Electronics company MGCOOL has recently put out several new sports action cameras in the style of GoPro targeting the 4K and affordable market. The Explorer 1s both feature rich and capable of 4k at 24FPS packs a lot in for the low price of $70.
Shooting in 4K has quickly become the standard for most video enthusiasts and most consumer level cameras have started shipping with at least some kind of 4K capabilities. When it comes to marketing buzzwords 4K is the new 4g. However not all 4K is the same.
The Explorer 1s at first glance seems identical to the GoPro Hero 4 and its previous models. It comes with the familiar looking waterproof housing and a good selection of mounting hardware. The 3rd party accessory market has become massive with the success of the GoPro and MGCOOL’s cameras take advantage of that utilizing the exact same mounting system. However the physical dimensions of the camera are actually different from the GoPro. The lens height is about the same as is the overall width and height but the thickness of the Explorer 1s is about a millimeter thicker. This means you can't use it in the GoPros water housing or some of the other mounts that require you to place the camera inside. I tried to use it with my 3 axis Gimbal and it wouldn't fit without modifying the connectors. That being said once the camera was in its water housing I was able to connect it to all of my existing mounting systems.
The camera uses some of the better hardware I've seen in the recent boom of affordable action cameras while still keeping the price reasonable. The Chipset is a Novatek NT96660 and the camera sensor a SONY IMX 078. Both are not anywhere near as nice as what comes in something like a GoPro but if you're looking for GoPro quality in a sub $100 camera you wont find it here. Its advertised as being capable of 4K 24fps, 2K 30fps, 1080P 60fps/30/fps, and up to 20MP image resolution.
The only real problem with this hardware is that the Novatek Chipset can’t really shoot 4K video. What it actually shoots is something like 24FPS at 2880x2160 then it's interpolated up to the 4K. This isn't terrible and it does it better then a lot of cheap cameras you can find reviewed on YouTube but be aware, that's what you’re getting.
It has nice 2” inch screen that looks much nicer and larger than the Hero 4 but isn't touch capable and has a narrow viewing angle. In its case it's waterproof up to 30m though I didn't test this I did toss it in an aquarium with no issues. There is WiFi for connecting to an app. A mini USB and mini HDMI ports. A 1050mAh battery that lasted a lot longer then my GoPro, and uses the standard microSD card up to 64GB. Overall what you would expect from an action camera.
Where I think the camera really sets itself apart from the GoPro was in the various shooting modes it comes with. It has a Car Mode for use as a dash cam, Motion Detection also I assume for car use, Image Stabilization, and Slow Motion. As well as the usual time lapse, HDR, Loop Recording, Burst Mode, etc., I tried to see if the Motion detection would be triggered with some furries in my yard and was pleasantly surprised with how well it worked. Also the image stabilization works really well, way better than I expected. I walked down the street with both the Explorer 1s and GoPro and it was very noticeable.
GoPro Hero 4 and MGCOOL Explorer 1s mounted in the same position, FOV difference.
My biggest problem with the Explorer 1s was the field of view. It lets you choose various angles from 70° to 170° but when using it on my Motorcycle, 170° in just about all the mounting points I tried I could never get myself or the bike to fit in the shot. If you are shooting something at a reasonable distance then the FOV combined with the good IS works but at just a few feet in front of you like on my bike or as a vlog camera I feel it just wasn't enough.
The camera feels good in your hand. Made entirely of plastic with a stylish and grippy finish. There are four buttons for navigation, power, and shutter. They are responsive and make selecting the different modes and menu navigation easy. There are three led lights however there isn't anything on the front side to indicate that the camera was running. This combined with the narrow viewing angle of the screen made it hard to see if it was recording if mounted facing you.
MGCOOL makes a free app that goes with the camera and connects on its own WiFi network. The GUI is decent and does everything you would want it to. Live view for both video and stills, remote triggering and the ability to change just about all the settings. The distance is not great so flying a drone or controlling remotely for another person in motion might not stay connected.
It is obviously not fair to compare the quality of a $300-400 GoPro to any of these sub $100 action cameras but you have to set some sort of standard. There is nothing similar to Protune for the Explorer 1s but you can adjust settings like Exposure, White Balance, Color, Sharpness, and ISO. I didn't play with them too much and straight out of the camera the quality wasn't terrible but it wasn't great either. The color quality was decent the sky was nice and blue and the trees green. Moving between bright sun light and shade transitioned well and didn't feel too blown out or dark. No matter how bright the lighting was there always seemed to be a lot of noise in the shadows. Honestly once I threw on a couple quick LUTs in post the footage was more reasonable. So with a little tweaking and some editing magic you could probably get acceptable footage for a lot of average uses. I still wouldn't expect anyone to use this camera for any commercial usage but if you want the fun of seeing yourself in action then for the price I don't think this camera can be beat.
What I Liked
- Compatibility with GoPro mounts
- Image Stabilization
- Motion Detection, Car Mode, Slow Motion
What I didn't Like
- 170° Max Field of View
- Interpolated 4K
- No front facing Record indicator
- Would prefer 1080p 120/240fps over 4K 24fps
If you own a GoPro and want a second camera then you'll just be disappointed. If you've been wanting to get an action camera and the price point of a GoPro is just too high then this might just work for you. I can think of lots of good uses for this camera where some of its shortcomings just don't matter as much. Lots of times I decide not to use my GoPro for fear of losing it and I wouldn't worry about losing a $70 Camera as much. I think getting great footage out of a GoPro takes a little work and knowledge and I think if you were to apply that to the E1s you would greatly improve what you can get from it. Straight out of the camera it’s OK but It could be better. At $70 it is more then I would think you could do when you look at how expensive a GoPro is. I didn't test the still photos very much, as a whole I feel most action cameras don't shoot stills as nice as the average cell phone nowadays other than maybe underwater which I didn't have the opportunity to test. Similarly with audio it sounded fine but nothing great and most people will use some sort of external audio. For ambient action sound it does just fine as long as it’s within a couple feet.