While Xiaomi may still be known almost exclusively as a smartphone company outside of China and India, the Beijing-headquartered Chinese tech company has actually been spent the past three years aggressively expanding its scope, focusing on products that fit into what company vice president Wang Xiang told me earlier this year he sees as "a connected eco-system of devices."
Xiaomi knew early on it might not have the know-how or resources to build so many different products -- the company has rice cookers and air purifiers, for example -- so instead it went about being an incubator instead. As Wang explained, the company actively seeks out talented engineers or promising start-ups, then offers them funding, access to supply chains, and help with marketing, in return Xiaomi gets to slap its logos on the product and sell them in its stores.
Of these companies that Xiaomi has backed, Yi Technology is one of the fastest growing. In fact, it may have outgrown being "one of Xiaomi's brands." The company expanded to Europe last year, and earlier this week released a new 360 camera that is widely available in the U.S. through Microsoft's online and offline brick-and-mortar stores.
The biggest selling point of the Yi 360 VR Camera is that it's priced at the consumer price point ($399) but has specs better than consumer grade: while most 360 cameras in this price range, including Samsung's Gear 360, can only shoot in 4k resolution, the Yi 360 can shoot in 5.7k resolution (5,760 x 2,880 pixels, to be exact).
I had a chance to test the Yi 360 camera over the past month, taking it around San Francisco, Seoul, New York and Hong Kong, and the 360 photo quality is indeed the best I've seen on a non-professional level 360 camera.
But first, let's talk hardware. The Yi 360 is a rectangle shaped sleek black device with a pair of 12-megapixel Sony image sensors under 220-degrees f/2.0 lenses. The Ambarella H2V95 processor allows for in-camera stitching up to 4k (if you want to stitch at 5.7k you'll have to export to a computer).
The camera can be used as a standalone camera -- there's a 2-inch LCD screen that shows clearly what mode you're in, along with three very clicky buttons -- with footage recorded stored in a MicroSD card slot, or you can sync it to your smartphone via WiFi (2.4Ghz or 5Ghz). You'll need to download the Yi 360 app, but once you have it and are connected, you're treated to an intuitive camera interface on the phone where you can preview footage in real time and shoot away.
Pairing the camera to my phones (I tried it with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Huawei Mate 10 Pro) was significantly easier than pairing other 360 cameras I've tested before, such as the Insta360 One.
Photos captured by the Yi 360 turned out very good (relatively speaking, compared to other VR cameras) in daylight. The distortion is minimal, color accuracy is solid if a little on the cool side, and there's quite a bit of details, especially when viewed on a smartphone or VR goggles. I'm particularly impressed by photos shot at night.
I can't embed 360 photos here, so I've uploaded them to Kuula. Meanwhile, below are some 2D samples taken from the 360 photos.
Video quality looks superb, considering the 5.7k/30fps spec, but the mic on the camera is lacking. I used the camera to record my band's jam session and was disappointed to find the sound completely distorted. Now granted, it was very loud in the room, but previously I had used the Insta360 One to shoot in the same room and the sound came out fine.
Still, if you're using the Yi 360 to shoot normal videos out in the streets, it'll be fine. Below are some samples I've uploaded to YouTube.
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