So first up, what is the best action cam? Well we got hold of ten, yes there are ten different action cams, in fact there are 27 different brands. They range from the all conquering GoPro to some dodgy chinese imitations, which whilst they sound good have the image quality of a mid nineties mobile phone camera.
So how did we test them? Well first off we didn’t get given any, there were no favourites here, we were loaned or purchased the camera to test. Then we just used them for everything, there wasn’t always surf, but we tested them on four key features – Image Quality, ease of use, specs and value for money, they are essentially all you need to worry about. We haven’t gone into geek mode and been pixel peeping, these are the basic summaries and what we thought, there are plenty of pixel peeping reviews on every camera out there if you need more depth.
The following are the best 6, why 6? Simply because they are the six we thought that were worth buying.
6. Toshiba Camileo X-Sports
So it would appear Toshiba saw the size of the action cam market, thought we’d like a piece, and ripped off the GoPro. That’s kind of what it looks like anyway, but the Camileo, apart from the horrid X-Sports name in the title, isn’t a bad camera in its own right. We only got the basic camera and waterproof housing as it was only just out, but it’s a decent camera.
It shoots at 1080p at 60 fps, has an OK lens, a decent sensor and the same sort of housing as a GoPro. Bit we really liked was the wrist strap remote control, pretty handy in the water. What we weren’t totally sure on was the overall quality of the image, there was a lot of noise in the image when the light was actually not too bad which was disappointing. Having said that if you want a fully featured HD action cam and want it for nearer to to £200 than £400 then it’s worth considering.
BEST BUDGET CAM
5. Garmin Virb Elite
We fell in love with this little beauty when it turned up in the post. Out of all the cameras it is definitely the best looking and very ergonomic. As you’d expect from Garmin, who have specialised for years in GPS for vehicles and for cycling and running, it is very well designed. The user interface is good and easy to get your head around. It doesn’t however feel quite right for surfing just yet. It comes minus a housing, but will last for 30 minutes in the water without one, but for any decent session you’ll need to buy the housing on top.
Where it smokes the GoPro especially at the moment is battery life, even in the cold and filming at 1080p it had at least 60 minutes more life. It does fall down a bit when it comes to shooting options, it doesn’t shoot at 60fps in full HD which means it lags, but overall image quality is pretty good. It’s the best looking cam, and we expect future generations to be more surfing orientated and real GoPro challengers.
BEST LOOKING CAM – RRP. £349.99
4. Drift HD Ghost – S
The latest incarnation of the Drift range of action cams has really stepped up to the plate. It was a decent camera pre the S, but now with the upgrade it comes into the same league as the top three. It essentially ads 60fps at 1080p and 120 at 720p, which for us surfers wanting to slow down barrel time is critical.
The user interface is good, the remote control is very good, and all round it’s a decent camera. Where it fell down for us was the size of the water housing, whilst still not giant, it’s less compact than the others. Other point we didn’t like was the battery life, we were struggling for 2 hours of use time, even though it claims a good half an hour more. It’s a good camera, and we’re splitting hairs with the top four, but it just falls short of the top three for us.
RRP – £329.00
3. Ion Airpro 3 WiFi
Wasn’t expecting a lot from this camera but it is sick, and really there is little between the top three, if it wasn’t for an update in Sony’s range just a couple of weeks away then this could easily have been the runner up to GoPro. Image quality and shooting features wise it is close or as good as the Sony and the GoPro, it has a decent battery life of about two and a half hours at full res.
It is so easy to use, and coming from having never used one before that is really important. Design wise it’s very cool, although the lack of housing is a marmite kind of feature. I’d rather have a housing just as extra protection, but on the flip side there is no messing around setting it up. So that’s a personal choice really. It has all the main features as standard, it shoots at 1080p 60fps which is that kind of benchmark feature for high quality slow mo. Why it hasn’t quite made it to number one is it isn’t quite as mature a system as GoPro, not quite as many accessories so at the moment, although very capable, it just falls short, but only just.
BEST CAMERA WITHOUT HOUSING – RRP £349.00
2. Sony Action Cam
So we got to check out the current model the Sony HDR – AS30V, however we also got to have a quick look at a demo version of the new AS-100 VR in a store, couldn’t do a a full test, but had a look at the specs and a little image quality. First up the Sony AS20V is a sick little cam, it has the feature set, it is a decent price and image quality wise it is very close to the GoPro.
It produces very vivid colours, if a tad colder looking than the GoPro, it shoots at 1080p at 60fps and the Carl Zeiss lens is sharp as you’d expect. The AS20V is close to taking the GoPro’s top spot, but not quite, just little things like the dome port, and a slightly clunky user interface and at the moment less in the way of accessories means it just falls short of the more refined GoPro. However, with the AS-100 VR a month away, this could change, from what we saw it is a better camera than the GoPro, but we’ll have to wait for a full test. But if you’re thinking Sony, and it’s heritage of lenses and sensors means it is a very serious camera, we’d wait for the 100 before parting with cash.
HDR – AS30V – RRP – £269.00
AS-100VR – RRP £349.00
1. GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition
It’s the original, and it is simply still the best. Whilst Sony is matching it for image quality and features which you’d expect from a massive camera brand, they still haven’t overtaken the outstanding GoPro. Image quality wise, especially in lower light which is important for us in the UK, it beats the other cameras, and the look of footage just feels nicer, the Sony although razor sharp suffers from a little colder image. Plus GoPro have a raft of accessories and as we’ve been building up using the GoPro over years, we can still use a lot of them without extra expense. There is another important point, the GoPro is still the best action cam, but it is also the only company that is owned and run by surfers.
It was their vision that started this movement, they support surfing, and other sports and continue to develop the camera with us in mind. So on that level alone they are worth supporting over a corpo giant like Sony, and fortunately the quality is there as well.
It also comes in a bit cheaper than the others, you can now pick up a Gopro Hero 3+ Black for as low as £269.99.
The sensible way of looking at the action cams is, if you’re already invested in GoPro gear stick with it, if you want the best camera system then GoPro still has the lead, Sony though for quality and specs is right there with them, and there is little to choose between the two cameras. If you don’t like using the housing and want a simple bolt on and go, then use the ion. If you don’t surf much and want and all round cam for in the water, cycling and hiking then go Garmin.
If you want to find out more there are loads of way more technical reviews out there, but this is an honest opinion from someone who uses action cams on a weekly basis for work, as well as play, and right now the GoPro still takes it.
Coming soon: The best mounting positions