If you go to Our Favorite Online Retailer that Used to be a River, you will find about a gajillion "action cams." These are little boxy cameras that always come with a hard plastic case so they can be used underwater, and usually fit onto a now-universal two- or three-bladed mount first pioneered by GoPro. They range in price from about $50 for the cheap Chinese knock-offs to many hundreds of dollars for the name-brand versions.
I still own a first-gen GoPro, which was powered by AAA batteries that would inevitably rattle loose about mid-ride when I was filming motorcycle races back in 2008. I don't think it works any more. It was ok, but felt pretty chintzy at the time, and didn't have a screen on the back or any more feedback than a little LCD panel with a number and a couple icons on it. Times have changed.
A few years ago, I got a Xiaomi Yi 4k 2 camera, which was, at the time, a $250 Chinese work-alike of the $400 GoPro Hero 3. It wasn't a cheap Chinese knock-off though, and I've actually been pretty happy with it. Its biggest problem was that the 1/4" tripod mounting screw broke out of the body. The thing it never did that I wanted it to was to take an external audio input.
So, a week or two ago, I typed some appropriate search terms on our retailer's site, to see if I could find an inexpensive camera that would take an external microphone. Sure enough, there were a gajillion of them, priced between $50 and about $150, all with brand names that make your eyes bug out, they're so weird. So of course I chose the $50 kind. Here's part of the description they apparently came up with on their own:
COOAU Sports Camera comes with several powerful function,such us Loop Recording,Time-Lapse Shooting, Car Model, Underwater Model,Slow Motion,Audio Record,Burst Photo, giving you the texperience of a digital camera.Exposure Value and White Balance meet various needs under specific conditions.The F2.5 Lens allows more light to enter the camera to make sure the photo and video are extreme clear under low light conditions
(Text copied and pasted from big online retailer site, can't add enough [sic] tags without making it ridiculous.)
COOAU's motto or saying or subtitle or whatever you want to call it is "MAKE YOU COOL & PROUD". Sure.
So anyway, it's a $50 camera that includes the camera, the waterproof case, a plethora of mounting widgets, an external microphone (yes!), not one but two little batteries, and a carrying case. This is one of those cases where you wonder how they can afford to sell them for this price. It claims to have a Sony sensor, but I would be surprised to learn it was a recent Sony sensor.
The first impression as I laid my hands on the camera itself was actually pretty good. It's covered in a soft, grippy rubber that feels much higher quality than a $50 action cam has any right to feel. Fortunately, as soon as you check out the buttons or actually turn it on, you're back into reassuring territory. The rear screen turns on at a nearly obnoxious brightness with the bright white COOAU logo splash screen, and a tiny, tinny power-on noise plays through a speaker that must be 2mm across. It cuts off before it's finished, and the screen blacks out, and you think something's wrong. Then the screen lights back up again, and you're looking through the sensor and very wide-angle lens.
The lens itself is quite wide, 170° according to the description. It's described as being fish-eye, which is kind of right. I'd rate it as about half-way to fish-eye, like they were trying for rectilinear, realized it was way too much work, and gave up. It's not bad, it's just kind of its own thing, neither rectilinear nor fish-eye but somewhere inbetween. Initial testing inside the house at night (unlikely to be a cheap action cam's strong suit) was not terribly encouraging, with noticeable grain and poor dynamic range.
The user interface is useable, but a bit on the weird side. It has three buttons across the top: power, M, and a circle. The power button is pretty obvious until it's not; you quickly discover M means Mode; and the circle is the most sensible of the three, being either record or select. The M button switches you from video to still camera, then to video review, then photo review, then settings. Once you're in settings, it keeps looping through until you get to the Exit Settings mode (a U-turn arrow icon), and press record/select; if you press M again, you're back to the first settings screen, which takes some getting used to. The power button, once you're in settings screens, moves the cursor to the next thing. So if you want to set the video mode, you press M until you're on the video settings screen, then press power to move the cursor down until video mode is highlighted. Then you press select to enter the setting, power to move to the option you want, and select to pick it and exit back to the higher level menu -- there is no "back" button, you just gotta select something.
My initial tests with the internal and external microphone suggested that the internal mic is probably made of the same materials that go into a foxhole crystal radio, and very nearly doesn't record sound. The external mic, on the other hand, sounds pretty good, though it peaks quickly, and doesn't seem to offer any kind of gain control.
I was immediately annoyed with the battery cover, a small piece of plastic the size of an elongated postage stamp, which is sure to become lost within a month of owning the camera. I understand that the hinges on other cameras can be problematic, but this completely disconnected battery cover seems like a step in the wrong direction. Fortunately nothing will fall out if the cover goes missing. Along the same lines, the port cover on the other side of the camera is amazing for its ability to snug back down into its ports even when you are explicitly trying to plug a cable into one of them. It has to be actively restrained from getting in the way.
The reason I got this thing in the first place is to record my melodious voice as I fly around in my little airplane. The first proof-of-concept test was to jam the external mic into the headset's earcup, and use that to record what my ear would hear. For lack of anything better to film, I aimed the COOAU at my ugly mug, while the Yi did its standard duty of aiming out the windshield to show a more-or-less pilot's-eye view.
I mounted the two cameras with a combination of the relatively heavy pro clamp mount I use with the Yi, and the pile of mounting widgets the COOAU came with. Mounting options in my Champ are limited, so the COOAU (facing me) ended up really being a receding-hairline-watch camera rather than a good view of my face. Not the camera's fault.
I fired up the plane, and jammed the mic into my headset. I had no idea what the audio would be like, though in reviewing it, it's at least usable. Unfortunately, keying the radio results in huge distortion (not too surprising), so I will be subtitling the video that will end up at the bottom of this review. Fortunately, this is not a challenge that most users of the COOAU 4k (remember, "Make You Cool & Proud!") will run into.
The flight went as well as I could ask, and as I write this, I am in the midst of exporting videos so that I can edit them together. I've reviewed some of the COOAU footage, and it's actually pretty decent. The dynamic range compression is still there, mostly noticeable as JPEG-artifact blowout on my giant forehead when I lean forward. The finished video will not be color corrected or adjusted in any way other than cuts (you don't want to watch an hour-twenty of me flying around, it's rull boring unless you're actually there), so that you can see exactly what comes out of the camera.
As is common to avoid creating over-large files, the COOAU 4k splits its videos up into 15-minute chunks when recording 1080P at 30 FPS. There's probably a more efficient way to join them together than what I'm doing, but I never claimed to be an expert at editing video.
I'm using Davinci Resolve 15 for my editing (because free, also awesome) on a recent iMac, and one problem cropped up: although the built-in QuickTime Player app would play back the audio on the COOAU clips, Resolve couldn't decode them. They just came across as silence. Many of the questions about the camera on our retailer's site had a canned response from COOAU about making sure audio worked right, and defensive statements about how it's AAC audio, so evidently COOAU is sensitive about this audio issue. I got around it by using the QuickTime Player to export the audio. The resulting m4a file imported well into Resolve, and it was a matter of mere moments to line the audio up with its clip.
I had the COOAU mounted upside-down, and forgot to set the "upside-down" setting. As a result, I had to flip the videos in Resolve, which is fortunately a trivial operation. The Yi automatically detects when it's upside-down, a feature that I have appreciated, and appreciate even more now.
One thing to note is that the batteries can only be charged in the camera. Charging from nearly-empty takes an hour or two on a normal USB port. One battery lasted me for an hour and seventeen minutes of recording, though it showed no bars left when I shut it down. It appears to work fine when plugged into an external power source, so vehicle use will only be limited by storage space, and it does include a "loop" mode that only records the last N minutes of footage.
My camera came with a card in the package saying I'd receive a free battery if I left an "honest review" on our retail site and told them about it, which I'll probably do for yuks, because free stuff.
Reviewing the footage from the Yi and the COOAU, there's no question that the Yi looks nicer. Does it look five times nicer? Not really. The footage from the COOAU is pretty good. I can't really compare the internal microphones, as I haven't played with the COOAU's mic.
The Yi uses a touchscreen for most of its settings, which offers an interesting comparison: since the COOAU is not a touchscreen, you can do all the setting and adjusting you want with the camera while it's in the watertight case. That's not true with the Yi. Score one for COOAU (Cool & Proud!).
Is the COOAU worth fifty bucks? No question. I'd actually say it's a pretty good deal for $50. Not only do you get a halfway decent action cam, you get a bunch of mounting widgets and a pretty good carrying case. If you're coming from a GoPro or Garmin or Sony or similar high-end camera, you'll probably be disappointed in the quality, but that's kind of not the point. It's a fifty dollar camera. I could strap it to my wing, and if it departed the plane, I'd be considerably more worried that it would damage something when it landed than that I'd lost the camera. It's a perfect "disposable" camera if you need an action cam for something dangerous enough that you'd hesitate to put your $500 GoPro in that situation. It would be a fantastic My First Action Cam for a young person to strap to a helmet or handlebars or snorkel mask.
It even records external audio with a perfectly standard 2.5mm mono phono plug, no weird, hard-to-find adapters needed. I'll probably look for a smaller microphone if I want to keep using it inside the headset, the supplied mic is a fairly chunky 12mm in diameter.
In all, I'd say it's a good deal on an acceptable camera. This is not the camera to get if you want to include your footage in your high-class indie film (unless low-quality footage is the gimmick). It is absolutely the camera to strap to your amateur rocket to get a cool shot you'd hate to try with a higher value camera.
This review is not finished. I'll be taking some photos and possibly more video to show some of the idiosyncracies of the camera. Check back in a few days.