When you’re the market leader, everybody wants to beat you and so, in the video actioncam business, GoPro is squarely in the gunsights of a growing phalanx of rivals which includes mainstream brands such as Panasonic and Sony and a host of lesser known names, quite a few of them coming from China.
Thanks mostly to GoPro, the actioncam market is now very big business indeed, greater in value in some regions than the sales of conventional video camcorders. The challenge for the competition is that GoPro had the business pretty much all to itself for a very long time… long enough to become ‘standard issue’ in professional film and TV production… long enough to establish widespread support among third-party accessory suppliers… long enough, in fact, to virtually become a generic term for the video actioncam. Watch any TV documentary made over the last few years and you’ll inevitably not only see footage shot with a GoPro, but more than likely the cameras themselves attached to anything that can move, either human or mechanical.
So to have any chance against GoPro, you have to do it better and, preferably, at a lower price. Enter ShotBox with its flagship S71 – built by Chinese company, AEE International – which headlines a long feature list with the ability to shoot 4K video, making it a direct competitor to GoPro’s Hero4 Black Edition. There’s around a $250 price difference – in the S71’s favour – so ShotBox is off to a good start, but it also seems AEE has looked at every key Hero4 specification and then either matched it or gone at least one better. For example, the Hero4 packs 12 megapixels resolution, the S71 gives you 16 MP and excellent 4608x3456 pixels JPEGs. The Hero4’s underwater housing is rated to 40 metres, the S71’s down to 100 metres (OK, a bit academic if you aren’t a proficient diver, but you get the idea). The S71 is marginally more compact and lighter, while its higher-capacity battery pack allows for up to 2.5 hours of continuous recording (at the 1080p resolution) versus 1.5 hours for the GoPro, although there are numerous variations in the operating situations that direct comparisons aren’t all that relevant.
It’s not all one-way traffic though, particularly if you’re planning to record 4K video. Here the Hero4 offers the more practical options of recording at the Ultra HD resolution (3840x2160 pixels) at 24, 25 or 30 fps versus only 12.5 fps (PAL standard) with the S71. And while the ShotBox camera also enables shooting at the 4K Cinema resolution of 4096x2160 pixels, it’s only at 12 fps.
Additionally, the GoPro has a selection of white balance settings (albeit small), a choice of two colour profiles, sharpness controls and adjustable auto ISO limits. The S71 shares the Hero4’s exposure compensation range of +/-2.0 EV and the option of switching to spot metering in strongly backlit situations, but otherwise it’s automatic controls all the way… no bad thing if they do a good job, but more experienced shooters often like having a few overrides available for fine-tuning settings.
Out Of The Box
The ShotBox S71 arrives in elaborate GoPro-style packaging which initially always looks like overkill accept that in this case, the camera is accompanied by a veritable candy store of accessories.
Of course, there’s the waterproof housing – as well made as anything from GoPro – but also a very nifty little detachable LCD monitor screen which, believe it or not, has touch controls. If you want to have both the camera and monitor in the underwater casing, there’s a deeper interchangeable back cover to accommodate the latter. Then there’s a total of six different camera mounts, a USB cable, an anti-fog kit, a small (very) handstrap and a storage pouch. ShotBox reckons this little lot is worth around $200 which further enhances the S71’s value for money.
The camera itself is tiny, but still incorporates a monochrome info display which is how you drive the S71 if you’re not using the detachable monitor unit. Almost half the camera’s bulk created by the 1500 mAh lithium-ion battery pack which is recharged in-situ via the USB cable. On the front panel is a set of four switches for power on/off, WiFi on/off, the metering modes and a handy feature called the ‘G-Sensor’ which, when activated, automatically starts recording when camera movement is detected and then stops it when it becomes stationary again. Otherwise, recording is commenced manually via a green button on the S71’s front panel and stopped via a red button on the top panel. There’s a separate shutter button so, particularly with the touchscreen monitor attached, the ShotBox is more user-friendly as a still camera than any other actioncam (albeit with some control issues we’ll get to shortly).
As noted earlier, The S71 delivers 16 MP resolution JPEGs – putting it on a par with many Micro Four Thirds cameras – but there’s the option of capturing at either 12 MP or 8.0 MP, and with continuous shooting speeds of 3.0, 6.0 or 10 fps.
The sensor is a 1/2.3-inch Sony-sourced ‘Exmor R’ CMOS which has ‘back-illuminated’ design to maximise pixel size and sensitivity. It’s mated with a 2.7mm f2.8 ultra-wide lens which equates to an effective focal length (in 35mm format terms) of around 15mm. There’s a 10x digital zoom – operated via plus/minus soft buttons in the touchscreen monitor – but obviously this progressively crops the image. That said, with 16 MP on tap, there’s a bit of room to move here, at least to about 8.0 MP.
In addition to the 4K video modes, the S71 records 1080p video at 24, 25, 48 or 50 fps, and 720p at 50 or 100 fps, the latter for slow-mo sequences. There’s also a mode for 960p HD recording in the 4:3 aspect ratio. The built-in mic records stereo sound, and the camera also has a built-in speaker. The memory card slot (for microSD devices) and the connection terminals (for USB and HDMI) share the same bay on one side of the camera which is protected by a tethered cover.
Operationally, there are a few idiosyncrasies, starting with those separate buttons for starting and stopping video recording. The first is also used to change the shooting mode which requires it be held down for three seconds… and then the second button cycles through the various options which include time-lapse recording. If the monitor screen is attached, the front button cycles through the video modes only while the shutter button is used to select the still photography mode (again by being held down for a short period).
This feels a bit counter intuitive at first, but when the S71 is in video mode, a casual press of the shutter button won’t do anything. Additionally, the adjustments for video shooting – made via the touchscreen controls – are locked out when the camera is in still mode and vice-versa. We’ve seen better designed user interfaces, but it becomes less clunky with regular usage.
The touchscreen menus are icon-based and this is all pretty straightforward with audible signals confirming each action. A particularly well thought-out aspects of the controls is making the two top-panel buttons also work as a power switch (when pressed together) so the S71 can still be turned on and off when it’s in the underwater housing. Additionally, you can also still switch between the video and still shooting modes and a top panel window allows the info display to be read.
Given the lens’s ultra-wide 147 degrees angle-of-view, some curvilinear distortion is to be expected despite the use of aspherical elements. It can be minimised by keeping the parallel to the image plane, but if you’re shooting action up-close-and-personal, the wide view adds to the dynamism and a bit of distortion doesn’t matter.
The lens is nicely sharp with, not surprisingly, lots of depth-of-field even at f2.8. The lens speed also contributes to the S71’s excellent low light capabilities, although it would still be nice to have some control over ISO settings. The auto colour balance control seems to do a good job and the exposure systems reacts pretty quickly to changes in light levels, but extreme contrast can be an issue (which is where the spot metering comes in handy).
Where the waterproof housing isn’t needed, the camera’s smallness allows it to be tucked into tight corners and here the front-panel controls make sense in terms of accessibility. However, in reality most users are going to utilise the S71’s WiFi capabilities and control the camera remotely via a smartphone or tablet. The AEE App is available for both iOS and Android devices and the control interface gives access to everything that’s adjustable from the monitor module (and including shutter release)… but you’ll need to preset the metering mode and ‘G-Sensor’ switches which you’ll also have to do before the camera is used in the housing. Additionally to the protection against dust and moisture, ShotBox says the S71 is also able to work in subzero temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius.
The video performance is the clincher with test footage shot at 1080/50p being nicely stable with great clarity, colour and contrast. This is what most people will be buying the S71 for, so the fact that it also delivers pretty decent stills is a real bonus as this is often a second thought with these products. It easily out-toughs the ruggedised compact cameras such as Olympus’s Stylus TG-4 which has a similar sensor – and is virtually the same price (if you shop around) – but obviously the latter offers much more control for still photography plus the flexibility of a 4x zoom lens. Nevertheless, if you’re taking your photography to extremes, there’s a lot to commend the S71, particularly in terms of the mobile mounting options. If space is tight, run it without the monitor module in the standard waterproof housing configuration… alternatively, when you want or need a viewfinder, fit the monitor and use the dedicated back cover on the housing (they simply clip on and off). It’s nice to have the choice.
For many photographers a GoPro is just a bit too pricey to buy just for ‘playing around’, and while the ShotBox S71 is definitely much more than a toy, it’s the perfect place to start trying out shooting in situations beyond the scope of a conventional camera. It works well simply as stills camera, but inevitably you’ll want to start shooting video and then it really comes into its own as an actioncam… with 4K on offer if you want to get really serious. Incidentally, if you don’t want 4K, the virtually identical S60 model is yours for just $299.
We’d like to see a few more manual controls (particularly for ISO and colour balance), but the automatic systems are more than capable and, let’s face it, if the action is exciting enough, the odd technical hiccup isn’t going to be noticed. Obviously for the more experience video shooter, the S71 represents exceptional value especially if you’re contemplating buying a number of them for multi-camera set-ups.
In the end we got pretty addicted to what was possible with the ShotBox S71, how much fun you can have with it, and the fact that it was ready for anything straight out of the box. That you also end up with some great-looking footage (or stills) is the icing on the cake.
Go on, you know you want to..