Review: MGCool Explorer Pro 4k Action Camera

About a month ago I was contacted by MGCool and invited to do a review of their Explorer Pro 4k, an action camera similar in size to the popular GoPro series of cameras.  I received a courtesy unit a few days later and have been giving it a good workout for the past several weeks.  Now it is time to share my thoughts and observations.

What comes in the box

The camera comes packaged in a nice waterproof case that allows access to all of the controls when the camera is enclosed. Also in the package are several accessories. These include a USB charging/transfer cable, a camera bracket and clip, a bicycle mount, two adhesive mounts (helmet, dash, etc), one 90 degree directional change adapter,  and a user manual. A big surprise was the fact that it came with a second battery, something I would not expect from a low-cost action camera – or any camera, for that matter.  What it does not include is a class 10 micro SDHC memory card that will be necessary to use the camera.  I already had one of these from another action camera, so I was set to go.

Features

The Explorer Pro 4k is equipped with a 170 degree wide-angle lens, and somehow manages to only display a very slight amount of fish-eye.  This is quite impressive, considering that my more expensive Xioami Yi has a narrower 155 degree lens and has a much more pronounced fish-eye effect unless I enable the lens rectification feature.  Also unlike my Xioami Yi, this camera has a two inch screen on the back of the camera, which serves not only as a viewfinder, but also allows you to navigate and change a wide variety of settings. There are number of different resolutions and frame rates to choose from.  You can also configure the camera for “driving mode”, which starts recording automatically when it receives power and shuts down when the power is lost. This, along with the auto-loop function, makes it suitable for use as a dash camera. In addition to taking standard photos and videos, it also has the ability to take slow motion shots and time-lapses. You can take slow motion shots in 720P, 120 fps (resulting video is 25% of normal speed), or 1080P, 60 fps (50% of normal speed). With time lapses, you can set it to capture a frame at intervals of anywhere from a half-second up to one minute.

All of the settings available on the camera can also be set using the mobile app, which connects to the camera using WiFi. The app also serves as a view finder if you want to control recording remotely.

Quality

You probably knew by the price of this camera that it was not going to be excellent at everything. Well, quality is probably the place where you see some difference between this camera and ones costing twice as much.  That’s not to say the quality is bad.  Considering the cost of the camera, there is little to complain about. Under optimal lighting, the quality is very good.  When you start to introduce challenges such as poor lighting or a lot of light variation (bright and dark areas), the quality suffers a bit.  I have noticed, on rare occasion, a small about of “jello effect”, or waviness, when the camera experiences vibration and it is enclosed in the waterproof case.  This is quite common among cameras in this price range.  On the other hand, a more expensive camera without image stabilization will still be shaky, but will not have the “jello effect”, thus making it easier to do some stabilization in the post-production process.  With the white balance mode set to the default setting of auto, I also notice that some shots have a slight “blueish” color tone, at least to my eyes.  However, the camera offers an option to manually set the white balance to one of several different modes to help with this.  Also, white-balance adjustments are pretty easy to make in post-production if you need to do that.  Please review the following photographs and YouTube clips to see the quality of this camera.

https://youtu.be/Y0XcvbRMdjY – Sample video captured at 4k, 30fps
https://youtu.be/JVstYF8ThgE – Time lapse with reasonably good lighting conditions
https://youtu.be/cXNvjp1KzEM – Time lapse with bright sun coming over the horizon

 

I also will be making a full review video soon and will link it here when it is complete.

Summary

The two best words to summarize my opinion of this camera are “Great value”. If you are a professional looking for an action camera to take top-quality footage, this camera may not be the one for you. But you probably knew that when you looked at the price tag.  On the other hand, if you want an inexpensive, feature-rich action camera with everything you need to get started, this camera is a great choice.

The Xiaomi Yi Action Camera

I’ve been wanting to purchase an action camera for quite some time, but was always too much of a tight wad to do so. Finally last month I got my hands on a Xiaomi Yi camera. This camera is another GoPro knock-off, but is one that gets pretty good reviews, and according to most accounts, gives the best video quality for the money. Unlike the popular SJ4000 camera, the Xiaomi Yi supports 1080p video at 60fps, and it can also do 120fps and 240fps video at lower resolutions.

Here are the items I purchased:

I did a video showing the unboxing and a number of sample clips and also a video showing how to use the Xiaomi Yi (the camera doesn’t come with English instructions).

My first impression of the camera is good. The fast frame rate lets me slow down shots without them appearing jerky. I’m hoping this camera will capture some nice underwater clips of catching and releasing fish when I use it for fishing videos on my Great Cove Adventures YouTube channel.

The 808 series of key-chain spy cameras


When it comes to dirt-cheap video cameras, the 808 series of key fob cameras must be one of the most popular. A large selection of these can be found on Amazon.com These cameras are designed to look like a vehicle key fob, and they do a great job of that.   Most folks would look at them and have no idea that you have a video camera attached to your key chain.  However, for many people, spying isn’t the primary use for these camera.  They are commonly used to capture areal footage from a model plane, helicopter, or rocket.  Because these cameras are lightweight, they work well for this purpose.

There are several models of 808 key chain cameras, and the video quality and price varies widely between these models.  The model is simply a number, usually between 1 and 24.  When you buy one of these, the particular model should be specified.  If it is not, be careful!  The lower models have very low resolution and video quality.  I got one of those to use with my model rockets to get areal footage.  You can see the quality (or lack thereof) by taking a look at my rocket videos, or the video taken from my radio controlled Sky Ranger airplane.  The cost for my camera was about $12, and I knew what I was getting.   However, there are some sellers that will sell you a low quality model for $40 or $50 – a big rip-off.

If you’re looking for a higher quality camera and don’t mind a higher price take, the 808 #16 and 808 #26 cameras are some of the most popular and give you 720p and 1080p video respectively.   In addition to the 808 series, there are also some similar cameras that have become very popular.  One of those is the Mobius Action Camera, which is similar in specs to the 808 #24 camera and will probably be my next camera purchase.

Inateck 13-inch Laptop/Tablet Case Giveaway

Note:  This contest has expired.  Keep watching this blog, our Facebook page, or our Youtube Channel for more opportunities to win!

We are giving away a laptop/tablet case to one lucky winner. This product is model HP1300 from Inateck. For more information on this case, click here to visit the product page on Amazon. You can also watch my video review of this product by clicking here. To enter this drawing, you must be at least 18 years old and live in the U.S. or Canada. This contest runs from the time this post appears on my blog until 5 PM on November 29, 2014.

There are two simple steps to enter this contest.

  1. Like our page on Facebook, if you have not already done so. Yes, that means you need a Facebook account to enter. Visit the page at http://www.facebook.com/BernardoTech and click the Like button.
  2.  Send me an email at bernardotech@gmail.com stating that you want to enter the Laptop Case Giveaway, and give me your name as it appears on Facebook so I can verify that you’ve Liked my page.

That’s all you have to do. I will randomly select a winner after 5 PM on November 29.  If you have won, I will reply to your email to inform you of that and will ask for a mailing address where I will send the product.

All information that you provide to us will be used only for the purposes of running this contest. Your email address will only be used to contact you if you are the winner. We won’t send you anything else, nor will we give or sell your email address to others.

Thanks, and good luck!

Rooting and disabling dialing on a Republic Wireless Motorolla Defy XT

Moto-Defy-XTI recently became the owner of a retired Motorolla Defy Xt that had been formerly used with service from Republic Wireless. My 7-year-old loves electronic devices and cameras, so I thought it would make a nice gift for him. Of course, there were a few problems: First, I needed to remove dialing capability. Even without a plan, cell phones can make emergency calls, and I didn’t want the police showing up at my door because of my son inadvertently dialing 911. Secondly, I wanted to remove some of the stock apps that my son won’t be using, like YouTube and Google plus. In the end, I wanted to have a device that allows taking pictures and listening to music, but not much else.

After some research, here are the steps I used to accomplish my objectives. Just a friendly reminder: Rooting your phone may make it inoperable! These steps worked for me but are offered without a warranty of any kind.

1. Root the Phone
To do this, simply download, install and run the Cyanide.apk application. You may need to change your security settings to allow third party apps. In my case, trying to run the APK file took me to the appropiate screen to make the change to the security settings. Once you install and run the APK, the phone will automatically reboot a couple of times, and the job is complete.

2. Install the free version of Titanium Backup
Titanium Backup is available on Google Play. It allows you to backup and uninstall existing applicatiosn on your phone. If your phone is rooted, as ours is, you can even remove stock apps that normally cannot be uninstalled.

3. Remove the Dialer and Republic Wi-Fi apps
Once Titanium Backup is loaded, launch it and tap Backup/Restore. Here you’ll see a list of installed applications. The one you want to remove is called Dialer (in my case, followed by the version number 2.3.7). So click on the dialer and click backup so you can restore it later if needed. Then click on Dialer again and click Uninstall. Once the Dialer is uninstalled, you’ll see an error message appear on the screen. Closing the error message will make it appear again and again. To stop this, hold the power button in for a few seconds and menu with the options Silent Mode, Airplane Mode, and Power Off will appear behind the nagging error message. Then acknowledge the error message one last time and quickly tap Power Off. Once the phone has rebooted, the nagging message should not come back, and you will find that you cannot make calls. You can still enter a number into the dialer interface, but trying to make the call will just display an error message. It will do this for 911 calls as well. I also uninstalled the Republic Wireless Wi-Fi Setup app as well using these same steps. The standard Android Wi-Fi settings are still available.

That’s it! Obviously, you may want to uninstall other apps as well, but this should give you the information you need to do so.

Five Tips for the Beginner R/C Airplane Pilot


I recently took up the hobby of flying radio controlled aircraft. It’s a lot of fun, but I would have gotten off to a better start if I had understood a few things before my first trip to the flying field. Here are five tips that every aspiring R/C pilot needs to know.

1. Choose the right airplane

I’m not a voice of experience here. The only airplane I’ve ever owned is the Cox Sky Ranger. But as far as I can tell, the two things you’re looking for in a beginner airplane are: Easy to fly, and durable. The Cox Sky Ranger is fairly good at both of these. It is very easy to fly, but it doesn’t glide well. You have to give it a little throttle when you come in for a landing. On the durability side, the “flex-foam” construction is almost impossible to break on a crash. The safe-prop system also makes breaking a prop very unlikely. However, if you crash it hard nose-first, you’ll bend the motor shaft. If it’s a minor bend, it may still be able to fly, albeit with less power. If it’s bent badly, you’ll probably have to get a new motor, which isn’t necessarily all that expensive but still a disappointment when it happens. I love my Sky Ranger, but if I had it to do over, I’d buy the Cox Sky Cruiser, which does glide (according to the reviews I’ve watched), and has a push prop above the fuselage where it is almost impossible to break in a crash.

2. Find a suitable flying area

Now that I know how to fly my Cox Sky Ranger, I can easily fly by Cox Sky Ranger in an area the size of a softball field. However, when you’re learning how to fly, a larger area is better. I’d also recommend you find a place with grass as opposed to a hard surface. Obviously, if you’re taking off from the ground as opposed to hand-launching, you’ll need a smooth hard surface to take off from; but grass is a lot more forgiving when you crash.

3. Choose the right day

The first time I flew, I made the mistake of thinking a slight breeze wouldn’t make a difference. You can fly in a slight breeze once you gain experience, but when you’re starting, choose a day when there’s no detectable breeze. If you know where there’s a flag flown on a high flag pole, take a look at that. If the flag is moving, choose another day.

4. Understand the controls

When I flew for the first time, I didn’t understand how the controls worked. From my experience when video games when I was younger, I thought that I simply held the stick to the right or left to start a turn and kept it in the position until the turn was complete. After a few crashes and a little research, I realized that I was doing it wrong. A short nudge of the stick to the right or left was all that was necessary to bank the plan and start the turn. Then the stick is centered again. If the plane starts to level off before it has completed the turn another nudge will put it back into a bank. Once the turn is complete, a brief nudge in the opposite direction may be necessary to straiten the plane out.

Of course, before any of this works correctly, you need to trim the controls so the plane flies straight when you release the controls. Read the manual, and watch some instructional videos before you take to the skies.

5. Label your plane

If you’re like most R/C pilots, sooner or later you will lose an aircraft. Put your name and phone number on the plane somewhere so you have a chance to get it back if that happens.

Conclusion

For me, learning to fly meant 8 or 10 crashes and a bent motor shaft before my first successful flight. If you follow these tips, you have a good chance of doing a lot better.

How to build a model rocket on the cheap

Building and launching model rockets is not an expensive hobby, but a few days ago I decided to try my hand at building three small rockets from scratch – one for each of my three sons.

This video on the right explains the process. I’ll be adding a few more details to this page in the future. For now, here is a list of engines that will work well for this project:

Estes A8-3 – This is engine I’d recommend – a lot of fun without losing the rocket

Estes B6-4 – a bit more powerful

Estes C6-5 – This one will push a small rocket out of sight – good luck finding it!

Model Rockets: a blast from the past

One of my favorite hobbies when I was a kid was launching model rockets. I had a whole fleet of them, ranging from the four-inch Mosquito to the six-foot Mean Machine. In my teen years when I discovered the personal computer, I even wrote a database program to keep track of rocket flights. I advertised the software in a rocketry magazine and sold exactly three copies, if my memory serves me right.

Unfortunately, during my teenage years I lost interest in the rockets and in my early twenties I sold everything: rockets, launch pad, controllers, and parts. I even parted with a half-built three-engine cluster rocket. Sometime later I got married and started a family. Now, a few years later, I have three young boys in my family who would love to have all those rockets. This summer, I decided it was time to get back into the hobby.

As it turns out, the world of model rockets has changed bit since my childhood. First, there seem to be more companies making and selling model rockets. Back then it was mostly just Estes, but now there are many others. Secondly, there are some cool things you can do with rockets nowadays that were either impossible or expensive before. For example, launching one with a on-board video camera.

To get back into model rockets, the first thing I purchased was an Astra III Starter Set. This is from a company called Quest, and it contains everything that you need to get started. Unlike most of the similarly priced kits from Estes, this one even comes with a pack of engines. The launch equipment in this kit is very similar to what you’d get from Estes. Both the launch controller and the launch pad look almost identical. I did find that the launch pad was better-built than the Estes pad I used to have. Instead of the very rigid plastic, the Quest launch pad uses plastic that flexes slightly. This makes it easier to get the legs in and out, and the thing is almost indestructible.

The second thing I purchased was a key-chain spy cam. These things don’t give the highest quality video, but they are very cheap and light. Because of those qualities, they are commonly used for in-flight video on model rockets.

The videos below show the construction process, plus two flights from the on-board camera. I also recorded some instructional videos showing you how to use the camera (the manual is horrible), how to make your own recovery wadding, and how to design a stable rocket. Enjoy!

Republic Wireless & the Motorola Defy XT: A six-month review

In march of this year, I finally was dragged kicking and screaming into the smartphone world. As a person who has worked his entire adult life in the computer and networking field, you’d think it would have happened much sooner. The main reason it didn’t is that I’m a tight-wad. I didn’t mind shelling out some cash for a smartphone, but I didn’t want to pay money every month on a data plan. At the time, I was using a “dumb phone” and getting service for $30 a month from Straight Talk.

So in March I moved over to the $19/month unlimited-everything-with-some-caveats plan offered by Republic Wireless. I didn’t specifically choose the Motorola Defy XT. You might say it chose me – it was the only phone offered by Republic Wireless. At the time I purchased it, I did an unboxing video and did some basic camera tests. Since I’ve used it for a while, I now am ready to do a more detailed review.

The Bad Stuff

  • Outdated OS
    The phone is using Android 2.3, and there’s no indication that there will be an update.
  • Limited internal storage.
    You won’t be able to install many apps until you run out of internal space. Many apps can be moved to the SD card, but some cannot. I’ve moved all of those that allow me to, and I still am pretty much maxed out.
  • Sluggish
    I haven’t found the speed hurting my productivity with the phone, but it is clearly not very speedy. When dialing a phone number, I can press three digits before any of them appear on the screen.
  • WiFi quality suffers at times
    Some WiFi calls are fine. Other ones have quality problems or a noticeable delay that causes people to interrupt each other.
  • No MMS messaging
    You cannot send or receive text messages with this phone that contain photos or video. If somebody tries to send you such a message, it will not be delivered, and they will not get a message to let them know that you’d didn’t receive it.

The Good Stuff

    • Inexpensive
      $19 a month is a hard price to beat.
    • WiFi Calling
      At my home, I do not have cell coverage from any of the major networks. With WiFi calling, I can make and receive calls on my mobile phone for the first time

.

Conclusion

In spite of a not-so-great phone, I’m pleased with Republic Wireless. The plan is cost-effective, and the WiFi calling just makes sense. Why pay to send a call through a cell tower when you have a WiFi connection? For somebody who was accustomed to a “dumb phone”, this phone was an upgrade. Not only that, but I pay less per month than I used to. However, if you want state-of-the-art and don’t mind spending more money on a plan, go someplace else. Or, you can just wait a few months. Republic Wireless has just announced that they will be offering the Moto X, a much better phone, later this year.

DIY Network Attached Storage

Today I spent the afternoon building a NAS (network attached storage) appliance.  I have been looking for a better place to store virtual machine backups, and this seems like a good solution.

I started with a 2U rackmount case, the Norco RPC-230.  I like this particular case for several reasons: First, it has a shallow depth that allows it to be mounted without rails, and it is sturdy enough that it won’t sag.  Secondly, being 2U allows for a standard off-the-shelf power supply unit.  I do not like scrambling to hunt down an odd-ball power supply when my server goes down.

I went with a fan-less mini-itx motherboard from Asus that comes with a dual-core Intel Atom processor already integrated.  This is one of the few Atom boards that met my three qualifications:  four SATA ports, no fans, and a decent price.

For storage I selected two identical Seagate 1 Terabyte drives. The data on these will be mirrored (RAID 1).

I finished it by installing the fabulous and open-source FreeNAS version 8 on a 8 GB USB  thumb drive, freeing the entire RAID pair to be used for storage.

For reference, here is a list of all the hardware for the appliance, cleverly linked to my Amazon affiliate account: