Nowadays, action cameras definitely are a must-have when it comes to travel, adventure, or just enjoying the outdoors. For quite some time, we could only drool at that $500 GoPro but luckily, it is now possible to access this amazing technology for much cheaper!
You can find great action cams for less than $200 and some cost even less than $100 or $50. But how to choose? How to be sure you will not be disappointed with your new camera? I have listed here all the information you need to decide which one is perfect for you.
I have put together a comprehensive buying guide to explain what are the things you should pay attention to when choosing your action cameras and answer the most frequently asked questions. Make sure to read about the difference between native and non-native 4K videos and how to choose a suitable memory card for your action cam.
So let’s get started!
What is 4K Video? What is Frame Rate?
4K video refers to a video that has a resolution of about 4000 pixels wide. The usual resolution for consumer electronics is 3840 x 2160 pixels (4K UHD). The cinema industry has a slightly higher 4K resolution of 4096 x 2160 px.
Along with the resolution, what you need to pay attention to is the frame rate. Video is made of still images (called frames) that get displayed at a high frequency. Frame rate is the number of frames that get displayed in one second – It is logically expressed in frames per second or FPS.
The human eye can see 10 to 12 individual images in one second, but if you go over that number it creates a motion effect – video! The more frames per second, the smoother the video.
Modern action cameras have a frame rate of at least 24 FPS, often 30 FPS. If you can invest in a good action camera, you will have access to a 60 FPS frame rate, which is great for slow motion.
Under $100, it is usually capped at 30 FPS, which honestly is already pretty good!
Also bear in mind that the higher the resolution and the higher the frame rate, the bigger the file size!
Native 4K vs. Upscaling 4K, What’s The Difference?
It’s sometimes a little tricky to find out if a camera is able to record in “real”, native 4K or not. What do we mean by that?
A native 4K resolution simply means that the camera is able to record a video directly in a 4K resolution. So far, so good. That’s what we expect from a 4K camera.
The thing is, some 4K cameras actually do not record at a 4K resolution. Typically, such a camera records full HD video (1920 x 1080 pixels), and then the player artificially upscales or enhances the video resolution to 4K – 3840 x 2160 pixels.
While the final resolution is the same, there is a difference in image quality. A native 3840 x 2160 px video hold significantly more detail than a 1920 x 1080 px video that got upscaled.
What Other Factors Should You Consider When Choosing Your Camera?
Maximum Photo Resolution
Even though the obvious use for an action camera is shooting video, you will probably find yourself using it to take pictures as well. Not all action cameras are created equal, and there can be significant differences in the photo resolution they can offer. Of course, the higher resolution the better.
Nowadays, many action cameras are able to shoot 20 MP photos. It is comparable to the resolution of many good DSLR cameras.
Adjustable Shooting Angle
Not necessarily a requirement, as most uses for an action camera, need a very wide angle. However, an adjustable shooting angle (usually from 70° to 170°) can be a nice feature and increase your creativity.
Wifi and Phone App
Most action cameras come with Wifi capabilities so you can connect them and control them from your phone. The truth is some apps are better than others, and it is safe to say that some are not great. If it’s a function you plan to use, read user reviews to make sure the app is decent.
Action cams come with a waterproof case so you can use them during water sports, snorkeling, or even scuba diving. A diving depth of 30 m / 100 ft is more than enough for most users, but if you are a scuba diver it could be a limitation. Various models go with waterproof cases that can dive up to 40 m / 121 ft.
It’s easy to not pay attention and miss this info, so if you know you will need to dive deep with your camera, double-check the dive depth.
In any case and with any camera, always submerge the empty case first to test it and make sure there is no leak, before using it with your action camera.
External Mic Support
Audio with action cameras is often not amazing. If sound quality is important to you, you’ll want to make sure your action cam has support for an external microphone.
Of course, we can’t expect any action cameras to record video non-stop for days. However, there can still be a significant difference in the battery life from one model to another. The good point is that nowadays, many brands include two batteries in the package.
Check if your camera comes with a battery charger. In some cameras, the battery can only be charged via USB. It may or may not be a problem depending on how and where you use it. In any case, more options for charging (charger and USB) are always better.
Some brands include a whole range of accessories with their camera, which is of course great. Sometimes, they are compatible with GoPro accessories, which is also great when you know the endless possibilities they offer.
Some cameras include a (non-waterproof) wrist remote control that works with Wifi. It can be a very interesting feature if you intend to use your camera for cycling or skiing for example.
What Memory Card To Choose for Your Action Camera?
For an action camera, you need to use a Micro SD card. You have on the left a picture of two Micro SD cards I use for my own action camera. You can notice a few numbers and logos on it.
First of all, the capacity: I recommend going for a 64 GB card, as 4K video creates very large files. There are larger cards available, such as 128 or 256 GB, but they probably won’t be compatible with your device. For 4K 30fps video, 64 GB is just fine anyway.
The second thing to look at is the speed class. For SDHC cards, it is the number inside the circle you can see on the 32 GB card in the picture. For SDXC cards, it is the number inside the U you can see on the 64 GB card (here, U3). On this same card, you can also see a “V30”, which is a new speed class for video. It all represents how fast the card is able to save the data.
With 4K video, it is very important that you get a fast card. I will not get into useless details here, but a class 10 = U1 = V10 card is the minimum. It can write 10 MB/sec. A U3 = V30 card can write 30 MB/sec.
If you are confused, just remember that if you are considering which Micro SD card to get, you either need to see a 10 inside a circle, or a 1 or a 3 inside a U, or a V10 or V30 – and you’ll be fine!
You can also check a clear overview of speed classes here if you want to learn more about them.
What Action Camera Did I Get?
I chose to go for the Yi 4K+ Action Camera. I could use it on a few of my trips, and I am pretty satisfied so far! The video quality is great, and it has a mobile app.
As you can see, there are many things to consider when it comes to actually deciding which camera to get!
In any case, I hope that this page helped you in your decision process and that you will find the action cam that is adapted to your needs and budget.