UPDATE MAY 23, 2017
Yesterday I received an e-mail from SJCam with an update on this issue. Here’s a portion of the text from that e-mail:
The following article was written before my SJ7 test camera became inoperable. After three hours of use as a dash camera, the SJ7 warped and deformed. The review is incomplete but gives you an idea of my impressions based on testing I had completed up to the time of the problem.
Please see my separate article Why Did My SJ7 Stop Working? for background, photos, details and other information.
As a result of this problem I have no choice but to emphatically recommend against purchasing an SJ7. As you’ll see below I wasn’t going to recommend it anyway.
These days several action camera manufacturers are introducing new cameras that shoot true 4K video. Chinese action camera maker SJCam has just joined the fray with the introduction of their top-of-the-line camera, the SJ7 Star.
The SJ7 Star was originally scheduled to be released in early 2017 but was delayed multiple times as the firmware was sorted out. My review camera originally had firmware version 1.05 but was updated to version 1.13, the latest available at the time of this review. More revisions are in the works so please come back and check this article for updates.
There’s been lots of hubbub about the SJ7 Star. Is it warranted?
RATINGS AND SUMMARY
NOTE: Ratings withheld due to problem with camera.
- Records true 4K video
- Touch screen is wonderful
- Battery performance is good
- SJCam customer support provides timely, understandable responses – a cut above typical Chinese action cam brands.
- Downloadable online manual is also quite good (though not entirely current with latest firmware)
- Software is still being developed so there are glitches and omissions
- Settings like Color, Scene and adjustable FOV are missing
- EV and ISO settings don’t work
- No digital zoom
- No 180° image rotation
- Gyro stabilization only works with 1080p 30/60fps
- Double frame rate for most 60fps and all 120fps videos at night
- FPV unavailable
- The internal microphone is just okay and using external mics is a shot in the dark
- iOS app doesn’t work right
- No 1/4-inch tripod connection on camera body and the included frame-style camera mount is less convenient that a camera clip
- Swiping and touching the touch screen menu mostly doesn’t work with the waterproof enclosure’s touch back door
- Does anybody really need nearly two dozen resolution/frame rate combinations?
At this time I can’t recommend the SJ7 because it feels like an incomplete product. There are still firmware problems that SJCam needs to iron out. Hopefully they’ll do so with the next iteration of firmware and apps. My test camera had firmware version 1.13 and the apps were version 5.1.4.
There are simply too many settings that don’t work correctly or are missing. Basics such as EV and ISO don’t work and Color, Scene, adjustable field of view, digital zoom and 180° image rotation are all missing. You basically need to leave settings on Auto because you can’t reliably adjust for conditions. Automatic frame doubling of videos at night is annoying on a top-shelf camera. You should be able to select a lower frame rate – not frame doubling – to take over automatically or lock in daytime rates..
RC enthusiasts will be disappointed that the SJ7 does not support FPV. Also the internal mic could do a better job and there’s no guarantee that an external mic will do any better.
But it’s not all doom and gloom with the SJ7 because it certainly has some strengths. It has a nice feel in hand and the aluminum camera body is visually appealing. Be careful not to leave it in the sun too long – the metal body can feel especially hot to the touch. The buttons feel great but who needs buttons when you have that wonderful touch screen! I can assure you, once you’ve had a touch screen camera you won’t want to go back to buttons.
The waterproof enclosure seems well made and there again the buttons feel just right. You’ll be tempted to forego the buttons because a waterproof touch back door is included. Unfortunately swiping and touching didn’t work with it most of the time.
The battery performance was really quite good. You can get an hour of recording at 4K with WiFi and the screen on. Recharging time was reasonable too.
The Android app works well but I couldn’t get the iOS app to work right. It connected easily but as soon as I snapped a photo it would get hung up. I couldn’t do anything but exit the app and start over.
You could purchase the SJ7 now in anticipation of SJCam improving the firmware but there’s no guarantee that changes equate to improvements. If you look at our SJ6 Legend review you’ll find that the last firmware update made the image quality worse, not better.
While not part of my ratings I’ll briefly mention the optional extras. The remote control, external battery charger, spare battery and selfie stick are all worthwhile accessories. However, the SJCam lav mic did a very poor job, actually making the audio performance worse. Don’t bother with it.
- Image sensor
- Size (L x W x H)
- Max image resolution
- Video resolutions
- Video compression format
- Image format
- Remote controller
- Video Stabilization
- External Mic
- SJCam SJ7 Star
- Ambarella A12S75
- Sony Exmor R, IMX117, 12.4MP
7 layer glass
166° FOV (Horizontal 120° x Vertical 89°)
Focal length f=3.0mm
Camera with battery 78g (2.8oz)
Camera with battery plus waterproof housing 137g (4.8oz)
30mm x 58mm x 41mm
1.2in x 2.3in x 1.6 in
Touch screen rear display
2.0in (5.1cm), 240 x 320
- 12 Mega Pixels (4000 x 3000) (effective)
4K 30fps 16:9 3840x2160 29.97fps
4K 25fps SV* 3840x2160 25fps
2160P 30fps 4:3 2880x2160 29.97fps
2.7K 30fps 4:3 2704x2028 29.97fps
2.7K 30fps SV* 2704x1520 29.97fps
2.7K 30fps 16:9 2704x1520 29.97fps
2.5K 60fps 16:9 2560x1440 59.94fps
2.5K 30fps 16:9 2560x1440 29.97fps
1440p 60fps 4:3 1920x1440 59.94fps
1440p 30fps 4:3 1920x1440 29.97fps
1080p 120fps 16:9 1920x1080 119.88fps
1080p 60fps 16:9 1920x1080 59.94fps
1080p 30fps 16:9 1920x1080 29.97fps
1080p 60fps SV* 1920x1080 59.94fps
1080p 30fps SV* 1920x1080 29.97fps
960p 120fps 4:3 1280x960 119.88fps
960p 30fps 4:3 1280x960 29.97fps
720p 240fps 16:9 1280x720 239.762fps
720p 120fps 16:9 1280x720 119.88fps
720p 60fps 16:9 1280x720 59.94fps
720p 30fps 16:9 1280x720 29.97fps
720p 120fps SV* 1280x720 119.88fps
720p 30fps SV* 1280x720 29.97fps
* SV = Super View
External, up to 128MB microSDXC memory card
UHS 1 U3 recommended
- Removable Li-ion rechargeable Battery 1000mAh
- Mini USB, micro HDMI, microSD card slot
What is true 4K video? It means that a camera shoots videos with a native resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels and a native frame rate of not less than 23.976 frames per second. These are the formal definitions of the Consumer Technology Association and the International Telecommunications Union. The SJ7 Star meets these definitions.
There are many “fake 4K” cameras out there that fail these definitions. Beware of any camera under USD $150 that claims to be a true 4K camera. It’s unlikely because the cost of components prohibits a lower price (though the ThiEYE T5e action camera has recently broken through the basement). Generally you should expect to pay upwards of $200 as of the date of this review.
With its Sony Exmor R IMX117 image sensor, Ambarella A12S75 image processor and touchscreen display the SJ7 certainly has the right hardware to justify it’s introductory price of $199.
The SJ7 for this review was provided by SJCam at no charge. They asked me and several other people to assist in testing the camera as they developed the firmware. SJCam also provided their optional remote control, microphone, selfie stick and external battery charging cradle with spare battery at no charge. To SJCam’s credit, they paid attention to all of us who were testing the camera and corrected many problems. They even made a few changes to their packaging and manuals based on our suggestions.
Unfortunately SJCam hasn’t gone far enough to correct their website. Their description of the SJ7 seems to be what they hope it will be, not what it actually is. Please read this review thoroughly to understand the camera’s true capabilities vs what’s on the SJCam website: they’re two different things.
I also tested the response of SJCam’s Customer Support. They offered timely, correct and understandable responses. This is a big leap forward for a Chinese action camera manufacturer. If you need help using the SJ7, fear not: SJCam will be there. The official downloadable User’s Manual is also pretty good – a big surprise for a Chinese action camera maker.
SJCam’s recommendations regarding memory cards are all over the place. The website, official User’s manual, the box and the printed manual inside it all have different recommendations. However, SJCam sent me the page shown below from their Chinese-language website. It depicts their recommended cards. I used the SanDisk Extreme 64GB (first one shown) without problems. SJCam claims you can use “select” 128GB microSDXC cards but I don’t know which ones.
Although the firmware is still evolving, currently the SJ7 lacks some common features and some less common ones that SJCam claims are forthcoming. Firmware version 1.13 on my test camera lacks a color setting to choose color, black and white, sepia, etc. It also lacks what SJCam calls “Scene” (not sure what it is). Three features important to some people but missing on the camera are adjustable field of view, digital zoom and 180° image rotation, things you would expect on a high-end action camera. Hopefully SJCam will update the firmware soon to add these missing features. These are all missing from the Photo menu as well.
Then there’s the problem with Exposure Value (EV) and ISO: they don’t work. I ran through all the settings on each one and ended up with most of the videos looking the same with one or two either lighter or darker. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Photos have the same problem. SJCam says this is addressed in a forthcoming firmware release. We’ll see.
As I mentioned in the Video Quality section above, several settings don’t work or are missing including EV, ISO, Color, Scene, digital zoom and 180° image rotation. One setting that does work well is adjustable metering. The camera will adjust to the lighting of the scene overall, center weighted or at a spot exactly at the center of the field of view. This can be helpful in scenes where there is a substantial contrast and you want to get certain elements properly exposed.
The SJ7 has an internal microphone but you can also connect an external mic via the mini USB port. SJCam offers its own branded mic but others can work too. That’s just as well for reasons I’ll describe further down.
The internal mic does an okay job of recording audio but I would have expected better on SJCam’s top camera. To my ears the loudness is too low overall and the recorded pitch and timbre just don’t sound like the original source. The SJ7 has adjustable mic sensitivity settings in 10 percent increments from 50 to 100. This might be useful if you’re using an unusually sensitive external mic or if you’ll be recording where there’s lots of wind noise.
The optional SJCam external mic does a very poor job. It barely picks up any sound and the loudness is way too low. Turning up the volume turns up the hiss. Oddly, when I tried it on a different brand action camera it actually worked okay – go figure! I tested SJCam’s lav mic (their “A” mic), not the the one with the flexible neck (“B” mic).
If you want to use an external mic it’s hard to know in advance what works. I tried two others besides the SJCam mic. The Eaton lav mic was an improvement over the SJCam’s internal mic. All sounds seemed more accurate and the loudness was better. My Movo GM100 lav mic didn’t work at all – it recorded nothing. Both require mini USB adapters.
None of the external mics, including the SJCam mic, are reflected in my audio quality ratings but the Eaton and SJCam mics do demonstrate that the SJ7’s external mic capability works.
BATTERY AND POWER
I got the following recording times under the most and least demanding settings.
- 4K 30fps, screen on, WiFi on – 62min
- 720p 30fps, screen off, WiFi off – 116 min
Recharging time was 142min using a 2.0A adapter.
The battery performance was really good. Getting an hour of video in 4K with the screen and WiFi on is quite a feat. You can get a maximum of almost 2 hours in 720p, screen and WiFi off. Other times will fall between these extremes and of course you’ll get more time on any setting with the screen and WiFi off. It took 142 minutes to recharge the battery – a reasonable time for an action camera.
These were measured at an ambient temperature of about 23°C (74°F). Times might be different at other temperatures.
The SJ7 can operate with or without a battery while connected to an AC or DC adapter or a USB power bank with a minimum 1.0 amp output. Unfortunately SJ4000/SJ5000/M10 batteries don’t fit the SJ7. An external charging cradle is available for SJ7 batteries. SJCam sent me a spare battery but I haven’t seen any for sale.
DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY
The design of the SJ7 Star is a step up from the typical “matchbox” style camera. The metal camera body in the beautiful Rose Gold color (one of three available) is aesthetically appealing. The camera is a bit heavier and smaller than similar cameras and has an excellent feel in hand.
All the seams fit very tightly on my test camera, the finish was uniform and smooth and I found almost no faults with it at all. Only using a magnifying glass (!) could I see that there were a few minor rough spots along some seams but you couldn’t see them with the naked eye and you couldn’t feel them at all.
The buttons offer a very nice tactile sensation. The resistance feels just right and they have a nicely refined click. Even the chime and shutter sounds and startup/shutdown tunes are pleasant. The ports for cable connections and the memory card slot feel well connected – nothing flimsy about them.
The big story besides the true 4K video is the touch screen. More and more manufacturers are offering touch screens on their high-end models and it’s easy to understand why. It makes navigating menus and settings a breeze. You swipe and touch just like your smartphone. The buttons offer full redundancy but they seem like stone age tools compared to the touch screen!
However, it’s not all perfect. On my camera the battery compartment door wouldn’t open. After much work I finally forced it open but it’s still very difficult to slide. It is a nice door though, with a spring loaded metal hinge.
While SJCam did include a lens cap it’s incredibly flimsy and won’t hang on. Tilt the camera face down and give it a slight bump and the cap falls off.
Protection of ports and the memory card slot is also a concern. Unlike other action cams, the openings are not indented from the surface of the camera body. It looks nice but I’m not too keen on it. If you accidentally drop the camera then you’re more likely to get dirt and debris inside the openings because they’re right on the surface. The memory card might also pop out if it takes a direct hit. Try finding a microSD card in the sand or grass!
The chimes, lovely as they are, are so quiet as to be inaudible when there’s even a modest amount of ambient noise. The lighted shutter button is nice but all the camera’s lights are too dim outdoors. The LEDs on the back of the camera are difficult to see indoors and useless in sunlight. Light from one LED bleeds over into the other one.
Then there’s that metal body. It’s appearance is so very pleasing at first. However, when I recorded 4K video with the camera in direct sunlight and an ambient temperature of 28°C (82°F) for 30 minutes, the camera body became too hot to touch. This can happen with other action cameras too but with the SJ7’s aluminum body it feels especially hot to the touch. Fortunately it never shut down and the video looked fine.
The waterproof enclosure is well made and the camera fits snugly inside. The latch is very secure though some might find the slide lock a bit fussy. The buttons have a wonderful feel, perhaps the best of any camera I’ve used. The resistance of the springs is just right and you can feel when they reach their limit of travel on the camera body, thus offering positive feedback.
You can even use the touch screen with the waterproof enclosure by installing the included touch back door. That protects the camera in dust, mud and rain while still letting you use the touch screen. But the touch back door can only be submerged to 3m (10ft) – good for splashing about in the pool or snorkeling.
At greater depths up to 30m (98.4 ft) you’ll need to use the standard waterproof door and resort to the buttons so choose as many settings as possible before you put the camera in the housing. Make sure your battery is fully charged too. Also please see our article about waterproof enclosures.
I couldn’t check SJCam’s claimed maximum depths but they did pass my overnight kitchen bowl test. I submerged the enclosure in a large bowl full of tap water for 12 hours. There were no leaks.
Unfortunately the touch screen menu only worked occasionally with the touch back door using my fingers whether in air or water. I couldn’t check it’s performance in cold weather or with touch screen gloves.
The standard accessories included with the camera are typical of SJCam, i.e., they’re all good quality. There aren’t as many as with some of their other models but there are enough to get started. Anyway mounting accessories are cheap and you can get just the ones you want. GoPro-style mounting accessories work with the SJ7.
The frame mount included with the camera looks very tidy. Unfortunately the camera fits just a bit loosely inside it plus I prefer the old fashioned camera clip like the one with my SJ4000. Why? With the frame you must dismount it so as to unscrew the frame to do anything with the camera whereas with the clip you simply slide the camera out, no fuss.
The frame mount also makes it a pain to invert the camera (180° image rotation isn’t a menu option) or to change the battery. If you need to attach a USB cable and the camera is in an awkward position, like mounted on your windshield as a dash cam, it’s difficult to reach up and attach the cable whereas with the clip you attach the cable to the camera while it’s in hand and then slide the camera into the clip.
One feature missing from the SJ7 is an integrated 1/4-inch tripod mount in the camera body just like the SJ6 Legend. Alas, where SJCam giveth they now taketh away.
Let me also mention the optional accessories provided by SJCam. They’re not part of my camera ratings but they might interest you.
First is the remote control. You can mount it on a wrist strap or the SJCam selfie stick. After you’ve paired it with the camera for the first time you never have to do it again. You can start/stop recording, snap photos, shoot a burst of photos, turn WiFi on/off or turn the camera off. You can’t turn the camera on.
Because all the buttons have a flat black color and the four corner buttons are exactly the same shape, it’s difficult to figure out the right orientation for mounting . It’s easy to remove and insert the remote so switching from wrist strap to selfie stick is a snap. The camera responds almost instantly when you press a button. SJCam says the remote control is waterproof to 10 meters (about 33 feet). I couldn’t check it at that depth but it did pass my overnight kitchen bowl test.
Second, the selfie stick is available separately and it’s a gem. This is the best selfie stick I’ve ever used and it works with any action cam or smartphone. Despite it’s light weight the telescoping extensions are absolutely rigid metal and expand to a maximum of about 36 inches including the handle. You twist them one way to unlock them for smooth extension/retraction and twist them the other way to lock them in place.
The handle is a textured rubber that offers a secure, comfortable grip for most hands. It has a 1/4-inch threaded opening in the bottom so you can use it as an add-on to another extension or tripod. Unfortunately, as I’ve found with other SJCam threaded bushings, it’s too shallow and bottoms out before you can screw it all the way in. The attachment at the other end is a GoPro style mount. That could be a plus or a minus depending on your needs.
Third is a spare battery and external dual-battery charging cradle – pretty straightforward and hard to mess up. Finally there’s the SJCam branded microphone. The manufacturing quality looks fine but the performance is poor as discussed in Audio Quality above.
OPERATION, MENUS AND SETTINGS
The SJ7’s touch screen makes navigating menus a breeze. It was responsive and never surprised me with any odd behavior. I only tested it with bare fingertips in mild temperatures. I can’t say how it works when it’s cold or if you’re wearing touchscreen gloves. The buttons offer full redundancy for navigating menus.
Thank goodness the touchscreen works so well because there’s an abundance of video and photo settings on the SJ7, more than I personally would ever use, but professionals and serious amateurs will no doubt appreciate them. You can also select from a number of convenience features.
In a big surprise for a Chinese action camera, the online User’s Manual does a good job of explaining the menus and showing the screens. In fact it does it so well that I’m going to skip my usual screen shots and extensive menu listings and refer you to the manual instead.
Even with touch screen navigation and clear instructions, using the SJ7 is still frustrating because the firmware remains half-baked. The list of problems and omissions includes the following:
- No FPV capability
- No adjustable FOV
- Gyro stabilization only works in 1080p 30/60 fps
- No 180° image rotation
- No digital zoom
- EV and ISO settings don’t work
- No Color or Scene settings
- Automatic frame doubling of 60/120fps frame rates at night – should be selectable and at half the frame rates (30/60), not frame doubling
- Can only exit WiFi Password and WiFi SSID menus by turning off the camera
- No webcam capability
Some people might find these to be mere annoyances while others might view a few of them as serious shortcomings. Perhaps most serious for some is the lack of FPV capability. According to SJCam this is a limitation of the Ambarella image processor – odd considering the Ambarella Product Brief calls their A12S a “Sports and Flying Camera Processor”.
It’s also a big disappointment that gyro stabilization only works in 1080p 30/60 fps.
Then there’s the inability to invert the image 180° using the menu. You can mount it upside down in the frame mount (even though it’s a pain to actually do this) so that when hanging it from an overhead threaded connection it’s right side up, but if you’re using the waterproof enclosure you’re out of luck.
Even in first release beta firmware, EV and ISO settings should work. The altogether missing Color, Scene and adjustable FOV settings are inexcusable: if your website claims the camera has certain settings then it should in fact have them. That these problems still haven’t been addressed in the 13th version of the firmware is completely ridiculous.
The HDMI-out worked fine. You can even operate the camera with HDMI-out while using the remote control and WiFi – not that you would, but you could.
WIFI AND APP
The Android app for the SJ7 worked well. It reacts immediately to changes in settings: swiping through the menu and selecting a setting are instantaneous. There’s a slight delay from the time you touch the shutter button until it snaps a pic or starts recording. There’s also about 1 second of lag with the live view – not bad at all.
On the other hand I couldn’t get the iOS app to work right. It connected right away but as soon as I tried to snap a photo the app hung up and I could do nothing with it. I could only exit the app and start over. Both apps were version 5.1.4.
- The SJ7’s image sensor, image processor and other internal hardware named in this review are based on information provided by SJCam. I did not disassemble the camera to verify components.
- The camera was delivered to and tested in the US. I don’t know if cameras delivered to other countries will perform the same.
- The camera was tested with firmware version 1.13. Further firmware updates are currently being developed by SJCam.
- The WiFi and app were tested using a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone and an Apple iPad Mini 2. The performance of the WiFi and app might be different on your devices. The Android and iOS apps are both version 5.1.4.
- Videos, photos and audio were evaluated using my Windows 7 computer, 1080p monitor, 1080p TV and stereo system. Your assessment might be different using your particular systems and components.
- See the SJ7 website for operating system and computer hardware requirements.
- Because the camera was tested in the southern US I couldn’t check it’s performance in cold weather.
- Warning for US consumers: I strongly recommend that you use only a UL-listed adapter for charging the camera’s battery. The SJ7 package does not include an AC adapter.
- You can use the US Treasury Rates of Exchange to convert US Dollars to your local currency.