YI M1 Conclusion

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The YI M1 is the first Chinese designed-and-made camera we've reviewed...

When I started my review of the YI M1, I really wanted to like this super-affordable, compact little camera. It's the first entirely Chinese-derived standalone camera I've reviewed, being not just manufactured but also designed by XiaoYi, a company that's built quite a reputation in the smartphone space. (You may also know them by their original name, XiaoMi, as well as by their overseas brand, YI Technology.)

And as it happens, XiaoYi's headquarters in Shenzhen is just a stone's throw from my one-time home in Hong Kong, where I was born and spent the first half of my life. With Shenzhen being almost an extension of Hong Kong on the mainland, the Yi Camera felt almost like a home team effort to me.

34mm-equivalent, 1/800 sec. @ f/6.1, ISO 200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

And I know from experience that Shenzhen can turn out some seriously impressive products. For example, DJI Technologies is now known internationally for its drones and camera stabilization rigs, but it, too, is a Shenzhen-based company. (In fact, DJI stands for "Da-Jiang Innovations".)

DJI's kit is among many Chinese designed-and-made products I've appreciated over the years, and while I'd not personally used XiaoYi's smartphones, I had found myself rather impressed by their Android-based Miui operating system, which in some respects seemed more polished than Google's own effort.

34mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/4.2, ISO 320
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

So you might say that I was rooting for the Yi Camera to do well, and hopeful that in writing the conclusion to my Yi M1 review, I'd be writing a glowing recommendation for a camera that can now be picked up for just US$300 new. (And that's with a compact, retractable 12-40mm zoom lens, too!)

...and there's plenty to recommend it, on paper at least. The real world has its own story to tell, though.

And to be sure, there was plenty to recommend the YI M1 beyond its low pricetag alone, on paper at least. At its heart is a 20-megapixel, name-brand Sony Exmor IMX269 image sensor in the Four Thirds format, and it sits behind a standard Micro Four Thirds lens mount compatible with a vast array of optics. And while the kit lens feels rather cheap and insubstantial, the camera body itself is solid and creak-free, yet also compact and very light, by interchangeable-lens camera standards.

66mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.4, ISO 3200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

But once I took it out of its premium packaging -- and those aren't words I can ever remember having used for an entry-level camera before -- my concerns immediately began. XiaoYi's inexperience in standalone camera design showed immediately in a body that's simply not terribly comfortable in-hand. And despite an extremely minimalist control layout, the YI M1's few controls didn't wow me, with the power switch, movie record button and especially the far-too-easily bumped control dial all coming in for criticism in my first field test.

The predominantly touch-based interface isn't pleasant to use, and often feels downright slow and awkward

The YI M1's focus, instead of dedicated controls, on a touch-controlled interface on its LCD monitor is perhaps also indicative of XiaoYi's heritage in smartphones, rather than in standalone camera design. And I wasn't thrilled with this interface either, as its use involved far too much swiping for my liking. Unlike on the Android or iOS smartphone you likely use every day, the interface doesn't lend itself well to a camera, as it draws your attention away from your subject and can't be operated by feel, let alone if you were to wear normal gloves.

80mm-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.)

And I found that even with my bare fingertips, the YI Camera far too often mistakenly detected my swiping as taps on the touch screen instead, changing my focus point when I didn't want it to. Nor were things any better when it came time to review my images, because unlike a modern smartphone, the YI M1's interface often lagged well behind my on-screen interactions, making it feel slow and awkward to use.

Unfortunately, the YI Camera's menu system demands frequent interaction unless you like to fly on autopilot

This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the YI M1's design often forces you into the menu system more often than you might like. For example, if you want to enable bracketed exposures, you'll have to reenable them after every single series, because the YI M1 will disable the function by itself after the last shot in each bracketed series. And there's no raw+JPEG capture mode, either, so if you want to mix up the file formats as appropriate to your shot (or simply capture both), you're left constantly switching between JPEG and raw capture through the touch screen display.

24mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 2500
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

XiaoYi told us to expect these concerns to be addressed in firmware updates last spring, but many months later they haven't been. At least, other than the addition of a Quick Menu which does make it slightly easier to switch between raw and JPEG formats on the fly, but which still doesn't offer raw+JPEG capture. And nor does it do anything to make bracketed shooting easier.

Clearly, the YI M1 is a camera aimed at less experienced photographers who will mostly want to let the camera make the decisions for them, and who chose to purchase an interchangeable-lens camera more for its large-sensor image quality and the ability to change lenses, than for its creative possibilities. And the end result is that if you're not an inexperienced shooter, you constantly feel that the camera is working against you, doing its utmost to persuade you to just stop fiddling and let it take charge.

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.)
Inexperienced shooters will find themselves frustrated by poor JPEG image quality, however

But there are two flies in the ointment if one wants to think of the YI M1 as a camera for casual snapshooters who want to stay in Auto mode most or all of the time. The first is that the YI M1's autoexposure and white balance systems just aren't as good as those of its nearest rivals. While not terrible, the Yi Camera's exposure metering just feels "good enough", and stumbles more often than we're used to.

And its white balance system occasionally delivers truly shocking results, especially in scenes with relatively few colors. More difficult subjects like these will force the user to take charge if they want a worthwhile result, and inexperienced shooters who have to rely on Auto mode likely won't want to do so.

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.)

Nor are these same beginner photographers likely to want to deal with the extra work of shooting in raw format, and yet the YI M1's in-camera JPEG processing is a decided weak spot. Shooting in JPEG mode, especially at higher sensitivities, yields subpar image quality not only compared to its rivals, but even compared to what can be derived from its own raw files if you know what you're doing and are willing to put in just a very little effort.

Good results are possible with the YI M1, but you must stop, think, and put in some effort...

All of this isn't to say that the YI M1 is necessarily a bad camera, per se. If you're willing to shoot in raw format and put in the effort to process your images manually, you can certainly get good results out of it. And when you do, these can be far better than its pricetag would suggest -- at least, so long as you're interested in stills only. (Video mode is a decided weak spot, with a strong crop in 4K mode, a clumsy user interface and weak autofocus conspiring to ruin the shooting experience.)

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.)

As was pointed out by a reader (and YI M1 owner) in our comments section after my second field test, this camera's quirks could perhaps even be seen in a positive light. With its clumsy interface and its image quality concerns, the YI M1 in a way reminds me of the experience of shooting with a film camera, back in the day. Albeit unintentionally, the YI M1 forces you to slow down and think about every single shot, and how to extract the best results from its images, despite the unnecessary obstacles it places in your way.

If you have the patience and time, that can actually prove to be fun. And you can certainly end up feeling very accomplished for the results you can derive from a camera which costs so relatively little, and yet which can accept a vast array of quality Micro Four Thirds lenses. Heck, if this shooting style works for you, then you could even put the money you saved on better ergonomics, a friendlier interface and smarter algorithms into buying an extra lens or accessory of some kind, instead.

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 most photographers simply aren't going to want to shoot this way, and for them the YI M1 will disappoint

But most photographers aren't going to want to deal with using their camera in this way, and frankly, nor did we. For the price-conscious, entry-level customer who this camera it so clearly targets, there are certainly better choices out there on which to spend your hard-earned cash. And with just a little work, you can find much better cameras than the YI M1 for not a whole lot more money.

That's especially true if you're willing to look a year or two back, and choose a camera whose remaining stock retailers want to clear from their shelves in favor of a newer model. And if you're lucky, you might even find that you can get a larger APS-C sensor and significantly better low-light capabilities for your money, too. (I'm not going to attempt to list alternatives here, though, because deals such as these tend to come and go with great frequency.)

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.)

The YI Camera is not to be recommended for most, but if you have the patience and are budget-driven, may be worth a look

At the end of the day, I can only recommend that you purchase the YI M1 in two specific circumstances. You might want one if price is absolutely the most important thing for you, and yet you absolutely need a large sensor and an interchangeable-lens design. Or you might decide to buy it if you actually see the challenging "Stop, think, then stop and think again" experience of shooting with it as a positive thing -- which indeed, some photographers may.

But for the average photographer, and especially for the entry-level customer it targets, I simply cannot recommend that you purchase the YI M1. Frankly speaking, you'd do better to defer a lens or accessory purchase, and put a bit more of your cash into buying your camera body instead. And if you can't afford to do so, I'd suggest that you look for an older (but still recent) camera instead. You'll get better photos with less fuss, and you'll enjoy the shooting experience a whole lot more.

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.)

 

Pros & Cons

Image Quality

  • Good image quality to be had from raw files
  • Mostly reasonably good exposure accuracy
  • Mediocre JPEG image quality, especially at higher sensitivities
  • Noise reduction could better be called detail reduction
  • White balance struggles badly with challenging subjects

Performance

  • Reasonable burst performance for its price
  • Miniscule buffer depths of as few as 4-6 frames
  • User interface lags well behind your interactions in playback mode
  • Contrast-detection autofocus is slow compared to rivals

Video

  • 4K video from a sub-$300 interchangeable-lens camera with kit lens
  • Video image quality is pretty good for the price point
  • Extreme crop for 4K video
  • 4K framing can't be confirmed until a second or two after capture has already started
  • Video autofocus is prone to hunting
  • 2K video isn't much used for creating stabilized HD clips, so what's the point?

 

User Experience

  • It's cheap as chips!
  • Relatively small and lightweight
  • AF point selection is easy with the touch screen (but also easy to accidentally change)
  • No deeply-nested menus, just a brief few pages of options
  • Poor ergonomics
  • Power switch is clumsy and easily bumped
  • Control dial is very, very easily bumped
  • Video button is poorly-positioned
  • Touch-screen interface is clumsy and frustrating, often misdetects swipes as taps
  • Poorly-chosen on-screen fonts and colors
  • No raw+JPEG shooting
  • Have to reenable bracketing after every series
  • Promised firmware improvements haven't materialized
  • Indicates a focus lock well before focusing even finishes
  • Often claims to have locked focus in low light when it's obviously nowhere near from the LCD, without even zooming in

Optics

  • You can get a zoom kit for under $300
  • Decent image quality given the cost
  • Accepts a huge selection of Micro Four Thirds lenses
  • Kit lenses feel cheap and insubstantial
  • No focus ring on the prime lens; must use clumsy on-screen controls instead

Flash

  • A hot shoe is provided for external strobes
  • No flash in the product bundle


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