Form Factor – Action cameras come in many different shapes but they’re always small in size. Probably the most common shape is what I call “matchbox”. These cameras are rectangular and look like miniature point-and-shoot digital cameras. Another popular shape is the “breadloaf”, flat on the bottom, curved on the top and rectangular when viewed from the side. Recently cube cameras have become more popular. They’re shaped like – you guessed it – a cube! Tubes of various lengths and diameters are also common. There are others as well and some cameras are shaped for specific applications. You can decide which form factor best suits your needs.
Surface texture – Some camera bodies have a knobby texture that’s good for sweaty or wet hands. Others have a rubbery, easy-to-grip surface. Some pick up dirt and dust more easily than others and some are more readily cleaned.
Buttons – All action cameras use buttons. You use them all the time for navigating menus, snapping photos and starting/stopping recording so buttons can make your experience with a camera pleasant or annoying. Check to see if they’re comfortably located for your hands. Are they easy to find by touch without looking? Is the resistance firm but smooth when you press down on them? Do they have a definite, refined click or an unrefined clack?
Battery compartment – The battery compartment can be located in a variety of positions on the camera body. The most common locations are the side and bottom and sometimes the back. Side and bottom locations have narrow doors while back-mounted batteries have squarish doors. I prefer the side location because if the door should inadvertently pop open the battery won’t automatically fall out. I also prefer doors that remain attached to the camera when you open them. This is especially important for bottom-mounted batteries because if you lose the door there’s nothing to hold in the battery. Also some doors can be a bit fiddly to open and close.
Ports – The memory card slot and ports for cable connections are almost universally located on the side of the camera for “matchbox” style camera bodies. The location varies for other camera shapes and sizes. Except for cameras with a splash-proof design these openings usually aren’t covered. A few manufacturers include a dust cover for the opening. I think this is a good idea because it keeps out dirt and moisture.
Tripod mount – Some action cameras have a 1/4”-20 (that’s a quarter-inch with 20 threads per inch) threaded opening on the bottom of the camera body for mounting on a tripod. Others have a simple clip with a threaded connection and the clip attaches to the camera. But some cameras have neither. For those the only alternative is to use the waterproof housing with the appropriate mounting accessories – if a waterproof housing is available. Holding the camera with your bare hands for a long time such as at sporting events instead of using a tripod, monopod or even a simple pistol grip can be a real pain – literally if you have joint or muscle pain in your arms or hands.
Display – Many action cameras don’t have a display. That’s especially true of tube or “lipstick” cameras and others that are mounted to helmets. For those that do, size matters. The two most common sizes are 1-1/2- and 2-inches (measured diagonally). You’ll appreciate the larger size if your vision isn’t too good. A few 2-inch displays are touch screens which some people prefer for navigating menus. The brightness and quality of the display can vary from so-so to pretty good.
WiFi – WiFi is a common feature on action cameras. Not all cameras have WiFi but it’s certainly widespread, even among cheap cameras. WiFi allows your camera to communicate with an application installed on your mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. The app is proprietary and will only work with a specific brand and your particular camera. With the app you can see the live view from the camera and you can start/stop recording and snap photos using your device. The app allows you to change a variety of camera settings on your device rather than at the camera. Though the entire camera menu might not be available on the app the most commonly used settings will be there. WiFi can be a great feature in some circumstances. It’s much easier to align a camera on your helmet, surfboard or snowboard using the app. And because mobile devices have larger screens it’s easier to set up your camera to frame your shots just right.