Following the current rise in the popularity of 360 cameras, Xiaomi has entered the fray with their own device: The Mi Sphere.
In recent years, there have been a noticeable increase of interest in “consumer” 360 cameras, thanks in part to Ricoh and its Theta line of 360 cameras. With the introduction of the Theta S, the quality of 360 photos and videos increased to the point that it became a viable medium for normal consumers, including Tech Nomads looking to document their travels in more creative ways.
Soon, more manufacturers took notice of the niche that was slowly opening up. Mobile giant Samsung led the charge with the first iteration of their Gear 360 camera, followed by many others such as LG (R105 360 Cam), Nikon (Keymission 360), Insta360 (Nano/Air) and many others.
The Mi Sphere (also known as the Mijia Sphere 360) came to the scene as it was gaining mainstream traction, and came with the Xiaomi promise of high end performance at cut rate prices. Considering just how “disruptive” Xiaomi devices have been in the past, let’s see if the Mi Sphere can live up to our expectations.
BUILD QUALITY / DESIGN
Made out of primarily aluminium with a bit of plastic, Mi Sphere is surprisingly built very well, with tight tolerances and a reassuring heft to its compact body that completely belies its relatively affordable price.
The frame and faceplates are milled from aluminium, and the plates are covered in a matte outer finish that is quite tough and thankfully not susceptible to fingerprints. A plastic, possibly metal coated, ring surrounds both the lenses, which look like they’re covered in glass (rather than the plastic domes more often used for other 360 cameras).
The grey aluminium frame seems to be anodized and not painted (considering that it has resisted scratching quite well so far), and the buttons seem like they’re made from metal as well, which is nice. The bottom tripod screw mount is looks like it’s milled out from the frame and looks sturdy enough.
Finally a rubber flap securely covers the MicroUSB port and MicroSD slot, which probably helps the device to achieve its purported IP67 rating.
As for design, the flat “pancake” design of the Mi Sphere is actually pretty unique, considering that most other 360 cameras either adopt the “stick” (Ricoh Theta, LG R105), the “action cam” (Nikon Keymission, Garmin VIRB 360) or the “spherical” (Insta360 Air, 360Fly) form factors. One advantage of this is that it makes the Mi Sphere a very compact device indeed, though it also means that without a grip of some kind or another, it’ll be pretty hard to use the Mi Sphere on its own.
Also of note is the IP67 ingress rating that the Mi Sphere has, which is pretty much on par with the iPhone 7. While this does not make the Mi Sphere “immersion-capable”, it does protect the Mi Sphere against dust, rain and other environmental “hazards” better than most of its competitors.
Also, the choice of materials (aluminium) does make the Mi Sphere rather resistant to one of the biggest issues faced by 360 cameras: Heat. Packing all that electronics into such small frames, the heat generated by 360 cams are often problematic and could sometimes cause premature shutdowns during video recordings or even optical aberration.
On the Mi Sphere, the entire body acts as a heatsink to radiate heat out of the device, and this actually works quite well – though it does mean that the Mi Sphere will feel quite hot to the touch after long bouts of video recording.
Next, the button configuration, which is simple and easy to figure out, though personally I would have preferred that the record button be placed closer to the bottom of the device (on the sides possibly), rather than where it is at the top – which does make it a slight hassle to trigger while using it on its own with a simple grip (like the one provided).
That said, most folks are probably going to use the Mi Sphere with the smartphone app anyway, so this is not really a critical issue.
Powered by the Ambarella A12 chipset and Sony IMX 206 sensors shooting though f/2.0 lenses, the Mi Sphere takes 23.88MP photos and 3.5k videos in 360 almost effortlessly. All of which sound pretty impressive looking at the diminutive size of the Mi Sphere. Plus, thanks to built in gyros, videos taken with the Mi Sphere are kept steady with 6-axis Electronic Image Stabilisation – which is a killer feature for a device in the Mi Sphere’s price bracket.
Additionaly, all these above are backed by a decent 1800mAh battery that powers the Mi Sphere for about 70-80 minutes of continuous video recording, and is QuickCharge 2.0 capable for fast recharging.
But really, all this hoolabaloo is worth nothing if the Mi Sphere is unable to take good photos and videos with those specs, and here is where the Mi Sphere shows its proud Xiaomi spirit.
To put it in layman’s terms, it’s probably very hard to beat the IQ that the Mi Sphere is capable of in both Photo and Video mode, unless you’re willing to spend considerably more money on a much more expensive device.
Take this example taken from my recent trip to Japan:
There’s also a detailed comparison up on Mic Ty’s excellent website in his review of the Mi Sphere HERE, comparing the it against a whole slew of competitors and you can see for yourself that the Mi Sphere fares extremely well both in terms of Photos and Videos.
On the software side, the Android smartphone app works quite well (that is, if you’re using a compatible smartphone, more on that later), and is fitted out with a bevy of functions, including the ability to apply basic adjustments to your 360 photos or make quick edits to your 360 video. Live view is decent as well, and the WiFi connection that tethers the app to the Mi Sphere is relatively stable (as far as WiFi direct connection goes, anyway).
So, yeah the Mi Sphere performs very well. Is there any caveats against the device then?
Unfortunately, yes, there are a few. And of these, the main issue is Compatibility.
Well first, a little background. The Mi Sphere, unlike some of its other competitors, doesn’t stitch its 360 photos and videos in-device. This means that it needs a smartphone or a computer to do the stitching for it, and this is where the problem starts.
For photos, it’s not so much of an issue as “most” modern smartphones seem to work fine in stitching full 23.88MP photos from the Mi Sphere.
Videos, however, is an entirely different story. If you’re running the latest and fastest flagships from big name manufacturers (with Snapdragon 820-class processors and above), you should be able to stitch videos in 3.5k resolution, the maximum that the Mi Sphere is capable of recording.
If you’re on an iPhone or running a flagship from more niche manufacturers (or a midrange phone), the situation becomes a bit more muddied. iPhones, as of now, have only recently been able to stitch 3.5k videos (thanks to a newly released update to the App), at least for iPhone 6 and above. Unfortunately, iPhones prior to that are still stuck with either 2k or 1k video resolution.
Similarly, Android phones with midrange specs, which – depending on the processor used – might even max out at only 1k resolution, except for phones powered by a Snapdragon 625 or above processor, which is capable of full 3.5k stitching, strangely enough.
All these compatibility issues actually stem from the phones processors ability to render 4k video streams – or at least what the firmware on the phone thinks it can render. It’s all pretty slipshod as of now, but the (extremely responsive) software development team behind the Mi Sphere is hard at work in terms of increasing compatibility. As such, the list of compatible devices is growing with every new version of the smartphone app.
Also, a desktop program had also been released, which will allow users with incompatible phones to simply do all their stitching on a PC or Mac. Unfortunately, the program isn’t quite “fully-featured” yet at the moment (features are still being actively added), and can only be used to stitch videos as of now.
And while we’re still on the subject of compatibility, the Mi Sphere can be rather choosy when it comes to memory cards, requiring a U3 microSD card for proper operation (especially for 3.5k video).
Other than that, the few other issues Mi Sphere has stems from its gyro-based Electronic Image Stabilisation. For one, it’s not entirely foolproof, and can – under the right circumstances – not activate at all. Secondly, with EIS active, the Mi Sphere has a tendency to slowly shift its 360 focal point (what is shown as the initial “front” in the recording) as you’re recording long videos. Thirdly, EIS imparts a slight “shimmer” or “waviness” to videos that can be quite visible in scenes with very little motion.
Finally, Image Quality seems to be rather inconsistent between App releases, with the older version 1.6.3, exporting better quality images and video than the latest one since then inclusion on EIS (though it has been rather improved lately), which is rather unfortunate considering the bevy of new features introduced with the later version.
However, third party solutions to the problem do exist, though they vary in terms of price and/or complexity.
Again, it’s worth noting that all these issues are being worked on by the developers at Xiaomi, but you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t address more of these issues prior to release, rather than working on them afterwards like what they’re doing now.
Considering the USD250 (RM1000-ish) list price, the Mi Sphere comes packaged with an “modest” array of accessories out of the box, which includes:
- A microUSB cable (QC capable)
- A grip/tripod
Annnnnnd that’s about it. Sounds rather sparse, but Xiaomi has got to cut costs somewhere, right? At least the accessories that were included seem to be of good quality.
So does this make the Mi Sphere a bad buy? Well, looking at how it performs, I’d say no. Rather, it’s probably one of the best buys that the consumer 360 world has got to offer right now – that is, IF you have the compatible hardware to make full use of it, and if you can stand the quirks of the companion app.
Plus, it’s often on Flash Sale in one form or another over at GearBest, which makes it even better value.
Also, in terms of support, the Mi Sphere team has got to be one of the most responsive support teams I’ve seen, with a few of them constantly patrolling the Mi Sphere Users FB Group and providing quick feedback. If nothing else, it does make me warm inside to have quick access to support personnel (and even app developers) in case something goes wrong.
Firmware and companion apo/software updates are also frequent and consistent, which is assuring, though occasionally new app updates do break old features while introducing new ones, which can bit a bit exasperating. It doesn’t happen often though.
That said, having pushed the Mi Sphere out the door with the issues that it has does make it feel like the Mi Sphere “package” is more a “Beta” then a “Full Release”, but at least the support folks are responsive and quick to address the problems popping up.
The Mi Sphere is built very well, priced competitively and has excellent performance; and yet at the same time it is somewhat shackled by the erratic app and compatibility issues with certain phones.
It’s not an entirely complete package yet, unfortunately, but it’s pretty hard to ignore the Mi Sphere’s actual performance at the asking price – which is still notably better most of its other contemporaries.
Also, considering that the issues outlined above are actively being addressed by the manufacturers, the Mi Sphere might very well just mature into THE mid-range 360 camera to beat in 2018, being the perfect petite companion for any Tech Nomad aiming to document his travels in a new and unique way.
Considering all this, the Mi Sphere gets an 8.2 out of 10 from us here at Technomadica, netting it a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED tag as well.
The Xiaomi Mi Sphere on review was bought from GearBest, and you can get it from HERE, where it is – as usual – being offered at a very attractive flash sale price.
Furthermore, currently GearBest is running a promotion on the Mi Sphere-exclusive selfie stick, which you can find below: