Hands-on: YI Technology hopes its budget M1 can be a big deal

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We go hands-on with the YI Technology M1 mirrorless camera(Credit: Simon Crisp/New Atlas)

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When, through the corner of our eye, we spotted what looked like a Leica T on the YI Technology stand at Photokina, we were intrigued. But on closer inspection we realized the camera, which was surrounded by the firm's action cameras, was in fact YI's own new budget mirrorless shooter. At that point we were even more intrigued and had to have a quick play with it.

While at first glance the YI M1 looked like the Leica T, that stopped being the case when we got up close. The new camera is about as plastic as can be, and is so lightweight we initially thought we were handling a dummy unit. Even the silver buttons on the top plate of the camera are actually just a shiny plastic. However, that's not overly surprising because the YI M1 is aimed at a very different audience than the Leica.

Despite being a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera, it's priced at just 2,220 CYN in China (US pricing is yet to be confirmed, but that's around US$330) with a kit lens, compared to the $1,100 body-only of the Leica T, and the $650 of more comparable cameras like the Olympus PEN E-PL8 with its kit lens. YI Technology says it's designed for a new market of younger photographers who have grown up with the touchscreen interfaces of smartphones, but want a significant step up in image quality.

On the specification front, the M1 packs a 20-megapixel sensor, an 81-point contrast-based AF system, and is controlled by a minimalist interface on a 3-inch touchscreen. It has an ISO range of 100 to 25600, and a burst rate of 5 fps (frames per second). It will also be able to shoot 4K (3840 x 2160) video at a very respectable 30 fps.

That all sounds quite promising, but in our hands the M1 didn't live up to the hype of the spec sheet. Maybe it was because we'd just been using the speedy Sony A99 II, but the M1 felt sluggish when navigating menus, changing settings, and nailing autofocus. Something tells us the young smartphone shooters which YI Technology is trying to convince to trade up won't be too enamored by this lack of speed.

Luckily for the M1, image quality looks like it could be a redeeming factor. The Sony sensor used in the camera is known to deliver the goods, and in our tests – which were limited to back of the camera peeking – this was certainly the case. Image quality was comparable to the Olympus Pen F or Panasonic GX8, with good high ISO performance.

Using Micro Four Thirds, there are plenty of quality lenses which can be used with the camera – including the likes of the new Olympus 25-mm F1.2 and 12-100-mm F4.0 IS. However, the M1 will be available with some of YI's own lenses, including a new 42.5-mm F1.8 prime and a 12-40-mm F3.5-F5.6 zoom.

While the optical quality of the lenses seemed reasonable enough in our quick tests, and some of the sample images in the marketing brochure look great – the build quality is not. The barrel of the lenses are just as plastic and lightweight as the camera. Another weird quirk is that the manual focus ring on the prime lens is fake, and isn't there to do anything other than give the impression of a more serious optic.

Connectivity is another big selling point of the M1, and it boasts both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth BLE for a constant connection between it and a smartphone. We were told that this feature would be key for the target demographic who want to post images on Instagram as soon as they have taken them. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a smartphone running the app, we weren't able to test it for ourselves.

In conclusion, we're not quite sure what to think about the YI M1. It's not of the quality we normally expect from a new camera, but it's priced for a slightly different market too. It looks capable of producing quality images and videos, if you are willing to persevere with the cheaper build quality and user experience.

The use of the Micro Four Thirds mount seems like a wise move from YI Technology. It means that users aren't limited to YI lenses, and there's plenty of great comparable glass out there. It also means that current MFT shooters who want a cheap second body could pick one up.

The YI Technology M1 is due to launch later this year priced at 2,200 CYN ($330) with the 12—40mm lens, or 3,000 CYN ($440) with the 12—40mm and 42.5-mm F1.8 lenses.

Product page: YI Technology M1

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