For a while, starting back in 2012, GoPro could do no wrong. A runaway success, the company routinely produced small, portable action camcorders that ranked among the best in our Ratings. (In fact, the Hero4 Silver Standard Edition and the Hero 3+ Silver Edition are still among our recommended models.)
Every few minutes, a new video shot by some intrepid GoPro owner popped up on YouTube, illustrating the eye-popping thrill of life as a surfer, sky diver, alpine skier, mountain biker, rock climber, or SCUBA-diving daredevil. Some of the world's best nature photographers adopted the GoPro action cam as a way to get up close and personal with the planet's wildlife.
Since late 2015, though, that GoPro glow has begun to dim: The decline started with the weak sales of the GoPro Session, designed to appeal to the less adventurous consumer. After a disappointing holiday season, the company discontinued several lower-end models. At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in January, it tried to rebound by announcing two bold new ventures: a GoPro drone named Karma and an amateur-level six-camera virtual reality rig. But the company ran into yet more problems when it announced this month that the drone's release will be delayed until year's end.
Needless to say, the company's stock has suffered. For those of us in the tech industry, it’s a fall from grace reminiscent of another bright light in the camcorder industry. Namely, the Flip pocket cam, which went belly up in 2011.
Does that mean the end of the action cam is near?
The parallels with the Flip are easy to spot. Like GoPro, Flip had incredible brand-name recognition. People didn’t refer to its products as cameras; they called them "Flips." And like GoPro, the company forced many traditional camera makers to reinvent their product lines. By 2011, JVC, Panasonic, Samsung, Kodak, and Sony all had produced their own versions of the pocket cam.
But the similarities stop there. Back in 2011, the world was racing to embrace smartphones. Roughly the same size and shape as a Flip camcorder, the devices soon sprouted video features. And, since most people found it essential to carry a phone, it was natural for them to jettison their pocket cams. Why carry two devices that, more or less, did the same thing?
The situation with action cams is different. Many are rugged and waterproof, allowing you to capture video in situations where you'd never expose a smartphone to harm. When was the last time you saw someone strap an iPhone to a kayak?
And, while they do compete with smartphones on some level, action cams often work side-by-side with them, too. Using a camera's app, you can remotely control a variety of features from your mobile device—recording video, shooting still images, or firing off a burst of shots without handling the camera. In some cases, you can even change the resolution and other settings on the fly, moving from 4K to 1080-res video with relative ease.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict with certainty where the market will go. In the end, the audience for action cams may not be broad enough to support continual growth for GoPro, but that doesn't mean that the company—or established camera companies like Sony and Garmin—will stop producing models. In fact, LG, Xiaomi, and Ricoh have all announced new action cams this year.
And, thanks to the mounting interest in virtual reality headsets, there's a growing call for action cams that shoot 360-degree video. Samsung's new spherical Gear 360, for example, has a second wide-angle lens on the back for shooting VR-friendly clips.
So, for now at least, there's still room for market growth—especially when you factor in sales to police departments and security firms, which frequently use action cams on the job these days. All of which suggests that you're not out of step with technology if you decide you do want an action cam. Your first choice may not be a GoPro, however. While the company does make good cameras, our top-rated action cam is actually the Sony HDR-AS100V. The picture quality is very good and, at $220, the price is nice.
Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.