a time when there were only a few actioncams on the market, made by companies like VIO and Oregon Scientific. In the past several years, however, the product category has exploded. GoPro may have led the charge, but it's by no means the only player on the field. In order to help buyers make a little more sense of all the choices, here's a side-by-side comparison of eight of today's more prominent actioncams.
Update: There is now a new version of this guide. Visit our 2015 Action Camera Comparison Guide for updated info.
For this comparison, we chose fairly widely-distributed cameras, that readers should stand a better chance of being able to see up close and personal in a store near them. To keep things consistent, we also went with the top-of-the-line model from each manufacturer – these include the Sony Action Cam (HDR-AS30V version), Drift Ghost-S, JVC ADIXXION, Toshiba Camileo X-Sports, Contour +2, GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition, Garmin Virb Elite, and Polaroid XS100.
Some readers might be surprised to see Contour's +2 on the list, as the company went into a sort of limbo recently, and its cameras could no longer be purchased via its website. We've included the +2, however, due to the fact that it can still be purchased via Contour's distributors, plus the company has informed us that its online store should be back up and running as early as next month.
So, without any more ado, let's start out by looking at ...
Maximum video resolution
Lens quality and sensor size/style make a huge difference in image quality, but pixel count and frame rate do also matter, and they're an easier-to-quantify means of comparing the cameras.
All of the models offer 1080p/30fps resolution – that's 1,920 x 1,080 pixels per frame, shown at 30 frames per second – which at present is the standard for regular-motion consumer HD. Half of them also allow you to shoot at 1080p/60fps, allowing for more fluid-looking motion when played back at regular speed, or for decent-looking semi-slow motion when slowed down in editing. If you want really slow motion that doesn't look like stop-motion animation, you'll have to shoot at 120fps. Again, four of the cameras let you do so, albeit at a still reasonably-sharp 720p.
The GoPro is the only camera that exceeds 1080p, allowing users to shoot at 2.7K/30fps or even 4K/15fps. While the 2.7K is a nice touch, the slow frame rate at 4K means that footage will have a decidedly jerky look when shown at regular speed – that setting is probably really only useful for shooting time lapse footage.
Maximum still resolution
Once again, lenses and sensor types count for a lot, but numbers are easier to understand in a side-by-side comparison. Given that disclaimer, the Garmin and the Polaroid both come in at the top, with 16 MP each. Most of the others offer 12, which is essentially just as good when taking the other variables into account. The JVC and the Contour sit at the bottom, at 5 MP.
Of course, one question to ask at this point is, "Will I ever even use the camera to shoot stills?"
Dedicated remote control unit
There are inevitably going to be times where you've mounted the camera in a rather difficult-to-reach place, at which point a remote control that allows you to start and stop recording is going to come in handy. While some of the cameras offer such a remote as an optional extra, the GoPro, Drift and Toshiba include one in the basic package.
You might think that a viewfinder/playback screen would be pretty much standard issue on any video camera, but that isn't necessarily the case when small size, light weight and ruggedness are major considerations. Only four of the cameras come with a screen included, although that isn't such a big deal if you can use your smartphone or tablet as the camera's wirelessly-connected screen. Speaking of which ...
Six of the models let you communicate via Wi-Fi, while the Contour utilizes shorter-range Bluetooth. The Polaroid is the only one that offers nothing.
If you want to take your camera scuba diving, this is what it all comes down to. The Toshiba and the Contour come out on top – or on the bottom, if you will – both being depth-rated to 60 m (197 ft). The GoPro also does well, at 40 m (131 ft). At the other end of the scale, the Drift and the Garmin are more just splash- and dunk-proof.
None of the cameras are particularly heavy, although the 177-gram (6.3 oz) Garmin is the heftiest of the bunch. The Sony and Toshiba appear to be almost tied for lightest, although in both cases, it's not clear if the makers' figures are for the camera and underwater housing, or just the camera.
What you see above is what you get, if the supplied specs are to be trusted. The Drift comes out best at 3.5 hours, with the JVC bringing up the rear.
Admittedly, for many people this will be the bottom line.
The Polaroid is the cheapest at US$200, although it lacks wireless capability and a viewfinder – this means that you won't know exactly how your shot was lined up until you view it on your computer after the fact. The Drift is the priciest of the bunch, although it offers just about everything you could want except heavy-duty waterproofing.
Should you be stuck on the GoPro name, it's worth noting that the $300 HERO3+ Silver Edition offers most of the same features as the Black, with the exception of the ultra-high resolution.
Some final tidbitsWe're not going to try running down the extra features of all of the cameras, such as GPS and altimeter functions, but here are a few that are particularly interesting.
The GoPro, Drift and Toshiba all offer their own take on video looping, a feature in which the camera records short stretches of video back-to-back, each one overwriting the one that came before it. If something exciting happens, however, the user can instruct the camera to save that particular bit of footage. This lets you avoid missing anything, while also not having to wade through mountains of raw footage afterwards.
The Garmin unit offers something sort of along the same lines, in the form of its ski mode. Using this feature, the camera automatically records whenever the user is heading down the slopes, but stops as they're going back uphill.
Additionally, the Drift and the Contour have rotating lenses. This means that you can mount the camera in whatever orientation is convenient, then twist the lens in order to level out the shot. The Polaroid, on the other hand, has an imaging sensor that automatically swivels around to keep the shot level and right-side-up.
If you'd like to know more about any of the actioncams featured in this guide, you can check out the articles listed below.