If someone asked you the question: which camera manufacturer do you think sold the most models than any other last year in the world, what would be your answer?
If you responded with any model associated with Canon or Nikon you’d be incorrect – the right answer is in fact GoPro who have been refining their product over the years to make it the number one choice for those who want an action camera to record video clips and shoot stills in extreme environments that could damage a DSLR, CSC or point and shoot compact.
Action cameras – better known as action cams – are built to be rugged, lightweight and waterproof, making them a versatile option.
Whether you plan to kayak down a waterfall, drive around a racetrack or attempt a skydive from 10,000ft, an action camera is designed to withstand the demands of all, recording the events as they happen, for you to watch back later in glorious Full HD quality.
As with buying any camera, there are several things you’ll want to look out for before parting with your cash.
An excellent build quality and an intuitive operation is key, but look closely at the field of view of the lens and the quoted battery life. Due to their small size, many action cameras batteries don’t last long, especially if their Wi-fi functionality is being used to control the camera remotely from a smartphone or tablet.
It’s always wise to buy a spare, or look to invest in an external USB battery pack so you’ll never face the scenario of not being able to shoot due to a lack of power or access to a mains socket.
How you mount an action camera is another key consideration. Not all action cams come with a 1/4in tripod thread (the GoPro and Garmin being two examples) so you may require a tripod mount, which cost as little as £10.
Most manufacturers supply a selection of adhesive mounts to get you started, but for more demanding use, a helmet mount, chest harness or handlebar mount may be needed.
We decided to pick out five of the most popular models currently on the market to see if they could topple GoPro at the top of the action camera tree.
To put the cameras through their paces we headed out on a yacht to get a clearer understanding of what they’re like to use and how well they perform above and below water.
Back in the lab we photographed our resolution chart to uncover which resolved the best detail, and we also took build, handling and performance into consideration before awarding our WDC Gold Award to the best action camera in the sextet.
Things to look out for
The best action cameras are those that are intuitive to use and easy to set up. The last thing you want is to trawl through complicated menus and have difficulty starting a video on the spur of the moment. The fewer buttons there are, the better.
Before buying an action camera, check that the field of view of the lens is wide enough to fit what you need in the frame.
Whereas some action cams are designed to be fully waterproof straight out of the box, others require a housing to ensure water ingress doesn’t damage the internals.
The GoPro Hero3+ is one example that must be used with its supplied waterproof housing. It fits snugly inside and has rubber seals that compress as it’s locked shut by the large clamp on the top. When considering an action cam with a housing, ensure all the buttons are accessible and easy to use.
Action cams use fairly small batteries, which means they can be charged on the go via USB. A USB power bank charging unit is a useful accessory to own if you get caught out without access to charge via the mains.
GoPro Hero3 + Action Camera Group Test
GoPro Hero3+ Silver Edition
HD Video – 50p/25p
Field of View – 170°
Weight – 136g
Dimensions – 77 x 72 x 45mm
The Hero3+ Silver Edition plays second fiddle to the more expensive Hero3+ Black Edition (£359) in GoPro’s range. Weighing 136g with its supplied housing attached, it’s waterproof to a depth of 40m, features a simple design with just three buttons to control its functions and a small LCD panel at the front to guide you through its settings.
The battery is inserted at the rear so there’s no display to aid composition. That said, it’s very quick at connecting via Wi-fi so it’s no hassle using a smartphone as the viewfinder, which refreshes very quickly provided you’re within a 20m range.
For anyone who’d like a screen, GoPro’s LCD Touch BacPac (£80) could be an invaluable accessory. A majority of the cameras settings can be set via the app including the field of view for which there are three settings – Ultra Wide (170 degrees), Medium (127 degrees) and Narrow (90 degrees). It’s also easy to playback and review videos and stills straight from the app.
Full HD video is recorded at a frame rate of 50/25fps in the PAL format or 60/30fps in NTSC, whereas the 10MP sensor has a maximum output of 3680×2760 pixels.
The time lapse function is great for capturing still images over a prolonged period and even after switching the camera off, Wi-fi can be left active, making it possible to preserve battery power and switch it back on again at anytime from your phone.
A battery life of 1hour 50mins recording at 1080p/30fps isn’t as impressive as the Garmin VIRB elite, but GoPro does offer the option to attach a Battery BacPac (£50), but the cheaper option is to buy a spare battery for £20.
Web – www.gopro.com
Pros – Excellent image quality; Robust build; App support
Cons – 1/4in tripod mount has to be purchased separately
HD Video – 30p/25p
Field of View- 170°
Weight – 90g
Dimension – 24.5 x 47 x 82mm
Weighing just 90g, the Sony AS30V features a sleek, aerodynamic design with a square LCD panel at the side and a basic arrangement of just three buttons to setup the camera. With a 1/2.3 type back-illuminated EXMOR sensor and Zeiss ultra-wide Tessar lens, the camera has a 170-degree field of view, with the option to switch to a 120-degree view if preferred.
To suppress shake and vibrations, Sony implements SteadyShot technology, which works well, and much like the other six action cams in this test it accepts micro SD media and supports USB charging to allow you to re-charge the battery conveniently via a 12v USB socket.
Supplied with the camera is a SPK-AS2 waterproof case. Slipping this on enables you to shoot below water to a depth of 5m, while also making it fully shockproof and attachable to any mount with a 1/4” thread.
In use, the AS30V connects to Sony’s Play Memories mobile app instantly and offers an excellent Live View with an extremely fast refresh rate. The app regrettably lacks adjustment of all the cameras advanced settings, however the menu interface on the camera itself is quick to navigate after spending time getting familiar with it.
The large record button at the rear lets you commence recordings and capture stills on the spur of the moment and with Wi-Fi switched on we found the battery life lasted for 2hrs 6mins when continuously recording 1080p footage.
An additional NP-BX1 battery can be purchased for £40.
Pros – Simple to use; Range of different mounts available
Cons – Still image don’t resolve as much detail; App control
HD Video – 50fps/25fps
Field of View – 175°
Weight – 80g
Dimensions – 25 x 46 x 58mm
The Rollei S-50 looks like an imitation of the GoPro on first glance, but the key difference is its 2in LCD display at the rear, which helps to frame up stills and videos without having to rely on the manufacturers actioncam app.
It comes with a housing to make it waterproof to 60m and it’s shockproof from 3m, but unfortunately operation is limited to just three buttons and the settings can’t be accessed with the case in situ unless you use the app.
An additional rear panel is also supplied with splash proof vents for improved audio recording, while its 14MP CMOS sensor produces still images with a 4384×3288 pixel count and records full HD video at 50/25fps in the PAL format or up to 60fps in NTSC.
The lens provides up to a 175-degree field of view and despite the body supporting a 1/4in thread for mounting purposes, we experienced difficulty closing the front panel after the battery was inserted. This underlined a build quality that isn’t as refined as its rivals.
Operationally, the camera isn’t the fastest or most straightforward to setup and we experienced delays connecting our phone to the camera via Wi-fi at times where others would connect instantly.
The S-50’s key feature is its LCD display, but this too leaves you feeling underwhelmed. Though it’s bright, the sharpness and detail leaves a lot to be desired by today’s LCD standards. Set to record with Wi-fi active, the battery lasted for 1hour 26mins.
Pros – Waterproof depth; Live video streaming; Two batteries
Cons – Sharpness of LCD panel; Build quality
GoPro Hero3 + Action Camera Group Test
Liquid Image Ego
HD Video – 30fps
Field of View – 135°
Weight – 68g
Dimensions – 38.1 x 31.7 x 57.1mm
The Liquid Image Ego is the smallest, lightest and most affordable action cam in this test. Costing around £150 less than most of its rivals, its features a strong and robust build quality that’s water resistant and shockproof from 2m straight out of the box.
For full waterproofing to depths of 40m, an Ego Underwater housing is also available for as little as £20. With a 135-degree maximum field of view, the Ego’s video resolution at Full HD 1080p is limited to 30fps, but it does also support 60fps recording at lower 720p resolution.
The still image output produces a 4000×3000 pixel resolution, with control of white balance and contrast available via the app. Holding the shutter button for 2secs activates the cameras Wi-fi and although the app is fairly advanced in that it allows you to control all of the settings, there was a serious lag between camera and smartphone.
On the top of the Ego there’s an LCD display to refer to your settings, but in practical terms it’s far too small and not helped by fiddly to use buttons. The LED at the front of the camera flashes green when recording 1080p video footage and a 1/4” thread is supplied for mounting purposes.
Regrettably, on the day of testing the camera refused to switch on or operate despite being fully charged. All efforts to revive it had no effect, leaving us underwhelmed by its performance.
The rubber door that’s designed to prevent water entering the internals also peeled off, leaving the charging ports and Micro SD card exposed to damage.
Battery life is claimed to last for two hours recording Full HD footage.
Pros – Small and light; 1/4in tripod thread; Advanced app
Cons – Basic LCD display; Small buttons; Poor performance
Garmin VIRB Elite
HD Video – 30fps
Field of view – Not stated
Dimension – 32 x 53 x 111mm
The Garmin VIRB Elite boasts a range of useful in-built features including GPS, an accelerometer and a barometric altimeter. Being the largest of the six it’s able to accommodate a 2000mAh lithium-ion battery that allows you to shoot for long periods.
Although we managed 2hours 43mins of continuous recording at 1080p before the battery required a recharge, it’s not entirely without fault. Each time you’d like to access the memory card the battery has to be pulled out – something that could have been made a lot easier had a memory card port been added at the side.
Three viewing angles (wide, medium and narrow) are offered and the camera applies lens distortion correction (LDC) automatically. To improve stability there’s digital stabilisation, but with no 1/4” tripod thread, the tripod mount accessory (£6) is a must-buy accessory.
The 1.4in display is useful for composition purposes and navigating the menu, however it’s not backlit meaning it lacks the brightness and rich colour you’d expect. Capable of shooting Full HD 1080p footage at 30fps, 960p (30,48,60fps) and 720p (30,60fps) is also available.
Added to this, slow motion footage can be recorded and the 16MP sensor outputs still images with a high 4608×3456 pixel resolution. Connection to the Garmin VIRB app via Wi-fi was fast and provided great control of camera settings.
Unfortunately it doesn’t offer live streaming while you’re recording like the GoPro. The camera is robustly made, feels superb in the hand and is waterproof out of the box to a depth of 1m.
A dive case increases the waterproof rating to 50 meters, but it’s frustrating that it only allows you to control the movie-rec button when it’s attached and we experienced some issues with it fogging up after being submerged- the only housing on test to do so.
Pros – Waterproof straight out of the box; Large capacity battery
Cons – Poor placement of Micro SD card slot; No live streaming
iON The Game
HD Video – 30fps
Field of View – 127°
Weight – 145g
Dimensions – 85 x 66 x 38.1mm
iON The Game weighs 145g and despite it having a construction that’s mainly made of plastic, it feels well made and robust. Submergible in water at depths of up to 3m without an additional housing, the design also allows it to tout a large 2.4in LCD colour display on the top.
This allows users to frame scenes more easily or review what’s recorded without relying on the iON camera app.
As action cam screens go it’s very impressive, providing rich vibrant colour palette with a fine level of detail. Set to record at Full HD 1080p quality, 30p (NTSC) and 25p (PAL) frame rates are available, with 30/60fps selectable at 720p.
The maximum 170-degree field of view is restricted to the 960p resolution however and set to Full HD the camera has a maximum 127-degree field of view. Still images are captured at 16MP (4608x3456pixels) and there are two Self-timer modes to choose from (5/10secs).
With seven buttons in total on the body, it’s neither the fastest to setup or most intuitive to use. Navigating the menu using so many buttons makes it feel more complicated to setup than those with less.
Operating and controlling the camera via the app is easier, though it wasn’t the fastest to connect via Wi-fi. The app provides good functionality with fast live video streaming.
Supplied with a number of adhesive mounts and a protective case, the camera body also supports a 1/4in thread and when tested against the stopwatch, the battery lasted for 2hr 10mins while recording 1080p footage with Wi-fi enabled before it ran out.
Pros – Robust build; Impressive app; Screen quality
Cons – Too many buttons; Not the most intuitive to use
GoPro Hero3 + Action Camera Group Test
This test has brought together an impressive bunch of action cameras ranging from £134 to £288 and clearly highlights you get what you pay for when it comes to quality.
Instead of being tempted by a budget model and risking failure – something we experienced with the Liquid Image Ego – it’s worth spending a bit more to get the best and in return you’ll be rewarded with excellent results.
The Rollei S-50 benefits from a rear screen and protective housing, but its build quality and overall finish lets it down. Compared to the other cameras in this test it feels less refined and more likely to sustain damage without the housing attached.
The Garmin VIRB Elite and iON’s The Game challenged hard for the top spots. Although the build quality, battery life and feature set offered by the VIRB Elite is hard to knock, there are some downsides – during testing the optional dive case fogged up, you can’t live stream while recording and the memory card is inconveniently positioned.
If these issues aren’t a concern and GPS is a high priority then it’s still worth a closer look. iON’s The Game has an excellent screen and comprehensive app control to match. Out on the water though the operational experience didn’t leave a lasting impression and connection speed via Wi-fi was frustratingly slow.
The GoPro Hero3+ and Sony AS30V pulled out the stops with the most reliable video and stills quality of the six.
The AS30V is a very enjoyable camera to use, it delivers consistent results and we liked the slim line design.
The GoPro Hero3+ plucked the best on test award from the Sony based on its still images resolving more detail, the GoPro app offering the more advanced wireless control and the sophisticated way it provides everything you need (minus a 1/4” thread) from an action camera straight out of the box.
It does all this while also managing to be foolproof. It might come as no surprise to read that at the time of writing it’s the best selling camera in the world.