Xiaomi Yi review: A higher-end action cam with an entry-level price

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The Good The Xiaomi Yi Action Cam offers more camera features and better video and photo quality than you'll typically find at its price. It has a removable battery and a standard 1/4-20-inch tripod mount, and the Micro-HDMI port supports live video output while recording to a microSD card.

The Bad The instructions and parts of the mobile app are in Chinese, so it'll require some minor guesswork when starting out if you can't read Chinese. No memory card, mounts or housings are included and the Yi isn't waterproof on its own. Battery life could be better.

The Bottom Line ​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.

7.6 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Features and 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.