Is the Yi Action Cam really any good?
An action cam is a great way to share your adventure with others, but, for many, they can be cost prohibitive.
GoPros range in price anywhere from $150 to more than $500, and that’s before you consider accessories.
Sure, there’re plenty of cheap action cameras on Amazon, but with most you get what you pay for.
For this reason, it would be easy to discount Xiaoyi’s Yi Action Cam as just another GoPro knock off. There is no denying the resemblance, but for less than $100 you get a camera that produces great results at a fraction of the cost of a GoPro.
Unlike so many other Chinese knockoffs, the Yi Action Cam is produced by Xiaoyi, a subsidiary of Xiaomi, one of the most successful smartphone manufacturers in the country.
The first thing I noticed taking it out of the box was how well it was put together.
The little camera feels remarkably well constructed. For a nondescript plastic brick with a lens on the front, it certainly doesn’t feel as cheap as it is.
On the front, the little camera features a 155 degree wide-angle lens, coupled with a 16MP Sony sensor capable of recording 2K footage at 30 frames per second or 1080p at 60 frames per second.
4K recording will be available in Yi’s next generation camera later this year. That camera, however, is expected to retail for approximately $250.
Just three buttons are responsible for controlling the operation of the camera. On the front, the power button pulls double duty, quickly switching the camera between photo and video recording modes.
On top of the camera, a single button is responsible for starting and stopping recording. Small red LEDs located on the top, bottom and back of the camera indicate when the camera is recording.
The third button is located on the side of the camera and activates the camera’s onboard wifi. Yep, you read that right. This thing has wifi.
When connected to a smartphone using Yi’s surprising good app, the camera’s resolution, shooting mode and video quality can be easily modified.
The app also functions as a viewfinder for framing up important shots, but more on the app later.
Around the back of the camera we find a small battery compartment for the removable battery, and a small cover for the camera’s MicroSD card slot, usb port and micro-hdmi out.
Since there’s no onboard storage, you’ll need to pick up a decent sized MicroSD card on Amazon. I picked up a few of these 64GB SanDisk cards for about $25 a piece.
I have to admit, I don’t have a lot of experience with action cameras.
I’ve worked with them before. We used a Hero 3 Silver mounted on DJI Phantom drone last year while visiting the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico.
So the Yi Action Cam is the first that I’ve actually owned.
That said, there are a lot of things I like about the cameras and few things I don’t.
The Yi Action Camera is capable of shooting 16MP still images and recording video at resolutions up to 1440p at 30 frames per second from its Sony Exmore sensor.
The advantage of being able to shoot 1440p footage can be easily cropped without loosing too much detail.
The cameras fixed 155 degree lens is great for getting everything in the picture, but lens distortion is clearly visible.
This distortion can be mitigated somewhat by enabling an option in the app. I’ve noticed, by enabling this option, the quality of the footage does suffer.
It’s hard for me to judge the quality of the Yi Action Camera given my limited experience with this kind of camera.
I do have considerable experience working with smartphone and camcorder footage.
By all accounts the footage captured by the Yi Action camera is fantastic, especially when you consider how much they cost.
Recording at 1080p 30fps, I am perfectly happy with the quality of these cameras.
At 1080p 60fps, in good light, the footage is silky smooth.
In low light, footage recorded at 60fps quickly became muddy as the camera fought for enough light. This isn’t an issue unique to the Yi by any means.
The good news is, at 30fps, the camera performs admirably even in low light.
The images captured by the camera are sharp and its built in noise reduction does an adequate job keeping footage from becoming too muddy.
Where these cameras leave a little to be desired are in high contrast scenarios, such as early in the morning or late in the evening.
I found the camera didn’t always adjust quickly enough to the rapidly changing lighting conditions as I would have liked.
From a filmmaking standpoint, I think these cameras are perfect for getting risky wide angle shots you might not want to risk a $400 GoPro on.
For me they were a really inexpensive way of breaking into the action camera market.
Probably my biggest complaint with these cameras is motion dampening. Video from these cameras can be shaky if you don’t have a steady hand. However, I found it to be less of a problem when recording at 30fps.
The lack of good motion damping isn’t a deal breaker.
A well put together action camera that shoots great footage is nothing if there aren’t accessories out there to support it.
This is where I think the Yi Action Camera falls a little short. The options are pretty basic.
Xiaoyi has three main accessories for the Yi Action camera at the time of writing.
You’ll probably want to pick up a good sized microSD card when you order the camera too.
While I didn’t pick up the selfie stick and remote, I did get the waterproof case.
Not only does it protect the camera from water bumps and scrapes, but, more importantly, it features a GoPro style mounting system making it comparable with the wide variety of GoPro accessories already on the market.
If you’re going to pick up this camera, I highly recommend picking up the waterproof case just to be able to take advantage of existing GoPro mounts.
Unlike many action cameras, the Yi Camera relies entirely on a companion smartphone or tablet app.
Without the app, the camera is limited to starting and stopping recording. This is fine once you have the camera set the way you want it.
The app serves as a way to, not only program the camera, but also as a viewfinder.
Shorter clips can even be downloaded over the camera’s onboard wifi. Unfortunately, every attempt to download longer clips to my phone failed.
Thankfully, Xiaoyi has updated the app quite frequently. In the time it took me to write this review, I received at least two updates to the app solving various problems, including lag in the viewfinder.
Just the fact that the camera app has received any updates since the camera launched last year is a promising sign.
All things considered, these cameras are not only well constructed, but shoot excellent video considering their price.
If you’re looking for cheap entry in the action camera market, you could do a lot worse than this.
Because these cameras cost so little, it’s hard not to recommend them.
Plus, when inevitably I run one them careening off my car into a ravine, it won’t hurt as much as if I were to lose a $400 GoPro.