Friday, 8 February 2013

New Toy, Part 2

Welcome to part two of my test and review of the AEE Magicam SD-21.  Part One can be viewed here.

As previously noted, I was quite impressed with the contents of the camera package - you get an awful lot for the SD-21's going price.  I made the comment that this was a cheap Chinese knockoff of the GoPro2 - I retract that statement.  While the heritage is obviously similar, there are sufficient differences between the cameras that it would be better to label this as an alternative rather than a copy.  Of course, the contents of the package mean little if the camera can't produce decent footage.  I'm happy to say that I was equally impressed with quality of the video produced.  Read on for my impressions and some tests.

My plan for testing the camera out was to simply pop it in the housing and attach it to the interior of the windscreen in my car via the inexpensive suction mount that I purchased.  This proved easy to achieve, and the entire assembly fits in nicely behind the passenger side of the rear view mirror.  Given that the camera has a loop recording option as well as an accelerometer based start/stop function, having it mounted unobtrusively like this with a permanent adhesive mount would make this camera a great option for use as a dash-cam for those who are inclined towards such things.

I recorded two lots of footage, one on the way to work, and one on the way home.

The above video was recorded early in the morning, driving from Tapping, WA to Perth Airport.  The sun was quite low down to the horizon for most of the trip, and much of the journey was heading straight into it.  I've chopped out most of this footage and kept the video to a few short sections of the drive where the sun was to the side.  I've tried to include some sections where there were transitions from light to dark and back in shadows to see how the camera handles lighting changes.  All settings were on default except the view angle which was set to 145degrees, and the video footage has not been filtered in any way.  Recording was in 1080p at 30fps, on Youtube it may be best to view the 720p version as the 1080p Youtube compression is not always the best - works ok for me though.

So, what do I think?

Camera mounting - Very easy and secure.  There was minimal movement of the housing on the mount as you can see above.  Next trial will be mounting without the waterproof housing.  The suction mount is a great option. as it gives much more freedom in the camera positioning than the standard adhesive mounts.  My camera was mounted upside down, hanging from the top of the windscreen and I used the 180 degree rotation option in the camera settings to ensure the footage was the right way up.

Camera Operation - again, couldn't be easier.  Start the camera and slip it into the housing.  You can define the amount of time after which the camera goes to sleep mode, I set mine to 2 minutes.  The camera wakes up with a press of any of the buttons on the housing or the remote control.  The Remote itself is very easy to use, I had it attached to my seatbelt with the included alligator clip and the three buttons are easy to operate and also easy to tell apart by feel so you don't have to take your eyes off what you're doing to start or stop recording.  One niggle I had was with the noises that the camera makes - they are very loud.  There's no way you could use this camera unobtrusively.  I figured out later on how to turn off the control key sounds - via the menu option "Warning Tone."  This does not mute the sound made when turning the camera on, or when recording starts or stops however, and there are no volume control options.  Another minor niggle is that in the 180 degree rotated mode, the operation of the menu buttons remains the same as in the normal upright mode, so all the controls are effectively reversed.  There aren't any massive menus to navigate so this is only a minor point.  Another niggle is that there does not appear to be a way to switch off the LCD display while it is attached and the camera is on - I expect this will drain the battery a little faster though I did not notice this and you can always unmount the LCD backpack.

Video quality - I'm quite happy with this.  The morning was bright and sunny with a bit of haze due to some coastal moisture trapped by the overnight inversion.  The video shows the quality of the light and colour fairly well, although the colour is a tad oversaturated.  Nothing that a little post processing won't fix.  The drive to work was around 55 minutes and watching the full raw video I noticed no odd artifacts in the video apart from the odd lensflare from the low sun angle.  The video has some grain, but not enough to distract, certainly no worse than the GoPro2 though not as good as what I've seen from the GoPro3 Black.  The video did get somewhat overpowered by the sun when heading straight into it, although there are menu options to change the metering method to help counter this - mine was set on the default "Average" and I suspect when driving into bright sun like this it would be better set to "Centre."

Sound quality - In the housing, the sound recording is very poor.  You cannot hear my voice in the video without cranking the volume right up.  A lot of noise is transferred through the housing however, and oddly you can hear the stereo, engine, gear changes and road rumble quite clearly with the housing closed.  There is a slight high pitch buzz audible when there is no other masking sound.  I chopped most of the sound out of the video, only leaving in the actual mic test part at 2:30.  Opening the housing makes the mic work quite well.  Conversation is picked up well - I was not talking at any great volume during the test.  I think an external mic will be needed for any narrative I'm going to add in future videos.

Battery Life - Good, about what I expected.  The drive to work was 55 minutes, taking the scenic route through the Swan Valley.  Battery level when I got to work was still over half.

The second bit of footage recorded was taken in the afternoon on the way home.  I decided to try out the timelapse functionality of the camera after a couple of questions from others about this.  The camera was set up with the defaults as before, but with the automatic exposure function set to take a snapshot every 10 seconds.  Image options were left at the default 8MP.  The video was assembled from the resulting ~300 frames with a quarter second delay per frame.

Camera Operation - more or less as above.  After setting up for automatic exposures, a simple press of the "Photo" button on the remote begins recording.  A counter on the display shows the countdown to each frame being taken, and each exposure is accompanied by a "beep."  This is the downside to this camera.  There is no way to turn off that beep.  While mounted in the housing the noise is not too loud and was not really noticeable over the music I had on - opening the case however it quickly became annoying to the point of distraction.  There needs to be an option to turn that sound off!  Pressing the "Stop" button on the remote halts recording.

Picture quality - OK, not great.  The video has been resized down to 720p but the full size frames are not a lot different.  It was a bit gloomy due to the overcast conditions, but the camera has compensated somewhat - the images are quite a bit brighter than the actual conditions.  This seems to have resulted in some noise in the photos.  The camera claims to take 8MP stills, but in all honesty my old 7MP Kodak takes far superior images in less favourable conditions.  The Magicam, however, is primarily a video camera and I did not buy it for stills.

Battery life - The morning drive in was 55 minutes and the drive home was 50 minutes, there was no charging in between and the camera was still showing plenty of battery life with the internal battery only.  Subsequent testing over the past couple of days showed the camera running out of juice while recording video at around the 2hr 10min mark.  Adding the external battery pack extended this to over 4 1/2 hours - heaps of life for most purposes.

Memory use - With just shy of an hour of video footage (57 minutes total) at 1080p30 recorded with the default high bitrate, the resulting file was 4.7GB in size.  So 5GB per hour seems a good estimation.  I'm using a 32GB Class10 microSD card so I should get roughly 6hrs of footage.  As mentioned in the previous post, the camera supports microSD cards of up to 64GB, which is a monstrous amount of footage.  Photo files come in at 1.2MB each, my timelapse run took up only 366MB.

I may need more battery time so I tested the camera operation while attached to an external power source.  Having a usb cable attached to the micro-usb port on the camera instantly puts the camera into transfer mode when it is activated so this at first appeared to be a no-go.  As I pointed out in part one however, the external battery pack has its own micro-usb charging port.  I thought that utilising this port may give me the result I was after - and I was right.  You can operate the camera with the external battery pack attached and a charging source attached to the external battery pack!  While this may be inconvenient for some, it actually works for me.  I can set up the camera directly on its own 1/4-20 mount in the cockpit and use the LCD pack to get alignment right and settings correct.  Once set up, the LCD pack can be removed and the battery pack added with an additional power source, and the camera operated with the remote.  I suspect if you were really keen you could hack a micro-usb port into the LCD display with only the power pins attached via the backpack port pins and get the best of both worlds.

So, am I happy with this camera?  Yes I am.  It will fulfil my needs perfectly, at least for the time being.  Given that you can buy 3 of these cameras (now there's an idea... multi-angle or 3D video anyone?) for the price of a single GoPro Hero3 Black and get more mounting options and accessories incuded to boot, the AEE Magicam SD-21 represents tremendous value for money.

I'm looking forward to getting lots of use of this :)

Oh, one more thing - the photo files are stored as JPG's and the videos are stored as MOV files.  Most of the video editing packages I've been using don't like MOV's so they'll need to be converted prior to editing.  Microsoft Live Movie Maker handles them just fine though...

Any questions or ideas you have, please leave a comment below.