Action Cam Guide

Remember back in the 1970s, when video cameras were large, expensive and heavy implements that were complicated to use and produced, at best, mediocre images? And do you also remember how many pictures of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs we saw on a near-daily basis?

Nowadays, literally everyone is carrying a high-quality camera 24 hours a day. The result? We have thousands of hours of video from a regional autocross in Des Moines, Iowa, yet no better shots of everyone’s favorite proto-humanoid, never mind our visitors from the Andromeda galaxy.

Friends, this can prove only one thing: Motorsports are more important than Bigfoot.

Today the options for ignoring forest-dwelling bipedal abominations in favor of recording your racing antics are better than ever. You can now walk into any number of big-box retailers and leave, just a few hundred dollars lighter, with a tiny camera capable of shooting feature-film quality moving images. But which one should you choose?

We’ve tried to collect the info for some of the most popular offerings in the ever-shifting marketplace, and provide them along with some feedback based on our hands-on experiences. Although any guide like this needs to be prefaced with a caution that any technology market is highly volatile and prone to frequent changes, two of the heavy hitters in the market–GoPro and Garmin–just released new hardware, so things should be relatively stable at the moment.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we reviewed for each camera.

Price: Listed here are MSRP. Street prices are frequently lower, and promotions in this market are frequent.

Max resolution: We list maximum resolution and frame rate of a video file. All cameras are capable of shooting at lower resolutions than the max listed, and lower resolutions frequently can be used with higher frame rates to produce excellent slow-motion video.

Image stabilization: Both digital and optical image stabilization are finding their ways into high-end action cams. Good stabilization can turn otherwise unusable video into something perfectly watchable. If you drive a kart or a formula car, or a particularly stiff door-slammer, this might be a feature you want to consider as it can considerably reduce shake.

Built-in screen: Most action cams don’t have actual screens, meaning the camera can’t show what it’s recording. Many are Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-compatible, though, so you can use your phone as a viewfinder. Most cameras do, however, have small interface displays to allow you to navigate menus.

*This guide was published in the June 2017 issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Prices listed are MSRP at the time of publishing and do not include promotional prices.

Garmin Virb XE

Price:
$299.99

Max res:
1440p/30fps

Image stabilization:
Yes

Built-in screen:
Interface only

We like:
Excellent quality and usability. Recording switch is beefy and positive, and it works well even with gloves or wet hands. Mounting interface is the same as other popular brands. GPS and accelerometer overlays are a neat touch for videos. Excellent battery life.

We’re less fond of:
5 Hz GPS and overly sensitive accelerometer make the data overlays a little inaccurate for autocross use or with very stiff cars.

Bottom line:
The VIRB XE’s quality and ease of use make it one of our favorites. The data overlays are a nice novelty, but not quite accurate or consistent enough to use for hardcore data analysis.

Garmin Virb Ultra 30

Price:
$399.99

Max res:
4k/30fps

Image stabilization:
Yes

Built-in screen:
Yes

We like:
One of the better user interfaces in the market. Software is easy to use. Lots of additional data overlays from built-in 10hz GPS and accelerometers make the VIRB a nice little data acquisition package. Controls are positive and easy to use when wearing gloves. Same mounts as other popular brands mean wide availability of mounting options.

We’re less fond of:
High quality comes at a high price. No ability to connect an even higher-resolution outboard GPS.

Bottom line:
The new flagship in Garmin’s action cam lineup gives us more of what we liked about Garmin’s previous offerings, albeit at a higher price.

GoPro Hero Session

Price:
$199.99

Max res:
1440p/30fps, 1080p/60fps

Image stabilization:
No

Built-in screen:
Interface only.

We like:
Self-contained form factor requires no additional case to be waterproof. Grab-and-go usability. GoPro’s typically excellent image quality. Better battery life than most of the GoPro lineup.

We’re less fond of:
Like much of the older GoPro lineup, the user interface lags behind the rest of the industry.

Bottom line:
The Session series simplifies the GoPro usability curve, which is both a plus and a minus. It’s easier to use in most situations, and no case makes for easy mounting and less overall fuss. Typical GoPro weaknesses like small buttons (although the start button on the Session is much better than the standard models) and tricky menus persist. Video quality is top-notch, though.

GoPro Hero 5 Black

Price:
$399.99

Max res:
4k/30fps

Image stabilization:
Yes

Built-in screen:
Yes

We like:
FINALLY! With the Hero 5 Black, GoPro addresses many of the complaints that have plagued their cameras since their inception, most of all usability. The addition of a touch screen greatly simplifies and streamlines the user interface.

We’re less fond of:
Battery life is still an issue, as is operation with gloves.

Bottom line:
It’s good to see that GoPro didn’t rest on their laurels as the industry leader and made some real improvements to their flagship offering. Though there are still some weaknesses (like battery life), it’s always refreshing when the most ubiquitous product also offers exceptional quality.

iON Air Pro Lite Wi-Fi

Price:
$149.99

Max res:
1080p/30fps

Image stabilization:
No

Built-in screen:
No

We like:
The bullet form factor is well-packaged and convenient. Available on the shelf at major retailers. Industry-standard ¼-20 threaded bung in the housing makes for tons of easy and secure mounting options. Controls are positive and easy to use with gloves. Great price point.

We’re less fond of:
Resolution and image quality are falling behind the rest of the industry. No screen makes use and menu navigation a little more complex.

Bottom line:
The industry has overtaken the iON Air Pro during the last couple of years, but the ability to walk into Walmart and buy one is still a big plus. Size, shape and the ¼-20 port make for lots of mounting options.

iON Air Pro 3 Wi-Fi

Price:
$299.99

Max res:
1080p/60fps

Image stabilization:
No

Built-in screen:
No

We like:
Same great form factor as the rest of the iON Air Pro lineup. Controls are simple, but among the best and easiest to operate of any action cam.

We’re less fond of:
This was a great camera when it came out, but the rest of the industry has made great strides while iON hasn’t made many improvements.

Bottom line:
iON’s ease of use, wide availability, and integral ¼-20 mounting bung still make it a solid choice, even though the rest of the industry has upped the ante.

Sony FDR-X3000 Action Cam with WiFi and GPS

Price:
$399.99

Max res:
4k/30fps

Image stabilization:
Yes

Built-in screen:
Interface only. Wearable add-on screen available.

We like:
Excellent video and audio quality. ¼-20 threaded mount provides tons of easy and secure mounting options. Prostyle features like multi-camera sync support. Among the best image stabilization we’ve seen.

We’re less fond of:
We could complain about the price, but you get a lot for the money. Battery life suffers with add-ons like a color screen.

Bottom line:
Definitely a heavy-hitter in the action cam segment, the top-of-the-line Sony is worth consideration. Oddly, for one of the world’s largest companies, they don’t have the distribution horsepower of brands like GoPro and iON, so you can’t just walk into a store and grab one. The ¼-20 bung is always a huge plus for us, though.

Replay XD PrimeX

Price:
$299.99

Max res:
1080p/60fps

Image stabilization:
No

Built-in screen:
No, but some indicator function lights.

We like:
Nice form factor and good optics. Lots of pro-quality accessories, like aluminum mounts and adaptability to commercial video support gear. Excellent battery life, and provision for add-on batteries as well.

We’re less fond of:
Interface is a bit clunky and controls are not as positive for someone wearing gloves.

Bottom line:
Replay doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the other brands, but the product is solid and the video quality is on par with the market leaders. The availability of high-quality mounts and industry-standard adapters, as well as user-serviceability features like DIY lens replacements, make this a good choice for people using action cams to make their living.

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH MegaDork
6/26/17 10:15 a.m.

I'm surprised nothing from SJCAM made it into the comparison, they tend to be good deals in terms of dollars vs. features.

Andre33
Andre33 New Reader
6/27/17 8:23 a.m.

Jon's looking good ;)

Couple notes on this article, the Replay Prime-X is no longer in production and Replay as a company has been sold.

Cam-Do offers GoPro controller interfaces now, basically, it connects to select Hero models and allows them to be remotely triggered via USB. Handy for Traqmate owners.

Another company that offers interesting camera solutions and bluetooth audio integration is SENA.

Mobius is a great budget option and can be constantly powered via USB. Perfect for rear view as well.

moxnix
moxnix HalfDork
6/27/17 8:48 a.m.

I like my Virb Ultra 30 because of the ability to connect it to a bluetooth OBD2 reader and get data from that as well as the built in GPS for speed and track mapping.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ro10T-qOE6c?ecver=1

Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
6/27/17 9:10 a.m.

In reply to Andre33:

Thanks for the update notes, Andre33. It's amazing how quickly this market moves.

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
6/27/17 1:34 p.m.

In reply to moxnix:

for $400 I would hope you'd like it. Sheesh. I'd have to be damned serious about track events to pony up that kind of coin. Cool footage though.

Emilio700
Emilio700 New Reader
6/27/17 4:43 p.m.

Hero 5 does not offer spot metering so it's functionally useless in a closed car. We found out the hard way. Ironic that the company founder is a "car guy" but so detached from his billion dollar company that this oversight made it through product development and into production.

Knurled
Knurled MegaDork
6/27/17 7:07 p.m.

In reply to moxnix:

The GPS track/speed overlay is exactly why I want a VIRB.

Be neat if someone could get one to talk on Megasquirt's CAN protocol but I am not going to hold my breath.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH MegaDork
6/28/17 9:33 a.m.
Emilio700 wrote: Hero 5 does not offer spot metering so it's functionally useless in a closed car. We found out the hard way. Ironic that the company founder is a "car guy" but so detached from his billion dollar company that this oversight made it through product development and into production.

It's especially strange that they made this oversight after putting spot metering into the 1st-gen GoPro!

caffeine357
caffeine357 New Reader
11/24/17 10:28 a.m.

so having caught up on this and seeing a deal on the hero 5 black at costco.

https://www.costco.com/GoPro-HERO5-Black-Action-Camera-Bundle.product.100376560.html

Thats still not an option due to the spot metering? i would primarily be mounting this in a car.

sleepyhead
sleepyhead HalfDork
11/24/17 2:30 p.m.
caffeine357 said:

so having caught up on this and seeing a deal on the hero 5 black at costco.

https://www.costco.com/GoPro-HERO5-Black-Action-Camera-Bundle.product.100376560.html

Thats still not an option due to the spot metering? i would primarily be mounting this in a car.

Probably not.  The inside of a car is real dark, and comprises the "majority of the frame"... so anything outside is blown out whiteness / out of focus... unless you mount it to the dash and all it sees is outside (but, then, no "driver view" is available)

Austincrx
Austincrx New Reader
1/19/18 11:24 a.m.

I would just like to know which cameras make good shots of what is going on outside the car, from inside the car.

I have an original GP Hero and lets just say that when you're inside the car, you can see inside the car, and when you're outside the car, you can see outside the car, but there is nothing in between, and you can't change many settings.

Does the iON Pro Light offer good viewing through a windshield?  (P.s. it's $65 at Walmart now)

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
1/19/18 11:41 a.m.

In reply to Austincrx :

Here's my cheap Chinese 1080P Go-Pro Knock-off mounted inside the windshield of my FoRS:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/jzPt3oF0RRo

The real issue is that the lighting and focus needs for inside versus outside are completely different, so unless you add a bunch of lighting inside the car (and annoy the driver) you'll always struggle with that to some extent unless you can use a camera with a much more expensive and larger set of sensors and lenses.

For the average joe, using more than one camera is the solution that some choose to use.  One pointed inside at the driver, etc. with perhaps some added lighting to the footwell, etc. to avoid blinding the driver and one mounted looking outside.  The cameras are getting cheap enough and the mounts improving to the point where it becomes much less expensive and less of a hassle to use multiple cameras.

JackOlsen
JackOlsen New Reader
1/19/18 12:08 p.m.

What am I, a Rockefeller?  smiley

A Mobius 2 camera costs $60 and is 1080p with a wide-angle lens.  I use two of them, each 'hardwired' through a USB cord.  They switch on when I turn the car on and switch off 10 seconds after I turn the car off -- I never have to think about the system when I'm driving, which is worth its weight in gold.  I also don't have to ever wory about charging batteries.  I add data using RaceRender software.
 

 

kb58
kb58 SuperDork
1/19/18 12:18 p.m.

I've had several different models of GoPro and will never buy another (never mind the company now being for sale, or not). Both my brother and I are fed up with them "bricking" temporarily, resetting, forgetting settings, not turning on the "recording" LED, etc. My brother switched to the Sony action cam and has only good things to say about it. I'm still "using" the GoPro but am looking for a replacement.

dowroa
dowroa None
1/19/18 1:50 p.m.

I have yet to do in-depth research, but talk of the GoPro 6 is not on here. Any reason? Does it solve the "spot metering" problem in the 5 Black?

Tom_Spangler
Tom_Spangler UberDork
1/19/18 2:26 p.m.
JackOlsen said:

What am I, a Rockefeller?  smiley

A Mobius 2 camera costs $60 and is 1080p with a wide-angle lens.  I use two of them, each 'hardwired' through a USB cord.  They switch on when I turn the car on and switch off 10 seconds after I turn the car off -- I never have to think about the system when I'm driving, which is worth its weight in gold.  I also don't have to ever wory about charging batteries.  I add data using RaceRender software.
 

 

Yeah, I'm in the "cheap knockoff" camp, too.  Santa brought me an Eken H9R.  Came with a bunch of mounts, shoots 4K, and has good reviews on Amazon.  I haven't done anything exciting enough to warrant trying it out yet, but for the price, I figure it's pretty hard to go wrong.

Driven5
Driven5 SuperDork
1/19/18 3:15 p.m.
sleepyhead said:
caffeine357 said:

so having caught up on this and seeing a deal on the hero 5 black at costco.

https://www.costco.com/GoPro-HERO5-Black-Action-Camera-Bundle.product.100376560.html

Thats still not an option due to the spot metering? i would primarily be mounting this in a car.

Probably not.  The inside of a car is real dark, and comprises the "majority of the frame"... so anything outside is blown out whiteness / out of focus... unless you mount it to the dash and all it sees is outside (but, then, no "driver view" is available)

I wonder how securely you'd have to mount a shop light inside the car to get it to pass tech?

sleepyhead
sleepyhead HalfDork
1/19/18 10:31 p.m.

In reply to Driven5 :

how about velcro and some white sheets?

te72
te72 New Reader
1/20/18 12:19 a.m.

Would have a lot of fun with a selection of cameras. The irony lies in that my computer is old enough that editing the videos may not even be feasible. :p

Scargod
Scargod New Reader
1/20/18 7:19 a.m.

I have been using a Hero 3 Black for a while and have certainly had some issues with it as to reliably recording and battery life. Almost more negatives and uncertainty of ending up with video than it's worth. Reluctant to upgrade to another Hero.
Last summer I bought a Panasonic Lumix GH5. I adapted it to my roll bar and have a crude way of stabilizing it in the car. Here is an example of what it can do. This is at LRP. Possibly a rough track would require more serious stabilizing  for its mass. My suspension is race level stiff.

freetors
freetors New Reader
1/20/18 8:29 a.m.

Just say no to gopro. They've been resting on the success of their original models for years and really haven't improved anything since. The user interface of them is atrocious when you're trying to change settings, or set up a recording. And you can never really trust if it's actually doing what you think it is. When they first launched they were on the top of the market in regards to image quality. But time has moved on and their image quality has not gotten any better. You can almost always tell when something is filmed on a gopro and that's really not a compliment.

Plus the way gopro's business is running they'll be lucky to still be making cameras in a year or two.

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
1/20/18 2:42 p.m.

I mean, how can you go wrong with something like this?

https://www.groupon.com/deals/gs-e-jaguar-inspire-4k-hd-action-sport-wifi-camera-gopro-style-waterproof

$76 for a 4K capable camera that can also work as a dash cam and includes various attachments and mounts.

Its touchscreen and there are models with WiFi capability.

If it fails, then you're only out $76 versus $3-400, same if it falls off or gets wiped out in an accident.

Sure it doesn't have GPS or OBD overlay capabilities, but then there's software called Race Render that you can use to apply that afterward, plus mix in multiple camera angles, etc.

One thing I noticed while watching the latest Grand Tour?  They don't do a lot of camera angles that primarily show both the inside and outside of the car.  They focus a camera or two on the driver while they are doing driving/talking stuff and they have cameras mounted outside for the outside of the car stuff.  Now granted, they use separate mics to capture the sounds and mix them in, but that's one of the things you get with a professional crew.  You can also see in some shots the various GoPro style cameras mounted in the windshield/windows.

trakktapedude
trakktapedude New Reader
1/20/18 4:31 p.m.

I have been using a YI 4K camera for over a year and it is just incredible. more features and better performance than GoPro and HALF the price. VERY easy to use and perfect for in car, on track use. 

Mine was $200. Very complete control of all settings through a well done iPhone app. 

Nugi
Nugi New Reader
1/20/18 5:54 p.m.

I use the older Yi dashcam, and its amazing for the price if you need a dashcam, but is a bit limited for a full race documentation soluntion. I really do like the wifi review.

Franknbeans1
Franknbeans1 New Reader
1/21/18 5:53 p.m.

I use the GoPro HeroBlack. With their software you can do overlay. 

 

 

 

 

Desy
Desy New Reader
1/22/18 1:36 p.m.

For anyone on a budget - but still want a name brand and warranty. I bought a GoPro Hero3 refurbished from Amazon. Under $200 for camera and mounts. Not the best in low-light but great for daylight.


I would like to upgrade to something with better low light performance and longer battery life however.

te72
te72 New Reader
1/22/18 10:59 p.m.

Also worth mentioning, for those of us on a budget (hey, this IS GRM, right?), you might try using a more traditional point and shoot. Have yet to try it in the car, as I ran out of time to build a mount before the end of last season, but a few bucks worth of fabricating flat steel, a welder, and a 1/4-20 thumb screw, and I should have a decent homebrew camera setup.

 

We have a Sony DSC-HX20V, takes great pics, and pretty awesome video quality too. Will have to see how it holds up to car vibrations though... picks up sound nicely, for not having an external mic, I'm impressed. That said, if it falls of your car......

Desy
Desy New Reader
1/23/18 1:58 a.m.

In reply to te72 :

I built something similar back in the day. Used the Defrost vent to mount a camera ball (so it could be aimed.) ended up getting a little wiggle but worked OK for what it was.

 

Later I took a piece of box aluminum and some U bolt/clamps (for like wire interior garage door latch pulls) to mount them to the headrest post of a seat. Had the camera centered and that worked really well. However, it wasn't very compact and quickly changed around like a gopro style camera with suction cup mount.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH MegaDork
1/23/18 9:16 a.m.
te72 said:

Also worth mentioning, for those of us on a budget (hey, this IS GRM, right?), you might try using a more traditional point and shoot. Have yet to try it in the car, as I ran out of time to build a mount before the end of last season, but a few bucks worth of fabricating flat steel, a welder, and a 1/4-20 thumb screw, and I should have a decent homebrew camera setup.

 

We have a Sony DSC-HX20V, takes great pics, and pretty awesome video quality too. Will have to see how it holds up to car vibrations though... picks up sound nicely, for not having an external mic, I'm impressed. That said, if it falls of your car......

I used to do this in the days before "action cams," and it works but it's an enormous PITA, everything needs lots of work and fiddling to get it working correcty, and then you're still using a huge and fragile camera in a harsh environment. I would recommend a cheap/used action cam over this route.

Edit: Also you'll save money on wide angle lenses.

kb58
kb58 SuperDork
1/23/18 10:19 a.m.

Back in "the day", we used to rent a VHS video camera (way too expensive to buy at the time) and tripod, duct-taping it to the roll cage.

Carry on.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH MegaDork
1/23/18 2:12 p.m.
kb58 said:

Back in "the day", we used to rent a VHS video camera (way too expensive to buy at the time) and tripod, duct-taping it to the roll cage.

Carry on.

There's a video somewhere of a dude hanging out the side of a Group B rally car on course with a ginormous camcorder. Human camera mount surprise

te72
te72 New Reader
1/23/18 11:00 p.m.

Desy, sounds like my plan for the Supra. Not sure if you're familiar with the Mk3 seats, but they have beefy sides where the head rest mounts. Gonna make a square bend that can be clamped tigher as necessary to make sure things stay put.

 

GameboyRMH, I appreciate the input. Biggest thing for me, is sound quality. I've yet to hear a video taken from an action cam that sounds as nice as the videos we've taken with the camera. Totally hear you on the fragility aspect though, I've always been one to make sure that if things fail, they fail safely. Worth the extra effort to prevent catastrophe. Heck, Sony has diving cases for these cameras... may look into that option.

 

kb58, that is awesome sir. Revolutionary in that time, I'm sure. Now folks just wonder what the heck you're doing if you bust out videotapes...

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
1/23/18 11:04 p.m.

In reply to te72 :

To get proper sound, you need to use a mic that picks up from the floor and a separate recorder or a camera that has an external mic input.

SnowMongoose
SnowMongoose SuperDork
1/24/18 12:34 a.m.

Big fan of the VIRB, though a lot of that is tied up in how nicely it plays with SoloStorm.  

Yeah it's pricey, but I've had none of the issues that came with several generations of GoPro ownership.  

And finally, it can do cool E36 M3 like sync up with my Garmin Forerunner running watch and overlay my heartrate data from during an AX run.

te72
te72 New Reader
1/25/18 9:57 p.m.

In reply to Stefan :

Interesting, sounds like I have a lot to learn, no pun intended. What makes a mic at floor level the trick?

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
1/25/18 10:39 p.m.
te72 said:

In reply to Stefan :

Interesting, sounds like I have a lot to learn, no pun intended. What makes a mic at floor level the trick?

It isn’t bothered by wind noise, so filtering out vibrations is easier while getting just the pure noise.

te72
te72 New Reader
1/27/18 11:11 p.m.

In reply to Stefan :

Totally makes sense, thanks for the educating! I won't be putting the camera on the outside of the car, but if I were to have the windows down, I could see wind noise getting picked up... Pretty much everything I do with that car is for fun anyway, so if it gets decent video, cool. If not, I'll try something else. =)

Knurled.
Knurled. MegaDork
1/28/18 5:50 a.m.
te72 said:

Also worth mentioning, for those of us on a budget (hey, this IS GRM, right?), you might try using a more traditional point and shoot. Have yet to try it in the car, as I ran out of time to build a mount before the end of last season, but a few bucks worth of fabricating flat steel, a welder, and a 1/4-20 thumb screw, and I should have a decent homebrew camera setup.

 

I did try that.  It "worked", although it was fiddly, and I could never figure out how to mount it so it both didn't vibrate so the tape didn't record or bounce all over the place.  Was sort-of okay at the dragstrip although I never bothered to encode track days or, later, rallycross footage, because it generally sucked.

 

Then I tried a security camera with a VCR, so I could soft mount the recording device and hard mount the camera. 
That sucked too.

 

Then I tried the security cam and a digital recording device, which sucked, and failed to record audio.

 

Then, after a particularly juicy year end bonus, i just bought a damn GoPro.  For less money then I ended up spending farting around with trying to not spend money.

te72
te72 New Reader
1/30/18 12:44 a.m.

In reply to Knurled. :

Sure sounds like you've had quite the adventures trying to record your err, adventures! I'm into the setup I have in my head maybe $10 in fabricating materials I already have, as well as a camera that we already have that's known to record nice looking and sounding video. I'll give it a shot.

 

Worst case, I end up buying a more focused camera when some expendable budget finds its way to me.

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