Monday, 4 February 2013

New Toy!

Hmmm, a new toy arrived at my desk this afternoon...

A shiny new AEE Magicam SD-21, a Chinese actioncam that is a direct knockoff of the ubiquitous GoPro.  Reviews for these things have been very good but they've been hard to get hold of in Australia to date.  I got mine from Kogan, who at the time of writing have them on sale for AUD $149.00, they're basically a steal at that price.

I decided on the SD-21 after much searching and reading of reviews, much umm'ing and ahh'ing and general indecision.  Many visits to pages like Techmoan and other reviewers of cheap electronics, and many many Youtube videos.  I decided early on that while I'd love to get a GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, I just can't justify spending the approximate $475.00 that they retail for here in Oz.  I just couldn't see the bang-for-the-buck.  Actioncam purists may shudder, but from what I've already seen, this little cam is pretty much identical in performance to the last generation GoPro2 and the lesser specced GoPro3 White.  In some ways, it exceeds them.

So, what does $149.00 net you in the Chinese knockoff actioncam game.  Quite a lot, it turns out.  Read on for the details.

Firstly, the camera came very nicely packaged.  Neat and tidy, without the stupid wasteful plastic cube display case that GoPro's come bundled in.  Here we have the contents of the main plastic bubble at the top of the package.  Clockwise from top left we have the camera itself, the LCD display backpack, the extended battery backpack, and the internal battery.  It's worth noting that the LCD module is a $99 addon for most GoPro's.  The main battery provides 1000mAh and the battery extender adds another 1100mAh, for an estimated 4 or 5 hours recording time with both installed.  A couple of neat features here - the batteries are both recharged via mini-usb and do not need to be removed from the camera to charge.  The camera has a mini-usb port on the side, and the battery backpack also has a mini-usb port on top... an odd place for it but not to worry.  Also, the camera can be plugged in to an external power supply and charged while operating - a feat not all actioncams can manage (Liquid Image Ego, I'm looking at you...)

Here's the camera itself - it's tiny.  With no backpack on it measures about 40x40x60mm and weighs very little.  Adding either of the backpacks adds about 12mm to the thickness.  On top of the camera you can see the power switch and the record button, a stop button and a photo button.  Also, a small LCD display for basic operational information when the LCD backpack is not attached, and the three small holes towards the back are the microphone.  Two LED's at the rear edge indicate when charging/full and when connected to a PC.

On the front of the camera, either side of the glass lens cover, there is an indicator LED that shows when recording or taking a photo, and a laser pointer.  Yes, a laser pointer.  This is of limited use, however it does allow you to line up a shot when mounting the camera if you either can't see the LCD backpack screen, or you don't have it installed.  Oh, it's bloody bright too, much brighter than the laser pointer in my wireless presenter.

The camera comes with a waterproof housing which claims IP68 compliance and 100m of submersion.  I strongly doubt that, but it's irrelevant as I won't likely be taking it underwater any time soon.  The case is very sturdily built with a good rubber seal around the back gate and a secure clamping latch.  The three metal button extensions are very nice, with thick seals and nice springs, and feel good to operate.  The black bezel on the front I thought was just fluff, unnecessary greebling, but it does actually appear to clamp in a removable flat lens with an o-ring seal so I have hopes that this part is replaceable in the (inevitable) event that it gets scratched up.  What sets this housing apart from the nigh on identical GoPro housing is a detail that I neglected to photograph.  On the bottom of the housing is an inset 1/4-20 tripod mounting - the universal standard mount for pretty much all cameras, meaning you can mount this baby on just about anything.  The GoPro requires a proprietary adapter to provide what should be a standard mounting option.  It's also worth noting that there is also a 1/4-20 mount on the bottom of the camera itself... meaning you can mount it without any housing whatsoever!  A fantastic idea that you see in many cheap actioncams, but almost none of the big names.

Some of the extras that were in the box.  A carry bag, some stickers (haven't figured out what they're for yet) and a packet of de-humidifying pads.  You stick one of these inside the housing with the camera to absorb any moisture and prevent the housing or camera lens from fogging up.  Not sure I'll need them, but they're a nice inclusion, and again, something you have to pay extra for from the competition.  One thing I really liked - you actually get a proper printed manual, as well as a mini-CD containing the same as a PDF.  It's so much nicer to have a nice little booklet that's entirely in English than the pretty well standard giant sheet of basic instructions printed in 20 languages that seems to be packed with most consumer devices these days.  It's reasonably well written too - not entirely devoid of Chinglish, but the odd errors do not prevent understanding of the content.

A few of the included mounts.  There are two each of the flat and curved variety, and they look identical to the GoPro mounts.  The flat mounts are for flat surfaces, and the curved mounts for curved surfaces, duh.  I'll find a use for these eventually, likely on a glider wingtip.  The pivot mount pictured top right has two barbed prongs that slide between the outer flanges of the mount and click into place holding the camera very securely.  For further security, the bright orange rubber insert gets stuffed between the prongs and prevents them accidentally releasing.  You can see the 1/4-20 attachment bolt on the pivot mount, with some little nubs that locate into holes in the camera/housing base to maintain panning attitude.  The large bolt on the pivot mount loosens to allow tilt, but is very secure when tightened up even just a little.  The camera shouldn't nod or sag under it's own weight even if you don't wail on the tension.

Another assortment of extras in the box.  There's a basic mounting plate that screws into the camera base via the 1/4-20 mount and can be inserted into the pivot mount base in place of the previously pictured threaded mount.  I don't see much point to this as you can already attach directly to the camera's tripod mount.  It does have a lip around the top, so I expect it would provide a bit more security to the attached backpack when mounted without the sealed housing.  There's a spare pivot bolt and nut with an attached lanyard, some velcro if you need a removable mounting I guess, a little rubber dust cover that goes in the backpack data port on the camera when you have no backpack installed and a couple of round spacers which appear to be adhesive on one side, and who's purpose baffles me.  There's no mention of them in the instructions.  A standard short mini-usb cable for charging and data transfer is included, as well as an AV cable to output to a TV.

Now here's a useful inclusion.  A wireless remote control - wifi, not infrared.  You pair this with the camera (in fact you can pair it to several) and hence have control of recording, snapping photos, or activating the laser to check alignment when the camera is out of reach.  Handy if the camera is mounted outside your glider (in my case) or other form of transportation.  The remote has clips on either side for you to thread a strap through if you want to wrist mount it, and also has a removable alligator style clamp to attach it to a sleeve, collar, pocket or whatever.  I guess you could use that included velcro to mount it to a cockpit wall or dashboard or whatever.  An indicator LED shows when a control has been pressed, and you get (loud) audio feedback from the camera as well.  Just to rub it in with GoPro some more, with all but the highest spec GoPro3 Black, you have to dish out an additional $99 for a similar remote, and if you have an older gen 1 or 2 camera you'll need to shell out another $90 for a wifi backpack to use it.  The newer ones have wifi built in.  Granted, the GoPro wifi does let you use a nifty smartphone app to as a viewfinder and to change menu settings, I don't see this as being a feature on the AEE camera anytime soon.

For my purposes, I don't want to use permanent mounts like the adhesive ones provided.  I plan on mounting the camera inside the canopy of the glider so I figure a suction mounting will be better.  I picked up one of these from eBay for about $12 delivered.  It's very sturdy and fully adjustable and should fit the bill nicely.  You can buy one of these as an option with the camera, but like the GoPro version they want about $35 for it.  The cheap eBay version is identical.

OK, enough of all the bits and pieces, what does it look like once it's all together?  It's certainly easy to assemble, no need for an advanced diploma in rocket surgery here...

Remove the battery cover from the back of the camera and insert the battery.  These batteries are common as muck, and pretty cheap too, so you can buy a handful and keep them charged up if you think you're going to be doing a lot of recording.  Personally, I'll just plug the camera into one of my portable battery packs... you can get good 11,000+mAh charger packs from the likes of Techbuy for around $80.  That'll power one of these cameras all day long.

Add your backpack of choice - pictured here for your viewing pleasure with the LCD backpack installed.  You don't necessarily need a backpack if you're mounting the camera bare - you can just use the dust cover to close the data port and mount it as is.  If you're using the housing however, you need to have one of the backpacks in place - otherwise the camera will slide around in the housing.  A smaller, camera only housing would be a nice option.

Slip the camera into the housing and secure the locking clamp.  The clamp really is very secure and doesn't seem at all flimsy, having metal pins right through the hinges.  You may notice that there's no way to access the power switch from outside the housing - you have to switch the camera on before putting it into the housing.  This is not as dire as it sounds, as the camera has an auto standby feature and goes to sleep if you don't press anything for a certain time - you can adjust how long in the menu.  Pressing any button on the housing or the remote will wake the camera back up for use.

Thread the tripod mount into the housing and you're good to go via whichever mounting option you wish to utilise, here I've got the cam on the pivot mount and a flat adhesive mount.  In the housing and on a mount, the camera becomes quite bulky - I can't see anyone mounting one of these on a helmet.  The bullet-cam style actioncams like the Contour are much better suited to that kind of use.  Mounted to a dash, windscreen, cockpit, or vehicle exterior however, the cam will stay nice and secure and steady.

This is how I'll be mounting the camera inside the cockpit, with the suction mount on the right side of the canopy interior.  The mount has an adjustable arm and a ball-jointed tripod mount, so should allow an optimum and level position to be obtained.  In fact, I'll probably leave the housing off and mount the cam naked to save a bit of weight and allow a charging cable to be attached.

Just to finish off, the camera has a few ports tucked away on the sides under protective covers.  On the left you have a mini-usb port for charging and data transfer to a PC, and also a mini-hdmi port to connect to your HD display of choice.  Yes, HD display.  This tiny camera records in the full gamut of HD resolutions... 1080p, 1080i, 720p and so on.  It has an adjustable field of view from a wide 170degrees, medium 145degrees and narrow 120degrees.  The narrow option isn't so narrow.  I'll probably use the medium setting to avoid the worst of the fisheye you get with wide field actioncams.  You can also set the framerate and bitrate for higher/lower quality or some slo-mo work at 60fps in 720p.

The other side has a micro-SD card port and a 3.5mm microphone jack, which appears to be a stereo mic jack, and also serves as the AV out port if connecting via the AV lead.  As with most video cameras these days, a high speed flash card is recommended and the SD-21 is unique in the market at this point in its support for 64GB memory cards.  Every other camera I looked at topped out at 32GB support.  So... more room to record.  I couldn't lay my hands on a 64GB Class 10 card at my local computer store (they'd sold out) so I've got a 32GB card for the time being.  That'll be plenty of space for my purposes at the moment, I can get a bigger card later.  The mic port is a good addition as well, as the internal mic on these types of cameras is atrocious.  The only good mic I've seen on an actioncam is on the new Sony - which has some critical flaws in other areas that ruled it out of my search (Hello, Sony?  How're you supposed  to mount that thing in any useful way??)  So, a cheap mic plugged in will allow some decent audio, narration, etc.

That's it for the moment, it's late here and I need sleep!  I'll be recording some test footage tomorrow and will upload that when I get a chance, so stay tuned for part two of this review.


EDIT:  Part two of the review can be found here.