Action cameras can go anywhere, anytime, and do anything. Designed for adventure, you can attach them to yourself or your equipment to capture a unique point of view video. These small, battery-operated devices often come with mounts and accessories to attach them to bike handlebars, safety helmets and body harnesses. They’re also waterproof, so are great for snorkelling, surfboarding and skiing.
There’s only one problem: resolution.
Action cameras may be designed to take video and still images anywhere you want to go, but watching them back on a 4K TV can be disappointing. That’s down to pixels. Most action cameras shoot in HD (high definition), but with the spread of affordable 4K TVs in the past six months – as well as 4K displays on smartphones, such as the Sony Xperia XZ Premium – it’s time for an upgrade.
Cue a raft of new 4K-capable action cameras designed to capture your adventures in 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. That’s quite an upgrade; while HD images are between one and two megapixels, 4K – also called Ultra HD – means a jump to just over eight megapixels.
However, not all 4K action cameras are the same. Most use a wide-angle fish-eye lens to capture as much action as possible, but the effect can be quite different depending on the camera. Similarly, don’t underestimate the apps these cameras come bundled with, not only for remote operation, but transferring and editing videos and posts ready for uploading to social media.
GoPro Hero5 Black and Hero5 Session
The market leader in action cameras is, of course, GoPro. Its latest models, the Hero5 Black (HK$3,200) and Hero5 Session (HK$2,550), can both film 4K video at 30fps.
That last figure is critical. It stands for frames per second, and tells you how many individual still frames are stitched together to create the finished video. TVs show everything in 50fps or 60fps, so there’s a good chance that the 30 frames will produce slightly “jumpy” results. It’s noticeable when the camera is moving, or filming something going quickly through the frame, which is what action cameras are designed to capture.
So while 4K cameras are now widely available, it’s important to understand that these are early days; most high-end smartphones can film in 4K, but only at 30fps.
It’s also worth knowing that if you want to shoot in a big, open, ultra-widescreen scene in 4K, the GoPro can only manage 24fps. None of these quirks prevent some impressive results, but super-still 4K video is always going to look superior. That makes a big difference to film-makers, and it might do to you, too; if you want to film in slow-motion, you can, but that effect requires at least 60fps, so you will have to avoid the 4K mode.
GoPro’s cameras allow you to film in a lower resolution 2.7K mode, and up the frame rate to 60fps. That’s a good idea when trying to capture cycling at high speed down a mountain, but some action cameras can go as high as 240fps in lower resolutions.
In some ways the Sony FDR-X3000R (HK$3,380) is the ultimate semi-pro choice, and it has a refreshingly different design to most other action cameras. Ice-white and shipping with a waterproof underwater housing, the FDR-X3000R’s most impressive feature is image stabilisation. It’s really quite wonderful; you can move the FDR-X3000R wildly while filming, and generally not pay attention to keeping it still, but the resulting video is somehow smooth and always watchable.
In these days of limited frame rate 4K, that’s a huge plus. However, the wireless, wearable “live view remote” – a kind of smartwatch that shows a live preview on your wrist of what the FDR-X3000R is filming – has problems staying linked via Bluetooth.
The FDR-X3000R also has a semi-pro feature that’s only found elsewhere on the GoPro; high bitrate video. It’s all about data capture. The higher the bitrate (which is expressed in megabytes per second, written as Mb/s), the higher image quality in the video; it will look smoother and less compressed, and the colour definition should look better. The downside is that the file size will hugely increase. The latest GoPro cameras max-out at 60Mb/s, while the Sony reaches 100Mb/s.
Xiaomi YI 4K Action Camera
Despite not boasting high bitrate video, perhaps the most impressive all-rounder is the Xiaomi YI 4K Action Camera (HK$741), which is otherwise very similar to a GoPro. As well as being a lot more affordable, it has a larger touch-screen, though unlike the GoPro it can’t be controlled using voice commands, and nor is it waterproof.
Neither will be deal-breakers for most of us, though barking out commands to a camera is useful when your hands are full of handlebars, skis or ropes. The Xiaomi Yi 4K is also incredibly easy to use, though its videos do have a slightly more fish-eye look to them than other action cameras.
Beyond GoPro there are plenty of other action cameras that have recently embraced 4K. Two good entry-level 4K options for occasional users are the GoPro-shaped iSAW Edge (HK$2,080) and the bullet-shaped TomTom Bandit (HK$4,168), which have frame rates of 10fps and 15fps respectively.
A good upgrade from there is the Olympus TG-Tracker (HK$2,999), which boasts 4K at 30fps, but is worth considering largely for its ability to film HD slo-mo sequences at 240 fps, and for its unique sensor-packed design.
It won’t interest most users, but skiers and extreme sports enthusiasts will love the fact that sensors record the temperature, speed, and GPS position, and display all that data within the finished video. It can also work below freezing point.
If you want to capture even more, 360-degree or “spherical capture” cameras are beginning to make a splash by pushing up the resolution. Still a niche within the action camera market, these cameras comprise two fisheye lenses instead of one, early low resolution versions have recently been surpassed by 4K-grade versions such as the Samsung Gear 360 (2017 version only – HKD2,098), Kodak’s SP360 4K (HK$2,340) and the upcoming Ricoh Theta 360 4K.
Spherical capture is all about future-proofing for the fast approaching virtual reality era, and not surprisingly, GoPro is about to launch its own; Fusion, a spherical camera, will break the 4K barrier with a 5.2K resolution. It will also act as a stand-alone action camera.
However, a sign of what’s to come in the widescreen action camera market further into the future is the Insta360 Pro (HK$27,325), which can manage a startling 8K resolution. Yes, it’s awfully expensive, but that’s 7680×4320 pixels, or a whopping 32 megapixel resolution.
If you think that’s way too much detail, know that state Japanese state broadcaster NHK plans to air the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 8K resolution. Will the athletes all be strapped with 8K action cameras to give us high resolution points of view? Maybe, but remember that eight megapixels is such a huge advance on HD, so expect 4K to be around for a long time to come.