10 Best Budget Action Cams | March 2017
- wide angle lens with 4x digital zoom
- works well in low light conditions
- not particularly durable
- ultra-wide-angle 170-degree lens
- shoots in slow motion at 720p
- ships with no onboard storage
- controllable via mobile app
- comes with a 1-year warranty
- includes an extra battery and case
- weatherproof without a case
- enabled for wi-fi streaming
- includes 12-month warranty
- bluetooth and wi-fi functionalities
- capable of real-time streaming
- wide range of accessories available
- has a rugged waterproof housing
- perfect for low-profile mounting
- lightweight at just under 4 ounces
- darklapse mode for night skies
- includes four mounts
- supports memory cards up to 64 gb
Savings In The Extreme
Being adventurous has its own pretty steep price tag on it. The average ski trip can cost an individual a few hundred dollars a day at the low end, and that's if you're renting gear. The average skydiving excursion runs about $250 per jump, and can get into the thousands if you want to get licensed.
With all that money bleeding out from every orifice, the odds of you having another $1,000 to spend on an action cam outfit are pretty slim. At the very least, you'd probably like to divert some of those funds toward a new surf board or one of those suits that lets you soar through the air like a flying squirrel.
That's where a good budget action cam can make all the difference. For the most part, these cameras have all the same basic performance specs as their more expensive cousins. They still boast available waterproof housings, wide angles of view, high definition video, etc. They just have a few minor corners cut where manufacturers don't think you need them.
For example, the most expensive cams on the market shoot in 4K, but outdoorsy extremists aren't likely to be the type to spend hours carefully editing and cropping in from a higher resolution to get the perfect frame before posting a video. It's also worth noting that 4K displays haven't quite taken over the market yet, meaning that all that extra resolution is barely useful.
Ultimately, the majority of the sacrifices made in the name of action cam savings is made in the form of features you could likely live without, and that, if you miss, you can always upgrade to later.
The Activity In Question
Your choice in an action cam, regardless of its cost, will first depend on the activity for which you want to use it. The best camera for a surfer might not be the best camera for a skier, and the difference starts with the shape.
The original action cams, the ones everybody thinks of when they picture a small fish-eye camera built for capturing extreme activities, were rectangular in shape, built like little boxes you could stick almost anywhere.
Since the inception of those devices, the amount of available mounting hardware has made it so that they can be affixed to almost anything in myriad configurations. Just because they can find a way to make it seem ergonomic, however, doesn't necessarily mean that it's truly meant to fit where it goes.
There are other action cams on the market whose shapes are more tubular, situating the lens at the end of a body more cylindrical than anything else. These tend to fit on helmets, arms (as in limbs), and arms (as in guns) much more efficiently than the box design. The result is a camera that captures a point of view closer to that of the person or the implement in use.
Which isn't to say that the available mounting hardware shouldn't be a big part of your decision-making, as well. If you invest in an action cam system for sky diving only to find out that there isn't a compatible mount that can handle that kind of force working against it, you're going to have a very nice paper weight that can film you as you work your day job. Not quite as exciting.
It Started With A Surfer...Sort Of
It's true that Nick Woodman, the founder of GoPro, is a surfer. It's also true that he got the idea for the tiny, efficient cameras while on a surfing trip to Australia. It's even undeniable that he raised a portion of the funds that started his company by doing one of the most beach bummy things a person can imagine: selling jewelry made of beads and shells out of the back of his VW van.
What most people don't talk about when they discuss the history of the action cam is that GoPro wasn't Woodman's first attempt at starting a business, as he had a pair of startups that never got their legs under them fail before his camera company took off. He was always more of a businessman than anything else.
This isn't to paint Woodman as some kind of capitalist monster pretending to be something he isn't. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's rather to illustrate that this entire category of camera was built from a perspective that valued value, that wanted to empower the average consumer to own the best gear possible for the lowest price possible. One of Woodman's failed startups, EmpowerAll.com, was intended to sell electronic items to people with less money to burn by offering those devices at no more than a $2 markup.
The action cam, then, has always been about budget, and in the wake of GoPro's success, dozens of companies have come out of the ether to create competitive versions of the camera for a lower cost. In some cases, those cameras have failed miserably, but where companies have succeeded, consumers have saved. As that competition grinds on between manufacturers, GoPro has had to keep up, pushing the development of its cameras further along, and providing new blueprints for the companies coming up behind it.