YI M1 Field Test Part II

 
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YI-M1 Field Test Part II

Can firmware updates fix the Yi Camera's frustrating user experience?

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YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

36mm-equiv., 1/40 sec. @ f/4.4, ISO 25,600
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG.
Click here for separately-shot raw file and
Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

It's been quite a while since I posted my first field test of XiaoYi's eponymously-named Yi M1, also known as the Yi Camera. The initial reason for the delay in returning with my second field test was that I was waiting on the arrival of updated firmware, which the company's booth staff had told me was on the way back at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. And as time rolled on, other, newer cameras ended up being a higher priority for review, leaving our Yi M1 review awaiting the remainder of its writeup. I don't like to leave things half done, though, and so I'm now returning to wrap up with my second field test!

A quick recap of my first Yi Camera field test

In my first test, I noted that while the fact that it's made in China is not really that unusual these days, the Yi M1 is definitely noteworthy for the fact that it was also designed in China. But while its extremely affordable pricetag impresses -- it can be picked up new and with a zoom lens for under $300, another $50 cheaper than at the time of my last field test -- I wasn't such a fan of its ergonomics and user interface.

The Yi Camera's build is pretty solid, admittedly, and it looks reasonably attractive too. But it's uncomfortable in-hand, and I had concerns with its controls as well. (And I've continued to do so in shooting my second field test, frequently bumping the too-easily-turned exposure compensation dial by mistake, in particular.)

Nor was I a fan of the Yi M1's touch-screen display for anything other than AF point selection and playback mode, which is unfortunate since most camera functions are controlled through this screen. The design of the user interface involves far too much swiping for my liking. Nor is it helped by the fact that the camera often fails to detect swipes correctly on the first try.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

30mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 6400
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

New firmware could potentially fix many of the Yi M1's shortcomings

As I noted in my first field test, many of these issues could be fixed with a firmware update, and so I'd waited ever since CES for the promised update which I was told would address one of my biggest concerns -- the lack of support for raw+JPEG capture. (Instead, the filetype is an either/or decision.) On returning to the Yi M1 for my second field test, the first thing I did was to update the firmware, and I found new releases available for both the body and lenses.

Sadly, more than six months after I was told of the planned update, raw+JPEG capture is still absent. Nor is there any fix yet for the fact that exposure bracketing has to be reenabled after every single bracketed series, but I did notice a couple of other improvements. For one thing, a half-press of the shutter button does now bring the camera back to life after the sleep timer has elapsed. Previously, I had to power-cycle the camera to get it to become responsive after entering sleep mode. (If you wait as long as the Auto Power Off, timer, though, the camera will still refuse to wake up for less than a full power-cycle.)

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

80mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 20,000
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

There's also a new Quick Menu function which provides quicker access to the focus mode, ISO sensitivity, white balance, metering mode, file format and drive mode functions. This is a nice addition, even if it doesn't go far enough in fixing the lack of a raw+JPEG mode. It's perhaps a little unintuitive that while the main and picture settings menus are accessed with horizontal swipes, yet this new quick menu is accessed with a tap on a soft button instead, but I won't quibble about that too much given that I find swiping unreliable in the first place. It's certainly nice that you can get to these frequently-accessed settings more quickly.

I wouldn't hold my breath for new firmware, though, even if it's clearly needed

But I also found the new firmware to be noticeably more unstable, sometimes locking up for brief periods or failing to respond to button presses on the first try. And a couple of times, the camera locked up entirely, requiring the battery to be removed completely. (And that was doubly infuriating because in the hopes of providing a better raw vs. JPEG comparison, all of my shooting for the second field test was done with the camera tripod-mounted, meaning I had to remove it from the tripod and take my quick release plate off before I could drop the battery.)

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

80mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 4000
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

And at this point, with no new firmware since mid-April, I am not holding out my breath that any of my concerns will be fixed any more. If you buy this camera, I would buy it in the expectation that the user experience will remain much as it is now, which is to say not great unless you're intending to leave the camera in automatic control of setup most or all of the time, and/or shoot raw files only.

JPEG noise reduction is heavy-handed and robs high ISO shots of detail

In my first field test, I wrote that still image quality was fair at base sensitivity, but good if you were willing to shoot in raw format. Now that I've had a chance to shoot at all the way up to its very highest sensitivities, I can confirm that the same is even more true as the ISO speed ramps up. I'm not terribly impressed with the YI camera's noise-reduction algorithms, as they smear away much of the finer details which can be found in the raw files.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

68mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 6400
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

If you're willing to shoot solely in raw format and then apply your own noise reduction, you can get good results from the Yi Camera even towards the higher end of the range, but JPEG image quality falls off quickly from ISO 6400 and upwards. In this day and age, that's simply not good enough. If all you want is good quality daytime photos, after all, your smartphone can probably already do that. It's at night when a standalone camera should shine, yet it's here where the Yi M1 disappoints, turning in results which simply aren't that much better than many smartphones can manage at higher sensitivities.

And I should note that I also had some occasional issues with white balance at higher sensitivities, much like those I experienced at base sensitivity. Occasionally, shooting the same scene twice with near-identical framing could result in significantly varied color.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo
YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

JPEG vs. raw comparison: At left is a 100% crop from an out-of-camera JPEG of the previous scene. At right is a 100% crop from the same scene just seconds later, but captured as a raw file and processed at defaults in Adobe Camera Raw, with the exception of a quick manual tweak to noise reduction levels. I erred on the side of preserving detail here, so a little bit of chroma / luma noise remains. However, there's also clearly a good bit more detail than in the out-of-camera version. And this is only at ISO 6400-equivalent, mind you. Things get even worse at the higher end of the scale.

The Yi Camera's autofocus struggles badly in low light, and indicates a lock while still focusing

Autofocus was, if anything, even more of a weak spot for the Yi M1 at higher sensitivities than it was at the lower end of the scale, where it wasn't terribly fast to begin with. For one thing, the Yi Camera would frequently indicate a focus lock when it hadn't even come close to achieving one.

(And infuriatingly, I could *easily* see on the LCD monitor that the subject had been in much better focus moments earlier, so the camera wasn't even trying to stop at the point where it saw the best contrast, a decision which would have made rather more sense than simply dumping me wherever I was when the camera gave up on focusing.)

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

80mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 25,600
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

And worse still, I noticed during repeated attempts to get even slightly-challenging scenes to focus in low light that the Yi Camera can sound its autofocus lock beep as long as a good half a second before it has even finished trying to focus, with the live view feed continuing to show focus motion long after the beep has been completed.

In other words, the focus confirmation isn't confirming anything at all, because the camera itself doesn't yet know whether it has achieved focus. To my mind, a confirmation which can't be trusted some of the time is worthless all of the time.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo
YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

JPEG vs. raw comparison: At left is a 100% crop from an out-of-camera JPEG of the previous scene. At right is a 100% crop from the same scene just seconds later, but captured as a raw file and processed at defaults in Adobe Camera Raw, with the exception of a quick manual tweak to noise reduction levels. I erred on the side of preserving detail here, so a little bit of chroma / luma noise remains. However, there's also clearly a good bit more detail than in the out-of-camera version. This comparison is at ISO 25,600-equivalent, the upper range of the Yi Camera's sensitivity range

Fonts and colors for on-screen indications can be very hard to read, too

One thing I'd noticed previously but forgot to mention in my first field test is that I found myself infuriated by the Yi M1's choice of on-screen overlay fonts and colors. For example, because I kept bumping the incredibly easily-turned exposure compensation dial unintentionally, I kept wanting to check the exposure bias to be sure I hadn't done so again before another burst of shots.

Yet the thin magenta font proved to be nearly impossible to read under many shooting conditions and I'd have to reframe or hold my hand in front of the lens to try to make the text more readable. And the light gray font used for the shutter speed and aperture indications wasn't really any better.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

80mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 10,000
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

Video quality is fairly good, but the 4K crop makes wide-angle shooting challenging

Finally for this field test, I want to talk about video capture for a moment. Here, image quality was reasonable to fairly good, depending upon the ambient light levels. In the daytime, ultra high-def content showed plenty of detail on my 4K TV, and while for low-light videos, noise and the effects of noise reduction were more visible, the results were still pretty watchable.

Video autofocus was also more acceptable than for stills, but had a tendency to hunt noticeably around the point of focus or occasionally wander off from it altogether. (Annoyingly, it did this at the start of one of my daytime sample videos, and I didn't catch it until I was home, so I had to return and shoot it all over again.) Sound quality from the onboard mic was reasonable, which is good given that there's no option for an external microphone.

Day video, 3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 30 frames per second


Day video, 2,048 x 1,536 pixels @ 30 frames per second


Day video, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels @ 60 frames per second

But there are a few sticking points for video capture, too. Firstly, there's a significant crop for 4K capture, as you can see if you compare ultra high-def output to the 1080p60 Full HD clips among my video samples, all of which were shot from the same location.

And worse still, you can't see what that crop will look like until you're already recording. There's no dedicated movie mode on the Yi M1, and nor does it provide any indication of the cropped area for 4K or 1080p video capture in its live view overlay. (2K capture uses the whole sensor area, and so is unaffected.)

Night video, 3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 30 frames per second


Night video, 2,048 x 1,536 pixels @ 30 frames per second


Night video, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels @ 60 frames per second

Worst of all, it can take close more than a full second after capture commences before the correct crop is shown on screen for 4K ultra-high def content, with the live view feed zooming in visibly twice after the movie record button is pressed. (Full HD / 1080p clips zoom in only once, nearly instantly that the movie record button is pressed.) Only after that final step in the live view zoom level do you see what your framing looks like, meaning that every time you want to recompose, you have to shoot another throwaway clip to give you a way to frame. It's infuriating.

The unusual 2K mode, incidentally, has a 4:3 aspect ratio like that of the sensor itself. It's neat, but given that the world mostly uses 16:9 or 16:10 screens these days, it's of limited utility. Really, the main reason to consider shooting in it would be if you want only Full HD content, but want a little leeway to stabilize your content after the fact, although with a movie width of 2,048 pixels in 2K mode, that doesn't leave a lot of scope for stabilizing 1,920-pixel wide Full HD content. If you still use an older 4:3-aspect computer display, though, you might enjoy shooting 2K content for it.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

80mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 16,000
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

Closing thoughts on the Yi Camera

And so we come to the end of my second field test. And I have to admit, I felt an unfamiliar sense of relief when it came time to box it back up. It's too easy to forget just how great the average modern camera is these days. Just 8-10 years ago, a camera like the Yi M1 would've wowed us even at twice or three times the price, but we're living in the here and now, and today it's difficult to overlook this camera's many shortcomings, even if great results are possible with some work.

The user experience is where the Yi M1 stumbles most obviously, and honestly, I'd put that down to XiaoYi's relative inexperience in the market. This is the company's first serious attempt at a standalone camera, and it doesn't have the benefit of years of experience to fall back on. That shows itself in the Yi M1's clumsy controls and a big focus on the touch screen display, which must have felt more like familiar territory to the company's designers, given their background in smartphone design.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

48mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.2, ISO 12,800
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

But even that screen disappointed me with its frequent rejection of my swipes, or misreading of swipes as taps to adjust focus. And so, too, did the Yi Camera's JPEG image quality leave me wanting, which is particularly frustrating as with a better JPEG engine and white balance capabilties, this could have been a good choice for an inexperienced photographer who wants the light-gathering advantages of a bigger sensor, but with the ease-of-use of a fully automatic point-and-shoot.

As is, I can only recommend the Yi Camera if you want to shoot solely in raw format, processing your images manually for the best results. And even then, thanks to its minimal performance and sluggish, unreliable autofocus I'd recommend the Yi M1 solely if price is your most important criterion. It's hard to argue with a Micro Four Thirds camera that can be purchased for $300 or less, new and including a zoom lens, but for this generation at least, most potential customers will want to give the Yi Camera a pass.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

54mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.5, ISO 6400
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

With all of that said, I genuinely hope XiaoYi can learn the lessons from its first camera and come back with a followup offering better JPEG image quality, and a more refined user experience with better ergonomics and UI. With the benefit of experience, the result could be quite a lot more attractive next time around -- and at this pricepoint, that would be very good news indeed.

YI-M1 review -- Sample photo

54mm-equivalent, 10 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

 

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