YI Action Camera review

Note: *This review contains affiliate links.*

I bought myself a YI Action Camera (henceforth just YI) after my misguided purchase of the inhaler-shaped HTC RE Camera (luckily that thing broke pretty quickly so I got a full refund) and have been using it ever since. Even now that I’m also in possession of a YI 4K, I still find myself using it sporadically. A quick glance at the YI and it’s obvious who the makers of this camera (YI Technology) were going after: GoPro. And boy, did they give them a run for their money. I firmly believe that cameras like the YI are one of the many reasons why GoPro are in so much trouble right now. Personally, I could never justify the price of a GoPro. After all, it’s just a stripped down smartphone (the sensor and lens are very much comparable) in a different chassis. But it still costs as much as a brand new smartphone? Why am paying as much for a device that hasn’t got a screen, a modem or any of the other features a smartphone has got? The YI changed all of that: It’s cheap but still delivers good quality, high resolution videos. I loved this little camera so much that I also decided to purchase its bigger brother (in specs, not size), the YI 4K (more on that in another post). In this review I’ll go over the build, the photo and video quality and a few other niceties of the YI Action Camera. Let’s start with the build quality.

Build

The camera feels solid and fits into the palm of my hand. As with GoPros, and other action cameras on the market, the lens protrudes from the body quite a bit and the glass of the lens is curved quite heavily. There are three physical buttons on the body:

  1. A large on/off and mode-changing (video/photo) button on the front

  2. A shutter-button on the top

  3. An on/off button for the WiFi

Due to the fact that this camera hasn’t got a screen I don’t mind the sparsity of buttons. I can set the modes on my smartphone and use the big front-button to change between photo and video recording.

Additionally there are five LEDs on the body. Four of these are used to indicate what the camera is doing (recording or idle) and one indicates whether the WiFi is enabled or disabled. I’ll be honest here: The LEDs are rubbish. They are far too dark to make them useful in bright sunlight. I tend to rely on the sounds the camera plays whenever it starts recording.

On the back you will find two doors: Behind the bigger one you’ll find the removable (yes!) battery and the small door hides the Micro-USB port and the Micro-HDMI port (this is useful for drone pilots). I was worried that I would lose one of these doors at some point because they aren’t attached in any way (does that still make them doors?) but so far it appears that I was lucky and both are still in my possession!

There’s one more thing on this little camera I really appreciate: A standard tripod mount! This means that you can attach the YI to any tripod and record a video or time-lapse. It appears insignificant but I’ve used it really often and I’m really happy that this feature was also kept on for the YI 4K.

Image quality

The YI is equipped with a 16 MP Sony sensor that delivers comparble photos to a mid-range smartphone. Being an action camera the YI has got a very wide-angle lense. For me the barrel distortion is too distracting to use the YI for photography - it’s fine if there’s nothing else around but I personally wouldn’t use it for anything else. Also, because of the size and the wide angle, there’s a real danger of having fingers in the photo if you try and handle it like you would a normal camera. Here are some photos I took on a sailing trip last summer:

Another thing you’ll notice while looking at the photos is that they all have a yellowish tinge to them. This reaffirms my opinion that the YI should only be used for photography if there’s nothing else available! The small sensor along with an aperture of f/2.8 mean that this camera is practically unusable in low-light situations.

The photos on the lake were taken with the SuperView Mod (more on that later) installed. Because I’m not sure if that also has an influence on stills I went around and took another series of photos with the default settings. Have a look at the results in the following gallery:

The YI will shoot up to 16 MP photos (4:3 aspect ratio) and can deliver a 7 FPS burst.

Video quality

This is were you really get your money's worth in my opinion: The video quality is exceptional for what you pay. The YI’s quality sits somewhere between a GoPro Hero 3 and GoPro Hero 4. The YI will shoot up to 23041296 (2K) at 30 FPS and 19201080 (1080p) video at 60 FPS. The latter option is what you’ll want for smooth action shots. It also offers 120 FPS at 720p for those looking for slow motion.

Until the release of the Hero 5, action cameras were never known for good audio quality and the YI makes no exception. The audio is barely usable and voices become inaudible when in the waterproof housing.

Battery life

YI Technology claims that the YI can deliver up to 95 minutes of 1080p video at 60 FPS. So far I’ve found this claim to be true. I’ve recorded a one hour stretch of downhilling on my mountain bike and had about 25% battery remaining so I see no reason to doubt their claim.

The YI does allow recharging via the Micro-USB port which means that an external battery pack can be hooked up to it for extended sessions. I’ve used this method to record time-lapse videos over an extended amount of time. You could also just hook it up to a wall outlet if you’re close enough to one.

YI Action App (Android)

Because you more or less have to control this camera using the app I decided to give you a look at the Android version. I’ve read of people having problems with connecting the camera to their smartphone but I’ve personally never had any issues so far (I’ve used it on my Galaxy Note 4 and a NVIDIA SHIELD tablet). They have recently tried to integrate a social network (something like Instagram) into the app, which is a minor annoyance.

The app allows you to copy anything on the YI over to your phone for instant sharing. The speed is fine (it supports 802.11bgn) and the range is rated at about 90 meters. I’ve used the YI to record time-lapse videos outside while sitting indoors and have never experienced any problems with the range.

Accessories

There are numerous waterproof cases available for the YI. As usual you get what you pay for: Expect a cheap plastic case to scratch in no time. Another accessory many might find useful is the bluetooth remote: A small and very basic remote that allows you to remotely start recording. I’ve personally bought the remote and it seems to have some bug where the camera will sometimes forget the connection. This means that you will have to reconnect it using your smartphone quite often (annoying!).

The plastic waterproof case does allow the camera to be attached to any GoPro accessories available. There are so many different mounts and straps available - I might go into that kind of stuff in a seperate post.

Hacks

A big reason why the YI Action Camera is so popular are the hacks (or scripts) that have been created for it. One of the scripts I had installed on mine was the WaffleV8.2 mod). This allows the YI to produce a video with SuperView. This means that the camera will use the full sensor (which has a 4:3 aspect ratio) and stretch the resulting video to a 16:9 aspect ratio. If all that sounds a bit too technical, GoPro has got an excellent explanation of this on their website. For those of you that really want to get into modifying the YI, try out the Xiaomi Yi Configurator (XYC). This will allow you to connect to the camera via telnet and change all of the settings on the go. XYC supports all kind of crazy settings like:

  • RAW photos

  • SuperView

  • HDR time-lapse

And the list goes on. I’m not sure if YI Technology intended to allow hacks like these but they definitely helped ship a ton of YI Action Cameras!

Conclusion

The YI Action Camera is a great little toy to have in your arsenal. But that is all it is: A toy. I don’t mean that in a bad way! My YI has given me tons of fun and I have no intention of getting rid of it. Just don’t expect a cheap action camera like the YI to give you the best looking footage. It’s great for anyone not willing to shell out for an expensive GoPro but still looking to take decent footage of their adventures!


Don't forget to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can contact me directly through my website or via email.