Review: Yi 4K Action Camera
For nearly two years GoPro’s Hero4 Black has been the standard-bearer for action cameras. It can shoot 4K at 30 frames per second, 1080p at a blistering 120fps, and the footage from both looks fantastic. Two years is a long time to be sitting on a throne, though, and it gives potential usurpers ample time to learn your secrets. That’s just what’s happened with the Yi 4K Action Camera.
Yi 4K Action Camera
Same specs as the Hero4 Black but half the cost. Adds a nice touchscreen and better battery life. Works with GoPro accessories.
Entirely unoriginal and it makes you feel bad for buying it. Hard to tell when rolling. Can’t change settings in waterproof housing, and housing is sold separately.
The Yi is almost exactly a GoPro. It looks exactly like a GoPro. Everybody I showed it to thought it was a GoPro. Even the font in its menu system is suspiciously familiar, as is the latch on the waterproof housing. It can shoot at the same high speeds as the Hero4 Black. The pattern of beeps for starting and stopping recording is the same. So what’s the difference? The Hero4 Black costs $500, and the Yi 4K costs $250. But wait, there’s more.
When GoPro made the Hero4 line, it decided that the mid-tier Silver edition would have a touchscreen on the back, but that the top-tier Black edition would not. The Yi 4K basically took the Black edition and put the Silver edition’s screen on it, but it’s larger (2.19 inches versus 1.5 inches), higher resolution (330 pixels per inch), and more responsive than GoPro’s.
The catch is that the Yi 4K has only one button. You tap it to start/stop recording and you hold it to power up/down. If you want to change modes or tweak settings you have to do it through the touchscreen (or paired smartphone app for Android and iOS). This is all fine and good if you’re inside, but the screen is nearly impossible to read if it’s bright out. It also means you can’t change modes or settings if you have it in a waterproof housing. (There’s a workaround for alternating between photo and video, but it’s kind of a pain.)
Speaking of waterproof housing, while that’s included with the GoPro, the Yi’s housing is sold separately (it costs $13 on Amazon). It also doesn’t come with any mounting accessories. The incredibly wide array of mounts is one of the things that makes GoPro the 800-pound gorilla of action cams. How did Yi solves this? Its camera uses the exact same plastic mounting hardware, so you can use virtually any GoPro accessory with it. I would imagine that GoPro’s IP lawyers might have a thing or two to say about that.
The Yi seems to be well made. It’s the same height and depth as a Hero4, but it’s slightly wider than its muse. The extra width made it possible to accommodate a slightly larger battery, and the camera puts it to good use. I did my standard 1080p 30fps battery rundown test. It took the Hero4 Black 1 hour 38 minutes to run out of juice. The Yi? 2 hours 48 minutes! That’s damn good, and considering that wimpy battery life is probably the least favorite thing about the GoPros I use, it’s a big deal. Also, Yi put a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the camera, giving you a way to mount it without any proprietary hardware, which is a nice touch.
Head-to-Head Test Against a GoPro Hero4 Black
As far as image quality goes it’s very, very close. I’d give the edge to the Hero4 Black here, but just barely. Details are slightly sharper with the GoPro and colors are more true to life. The GoPro also does a much better job of metering and its dynamic range is a little better, too. If you look at small details on the Yi you can see some blockiness that shouldn’t be there. The Yi boasts an in-camera anti-distortion filter to compensate for the fisheye lens, but it didn’t seem to actually do anything at all. There’s also electronic image stabilization, but it looks like garbage so I wouldn’t recommend using it.
The Yi 4K doesn’t have as many shooting modes as GoPro. It doesn’t have the same Superview that smushes more from the top and bottom into your frame and is better for selfie angles (on the nose of a surfboard or at the end of a selfie stick while snowboarding, say). It can’t shoot at 24fps, which makes footage look more cinematic. The Yi is locked at a 155-degree field of view, so you can’t change the field of view between wide, medium, and narrow like you can with a GoPro. Audio quality is about equal to the GoPro, and it performs better in low-light. Dimly lit footage is noisy as hell, but you can still see more of it than you can with the GoPro.
One thing that drove me nuts while testing is that it’s really hard to tell whether the camera is rolling or not, especially when it’s in a waterproof housing. Its beep isn’t nearly as loud as GoPro’s and the red lights that flash to indicate recording status are entirely too dim to be seen on even a moderately bright day.
Yi’s smartphone app isn’t as polished as GoPro’s, but it worked just fine. The Yi features 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios which means clips transfer to your phone faster. Connection to the camera was incredibly quick and easy, and it was simple to change settings, start and stop recording, and even trim then transfer clips to your phone. In fact, the app can add Instagram-like filters to your content. Some of them have the exact name as filters on Instagram. Which brings me back to something I keep getting hung up on.
The Price of Originality
There’s just nothing original about this camera. At all. The hardware, the software, the features, they were all cribbed from other companies (mostly GoPro). So, yeah, of course it’s so much cheaper; Yi only had to spend a fraction of the R&D money that GoPro did. Frankly, it just feels wrong. It feels like you’re supporting plagiarism.
But damn, $250 vs $500? It would be tough to look a broke-ass film student in the eye and say, “Yeah, spend twice as much for the GoPro, because it’s twice as good.” It isn’t. Even if the GoPro has some quality edges, the Yi’s better battery life and built-in touchscreen more than make up for that. We’ll see how GoPro responds in its next-gen Hero camera… and how long it takes the copycats to catch up.
But for now, I guess I’m saying, yes, the Yi is the better buy for most consumers. I just don’t feel good about saying it.