The quest to produce the most compelling videos and photos of our escapades to impress friends and strangers continues to heat up. Sure, your phone will do – it might even be a waterproof one. But if you want to go off the beaten track or just need a go-anywhere camcorder to document your travels, you still can't beat an action camera.
GoPro is the big name that has been leading the field for a number of years but as the straight copycats have withered away we're seeing some real ingenuity as established camera manufacturers address action cam problems from a fresh perspective.
Essential reading: Best 360 degree cameras
The five cameras on test here each bring something unique to the arena – whether that's a handy shape, great connectivity, extra sensors or easier operation. There may be no one-size-fits-all action cam but which are the best of the bunch?
Panasonic HX-A1M - 5th place
Panasonic's diminutive bullet cam is the smallest and cheapest of this bunch – so much so that you can even get a clip to attach it to the brim of your cap. While its bright orange or black shell is not the most rugged, it's waterproof enough to happily see you through a rainy cycle commute or a brief dunking in the shallows.
For logging quick trips and micro-adventures it's one of the simplest – all setup is done via its app over Wi-Fi (with very little lag on the live view mode).
The Image App app is fairly straightforward and allows playback and sharing of clips and photos from the HX-A1M. As it's designed to work across a number of Panasonic camera models, it lacks specialist features such as video editing.
Still images are only 2.66 megapixels, while footage in general has well-judged colour reproduction and responds to changes in light fairly quickly, but it's very low on detail with poor dynamic range that crushes shadows to black and blows out highlights. If you want slo-mo you'll have to drop the resolution to 720p which delivers a maximum frame rate of 60fps.
Its lightweight and tiny form should make it an unobtrusive action companion, but the surprisingly bulky mounting system means it stands almost as tall as the larger models on test here. It comes with a 'multi-strap' which can be used to velcro it to a wrist or helmet, as well as a tripod mount.
Its small battery (480mAh) gives a run time of under under 1hr when filming continuously at 1080p. It's not replaceable either, so you can't keep a spare in your pocket, though there is a separate external battery available – screwing onto the back, it doubles length but is claimed to boost life to over 2.5hrs.
When you consider the price, the HX-A1M can be forgiven its shortcomings in image quality and ruggedness. You don't get any frills, and its battery life is frustrating, but as an almost disposable first action cam you can't go wrong.
Ease of use: 4/5
Olympus Stylus Tough TG-Tracker - 4th place
The TG-Tracker is the only action cam we've tried that is really at home being hand held. It offers 30fps 4K shooting, has a flip-out screen and even an LED above the lens for casting light on pitch-black scenes.
While sitting on the boundary between rugged camera/camcorder and action cam the TG-Tracker signals its intent with the addition of a mounting plate that fits the GoPro range of mounts. Then again, you can always use its cine camera style 'steady grip' too. GPS, compass, accelerometer, manometer (depth sensor) and thermometer are all on board (as well as a handy on-screen horizon for keeping your shots on the level).
Its incredibly wide 204-degree field of view may catch you out at first, as wayward body parts are unwittingly left in shot, but it certainly captures everything. With 4K recording on board you can certainly make the most of this, cropping into a 1080p HD frame to focus in on the action.
In 1080p at 30fps video footage is good, with vivid colours, and quick response to changing light conditions though detail gets a bit smudgey, especially with movement. It's unsurprisingly improved at 4K, but still some way behind the GoPro. Slo-mo at 720p goes to a snail-like 240fps (without audio). The Olympus excels in the audio stakes – with stereo microphones that provide crystal clear, natural audio.
The flip-out 1.5in LCD viewfinder is great for lining up your shot, though you can't rotate it so viewing angles are limited and it feels a little exposed. Operation can be a bit fiddly – changing between modes requires going through an on-screen menu – a dedicated still photo button would be a handy addition.
It's compact, versatile and produced great results along with similar activity stats to the Garmin – even allowing you to keep logging your trip while not recording video. However, the Olympus apps OI.Track and OI. Share aren't particularly helpful. While you can view your videos alongside your route data and share clips and photos, there are very few other options. TomTom and Garmin lead the way here.
Ease of use: 4/5
Garmin Virb XE - Bronze medal
While it has a similar form factor to the GoPro's, you certainly couldn't accuse the Virb of being a copycat. Its G-Metrix video overlays let you play back your adventures with everything from g-force to heart rate on screen when tied into Garmin's other sensors like cadence (pedalling RPM when on a bike) or even power output (via Garmin's Vector power meter bike pedals).
The Virb XE is water resistant down to 50m without an additional housing, and with an external (but proprietary) charging cable that can be used even while in use. It also aims to eliminate fogging that can plague housing-bound cams like the GoPro in colder weather by building a desiccant slot and insert right into the camera.
Its tank-like form, integrated waterproof housing and external charging cable make it a fantastically rugged competitor. This external port also helps it shoot for the pro market by giving it the ability to hook up an external mic via an adaptor cable. There's also the option to use a Bluetooth external microphone. Handy if you aspire to produce more professional footage.
The positive, fuss-free recording switch is one of the camera's best features – so you know for sure when it's recording even if you've got it strapped to your head.
An extremely clear menu LCD on top makes it easy to check and change settings from the camera itself. The Virb app is clearly laid out and adds a responsive remote view function for framing your shots and controlling recordings as well as sharing clips and photos. There's no editing function though. That's offset by the stellar free Mac/PC editing software – Virb Edit.
All those sensors and GPS have a detrimental effect on battery life though, and depending upon your settings you'll get around 1.5 hours of run time.
Footage is broadly on par with the GoPro Hero 4 Black's with fantastic colour reproduction and lots of detail. It also responds quickly to changing light conditions and produces clear, natural audio though with a lot of wind noise. Its maximum resolution tops out at 1080p HD (or 1440p if you want a taller picture), with a frame rate of 60fps which allows for smoother motion and slo-mo playback. 720p goes up to 120fps if you want to slow things down further.
The tough, fully-featured Garmin is a fantastically tough and simple action camera and its G-metrix video overlays add a new dimension to action footage.
Ease of use: 4/5
TomTom Bandit - Silver medal
It was inevitable that TomTom would include GPS in its first action cam. It's not the only extra tech hidden within its bullet cam form – accelerometers tell it when the action is happening.
This extra layer of smarts takes some of the grunt work out of cutting together interesting videos from what can be long stretches of otherwise monotonous footage. The good bits – generally when there's a bump or a sudden change of momentum – are automatically tagged as highlights along with any you add via a quick press of the button on the back to form an action-packed reel.
The 'batt-stick' is a great addition – it's a battery pack that slides straight out of the Bandit so you can plug straight into a USB charger. It also doubles as a MicroSD card reader. No cables to lose or leave behind. There's a lot of clever design here.
The smartphone app is the best of the bunch here, letting you edit your videos from your phone. It'll even produce a quick edit of six-second clips itself, quickly whipping together clips from your adventure, based around highlights you've tagged by hitting the record button during filming or that the camera has tagged itself based on a sudden movement or acceleration. It'll even overlay GPS and accelerometer data right from the app.
A matching free Mac and PC editing app is available too, but the smartphone app means it's almost entirely surplus to requirements.
- Big test: Cycling wearables and trackers out on the roadWe put the best cycling trackers head to head
- Big test: Swim trackers ranked and ratedWe find out if the current crop of swim-friendly trackers are fit for the pool
- Big test: Gym trackers pushed to the limitsWe see if the current crop of gym-friendly trackers are fit for a workout
The interchangeable lens cover allows you to quickly swap between the splashproof and diving-ready versions – the latter giving you water resistance at depth but blocking out more sound.
While the Bandit is officially capable of filming in 4K (confusing found under 'cinema' mode rather than video), its frame rate tops out a largely useless 15fps which produces choppy, staccato footage. It's a similar story with GoPro's Hero 4 Silver edition. Better to use the 2.7K 30fps mode.
The standard Bandit is waterproof to 1.5m and if you want to go deeper the dive lens cover which is included in the Adventure Pack (£240) will take you down to depths of 40m.
Footage can't match up to the detail offered by the GoPro and the Garmin, and while the bright, slightly over-saturated colours pop, they're not exactly accurate.
A GoPro mount adaptor comes in the box so you can make use of GoPro's vast array of mounting options. On its own mounts it is surprisingly compact, sitting low and with a rotating barrel design that allows various mounting positions. It's particularly well-suited to placement on the side of a helmet where others can get in the way.
The Bandit is one of the most forward-thinking cameras here - focusing on ease of use both in its physical design and software design.
Ease of use: 5/5
GoPro HERO4 Black - Gold medal
The flagship GoPro is the result of years of incremental tweaks – retaining largely the same form and the same mounting system – and technical improvement focused around image quality and usability.
While earlier models produced great results they took some learning and patience to navigate the settings and menus via a tiny LCD screen. The latest adds another button to make settings changes quicker, but using the excellent app for previewing shots and making quick settings changes is even slicker.
Despite the price, there's no LCD viewfinder present. You can buy an LCD Touch BacPac if you want to add one. Or plump for the Silver edition which comes with one built in but doesn't offer usable 4K (max 15fps), high frame rates or such good picture quality in general.
The GoPro benefits from a huge range of mounts available – both own-brand and third-party, though the Olympus and Garmin are also compatible with these.
Protune mode, in both stills and video, gives footage a "flat" profile with low contrast and duller colours which is more versatile for fiddling with in post production. Most users will find the standard settings adequate but it's nice to have to option should you want to spend more time editing in future.
While all settings can be changed on the camera, it's not the easiest to navigate so using the companion app is preferable.
Video quality leads the way here, being similar in quality to the Olympus, though it lacks the added value of sensors that the TomTom, Garmin and Olympus bring to the party.
Catering for the pro market as well as adventurers with a little extra cash, the Hero 4 Black is the only camera on this test to offer usable 4K (30fps). If you've got the means to display it at full resolution, the footage contains bags of detail. While if you're going to be viewing it at 1080p you can use the extra resolution to zoom in on part of the picture during editing without loss of quality.
Footage is top of the pile here, and both in video and photos (12-megapixel and up to 30 per second in a burst) colour and exposure are extremely good. Meanwhile the accompanying remote app offers an easy way to frame your shots and change settings without trawling through on-camera menus. GoPro's free GoPro Studio editing software for Mac and PC is also excellent, offering quick templates to get you started.
GoPros' battery life has never been stellar, and battery life suffers when filming at 4K, but you'll get around 1.5hrs run time at 1080p 30fps. If you need longer or plan to do a lot of lengthy timelapses, an add-on battery can be attached to the back while retaining full waterproofing.
GoPro puts image quality above all else, producing a camera that you can grow into as your filming ambition develops. However it also leaves out extras such as GPS and other sensors despite its high cost. The more moderately priced Hero4 Silver will be a better bet for most, and if you want data, you'll have to go with the Garmin or TomTom.
Ease of use: 4/5
While all aimed at the same group, these are five extremely different cameras that all have their place depending on the user.
If you're just testing the waters, the Panasonic HX-A1M is a great budget option which produces adequate footage in a very good value (as low as £90) package. At the other end the GoPro Hero4 Black is a pro-level action cam with a pro-level price (£410). It'll get you top-notch quality and tons of options as your filming ambition develops but it lacks nice-to-have features such as an LCD viewfinder and data logging.
The Olympus TG-Tracker is an oddity in the category – more like a traditional camcorder than any other. It's a great holiday companion due to its ease of use while hand held and its 4K resolution option, but poor app support lets it down. The TomTom's app and automatic highlight tagging are a fantastic solution to the time-consuming task of editing footage, and its cable-free design is fantastic.
Any of these would be good choices, but if pushed for an overall favourite, the Garmin would be our choice as it offers great 1080p footage and 12MP stills as well as a wealth of data while retaining simplicity of control, all in a tidy-yet-bombproof form.
Shop for recommended action cameras on Amazon
Wareable may get a commission