Monday, June 12, 2017

Review and comparison: Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere has the highest photo and video quality among consumer 360 cameras

Here is a full review of the Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere 360 camera, which has become one of my favorite 360 cameras for its excellent image quality and incredible image stabilization.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
The Xiaomi Mi Sphere is an excellent 360 camera that has the highest image quality for both photos and videos among cameras around $350 or less (for photo quality, I would say there is no better 360 camera unless you are willing to buy a Panono).  On top of that, its image stabilization really works, and it works very well.  On the other hand, the Mi Sphere has significant drawbacks that you should review before buying it.

Here is the video review:


WHAT'S IN THE BOX
The Xiaomi Mi Sphere includes:
- the camera
- a mini tripod / handle
- a Micro USB cable
- a water resistant pouch
The Xiaomi is very well made, with a sleek matte black outer finish with hidden LED indicators (like the Theta).  The frame is metal, which makes the Xiaomi feel solid but also helps to radiate heat (the metal can get hot during use).

KEY SPECIFICATIONS AND FEATURES
- Two 190-degree lenses
- f/2.0 aperture
- Photo resolution: up to 6912 x 3456 (23.88 mp*)
- Video resolution: up to 3456 x 1728 @ 30fps, or 2304 x 1152 @ 60fps.
- ISO: 50 to 1600
- Shutter speed: up to 32 seconds.
- exposure modes: auto, manual, shutter priority, ISO priority
- IP67 water resistance
- 6-axis image stabilization
- removable Micro SD up to 128GB
- compatible with Android and iOS

*The actual exported video resolution depends on your phone.  For phones with a Snapdragon 625 or better processor, you can export at the full resolution.  For other phones, the exported resolution will be limited to 2304 x 1156 or in some cases, 1920 x 960.   You may want to test it out on your phone first.  You can try these unstitched files (see below under "sharing" for links to the iOS and Android versions).

HOW TO USE
Here is a video tutorial on how to use the Xiaomi:


Shooting without a phone
There are three buttons: power, wi-fi and shutter.  The power button doubles as a mode switch.
a.   Photos
- Hold down the power button to turn it on.  Startup time is quite fast - only a couple of seconds.  The high-pitched beeping from the camera helps you to know that the camera is on even in bright sunlight when it is hard to see the LED light.
- Tap the power button to switch between photo or video as needed.
- Press the shutter button to take a photo or video.  In photo mode, there is about a 1- or 2-second delay from the time you press the shutter to the time the photo is taken.  This gives you enough time to move your hand away from the camera so that your won't appear oversized in the 360 photo.
- In photo mode, hold down the shutter button until it beeps to use the self-timer mode.  The duration of the self-timer can be set using the app.  Note: the app lets you choose auto, 3 secs, or 10 secs.  It seems that the actual self-timer is around half of the chosen value.
- In video mode, hold down the shutter button until it beeps to use the short video mode . In this mode, the camera will take a short video clip and automatically stop recording.  The duration of the short video can be 10, 20 or 30 seconds, which you specify in the app.

Installing the app
Here is a link to the iOS app
Here is a link to the Android app.   On that top screen, tap on the green button on the bottom.  Then after download, you should see the APK in the app called "My files".  That's the installation file.  Double tap it.  It will tell you that it's blocked.  Then tap on settings to authorize unknown apps (you can specify to do it "only for this time").  It will then install for you.

Shooting with a phone
Shooting with a phone is useful because: 1) you can use the live preview to help judge the exposure and composition; 2) you can use the phone as a remote shutter; and 3) on the phone, you have access to all of the available controls.

To shoot with the phone:
- launch the app.
- On your camera, press the WiFi button. It will start blinking, which means it's ready to pair.
- On the main screen of the app, tap on the camera icon at the bottom.
- On the next screen, select your camera.
- Use your phone's Wi-Fi settings to connect to the Xiaomi's Wi-Fi signal, which will start with "MJXJ..."  The default password is 12345678.  You can change this but if you ever forget, hold down the wi-fi button for 5 seconds until it beeps to reset the Wi-Fi password.
- When the Xiaomi is connected, you'll hear a beep on the Xiaomi.  In my experience, the Xiaomi has connected every single time.  It has never given me trouble, unlike the Theta or Keymission.
Once the phone is connected, go back to the app.  You should see the live preview screen.  Or on Android, you may have to press the Back button.
You're ready to take a photo or video.

Xiaomi can take photos even in very low light thanks to a shutter speed as slow as 32 seconds.

SHARING PHOTOS AND VIDEOS
The Xiaomi does not stitch photos or videos in-camera, but you can see a fully stitched preview on your app.  If you access the files directly from the memory card, they will appear as double circular fisheye files.  To stitch the files, you need to use the app.  (As for a desktop app, Xiaomi is working on one and it's rumored to be available in July 2017.  As of June 11, 2017, there is no desktop software yet.).

Photos:
When viewing photos from the app, they are downloaded and stitched right away.  The stitched photos appear in your phone's Gallery app with 360 metadata (on iPhone, they are in a hidden directory, until you select the photo and export it, in which case it will appear in the Camera Roll).

Videos:
You can view videos from the app but they will not be downloaded to your phone until you select Download.  Even after downloading, they are not stitched until you select a video and export it.  As of version 1.6.5.12953, videos are always stabilized when exported (even if you toggle stabilization off when viewing the video).

A screengrab from a Xiaomi video shows that it has very good detail.

IMAGE QUALITY
I compared the Xiaomi to its most direct competitors:
- the Insta360 Air for Android, which is the most affordable stabilized 360 camera (requires phone)
- the Insta360 Nano for iPhone, the first stabilized 360 camera (requires phone)
- 2016 Samsung Gear 360, currently the most affordable 4K 360 camera (requires Samsung S6 or above)
- 2017 Samsung Gear 370, which has about the same price as the Xiaomi.
- Ricoh Theta S.  Not really a direct competitor (except for 360 photos) but it's a common camera used for comparison.
I've also added a previous comparison with the Nikon Keymission 360 and Kodak PIXPRO SP360 4K Dual Pro.

Photo quality:
Here are full resolution samples from the Xiaomi, Insta360 Air, Insta360 Nano, Ricoh Theta S, original Samsung Gear 360 and Samsung Gear 360 2017.


Here are 1:1 crops:
Insta360 Air

Insta360 Nano

2017 Samsung Gear 360



Ricoh Theta S
2016 Samsung Gear 360
Xiaomi Mi Sphere
In this group, the Xiaomi has the highest image overall image quality, with even more detail than the 30mp original Gear 360.  It had the best detail and best dynamic range in these samples.  Its colors appear a little flat compared to the 2016 Gear 360, but that can be easily adjusted in post.

The Xiaomi does suffer from purple fringing near the stitch line, but that is relatively easy to correct in postprocessing.  Stitching is also not perfect.  There is a little bit of doubling at the stitch line.

The Xiaomi's color and detail is sufficiently high that a cropped non-360 photo can appear about as detailed and rich as a photo from a non-360 camera, allowing it to perform capably even as a non-360 camera:

Here is the 360 version:


Moreover, in addition to its excellent photo quality, the Xiaomi offers full manual control with a shutter speed as slow as 32 seconds, and ISO as low as 50, which makes it possible to use it for long exposures.



Video quality:
I was surprised to find that Xiaomi also has the best video quality, despite having a lower nominal resolution than other cameras such as the original Gear 360 and 2017 Gear 360.


This is not a photo.  It's a framegrab from a video (in tiny planet view).
Here is a playlist with comparisons against the Insta360 Air, Insta360 Nano, 2016 Gear 360 and 2017 Gear 360.  (I also brought the Theta but the video file was truncated to just one second for some reason.  Maybe my Theta was jealous.  In any case, trust me the Xiaomi's video is way better than the Theta's.)



Here are 100% crops:
Insta360 Air
Insta360 Nano
original 2016 Samsung Gear 360
2017 Samsung Gear 360
Xiaomi
You can see that despite the lower 3.5K resolution of the Xiaomi, the Xiaomi has the most detail, as seen in the texture of the fireplace.  The Xiaomi also appears to have the best dynamic range, as shown by the detail in the backlit door.   For these reasons, I concluded the Xiaomi has the best video quality.

Here is another playlist I posted previously, comparing the Xiaomi to the Nikon Keymission 360 and Kodak SP360 4K Dual Pro:




STRENGTHS
+ Excellent photo quality
+ Excellent video quality
+ Excellent photo controls (full manual exposure, shutter priority, ISO priority, ISO as low as 50, shutter speed as slow as 32 seconds).
+ Excellent auto white balance; natural-looking colors
+ Image stabilization (see below).
+ Exposure settings are sticky.  The settings you specify will be retained even after the camera is turned off.  This means that you don't need to keep your smartphone on.
+ Decent battery life when fully charged.  I've been able to record as long as 95 minutes nonstop in full resolution.
+ Resistance to overheating.  The Xiaomi can be connected to USB while recording.  With a USB charger connected, I've been able to record for 1 hour 45 minutes nonstop in full resolution.
+ IP67 water resistance.  It's not water proof, but it will probably survive rain or being splashed by water.
+ Fast startup and shutdown.  It's ready to shoot in just a few seconds.
+ Reliable and long distance Wi-Fi connection.  I've been able to connect to the Xiaomi every single time I've tried.  This is in sharp contrast to the Theta which sometimes connects and sometimes doesn't, or the Nikon Keymission 360, which has an even more unreliable Wi-Fi connection.  Moreover, the Wi-Fi has very long range.  According to my friend and tech vlogger Pepe Vazquez, he has been able to connect as far as 50 meters (!).

The most important feature is image stabilization.  Besides making the video much more watchable, stabilization allows you to make the camera appear invisible by making it possible to position the Xiaomi inline with a slim selfie stick, and hold it at any angle (see around 2:13 of this video).  Neither the camera nor the selfie stick will be visible.  This invisibility creates the illusion of an invisible cameraman capturing a third person perspective in 360.



WEAKNESSES
- Currently no desktop software.  You have to stitch videos on your smartphone . However, Xiaomi is working on a desktop app supposedly coming in July (thanks to Zim for finding this message posted in a Chinese forum for Mijia).

- Poor smartphone compatibility.  Yes it does work with iOS and Android, but you can only export videos at full resolution with a phone that has a Snapdragon 625 sensor or better.  Here is a list of compatible phones.  (If the future desktop software stitches videos at full resolution, then it will mitigate this compatibility issue.)
- Battery is not removable.
- Quirky stabilization.  There are several issues related to stabilization:
---  Some videos might not have stabilization.   You may find that your video has no stabilization. I found that this happens if you record too soon after turning on the camera.  Solution: Instead, wait a few seconds (3 seconds or so) after turning on the camera before you start recording.
---  Some videos might be stabilized but tilted.  It appears that regardless of the camera's angle, the angle when you start recording will often be designated as 'up'.  For example, if your camera is horizontal, the horizontal position will be designated as 'up,' resulting in a stabilized but horizontal video.  Solution:  Be sure the camera is vertical before you start recording, and keep it vertical for at least a couple of seconds.
--- Drifting.  If you record for more than a couple of minutes, the view will start to drift to the right, or rotate.  If stabilization is turned off, the drifting effect doesn't happen.  Solution: record short clips only, or turn off stabilization by recording right after turning the camera on, or by using an older version of the app that doesn't have stabilization.
--- Heat wave effect.  When stabilization is active, the video will have a slight waviness, like heat rising from the ground in hot weather.  This effect happens only when stabilization is active and is most noticeable on static shots.   Solution: If this effect bothers you, turn off stabilization by recording right after turning the camera on, or by using an older version of the app that doesn't have stabilization.
As I mentioned in the previous section, there are a few image quality issues: purple fringing near the stitch line, there is sometimes a slight difference in color temperature between the two lenses, and in 360 photos, some straight lines look very slightly wavy (if the photo is stitched on a 3rd party program, there is no waviness).

"Invisible" third person view camera made possible by the Xiaomi's stabilization
CONCLUSION
The Xiaomi has the best photo and video quality among 360 cameras around $350 or less.  Whether it is the best camera for you depends on your priorities:

If your priority is live streaming, Xiaomi unfortunately has no live streaming capability.  I would instead recommend Insta360 Air for Android or Insta360 Nano for iPhone, both of which have live streaming with stabilization.

If your priority is to get the best 360 camera for 360 video regardless of price,  I think that is currently the Garmin Virb 360 (which I will review as soon as I receive my order), which has many advanced features in addition to having a higher resolution video (4K stitched in-camera, or up to 5.7K stitched with a third party program).  Another possibility is Yi 360 VR, which is due to be released soon and will have 5.7K video for $399, but as far as I know, it is not stabilized.

But if you want a 360 camera with excellent photos and videos, then in my opinion, Xiaomi Mi Sphere is the best camera, as long as you are willing to put up with its quirks.  It has the best photo AND video quality I've found for 360 cameras under $350, and and has amazing image stabilization.

Xiaomi Mi Sphere is also the best camera if your priority is 360 photos, because of its image quality and its excellent photo controls.  Its most significant competitor would be the Theta S which has even more exposure controls (including an intervalometer) and has best in class stitching, but has more purple fringing, and is not as detailed, and is soft near the stitch line.

If you would like to buy the Xiaomi, it is available from GearBest, which ships to around 260+ countries all over the world.  They are also pretty fast and I receive my orders from them in just one week.  You can use these coupons:
Coupon1: GBMijiaCa , Price: $244.99 (limited to 15 buyers only, first come first served)
Coupon2: 9dnyemqq , Price: $249.99



SAMPLE PHOTOS AND VIDEOS
Sample photos here:


Sample videos here:


More sample photos and videos here.

4 comments:

  1. How can i export my xiaomi mijia sphere camera photos through e-mail or usb?
    Someone can help me?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Paul. When you view xiaomi photos on the app, they are downloaded to your Android phone's Gallery. On iPhone, it takes one more step - exporting the photo to your Camera Roll.
      The exported photo is viewable in standard 360 viewers. You can also upload them to Facebook, Street View, Kuula.co, Roundme, etc. to share with your family and friends and they won't have to download anything to view it in 360.

      Best regards,
      Mic

      Delete
  2. Hi,
    Can you upload a 360 stitched image? :) Want to see how it performs in krpano.
    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On other site I found some samples, but all were low resultion, 800x400 :(

      Delete

Thank you for commenting! Sorry for the word verification - I need it to minimize spam comments. If you want to contact me, pls. message me on the 360 Rumors Facebook page. Thank you very much!