Buying Guide
By Alejandro Bracetti
on 7.31.13

It’s one thing to galvanize people with tales of your gravity- and death-defying expeditions. It’s another to provide visual proof. Thanks to the introduction of action cameras, pretty much anyone with a thing for the outdoors — novice mountain climbers, intermediate cyclists, veteran X-Games athletes and the lot — is utilizing these point-of-view shooters for hi-def footage of mesmerizing scenery and insane stunts.

With demand for first-person adrenaline recaps rising, the market for these action cams has vastly expanded. Fresh faces and reputable imprints have largely followed in the footsteps of industry leader GoPro, but each new entry offers a different experience that caters best to a specific demographic. Fortunately for you, we’ve managed to narrow down the top offerings based on performance, suitability, features and price. Take a break from planning that next base-jumping adventure and get a closer at the five best action cameras available now.

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GoPro Hero3 Black Edition

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Best total package camera: Advanced image processing, superb video quality and stout ergonomics — the Hero 3 has it all. Its 12MP CMOS sensor with f/2.8 wide-angle lens records 4K UHD footage at 12 fps and supports a number of ultra-high-res capture modes and frame rates (2.7K/30fps to 720p/120fps). It also boasts improved burst speeds for photo stills due to a faster processor. Adventurists can take advantage of operating the camera through the wi-fi remote or free GoPro mobile app. The included CineForm Studio software welcomes digital filter effects and standard editing controls to spice up content, too. Truth be told, you can’t go wrong between any of the available Hero 3 models. However, GoPro believes you’re not living adventurous enough without spending four bills on its feature-stacked Black Edition, which bundles a rechargeable battery, several mounting options, and a 197-foot submersible waterproof case. We agree!

Drift HD Ghost

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Best sports camera: Drift’s creation is a do-it-all shooter targeted toward outdoor athletes. A 2-inch LCD panel covered in Gorilla Glass comes plastered on the side of the device and promotes a user-friendly interface that bestows instant access for multimedia playback, set-up shots and settings. The HD Ghost’s lens rotates up to 360 degrees for leveling purposes and captures 170 degrees of wide field range under a variety of different recording resolution modes. Exposure levels shine in film clips, and thanks to the company’s wind-reducing audio technology, the integrated microphone picks up audio much better than expected. The Flashback Video mode, a setting where the camera records footage in a continuous loop for up to five minutes and saves it, ensures you don’t miss a shot. Built-in wi-fi means you can edit and transfer clips on iOS devices, while the camera’s removable battery pack widens the possibilities of extra power during long hikes. Lastly, Drift awards owners with a wearable RF remote to control video recordings and switch shooting modes, along with a handful of mounts that can be attached to goggles and flat or curved surfaces.

Sony Action Camera with Wi-Fi

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Best built-to-last camera: Sony’s Action Cam has most of the same features and shooting capabilities as its rivals. But a long-lasting disposition, excellent design and several excellent features make it stand apart. An aerodynamic form factor and lightweight dimensions equate to an unobtrusive and sleek profile, yet the integrated NP-BX1 cell generates longer battery life than any other action camera out at an estimated three to four hours.

Let’s not forget that the Action Cam is a wi-fi-enabled recorder first. Its four shooting modes have resolutions tagged at 1080p (30/60fps) and 720p (30/120fps). Carl Zeiss optics preserve sharp footage in any environment, and Sony’s mobile ecosystem connects the camera with any iOS and Android device, allowing users to control actions such as triggering shots and uploading content (photos and videos) to social media platforms from afar. The aggressive price tag alone should persuade adrenaline junkies to test Sony’s waters.

Garmin Virb

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Best new camera: It would be remiss to not point out Garmin’s direct assault on the GoPro market when introducing the VIRB. It would also be silly to leave out the fact that the VIRB is pretty awesome looking. Garmin’s new camera will survive water submersion for 30 minutes with no additional housing, records 1080p wide-angle video and 16MP still shots without interrupting video recording, features an always-on 1.4-inch color display, and will record 3 hours of full 1080p (45 minutes more than the GoPro’s 2.25-hour 720p stuff). The pricier Elite model features built-in wi-fi and GPS tracking.

Monoprice MHD Action Cam

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Best budget-friendly camera: Not every sports action junkie has four Benjamins to drop on a GoPro. (Hell, even $200 might be pushing it for some.) Monoprice offers the most cost-efficient alternative — a user-friendly recorder exhibiting standard video and photo shooting capabilities at 60 percent of the competition’s price tag. Granted, its 5MP lens won’t match the hi-res output found on most premium substitutes, but the MHD still delivers far better results than anyone could expect from a camera in its price class. We’re not talking Fisher Price quality here. Toggle between 1080p and 720p recording, plus frame the device using the built-in tripod or any of the available bundled mounts. Swimmers can score footage underwater as low as 10 meters without the need of an outer case. Battery life is impressive too, maxing out at close to three hours. Though it’s enclosed in a plastic shell seemingly no more hardy than the rear plate of a Samsung Galaxy phone, it’s capable of sustaining more bumps than Chris Brown’s Porsche. A microSD slot, USB, and HDMI port finish out its “steal” status.

Contour +2

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Best versatile camera: Flaunting a gorgeous portable design and wide array of recording features, Contour’s flagship model is easily a form-and-function shooter. Users have a number of recording modes to choose from: Full HD (1080p at 30fps), Tall HD (960p at 30fps), Action HD (720p at 30fps/60fps), and Slow Motion (480p at 120fps), all of which produce detailed and vibrant visuals. The accompanying iOS app pairs the camera with an iPhone via Bluetooth, yielding access to adjust camera settings, monitor battery life, check GPS signals, and look over the resolution and fps rate of a video. There’s even a built-in laser beam projector for leveling shots. The Plus 2′s mounting system is one of the most functional out there, with a tripod at its base and rails on both ends to securely lock the camera onto either side of a helmet. Contour also includes a clear plastic case that adds an extra layer of shock-resistance protection for good measure.

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