The Yi Action Camera from Yi Technology is an obvious play to grab some of the market from GoPro, who's products normally retail for around $300 for the cheapest model. As is the case with many companies from China like Xiaomi and Huawei, Yi Technology is offering plenty here for considerably less, coming in at only $80 for a device that does many of the same things as the cheapest GoPro. Is this worth the money, or should you shell out the big bucks for the brand name? Let's take a look!
In the Box
Being a cheaper device there's no telling exactly what any manufacturer will put in the box besides the product, and Yi has kept it pretty light but didn't forget the essentials. Of course as you would expect the camera and a removable battery are the main components to find inside, but there's also a handy extendable arm that comes with the camera too. Outside of that we're just looking at the manuals, all of which were only in Chinese for me. It's possible Yi may ship other versions of this product with manuals that contain other languages, but that wasn't the case here.
As a whole the Yi feels light and cheap, but still well built for what it is. There's no creaky plastic and no hollow sections of the product as we've seen on plenty of inexpensive products in the world. There's no getting around the fact that even though this doesn't feel like an ultra cheap product, it certainly looks like one. The small design coupled with the obvious plastic build makes this feel almost too cheap, and I found people saying this when I asked their opinion on the product without giving any feedback of my own to them. Design of the product is super simple and minimal, sporting a small rectangular body that will fit in the palm of your hand no matter how small your hands may be. The edge around the product features a rather interesting patterned design that reminded me of a wood floor in a house, with beams of plastic that are connected at different points. Moving around this edge contains many things; on the top is the shutter/record button, a red LED next to it and a microphone beside the LED. On one side you'll find a WiFi button along with a blue LED indicator for this function, while the underside of the device sports a series of three microphone holes, a Tripod mounting screw hole and another red indicator LED for when the camera is recording.
On the front is a large protruding fish-eye lens that's painted black to differentiate it easily from the rest of the body. Next to that is the power button which also doubles as a mode switching button. Around this power button is a multi-colored LED band that changes from blue to red depending on the battery level. On the back you won't find any screen or way to see what's going on, instead two removable panels; one containing the area for the battery while the other holds a microUSB port, micro HDMI port and the microSD memory card slot. This camera is not waterproof at all nor is it water resistant in the least bit, so don't try to get it wet. Yi makes a waterproof case for this that turns it into a waterproof camera able to dive down as deep as 40m for those epic scuba diving expeditions.
The extendable arm contained inside the box sort of resembles a police night stick if you've ever seen one of those. It's got a 6-inch long handle with a lanyard spot at the bottom of it for securing it around your wrist in case it gets dropped. There's even a belt clip here to keep it on your person, allowing you to go hands-free for all the action. Obviously that's not going to keep it in you if you're skateboarding or something else typically thought of when using these types of products, so it may just be better to use it that way when stowing it. At the top is a section that can be twisted to lock into place; turning left locks the section while turning to the right unlocks it. Once unlocked the arm can extend up to 2.5ft (3/4 meter), giving you a height advantage over others in the crowd so as to best film whatever is going on. The top of the rod holds a screw that fits neatly into the bottom of the Yi Action Camera, hold it into the rod without worry. There's even a small arm at the top to drop the camera to a full 90-degrees, giving you the freedom to record vertical video with the rod if needed or hold it around a corner for easy maneuvering.
Before we begin talking about how to use the camera, know that a microSD card is required to use the camera in any capacity and is not included in the box. Just by looking at the Yi Action Camera there's almost no telling what is what. There's an obvious power button here as well as two small icons denoting that pressing the power button seems to switch between recording and picture modes. Outside of that the obvious placement of the shutter button is in line with normal camera aesthetics, making it seem fairly simple to use at first glance. In all honesty I was quite confused in the beginning and needed to play around with it for quite a bit since I wasn't able to read the manual. Since there's no screen here there's no obvious way to interface with the device as you would with any normal camera.
Once you've got the basics down it's really easy to use the Yi camera, although without a screen it's not that easy to tell what you're doing unless you use the app. Pressing the power button will start the camera up, which defaults to picture mode. The shutter button will beep when pressed, take a picture and then beep again to let you know the picture was taken. This is a simple beep that's not altogether that loud and is easily drowned out in a noisy environment. Pressing the power button makes another one of the same beeps and switches between video and picture mode, while holding it down will turn the camera off after a while. The only way to tell if it's in video or picture mode is by the red LEDs located around the body which glow solid red when in video mode and are off in picture mode.
While in video mode pressing the shutter button again makes a beep to denote an action has been performed, and the solid red LED now begins blinking when the video is being recorded. The LED ring around the power button is only to denote battery life and moves from blue when the battery is full, purple when it's about 50%, and red when it's getting near the end of the road. All of this sounds more complicated than it really is, and after just a few times of using the thing I found myself switching between modes and using it without even thinking. Nothing is easier than using the app though, which is really where the main experience comes in if you're looking for settings or visual feedback.
Since the app isn't on the Google Play Store we'll share it with you here. If you're familiar with the camera app in MIUI you'll immediately be familiar with the interface of the Yi Action Camera app. Connecting with the camera is easy, just press the WiFi button on the camera and the app will find it. Utilizing swipes to move between modes, the app presents a simple interface that's clearly marked and easy to find what you're looking for. The main interface is a place to find content that has been shared by Yi including tutorials and other videos, although they're all in Chinese.
There's an obvious floating camera button that almost looks Material Design at the bottom and takes you to the main camera interface in the app. The viewfinder is up top as well as the different modes in tabs; video, snapshot and photo. The settings button is located on the top right, and to exit the interface there's a back button on the top left. Near the bottom there's a normal camera app interface including a dedicated shutter button, record button and gallery shortcut, as well as the battery and signal indicators for the phone and camera.
You'll find all the quality and device settings you thought were missing from the camera in the settings section of the app. Here you'll find the resolution, ratio and other modes for the photo and video modes. Video is recorded up to 1080p 60fps, and pictures go up to 16:9 16-megapixels. There are tons of options here including auto low light mode, loop recording, auto turn on WiFi, changing which mode the device defaults to and more. The viewfinder is live and mostly does a great job keeping up with the action, although as any wireless connection on a device this low powered goes it can be a mixed bag. Videos and pictures can be downloaded straight from the app instead of having to connect the camera or microSD card to a computer, which is super convenient. Overall this app is a great way to interface with a device that's designed to be ultra simple and provides the options necessary to make this a complete experience.
Taking pictures with the device is basic and very difficult due to the fact that there's no viewfinder on the device itself. While you can use the app to fill this void it's not exactly the best solution for a dedicated camera, so I can't recommend this to replace a point-and-shoot camera for instance. It does generally do a great job of capturing the moment when you need it on an adventure though, and the fact that the lens is fish-eye means that you're going to capture whatever you're trying to so long as you're pointing the camera in the general direction of your subject. The lens also means that the picture that comes out looks like the camera was much further away from the subject than it actually was, so macro shots and that sort of thing really won't work with this device. Quality of the photos was passable but nothing amazing, although color reproduction was excellent and dynamic range was generally pretty fantastic. There's no advanced modes here like HDR so what you see is what you get.
Video is obviously the real meat of the product, and this is where it excels the most. Video quality is defaulted to 1080p 30FPS out of the box, and the camera actually makes a second video that's 240p 15FPS in this mode. This is great for quick social network sharing on something like Twitter or another medium like MMS where quality might not be the goal, rather just a quick idea of what's going on. Video quality is phenomenal, with a high bitrate and a great lens delivering a clear, detailed picture. 1080p 60FPS mode is really where the camera shines though, but it only records one video file in this mode so no quick sharing like you can with the lower quality video on the 1080p30 mode.
It's this 1080p60 mode coupled with the fish-eye lens that's really the essence of what makes the Yi Action Camera better than just using a phone or other device for capturing adventures. The lens captures a super wide field of view while the bitrate and framerate capture all the action without getting lost between frames. In fact 1080p60 mode even performs better in lower light than the other lower resolution modes, delivering a clearer picture with a higher framerate (obviously) which provides a better overall experience in the end. The file quality is going to be larger since it's double the framerate but in the end this mode delivers such better quality video it doesn't make sense to turn it off.
Audio quality is mostly phenomenal and picks up plenty of nuances in the environment including bird calls, voices and even has great noise cancellation too. One of the videos you'll see a very heavy Florida rain storm that's incredibly loud in the truck, yet you can still head me talking without having to strain your ears. There's no stabilization here so this isn't designed for off-road driving, mountain biking or other activities that include lots of bumps and shakes. Check out the sample videos below to see for yourself.
As a dedicated device one would assume battery life would be phenomenal since the product does nothing other than the main advertised function. As it stands I'm not sure I could go so far as to say that, as a dedicated recording session from full charge until the device was completely dead only lasted about 2 hours. That means that you're going to have to keep an eye on the battery LED on the front of the device, something Yi likely counted on when they made it this large and obvious of an indicator. Thankfully the battery is removable and small, so you can pick up a few of them and pack them almost anywhere without worrying. Still if you're not willing to do this just know the battery life isn't going to last more than 2 hours during a dedicated recording session, although taking video and pictures here and there will obviously last much longer.
For $70 the Yi Action Camera comes with everything you need to start recording your favorite activities whether they be hiking, driving, biking or just vlogging. The high-quality lens and 16mp sensor takes great shots and even better video, which turns all the way up to 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second. Sound quality is nothing short of great and the overall experience of watching videos taken with the Yi camera are fantastic. It's not quite on the level of a GoPro but it's also less than a third of the price. The camera itself can be a bit confusing to use at first because the buttons make it seem almost overly simple, although there's a great app that adds all the missing functionality back in. Those looking for a waterproof camera will have to get the waterproof case, which gets the Yi camera down to 40m underwater if needed.