YI M1 Field Test Part I

Camera Reviews / YI Cameras i Express Review

YI-M1 Field Test Part I

It's amazingly affordable, but are its quirks worth the money you'll save?

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30mm-equiv., 1/640 sec. @ f/4.6, ISO 200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG.
Click here for separately-shot raw file and
Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

"Made in China": It's a label which often comes in for derision, but that's largely unfair. Truth be told, China is just as capable of producing a quality product as any other major manufacturing center, if not more so. We've reviewed many excellent Chinese-manufactured cameras over the years. And every day, quality products such as Apple's incredibly popular iPhone series are shipped from Chinese factories, yet nobody suggests those to be somehow subpar.

Truth be told, China's unwelcome reputation for subpar quality has more to do with companies aiming to manufacture their products at a bargain-basement pricetag than it has to do with the factories turning them out. Spend enough on getting the right design and production processes in place, and "Made in China" can be a mark of quality. Skimp and cut corners, and your product would likely have been a disappointment even were it made in a country with a better reputation like Japan, Germany or the United States. (It's just that companies choosing to build products in those countries are already paying more than they would to do so in China, and so cutting corners likely isn't in their nature.)

Speaking personally, I've never accepted the derision for the "Made in China" label. Although I'm British by descent, I was actually born and raised just across the border from Shenzhen -- China's manufacturing powerhouse -- in the then British colony of Hong Kong. I learned early on that China was just as capable of turning out excellent, cutting-edge gear as any other place, if that's what the company behind the product actually wanted to produce.

Not just "Made in China", but designed there too

But what makes the YI-M1 uusual is that it isn't just a "Made in China" product; it's also been designed there, something that's rather less common -- especially for a camera being sold globally. The YI-M1 is designed by Shenzhen-based XiaoYi (originally, XiaoMi) Technology, known overseas as YI Technology, and perhaps best-known globally for its affordable-yet-powerful smartphones, as well as the Andoid-forked MIUI operating system on which they run.

30mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

As a quick aside if you're wondering how to pronounce all of these or what they mean, "Mi" and "Yi" both rhyme with the English "bee", while "Xiao" is quite close to the first half of the English word "shower". XiaoMi translates literally as something along the lines of "Little Rice", a reference to the Buddhist principle that a single grain of rice can be as significant as a mountain. XiaoYi, meanwhile, can be roughly translated as "Little Ant", and seems to be a reference to the company's first camera product, a webcam it called the ant. The company also suggests that "Mi" and "Yi", respectively, are meant to hint at connectivity ("Mobile Internet"), the difficulties encountered in starting the company ("Mission Impossible", and its desire to go its own way with its products ("Your Innovator"). We'll take their word for that. ;-)

Its Chinese heritage gives the YI-M1 an impressive cost advantage

By both designing and building its products on the Chinese mainland, XiaoYi has been able to pare the cost of the Micro Four Thirds-format YI-M1 down to a bare minimum, while still using quality components like a Sony IMX269 image sensor.

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.)

By way of comparison, that same chip is rumored to be at the heart of the Panasonic GX8, a camera which even when purchased body-only sells for a list price of US$1,200. Of course, there are many ways in which the GX8 outperforms and outrates the YI-M1, as you can see in our comparison here. But when one considers that the YI Camera lists for just $500 including a 12-40mm, F3.5-5.6 zoom lens and is readily available at a street price of just US$350 complete with that lens... well, it's hard to argue against its affordability!

A solid, well-built body, but not the greatest of ergonomics

On lifting the YI-M1 out of its surprisingly handsome packaging -- it ships well-padded in molded foam inside a stylish, matte-black box with magnetic closure -- I was immediately impressed by its build. It's not quite perfectly free of panel creak or flex, but it's very close indeed to managing this despite its incredibly affordable price tag. It's also very light for an interchangeable-lens camera, but without feeling flimsy or insubstantial.

30mm-equiv., 1/800 sec. @ f/5.8, ISO 200
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG.
Click here for separately-shot raw file and
Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

I wasn't quite such a fan of its ergonomics, though. While it's fairly handsome to look at, the YI-M1's body isn't so comfortable in-hand. I'm 6'1" tall and have admittedly larger-than-average hands, but I quickly found that there wasn't a lot of room for my fingertips between the Yi Camera's front handgrip and the barrel of the attached lens. And while the steeply-angled profile of the inside of the grip gave good purchase, its rather sharp edge pressed uncomfortably into my fingers. The rear thumbgrip was better, but despite some texturing and a lip around its edge, felt a little slippery to the touch. A rubber grip pad was called for here, although I'm sure it would have raised the price a little.

The control layout and design, in particular, could use some work

There are surprisingly few controls on the exterior of the YI-M1, especially by interchangeable-lens camera standards. And for what few there are, I had concerns with several, starting right of the bat with the power lever. It's tiny, has relatively little movement, and for the first week or so of shooting with the YI Camera, for whatever reason I found my brain wanting to move it in the wrong direction almost every single time, an issue I've never had with any other camera. I think it's because the small gap behind the lever when powered off looks like it's intended just to provide a space for your finger to nudge the control forwards, when in actual fact that tiny little gap is all that's needed since the lever only moves perhaps two or three millimeters to power the camera on or back off.

A little behind and to the right of this is a control dial with a soft click detent when turned. Defaulting to control of exposure variables in program, priority or manual exposure, this is far, far too easy to bump, something that happened to me almost immediately when I started shooting with the camera on a day trip with my son to nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee. (You'll see that the gallery shot below has a third-stop of positive exposure compensation, but it wasn't intentional -- my accidentally bumping this dial was the reason, and I quickly learned that I had to watch like a hawk to make sure I hadn't turned it before every shot.)

Thankfully, I had no such concerns with the mode dial, which is simultaneously less exposed in a location that's less likely to be bumped, and which also has a much stronger click detent. A movie record button sits in the center of this control, and is probably the single easiest control to locate by touch. I did feel it was a bit uncomfortable to reach without adjusting my grip while shooting, though. Thankfully the other buttons and controls -- a lens release on the front, and two buttons adjacent to the bottom-right corner of the LCD monitor -- were largely fine.

24mm-equivalent, 1/640 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 200, exposure compensation accidentally bumped to +1/3EV
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

Really, though, I think that the external design of the YI-M1 indicates its maker's relative inexperience. I'm sure future models will have better control feel and layout, and the controls will be easier to locate entirely by touch in low light. Certainly, for this initial model they are a little bit of a distraction from the shooting experience.

The touch-screen display is handy for AF, but infuriating for most other functions

The reason for the YI-M1's paucity of physical controls can be found on its rear deck: a 3.0-inch touch-screen display. It's the only option for framing and reviewing of images, as there's no optical or electronic viewfinder provided on this model. Nor is there any articulation, meaning that you won't be able to see the display from in front of the camera. Both of those omissions are very understandable given the Yi Camera's affordable pricing and reasonably compact proportions, however.

The touch-screen also the display to serve double duty as an input device. Here, I have rather mixed feelings. In some respects, the touch-screen is quick and intuitive. For example, it's great for quickly deciding which exposure variable should be adjusted with the control dial, or for selecting a subject on which to autofocus. It's also fairly handy and intuitive for swiping between images in playback mode and then performing the same familiar pinch-zoom gesture as on your smartphone to get a close-up view of a given shot.

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.)

(Unfortunately, the camera itself isn't terribly fast to respond though, taking as much as half a second or more to catch up to your gestures. It's not slow enough to be unusable or even that tricky to use, really, but it's enough to feel like there's a disconnect between yourself and the camera, and to be mildly frustrating.)

The menu system is great if you seldom change setup, but not for those who'll use it regularly

Swiping left on the screen pulls up a selection of several picture styles from screen right, while swiping right brings in the main menu system from screen left. Or rather, it does so most of the time. Somewhat infuriatingly, for perhaps one in every 10-20 attempts, the YI-M1 fails to detect the swipe and instead adjusts my autofocus point, meaning there's another area which I have to pay attention to checking regularly, just like that easily-bumped exposure compensation dial.

80mm-equiv., 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 250
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG.
Click here for separately-shot raw file and
Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

The menu itself provides nine options per screen in a three-by-three array, and you swipe up or down to switch between all three menu pages. Icons showing the current setting for each item make it easy to see the camera's setup at a quick glance, but the behavior of some of the individual menu items can be rather frustrating.

For example, some menu items can be grayed out and unselectable, but there is no indication as to why, or what must be done to access them. And some functions -- for example, exposure bracketing -- last only for one series and then reset to their default, requiring at least three to five taps and swipes to reenable. If you bracket regularly as I do, it's infuriating. Resetting options like these makes sense to me when the camera is power-cycled, but not when it's currently in active use.

YI's relative inexperience occasionally shows itself in design choices photographers wouldn't make

Equally frustrating is the fact that it is currently impossible to shoot in raw+JPEG mode. When speaking to YI's reps at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, I was told that this would soon be changing courtesy of a firmware update. As of right now, that firmware still hasn't been released to the public, though, and so if you're in need of both out-of-camera JPEGs and raws shot simultaneously, you'll want to hold off on considering the YI Camera for the time being. (Incidentally, I flagged the inability to permanently set exposure bracketing with YI's reps at the same time, so here's hoping this will also be addressed in firmware eventually.)

Another weird little UI quirk is that once the YI-M1 powers off due to its sleep timer, it can't be brought back to life with a half or even full-press of the shutter button. Instead, you'll need to toggle the power lever to off and back on again, perhaps losing the shot in the process if an unanticipated opportunity reared its head. As I said earlier, some of these quirks are quite easy to understand when once considers that this is YI's first entry into the Micro Four Thirds camera market, though, and its pricetag makes it easier to overlook them. With some more firmware development to smooth the rough edges, the YI-M1 could really shine!

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.)
That remarkable price is even more so when you notice it isn't body-only!

And it's worth bearing in mind that the YI-M1's affordable pricetag isn't just for the camera itself, either. The base bundle, currently selling for US$350 street as of this writing (March 2017) includes not only the camera, but also a 12-40mm F3.5-5.6 zoom lens. By way of comparison, the slightly more telephoto 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens which Olympus includes in many Micro Four Thirds kits costs US$300 by itself, even before you make it part of a camera bundle.

At the current time, YI has only one other lens on offer, the 42.5mm F1.8 prime, and it too is available in a bundle with the YI-M1 camera body. This sells at a US$100 premium over the price of the 12-40mm bundle, for a street price of US$450 currently. And if you want both lenses, you'll want to consider the third bundle option. This provides both the 12-40mm zoom and 42.5mm prime for US$550.

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.)

And from that, we can work backwards to figure that the 12-40mm zoom adds US$100 to the cost of the product bundle, while the 42.5mm prime adds US$200, leaving the body itself at just US$250 street or thereabouts. (Zounds!) However, as of this writing the body can't be purchased separately, and nor can the lenses. (And that means if you want both of YI's optics, you'll need to purchase them along with the camera body. Of course, you can use third-party Micro Four Thirds lenses from the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma and more with the YI-M1 should you desire.)

The lenses are functional and have decent IQ, but build quality is a weak spot

Although the YI Camera itself is fairly solidly-built given its pricing, the same can't really be said of these two lenses.Although image quality from both lenses is surprisingly decent given their cost, they're both extremely light and insubstantial in-hand, with a very plasticky feel that does not really say "quality". Both optics also have plastic mounts, and share the same 49mm filter threading.

38mm-equiv., 1/100 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 400
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG.
Click here for separately-shot raw file and
Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

The 12-40mm zoom offers up both zoom and focus rings, with the latter being fly-by-wire. The lens has an extending design which requires that you first rotate the zoom ring before it can be used; it won't retract unless you rotate the ring the other way while pulling back a spring-loaded locking switch. The zoom ring has a rather harsh, plastic-on-plastic feeling when rotated. The focus ring is smoother and better-damped, but still not up to the standards of typical entry-level glass from rivals in this respect.

As for the 42.5mm prime, although it appears to provide a focus ring, that's actually not the case. What is styled much like a focus ring is actually a trim piece which is fixed in place and cannot be turned. To focus, you must instead use two soft buttons which appear on the touch-screen display whenever this optic is mounted. (You can either tap to make slight adjustments, or hold for broader adjustments, although focus adjusts relatively slowly so you'll want to prepare before your subject is ready if focusing manually with this lens.) A macro / normal switch on the side can optionally be used to limit the focus range for close-up subjects.

Modest burst performance and slow AF that's finicky in low light

Perhaps not surprisingly for such a low-cost camera, the YI-M1 won't win any awards for performance. Burst capture is rated at around five frames per second, a figure I'd say seems reasonably fair. However, in real-world shooting the buffer depth was a miniscule 5 or 6 JPEG frames, and as few as just four raw frames.

Nor was autofocus a whole lot better. AF adjustment from the YI Camera's contrast-detection autofocus system is decidedly on the slow side, and while it was for the most part accurate, I did see more false positives -- that is to say, the camera indicating a focus lock when it hadn't actually achieved one -- than I'd expect these days. And in low light, the YI-M1 often simply refused to lock focus at all.

24mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 1000
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)
Reasonable JPEG image quality, but stick with raws for better results

The YI-M1's out-of-camera JPEG image quality is for the most part pretty reasonable, considering its cost. Exposures were usually in the ball park, and white balance too was for the most part accurate, although for trickier subjects -- especially those with a predominance of one particular color -- I found the white balance system often struggled, and could turn out images with minimal saturation and a rather sickly hue.

There's no question about it, though: If you want the best results, you'll want to be shooting in raw mode, tiny buffer size or not. Even at default settings, I found that Adobe Camera Raw consistently handled the YI's DNG raws better than the affordable little camera was able to manage with its own JPEG engine. (And for those shots where the white balance was a bit iffy, things were easier to fix in raw shooting.)

40mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/4.7, ISO 800
(click image above for out-of-camera JPEG. Click here for
separately-shot raw file and Adobe Camera Raw default conversion.)

I've yet to shoot much at above ISO 6400 so far, as that's where the YI Camera's auto sensitivity function tops out. However, from what high sensitivity shooting I've tried, you'll once again get better results from Adobe Camera Raw than out-of-camera JPEGs, even at default settings. The YI-M1's own noise reduction is decidedly heavy-handed, discarding a fair few of the finer image details and yielding an overly smooth, plastic and artificial-looking result.

More to come! Watch this space...

And that, for now, brings me to the end of this field test. Watch this space for my second and final field test, in which I'll by taking a look at high-sensitivity and low-light shooting, as well as at video capture, both day and night. Got any requests for features to test? Sound off in the comments below!

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.)


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