The first thing my Spanish mother-in-law asked me when she saw the Xiaomi Yi was, "Is that a toy camera?" With its lime-and-aqua-marine color scheme, it's not hard to see why she might think that. But no, it is not. In fact, Xiaomi's Yi camera raised a few eyebrows when it was announced recently. Here was yet another action camera that looked suspiciously like a GoPro -- but, at the equivalent of about $65, it was almost half the price of the market-leader's cheapest offering (the $130 Hero edition), with a spec-sheet that bested it on many key features. Importantly (perhaps more so for GoPro), the Yi camera has the backing of Xiaomi, a brand that's gaining traction in China. A market everyone wants a slice of. But does it really best a GoPro?
The first issue for those in the US interested in this camera will be getting hold of one. Xiaomi isn't actively selling, or promoting, it in the states. When we asked the company for a test unit, it declined. Thankfully, some independent retailers are stepping in and making the camera available to US buyers such as Gear Best, which provided the loan camera for this comparison (price at time of writing: $94).
It's also worth mentioning that the Yi camera was reported to be waterproof to 40 meters, like the GoPro Hero is. This is not the case. You need to buy a separate dive housing for that (unlike the Hero, which has one built in). The Yi cam was also initially reported to have 64GB of storage. To clarify, it can read SD cards of that capacity (up to 128GB in fact, according to the official website), but you still need to provide one. The Yi camera is also technically made for Xiaomi under license from the (not-at-all-confusingly named) separate company, Xiaoyi.
Time lapse (second intervals)
0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, 60
3/5/7 per second/7 in 2 seconds
10 photos in 2 seconds
Android / iOS (coming)
No (case required)
In terms of hardware, toyish looks aside, the Yi camera does bear more than a passing resemblance to a GoPro Silver or Black (without the housing). Not just the matchbox-like body, but the button placement too (shutter on top, power on the front). Unlike a GoPro, though, there's no LCD display. You have to rely on LEDs, or the mobile app to know what mode the camera is in, or any other feedback (battery level, SD card capacity, et cetera).
Despite all the similarities, the Yi camera doesn't fit any GoPro accessories. I was a bit surprised; I expected it to conveniently slip into the GoPro dive housing, or the frame mount or... well any accessory. But it doesn't. The lens isn't positioned high enough, and the body is just a touch bigger, meaning there's zero compatibility with GoPro's extensive catalog of accessories. This includes GoPro's three-pronged connector, and its shoe clip. The Yi cam just has a regular tripod connection.
One fairly big annoyance with the Yi camera is that until you shell out on some accessories, you have to take special care of the naked lens. The GoPro Hero can be thrown in any bag/backpack without concern. The Yi camera's exposed glass made me nervous about putting it pretty much anywhere, including a few times when I set it down the wrong way with the lens directly on the table. I ended up carrying it in my hand for the most part, which soon gets frustrating. Another minor gripe is that the battery/port covers are very losable. The GoPro Hero's all-built-in design also makes it a bit chunkier (and limits you to one battery charge per outing), but you'll come back with as much camera as you went out with. A plus for the Yi is that you can swap the batteries, but you'll need to buy more. If you can find 'em.
What you really want to know is, though, is this thing any good? The answer is, "It's not bad." In fact, in some of my tests, it definitely gave the GoPro Hero a run for its money. I took both cameras out and shot several things side by side. This includes time-lapse videos, standard photos and, of course, regular video. In photo mode, the Yi has more pronounced colors and sometimes details are sharper. This, unsurprisingly, translates up into time-lapse videos, too -- which are, of course, just a series of photos. The examples below are shot with the Yi cam set to five-megapixel mode to be more comparable to the GoPro (which only shoots five-megapixel photos).
In the above two videos, the color difference is quite pronounced. The Yi camera has brighter, more saturated colors. The GoPro also shows some noise, particularly on the right-hand side of the image, around the more intricate details of the cathedral.
In the above images, we can again see that the colors are dialed up on the Yi camera, and that the image is actually sharper on some of the more detailed elements (the white grout between the blue tile mosaic that I've added at 100 percent crop). But, this isn't consistent. The Yi camera has a setting in the app to correct the lens curve (a common annoyance in action cameras). Once you set this, anything that's not in the center of the image seems to become a lot blurrier. The lens issue is an easy fix for the GoPro; there's free/official software to do it, and specific settings in modern imaging software. Not so with the Yi; you'll have to fix it manually.
The Yi camera at 100 percent crop, with lens correction setting
The GoPro Hero makes the sign on top of the hotel much easier to read
In video mode, things are a little more complicated. The color difference is still present, but footage from GoPro's Hero feels less shaky, and differences in image sharpness become less pronounced between the two. In my tests, both cameras were mounted in a "Norbert frame." They are right next to each other, and most of my filming was done by holding the cameras (not using a tripod). The Yi camera footage feels like it has more wobble from just the smallest of movements. You can still see some of that on the GoPro, but it's less dizzying. Below are two video edits containing a mixture of footage, one from the Yi camera, the other from the GoPro Hero.
If you've ever used a GoPro, you'll know that navigating the menus can take a little getting used to. But, once you've got the rhythm down, you can zip around, and change settings pretty quickly. Not so with the Yi camera. The lack of a display means you're guided by LEDs. The power button has one around it that changes color as battery levels decline. There's also one on top of the camera that remains on, or off, depending on which mode you are in (video and photo, respectively). But in terms of feedback, for the Yi camera, that's largely it. If you left it in burst mode, for example, you'd have no idea until you took a picture, and heard the camera rattle off multiple shots. You also can't change that back to normal camera mode without the app.
The app is actually a big dividing factor between these two cameras. The GoPro Hero doesn't have WiFi, so it won't work with the GoPro app (like the Black and Silver editions do). But, at the same time, the little LCD on the Hero means you don't actually need the app. You can easily change settings and know where you are at any time. Try using the Yi camera without the app, and you have to have a bit more faith. For example, there's an LED that flashes to confirm you took a photo. However, in bright daylight, this is easy to miss. You kinda have to hope for the best.
The Yi camera leans on its app a lot more. The downside to that is, without it, you're stuck to switching between photo and video modes, nothing else. You're also stuck when it comes to things like knowing how much memory card space you have left for photos and videos, or battery life (other than a very basic indication). The upside is that the app is quite easy to use. It also expands the capabilities of the camera quite a lot. You can not only change modes, but also fine-tune the settings within those modes. There are more general settings for things like exposure and auto power off, too. It's not a bad app at all. That said, on a few occasions, it would just refuse to connect to the camera, for no obvious reason, leaving you high and dry if you wanted to change the settings.
This is pretty much the theme throughout. The Yi camera is a mixture of surprise and disappointment. It pleases you one minute, then frustrates you the next. It's inconsistent. The GoPro is the same every time you pick it up. Then there's the higher-end GoPro Hero 4 cameras (Black and Silver), which are more expensive, but with many, many more features (and improved camera internals, even over the Hero). If you enjoy the GoPro Hero, and decide to upgrade, you can move your skill set and accessories with you. Once you've added a waterproof case and a tripod-to-GoPro adapter to even things out a little, and savings on price are less dramatic. Of course, the Yi makes sense if you're happy to offset its limitations against the dollars you do save, or mostly want selfie stick video. On the bright side, the Yi probably looks at least one level less contemptible hanging off the end of one than a phone?