Action camcorders, sometimes called action recorders, are rugged, compact video cameras designed to capture footage in places where conventional camcorders can't go. Whether you're a scuba diver, skier or musician, there is an action camcorder designed to record you doing what you love.
They're designed differently than conventional camcorders in several ways. They're tougher, so you can bring them on adventures without any worry of breaking them. They also have wider fields of view than typical cameras, so they can capture a field of view similar to what the human eye would.
The best action camcorders we reviewed were the GoPro HERO4 Black, the Drift Ghost-S and the Sony Action Cam AS100V. To learn more about these cameras, keep reading or check out some of our additional articles on action cams.
All action camcorders are not created equal. We've graded these cameras using the following criteria:
When it comes to evaluating the image quality of action camcorders, there are two areas you should pay attention to: resolution and frame rate. A resolution of 720p or over is defined as high-definition. Some cameras have up to 4K resolution, which over eight times as large as a 720p video. The higher the resolution, the sharper and more detailed the video will be. Perhaps more importantly, you can zoom in without losing the sharpness. Zooming is especially critical in action cams because their wide-angle videos means you might want to generate close-up shots that the camera didn't naturally capture.
Frame rate measures the number of frames per second you can capture. A high frame rate eliminates some motion blur, and it means you can play your video back in slow motion. For slow motion, you'll need to record at a minimum of 60 fps, although recording at 120 fps will give you a much higher playback quality. The best action cams can record at 240 fps, which means you can play your footage back in super slow motion without losing any detail.
Battery life, size, shape and toughness are the most important design features to pay attention to in an action camcorder. Battery life is often dependent on the settings you program into the camera. For example, if you're shooting at high definition with a high frame rate, your battery will run down quicker than if you're shooting at standard definition. An action camera should last at least two hours if it's shooting high-definition video at 30 fps.
Size and shape are also important considerations when choosing an action camera. While a camera with the conventional camcorder shape (tall, skinny and deep) will be ideal as a helmet cam, it won't have the flexibility of a brick-shaped action cam because it will protrude awkwardly from a chest or wrist mount.
Toughness is also important. Many action cameras come with rugged cases that protect their lenses and other fragile parts. If you're a scuba diver, make sure you get a camera that is waterproof rated to the maximum depth you'll dive.
Many of the top action cameras have Wi-Fi. This allows you to control the camera with a smartphone app, which is essential because action cams often have a limited number of buttons available to navigate menus with. Some smartphone apps even allow you to preview the shot, which is a huge bonus on a camera without a built-in preview screen. A few apps let you upload footage from the camera through your smartphone to social media, without having to use a computer.
Time-lapse mode is another feature to look for. This tells the camera to take a photo at a set interval of time, such as once every ten seconds or once a minute. You can use editing software to turn the resulting set of photos into a beautiful time-lapse video. HD action cams make ideal time-lapse cameras because they're tough, waterproof and they have a wide-angle perfect for capturing landscapes.
Help & Support
Because action camcorders go through a lot of punishment, it's paramount to buy from a company that stands behind its product. Look for a camera with at least a one-year warranty. Phone support, email support and a FAQ section on the manufacturer's website are also good support qualities. We called the phone support line of the manufacturer of every camera we reviewed, and scored them on their knowledge and professionalism.
An action camera will let you relieve your favorite moments over and over. Make sure to choose the right one by checking out our reviews and side-by-side feature comparisons.