A little background on the YI M1: Xiaomi is a big smartphone maker – the 4th largest in the world, in fact. YI Technology (note that’s the letters y and i, not y1) is an arm of Xiaomi.
Xiaomi is very well known in Asia, but relatively unknown outside of there. Their phones aren’t sold by any carrier in North America, but tech savvy Americans (and I imagine Europeans) buy them online, because they’re very cheap considering the great specs packed in.
YI has gained a lot of momentum lately in the American camera market because of it’s extremely well received YI 4K Action Cam, which a ton of Youtube camera bloggers have reviewed. The consensus is that the Action Cam is a much cheaper version of the GoPro Hero 4, but with tons of features not included on that camera. I haven’t tested one of the YI units yet, but the online reviews are consistently fantastic, and the footage I’ve seen on Youtube is great.
Just a few days ago, at Photokina 2016, YI announced that they’re releasing something I don’t think many people expected – an inexpensive Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera, along with 2 lenses. The US Edition just went up for sale on Amazon, and I thought it would be worth summarizing the camera for people who don’t want to search out details from several different sources (like I had to).
The Outward Appearance is Leica-Inspired
Many people have noted that the visual appearance of the M1 closely resembles the Leica T. This is true, and I’m sure somewhat intentional, but to my eyes, it’s not that far removed from a lot of other cameras in this general size, for instance the Panasonic GX85.
The design touch that most people are pointing at is the red YI logo on the front of the camera. It’s inside a rounded square, and people are saying it resemble the red L logo inside a circle that appears on Leica cameras. It does somewhat, but it’s far from a flat-out ripoff or clone. I don’t think YI are trying to trick anyone here, they’re just sort of echoing (and altering the shape of) a design touch that’s very associated with Leica. You be the judge:
You Can Buy it With a Prime, a Zoom, or Both
- $499 with the 12-40mm zoom
- $599 with the 40mm prime
- $699 with both lenses
I haven’t seen word yet on whether they’ll be releasing more lenses, but I’ll keep this page updated if any are announced. I’d imagine it will depend on how this camera does in the marketplace.
It Films 4K Video
This is a headline feature. There are a number of cheaper cameras now that will film in 4K, so it’s not unique, but there are certainly lots of much more expensive cameras that are still shooting 1080p.
It’s still not known how great the video will be, but considering how well reviewed YI’s 4K Action Cam has been, my hopes are high. To be honest, I can’t think of any 4K cameras that I’ve seen that create bad footage – so far, anyway. Having 4x as much detail as an old HD camera makes such a huge difference.
It Has a Nice Sony Sensor
This is related to the point about image quality I guess – the YI M1 features a nice, modern Sony sensor, so unless they do something weird or crazy when processing the images, the photos and videos will probably be good or better. I’m not a sensor nerd, but I’ve read that this the one the YI M1 is using (Sony IMX269) is quite good, and usually appears on more expensive cameras.
[update: I researched it some more, and this sensor is also used in the Panasonic GX8 (street price $1000 right now, body-only) and the Olympus PEN-F ($1200 body-only right now, and considered by some to be the highest-end M43 camera available right now) ]
It’s Almost Entirely Touchscreen Controlled
YI are a modern Chinese company owned by a mobile phone maker, so it makes sense that they’re doing things the modern way here. There are knobs on the camera to control the shooting mode, take a photo, etc., but once you get into the menu options, there isn’t a D-pad or joystick – everything is touch enabled. You swipe between settings screens, tap what you want, etc.
After watching a video showing the interface in action, it looks fairly straightforward, although less responsive than a flagship smartphone. It looks pretty usable to me, but interfaces are the kind of thing you really need to use for a while to judge.
It Has Built-in Wi-Fi and BLE Bluetooth
This is very nice and modern, but it remains to be seen whether the accompanying smartphone software will make it easy to connect to the camera, or be an incredibly frustrating mess, like so many Bluetooth connection apps are.
YI seem to be positioning this camera as a great tool for social sharing, so you’d imagine that the apps will be optimized to connect camera-to-phone quickly and get the pics online. Again though, it’s all in the implementation, and will require hands-on testing.
It Uses the Micro Four Thirds Lens Mount Standard
This is extremely cool, and really raises the value of the camera. If it turns out to be a well made device, I think there will be lots of shooters and vloggers who use one or more M1s as secondary cameras, either for backup (photographers) or to shoot B-roll footage (video people).
There’s a vast selection of M43 lenses out there, so it’s extremely cool to see a budget camera come out that capitalizes on that ecosystem. A lot of promising cameras that include all the bells and whistles – and I’m think specifically of the Samsung NX1 (RIP) here – come out of the gates with an amazing camera body, but a dearth of lenses. YI have been extremely smart when avoiding this.
This Seems Like the Camera Apple Might Make
It strikes me that the designers of this camera are probably big-time Apple fans.
The first clue is the Leica inspiration. Apple and Leica have a lot of things in common, as far as being a luxury brand with great aesthetics and attention to detail (and Jony Ive even designed a one-off Leica). The M1 is a very nice looking camera, and you can tell that the designers have worked on not just making it work, but making it stylish to carry around and use.
I don’t think the YI M1 borrows from the looks of Leica a terrible amount. It’s more like the same amount that so many Apple designs have borrowed from the 1960s work of Dieters Ram and his designs for Braun. Maybe it’s me, but the M1 looks like it’s own thing to me, a stylish, carry-around camera for younger people.
The other thing that reminds me of Apple is what seems to be attention to usability. Apple are known for making things simple, and easy for anyone to use, and that’s the feeling I get from the pre-release material about the YI M1. It’s a minimalist design, with just a Play and Stop button on the back, and most things able to be controlled (intuitively hopefully) by touchscreen.
This is opinion, of course, and a bit off topic of reviewing the YI M1 as far as specs and whatnot go, but I really do think that if Apple ever made a digital camera, it would look a like this – small, powerful, mirrorless, elegant and well… the price would be a lot higher of course 🙂
It Will be Released on October 12, 2016
Until then, we mostly have specs to go on, but there will be plenty of information available soon after that date. Although you can only pre-order it right now, the M1 is already a top seller on Amazon, so I’m sure people will be chipping in with details. If you’re as excited about this camera as a ton of people seem to be, might be worth pre-ordering it now in case of supply issues (although I don’t honestly know if this will be a probably – the camera has a lot of buzz, but it might just be with real photo nerds.)
[note: This post will be constantly updated with new specs/info on the YI M1 as they’re available]