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Action camera roundup: Which one is best for you?

What are the main differences between the key action cameras on the market? Image: GoPro and Insta360.
13 minute read

What are the main differences between the key action cameras on the market? Image: GoPro and Insta360.

The action camera market has changed quite a lot over the past year thanks to new product updates, both physical and by way of software. So here's a look at the front runners and what each of them offers.

The market for action cameras is wide and varied, skewing wildly from adventure sports enthusiasts to Vloggers, and even television and feature film production. Whilst it would be easy to lump them all into the same basket each of them does in fact offer their own unique features that might make them better suited for one use or another.

The manufacturer landscape has also changed a lot, with some manufacturers who had shown some promise now pretty much abandoning the market. Sony for example has its FDR-X3000R, which does in fact still have a pretty good spec, although it is now over four years old. Sony has its RX0 models, which offer extremely good quality, but they are not strictly action cameras in the traditional sense due to their narrower FOV. Although the RX0 II does offer some compelling features for users who are more focussed on outright quality rather than mounting it to a helmet. DJI too entered the market with the highly regarded OSMO Action, and again although it still holds up pretty well it is long overdue a successor to keep pace with rivals.

I'm going to focus on premium quality cameras here that I have used, hence the reason why I haven't included the GoPro MAX. The budget market is flooded with all manner of devices of varying quality, and it would take several articles to cover all of them! The current market is dominated by two companies, GoPro and Insta360. Insta360 has made giant leaps in the past couple of years, reaching a point where its cameras are very serious alternatives to GoPro. It's a good thing because the rivalry between the two means one thing; better featured cameras for us.

There's a reason why these two manufacturers are the go-to companies. They've both nailed image stabilisation perfectly, they've both pushed their cameras beyond 4K, and they've both moved beyond needing condensation inducing waterproof cases. If there's one thing that holds back the budget devices on the market it's the need for an additional case to keep the camera waterproof, and it's a big problem in humid and damp conditions. So without further ado, let's look at our first camera.

GoPro HERO8 Black

The HERO8? I hear you cry. Isn't that the older model? Well yes, it is, but it is still available and frankly it's a wonderful little camera. It's noticeably smaller than the HERO9, making it a little more manageable on a helmet, but it still features the built in folding mounting fingers.

These folding mount fingers have proven themselves to be a bit of a love them or hate them affair. Personally I really like them and their inclusion means that the camera doesn't require any sort of frame or case , thus keeping the actual in-use profile lighter and smaller than other cameras. The mounting fingers are user replaceable and there are companies that make replacements that include a central 1/4" screw thread for more traditional tripod mounting. The camera itself is waterproof down to 10 metres. Beyond that you will need a housing, but this will only affect divers and free divers, or people who like accidentally dropping their cameras into the sea!

The image quality is generally extremely good, although it does still suffer from an issue that was also present on earlier cameras that creates a rather harsh clipping on highly saturated blues and reds, with reds sometimes appearing orange. It isn't normally an issue, although with some sports using very bright colours it can rear its head from time to time. For the most part though the image is extremely detailed with no compression artefacts to speak of.

Battery life isn't quite as good as the later HERO9, but it's pretty easy to take spare batteries with you. The electronic HyperSmooth stabilisation though is absolutely stunning, and although there were further improvements on the HERO9, the stabilisation here is still amazing. The ability to use the GoPro Labs firmware to enable user developed customised functionality such as time delayed filming or motion detection activation means that it's practicality goes way beyond that of a standard action cam.

If you are planning heavy action use for the camera the HERO8's lens is not user replaceable, unlike the HERO7 and the newer HERO9. However the camera can be sent off to be repaired. But this lack of field repair might put off some.

Pros:-

  • Excellent image quality.
  • Low price
  • Amazing image stabilisation
  • No need for a frame or enclosed case
  • Smaller than the HERO9
  • Can use the GoPro Labs firmware
  • Highly tuneable picture

Cons:-

  • Lens protector isn't user replaceable
  • Occasional clipping issues on highly saturated colours
  • Battery life isn't quite as good as the HERO9 or Insta360 models
  • The highest stabilisation setting isn't available in as many modes as the HERO9.

Best for:

All round action camera use and lightweight vlogging. The HERO8 Black suits a wide variety of uses at a very competitive price (£279.98). You can't really go wrong with it.

Read our original GoPro Hero8 Black review here.

Insta360 ONE R

The Insta360 ONE R created a storm when it was first released. The excitement over it was warranted because here was the world's first truly modular action camera. The beauty of the ONE R is that it is a traditional action camera, a 360 camera, and a creative camera all in one. Not only was the ONE R the first modular action camera, but was also the one of the first cameras of its type to feature a 1-inch sensor. The only other we're aware of currently is Sony's RX0 II.

The ONE R was also the first action camera to break the 5K resolution barrier. At 5.3K the image from the 1-inch Edition is exceptionally good, made more so by recent firmware updates that have improved the image compression quality, although it can be a little too over sharpened. It takes some pretty impressive stills, too, using the camera's PureShot feature, which can do some incredible work in low light.

The ONE R, once inside its frame, is more bulky than the HERO8 Black, but roughly on par size wise with the HERO9 Black. The modular nature of the camera means that the viewing screen is smaller than the GoPros, but it can be reversed for self shooting.

Battery life is very good, and one reason for this is that the stabilisation processing and FOV selection is performed within either the mobile app or on the desktop one. This does add an extra step for editing the footage, but it means that the camera can focus on recording the data rather than performing power hungry processing.

The stabilisation on the ONE R is very close in quality to the GoPros. The GoPro perhaps just edges it over the 4K and 1-Inch mods, but it's a very close call. The FlowState stabilisation on the 360 mod is exceptional, since it can take advantage of a full 360 degree view.

Overall image quality on the 360 mod after reframing tops out at 1080p, and there is some quite harsh edge enhancement going on. However it upscales pretty well using apps like Topaz Labs Video Enhance AI.

Support is also good, with Insta360 constantly updating the camera with new features and abilities, and the device itself represents great value with the number of accessories that ship alongside it. It can even be used as a car dash cam.

Best for:-

The person who wants one camera to do it all. The Insta360 ONE R starts at £419 for the 360 Edition, rising to £467 for the 1-inch edition.

Pros:-

  • Suits every type of shooting thanks to its modular nature
  • Not locked into a FOV mode at the time of shooting, it can be changed later.
  • Great battery life with the 4K mod
  • 1-inch mod is the best in class for low light shooting
  • Really nice colour reproduction
  • Compatible with GoPro accessories
  • Really good stills quality on the 1-inch Edition
  • Extremely detailed image on the 1-inch Edition
  • FlowState stabilisation is superb

Cons:-

  • Image is over sharpened on the current firmware
  • Pro mode and 360 footage needs processing in an app before editing
  • Bulkier than the GoPro when inside its cage
  • Small screen
  • Lower resolution slow motion than the GoPro.
  • 360 lenses need care and protection in action scenarios

Read our Insta360 ONE R review here. And read our ONE R 1-inch mode review here.

GoPro HERO9 Black

The HERO9 Black is GoPro's current flagship camera. At first sight it seems to be an incremental update to the HERO8, but there are some very significant differences. To begin with the HERO9 also now breaks the 4K resolution barrier, upping things to 5K. he HyperSmooth stabilisation has been improved further, with support for Boost in all modes and the addition of a Linear + Horizon levelling option, which will keep the horizon level for up to 45 degrees or so of movement. The price you pay is a narrower field of view, but there's no denying how impressive it is.

The stabilisation can be further improved with the addition of the Max Lens Mod, which allows almost 360 camera levels of stabilisation whilst still keeping a wide angle of view (the equivalent of a 14mm lens on a 35mm camera). The downside is that you are limited to the 2.7K mode, but this can be unconverted very nicely to 4K.

One thing that really did surprise me during testing the HERO9 was just how much could be pulled from its raw photo files. The example below for example shows a very cloudy day on a beach, which to the human eye actually looked more like the before photo. As you can see, the image file was very pliable indeed and I managed to bring out sky that I couldn't even see in reality in the location!

Before
After

The HERO9 Black is much larger than the HERO8, however there are some key advantages to doing this. The first is a better thermal profile, and the second is that GoPro has increased the battery size, giving around 30% better runtime than previously. It does make the camera a little more unwieldy when mounted to a helmet however.

Slow motion on the HERO9 is excellent with up to 240fps being possible in 1080p. 60p is possible in 4K, but the real star of the show is the 2.7K 120fps option. This gives absolutely amazing results for the right shot, and it up converts very well.

The HERO9 brought some of the features previously only seen in the beta Labs firmware, such as scheduled video capture whereby you can set a time and a date for the camera to turn itself on and start recording. There's also a Hindsight mode, which is otherwise known in the industry as a cache record. The camera will capture up to 30 seconds of footage before you've hit the record button. This is really handy for those times when you might be trying to do something, such as throw a ball into a net, but you don't want to take up your SD card with all the attempts, only the one that works. I found it useful on a surfboard for capturing only the waves I caught.

The HERO9, like the HERO8 has a highly tuneable image, from sharpness settings to colour. The rear screen is large, although it could do with being more responsive. I have no idea why action camera screens are not yet at the same point of responsiveness as smartphones! Recent firmware updates have improved things however.

The HERO9 also now features a front screen, making selfie shots a lot easier than before.

Another thing that has improved is saturated colour handling. Although some clipping can still occur, the HERO9 does it much more gracefully than the HERO8. The user replaceable lens protector is back as well.

Best for:-

Those who want the most fully featured pure action camera on the market, want full control over their image settings and like slow mo. The HERO9 Black retails for £329.98 with a 1 year subscription to GoPro.

Pros:-

  • Fantastic overall image quality
  • Improved colour over the HERO8
  • Incredible stabilisation
  • Improved battery life
  • User replaceable lens protector is back
  • Class leading slow motion quality
  • Big rear screen
  • Compatible with the Labs firmware
  • Extremely pliable raw DNG stills files

Cons:-

  • Still prone to freezing occasionally
  • 4K modes can still be a little too soft when sharpening is set to low

Read our GoPro HERO9 review here.

Insta360 GO 2

The Insta360 GO 2 is one of the newest action cameras to market, and it is also by far and away the smallest. To give an indication of just how small, it's roughly the size of your thumb.

This tiny size means that of all the cameras here, the GO 2 is the most portable and pocketable action camera you can buy, even when it is nestled inside the provided charging case and it is one of my favourite cameras for this reason.

But don't let that size fool you. The GO 2 can record around 2.5K resolution video at up to 50fps. It's colour reproduction is fantastic, and just like the ONE R it can be placed into a Pro Video mode that allows your FOV and other settings to be selected in post rather than being locked in at the time of shooting.

What's more, because the GO 2 records a spherical image in this mode, it can provide full horizon levelling over 360 degrees of rotation. In other words its stabilisation is absolutely mind blowing, and you don't really lose anything in terms of overall field of view to achieve it. Even more impressive is that you actually have the freedom to reframe your video somewhat.

Let's say you record a POV of yourself riding a bicycle and you find that the handlebars are cut off at the bottom of the image. With the GO 2 you have the ability to tilt the camera down in post. There's even some leeway for left and right reframing as well. This makes the camera unique in the market because the only other way you can normally do this is with a 360 camera.

Slow motion at 120fps at 1080p with the GO 2 is also impressive with lots of detail and no objectionable aliasing.

The GO 2's charge case doubles as a remote control and a mini tripod, although unlike the camera this isn't waterproof. However it does provide a 1/4" screw thread on the bottom so that it can be mounted to different accessories.

What's the catch? The small size means that battery life, particularly in Pro Video mode is limited, in this case to around 20 minutes or so. The camera can be used for up to 150 minutes when mounted inside its charge case, but if you are helmet mounting you do need to be sure to only record when things get interesting. The other drawback is that you are limited to 28GB of available internal storage. There's no option of using your own SD card.

The plus side is that when body mounting, either with the provided magnetic mounts or onto a helmet with the GoPro adaptor, the GO 2 is so unobtrusive that you forget that it's even there.

The Insta360 GO 2 retails for £294 for the standalone kit. You can also opt to have your own customs colours and pattern design applied to the camera for an additional cost. Despite the short battery life I still think that the GO 2 is one of the absolute best action cameras on the market right now.

Best for:-

Users who want the most unobtrusive camera possible, and who want to capture things spontaneously in the moment in short, manageable clips. This isn't a camera for a day of downhill mountain biking!

Pros:-

  • Very good image quality with great colours
  • Exceptional image stabilisation in Pro Video mode
  • Incredibly small and light weight
  • Can be mounted pretty much anywhere
  • Very wide angle of view
  • Very simple to use
  • Ability to reframe footage in post

Cons:-

  • Short battery life
  • Charge case isn't waterproof
  • No user swappable storage
  • To get the most out of it you need to post process the footage before editing
  • Need to backup the footage elsewhere if you want to reformat the internal storage for more filming

Read our review of the Insta360 GO 2 here.

Insta360 ONE X2

The Insta360 ONE X2 isn't what you might traditionally call an action camera, using as it does a body style that is designed to be as narrow as possible, yet tall. This narrowness is designed so that there is a much better stitch line in the final footage, but because the camera is taller as a result it doesn't fit the normal exception of an action camera style form factor.

This design style does make the X2 much more unwieldy for body and helmet mounting, however it is still an incredibly capable camera in the right circumstances, and it can still be used in all the places you might use a GoPro if you want it to.

The screen on the X2 is a small circular affair, and as a touch screen it is pretty responsive. The taller design style of the X2 makes it really easy to hold in the hand, although it doesn't fit into pockets quite as well as the others! The bottom features a 1/4" screw thread, and the device is waterproof to 10 meters.

The X2 doesn't have to be used as a 360 camera either. If you like you can switch it to 150 degree Steady Cam mode, which acts like a normal camera with full horizon levelling stabilisation.

Other features include 360 Live, which allows you to live stream 360 footage, and clever app based features such as Ghost Town, which lets you take a 360 panorama of, say, a city via a Timelapse sequence. The app will then remove all the people leaving you with a 360 panoramic photo of an empty city street.

These AI based app features are what sets Insta360 apart, with new abilities being added all the time. One particularly impressive one is FPV, which will make the footage look like you are flying an FPV drone through objects and around your location. You can use the app to set join points where the camera has been moved through a drain pipe for example. You can then go to the opposite side of the pipe, tell the app that this is the join point and carry on moving the camera. The app will then make it look as though the camera has flown through the pipe and emerged out of the other end!

Insta360 also make some pretty cool accessories such as the Bullet Time cord and a GPS remote that records stats that can be overlaid onto videos. There's also Apple Watch connectivity too.

Picture quality is very similar to the ONE R's 360 mod. Both cameras use the same sensor and record to the same formats (either H.264 or H.265 at up to 100Mbps with 5.7K 360 resolution). Just like Insta360's other cameras, the colour reproduction is superb, with natural, vivid or log profiles being available. Vivid works very well on grey winter days in the UK!

The ONE X2 retails for £429.99 for the standalone camera.

Best for:-

Using on a selfie stick and general adventure and lifestyle filming, although it can be used as an out and out action camera if called on to do so.

Pros:-

  • Insta360's consistent image colour quality
  • Good battery life
  • Easy to use
  • Simple form factor with no need for additional cages or housings
  • Versatile
  • Some very creative accessories and tools

Cons:-

  • Form factor isn't the best for out and out action camera usage
  • Not easy to mount horizontally
  • 360 lenses are delicate and need care in action scenarios
  • 360 footage requires extra steps to deal with in editing vs a traditional camera
  • Footage is a little over sharp due to digital edge enhancement on the firmware at time of publication

Read our Insta360 X2 review here.

Conclusions

This is by no means an exhaustive list of action cameras, but a summary of the premium cameras I have used. I should give an honourable mention to the GoPro MAX, but since I have not used this camera it wouldn't be fair of me to offer an opinion on it. However from what I have seen it produces extremely good results, and like the other HERO cameras the picture profile is fully adjustable in terms of reducing digital sharpness, which really helps in reducing artefacts in the final reframed image.

All of the cameras here will give you great results, but with subtle differences as to what kind of scenarios they are best suited to. 360 cameras are a hoot, and they give you a lot of creative control in post, but you need to be prepared to do some work for it. If you simply want to film and forget then a 360 camera isn't for you. A camera like the GoPro HERO series or the Insta360 GO 2 might be more up your street. The latter in particular forces you to be selective about what you film, so you don't end up with hours of footage to sift through.

Having said that the mobile apps are getting better all the time, and AI processes mean that with the 360 cameras you can track people and objects in one click. However these apps aren't the most intuitive or easy to use for creating actual edits. It can be done, but personally I have found them frustrating from all manufacturers, and instead I prefer to edit in Resolve.

Let us know which is your action camera of choice in the comments below.

Tags: Production Editor Featured

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