Gear Shed

Is There an Alternative to the Mighty GoPro?

We reviewed three top-of-the-line action cameras to answer that question.

It seems like a new contender steps into the action camera ring every week. And for good reason. GoPro has essentially created the brand-new, supremely valuable market for POV cameras—the company alone is worth somewhere north of $2.25 billion

For outdoor enthusiasts, GoPro has become a verb. The company is on movie sets, helmets, handlebars, and most other pieces of gear with some real estate to spare. Nick Woodman, its founder and CEO, recently announced that GoPro would go public and shortly afterward received an Emmy for the Hero3. So is GoPro the Kleenex of the action cam world? The short answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean some rising stars aren’t putting up a fight for the top spot. 

We chose to review the three top-of-the-line units from JVC, iON, and GoPro. These are all full-feature, waterproof, HD- and Wi-Fi-enabled devices marketed as the premier units of their respective brands.

GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition ($399)

When the action cam giant released this model late last year, the bar was instantly raised for the pocket-size competition. Significantly smaller and lighter than any of its predecessors, the 3+ has performance specs we’re used to seeing in a DSLR. The ability to shoot at 1440p—or 1080p SuperView—and a new 4k setting make the 3+ Black Edition pretty much peerless in the video-quality department.

GoPro also trumps the field when it comes to accessories and mounts. Its Wi-Fi app for mobile devices and Wi-Fi remote are incredible additions, much improved over the past year. Lag time on live-view in the mobile app has been reduced to almost nothing, and you can control your camera within 50 feet or so from your phone—and closer to 600 feet with the remote.

Plus, you can attach a GoPro to almost anything (and people do). Granted, that doesn’t mean you’ll always come back with usable footage. While GoPro’s mounting options are far superior to those of all other action cams out there, they tend to slip (though I should mention that the GoPro was the only camera to stay put during our “test crash”).

The newest GoPro can capture 12mp stills at its widest setting—a major improvement over previous models. With preset burst, time lapse, and continuous and simultaneous video and photo modes, the Hero 3+ Black Edition and its fixed f/2.8 lens work as a handy point-and-shoot as well. A major advantage of the GoPro is its sophisticated on-camera software that lets you customize settings to get the most out of your footage.

Cons:
GoPro’s famous ultrawide-angle field of view can be both good and bad. With a near-150-degree panorama, you won’t miss a thing, but the image will sacrifice clarity. You can correct all of this with some editing, but the superwide and often distorted results are still a reality of action cams.

Video Mode Max: 4k/15frames, 1440/48p
Battery Life: ~2 hours at full HD
Weight: Camera 74 grams, housing 136 grams
Mobile App: Yes
Remote: Yes
Stills: 12mp

Sample: Unedited 12mp still

Sample: Unedited Underwater 12mp still

The iON Air Pro 3 Wi-Fi ($349)

With a massive 160-degree field of view and the ability to shoot 1080p video and 12-megapixel stills, the iON can be an effective camera for capturing almost any activity.

That said, the iON is the bulkiest action cam we tested. It’s durable and well-built, but when action cameras are expected to fit anywhere or on anything, you need to consider size and weight—the Air Pro 3 is about twice as long as both the GoPro and JVC models we tested. 

Much like the other units in this class, the iON houses an f/2.8 lens and has pretty impressive auto exposure and white balance built in. The iON has an app that controls the device via Wi-Fi, which can be useful for checking camera angles and stills. A few different mounts are available as accessories, but the options are minimal compared with GoPro’s. 

The iON is simple to use and doesn’t have many buttons, so it’s easy to switch on and off during activity. But the sparsity of buttons has a downside: the Air Pro 3 doesn’t offer as many options or on-camera settings to mess around with, other than HD to Full HD. And there’s no way to tell how much storage is left on the card without checking the app.

We found that the iON adds a noticeable amount of contrast in its default video and photo settings, which can make for some sharp, fantastic-looking images. That said, the iON did have more trouble in bright conditions (bluebird skiing), and shots can lose detail in shadows. 

Cons: The iON, like the JVC, has clunky plastic mounts that sit very high above the mounted surface. With a convex lens (like early GoPro housings), the iON will never focus underwater—a no-go for divers and fishermen. The iON’s contrast and picture settings (mentioned above) produce a specific type of look that comes down to personal preference. 

Video Mode Max: 1080/60p
Battery Life: ~2 hours, 15 minutes at full HD
Weight: 142 grams
Mobile App: Yes
Remote: No
Stills: 12mp

Sample: Unedited 12mp still

Sample: Unedited Underwater 12mp still

The JVC GC-XA2 Action Camera ($300)

With specs including 1080/60p, 16-megapixel stills, and an onboard LCD monitor, the Adixxion is no joke—and it’s the least expensive of the three models we tested. 

Sporting a new f/2.4 lens, the Adixxion also features a built-in, water- and dustproof housing that makes it by far the lightest unit in this review. As our test video shows, the Adixxion holds its own alongside the mighty GoPro: its full HD recording and ability to manage color, contrast, and exposure as well as anything we’ve seen are all standout features. However, the JVC does max out with the 1080 setting, making the GoPro the better option for those interested in ultrahigh-res and 4k options.

With a 16mp ultrahigh-resolution still mode, the JVC can capture high-quality images in any condition. You can shoot 15 frames a second at 8mp, and five frames a second at 16mp. The camera produces sharp images, and seems to handle exposure nicely. The JVC’s underwater performance stacked up against—and maybe even surpassed—the GoPro’s.

The built-in LCD is a sweet little perk that’s great for reviewing content right on the spot. You’d be hard-pressed to watch the action-cam footage while the unit is in use, but it’s just the thing for stills and checking your shots. While action cams have never been known for their audio capabilities, it’s worth noting that the JVC was the clear winner among these three—probably thanks to that built-in housing.

Cons: Both the user interface and software still need a little work. You must manually inform the camera how it’s oriented when you’re shooting, which can be a real bummer if you forget. The included mount has a large profile and a cheap-plastic feel—and the screw-and-ball system doesn’t quite hit the mark. Though 1080/60p is pretty amazing for a camera this size, it isn’t quite so impressive if your buddy is shooting 1440/48p or 4k.

Video Mode Max: 1080/60
Battery Life: ~1 hour, 20 minutes at full HD
Weight: 135 grams
Mobile App: Yes
Remote: No
Stills: 8mp, 16mp

Sample: Unedited 16mp still

Sample: Unedited Underwater 16mp still

For aspiring filmmakers, or everyday adventurers looking to immortalize the moment, a GoPro remains a required piece of kit. The video quality of the Hero3+ is unmatched, and because of GoPro’s popularity, other companies are creating products and devices that can take the cameras to amazing new heights.

However, we were impressed by the performance of the affordable JVC Adixxion unit and would recommend it to filmmakers on a budget. In some cases, we even preferred the unedited results from the JVC. While the iON can capture pro-quality photos and videos, its lack of features make the Hero3+ Black Edition the better option. 

Note: Reviews of the new Sony, Garmin, and Shimano action cameras are coming this spring.

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