The Yi's video quality and shooting options are well above other cameras in its class, but you'll need to bring your own accessories.
Editors' note: The Yi is now available in a US version exclusively through Amazon for $99.95. This review is for the Chinese version of the Xiaomi Yi. The cameras are identical, but with the US version, the packaging inserts are in English as is a new version of the mobile app to use with the camera.
Among all of the smartphone and wearable tech news that came out of 2015's Mobile World Congress was a surprise from Chinese electronics brand Xiaomi -- the tiny Yi action cam.
Outside of China the company is best known for its smartphones, but it has a growing lineup of related devices such as the Mi Band fitness tracker and headphones that it's been putting the Xiaomi name on.
The Yi is one of those, continuing its expansion into other categories beyond smartphones (not unlike what HTC did last year with the Re camera ) and further building its reputation for offering products with high-end features at budget-friendly prices.
Though it's primarily available in China for 399 yuan, you can buy one for just under $100 (about £65 and AU$120) from online retailers like GearBest.com, which is where we got ours. That price isn't quite as good as the converted price of about $65, but is still excellent for what you're getting.
Out in front of the little lime-green and teal box (it's available in all white, too) is a nice f2.8 wide-angle lens with a 155-degree angle of view, while inside is a Sony-made 16-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, a Broadcom wireless module and an Ambarella A7LS system on a chip (SoC) running the show.
To give you some perspective, Ambarella's chips can be found in many POV cameras and DJI's quadcopters and, more specifically, the GoPro Hero3+ Silver, Ion Air Pro 3 and Drift Innovation Ghost-S use the A7LS chip family. Aside from the SoC, those cameras all have one other thing in common: prices of $300 or more.
Now, those cameras do offer things that the Yi doesn't, but the Yi can do more than others at its price such as the Polaroid Cube and Monoprice MHD 2.0. Also, although the slightly more expensive entry-level GoPro Hero has very good video quality, the Yi still beats it there and on features and, depending on your needs, design.
For starters, the higher-end specs mean it can capture 1080p video at 60, 48, 30 or 24 frames per second (fps); 960p (also called tall HD) at 60 or 48fps; 720p at 120, 60 or 48fps; and 480p at 240fps. It can also snap pictures at resolutions up to 16 megapixels one at a time; in bursts at 3, 5 or 7fps or 7 frames over 2 seconds; or at time intervals of 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30 or 60 seconds. You can also set up a self-timer for 3, 5, 10 or 15 seconds. There's also a Snapshot mode that captures 10 seconds of VGA-quality video for quick social sharing.
Other cameras at the Yi's price offer a fraction of those options and typically record video at a maximum of just 1080p at 30fps and 720p at 60fps. However, unless you read Chinese, using the camera to do all that it can do is a little tricky at first.
Again, this camera is made for the Chinese market, so the instructions that come with it are in Chinese (a US version of the camera is now available on Amazon). If you've used a similar action cam or aren't afraid to press buttons, the Yi is simple to figure out. If you haven't or are afraid, well, it's still easy.
The camera has three buttons. The one on front is for power and switching between capturing stills and video. (The defaults, by the way, are single, 16-megapixel photos and 1080p at 30fps.) A button on top is the shutter release and for starting and stopping recordings. On the left is a small button for turning on and off the camera's wireless. There are record lights on the top, back and bottom and a light around the power button gives you a battery status by changing color.
On back you'll find a door for the battery compartment and another covering the microSDXC card slot, Micro-USB port and Micro-HDMI output. A battery and short Micro-USB cable are included for charging and transfers, but you're on your own for storage; it supports cards up to 128GB.
If you're looking for the cut corners that got the price so low, the lack of included accessories is one of them. There is no polycarbonate waterproof housing and the camera isn't waterproof without one.
Also, unlike almost every other action cam I've reviewed, not one mount is included. Xiaomi has accessories coming in April such as a 40-meter (131-feet) waterproof housing, but that will of course cost you more. It has a standard 1/4-20 tripod mount on the bottom, so you do have a lot of available third-party mounts to choose from and an inexpensive adapter for GoPro mounts opens you up to even more. But, again, out of the box you have nothing.
There is also no screen of any kind, so to change camera settings you'll need to use the camera's Wi-Fi to connect to an Android or iOS device running the Yi app. Fortunately, much of the app is in English, so getting around in it even if you can't read Chinese shouldn't be much of an issue. (A US version of the camera is now available on Amazon.)
Press the camera's Wi-Fi button for a second to start up the wireless and after a few more seconds it will begin to blink, which is your signal to connect. Launch the app, tap a camera icon at the bottom of the screen and it should start the direct connection to the Yi. If it doesn't you may have to select the camera from your available networks listed under Wi-Fi settings on your mobile device. After the first time, though, it will automatically connect when you launch the app and tap the icon.
With the app you get a live preview of what the camera sees as well as a live stream while recording. I tested with a Samsung Galaxy S5 and it worked near flawlessly and held onto the connection very well. The app can be used to start and stop recordings, snap photos, change all of the camera's settings and view your photos and videos and download them to your device, too.
Along with changing what resolution and frame rate you record at and selecting other photo modes, you can set the camera for loop recording -- perfect for using it as a dashcam -- as well as correcting the wide-angle distortion from the lens (assuming you don't want it), turning on an auto low-light option to improve exposure indoors or at night and other miscellaneous settings.
Small battery packs typically don't equal long continuous recording times on action cams, and that's certainly the case with the Yi. Set to record at the default 1080p at 30fps with the Wi-Fi off, the camera continuously captured video for an average of 1 hour and 45 minutes. Bumped up to 60fps, the average time dropped to just less than an hour.
By comparison, the similarly featured GoPro Hero3+ Silver gets about 2 hours of continuous 1080p recording at 60fps and 3 hours at 1080p at 30fps with Wi-Fi off. Granted it uses a 1,180mAh battery compared with the Yi's 1,010mAh pack, but the Yi's battery life is certainly something to consider. The positive here is that it is easily swapped out if you're OK with buying and carrying extras.
Picking high-end parts doesn't guarantee good results, but that is what you get with the Yi. Excellent results actually, especially given the low price. Color and exposure are very good, and the camera recovers quickly and smoothly under abrupt lighting condition changes.
As with most action cams, the larger you view the video and the closer you are to the screen, the more artifacts you'll see. Still, when recording at 1080p at 60fps video looks sharp and smooth and with a bit rate of about 25Mbps, details don't turn to complete mush, even when moving at high speeds.
Low-light video is noticeably softer with more visible artifacts and some color noise, but far better than from any other sub-$100 action cam I've reviewed. Note that you may notice some glitches in the clips following the initial driving scenes in the video above. Those were caused by a faulty microSD card, not the camera.
The Micro-HDMI port does support live video output while recording to a microSD card in the camera. There is an overlay of recording time, battery and Wi-Fi status shown on the display you're attached to, but it's not visible in the final recording.
Photo quality is good, too, however you can only shoot in 4:3 formats, so you might want to crop photos to 16:9 if you want to drop them into your videos. Otherwise, they're not unlike what you get with video: sharp, well-exposed images with good fine detail in daylight, but softer, noisier images in dimly lit conditions.
The Xiaomi Yi Action Cam's video quality and shooting options are well above those of other cameras in its class, but you'll need to bring your own accessories.