Xiaomi Mi Sphere 360 Camera – Better With Every Update!
The Mi Sphere camera is a consumer grade 360 degree camera by Xiaomi, a manufacturer known for action cameras, tablets, and mobile phones. Priced around $250, the Mi Sphere aims to tackle a market with a few big-name competitors banking on name recognition. Can a company that is still relatively unknown in the states successfully launch a niche product such as this? Let’s take a look at what the camera offers.
Xiaomi provided a camera, SD card, and selfie stick for the purpose of this review, and I was glad to see that the camera package also included a small tripod and cover. The design of the camera is sleek and satisfying. It feels good in the hand; small and light, but with a metal body. Besides the front and back lenses, the faces of the camera are almost featureless. One side has a small embossed logo, while the other is bare until the camera is powered on. When in use, shooting mode and power indicators are illuminated on the face in a very satisfying way. The appearance is subtle, classy, and and appealing in every way. Along one side is a small door that protects the USB port and MicroSD card slot. The top is simple, featuring the power button, a button for WiFi, and the shutter/record button. There are also two microphones, for stereo audio. The bottom of the camera features a standard tripod mount, and terminals which I imagine are for future accessories.
When the camera is powered on it plays a little tune, and the indicators are illuminated. Using the camera is simple – press the power button to change modes, and the shutter button to start and stop recording or to take a photo. Pressing and holding the power button will cause the camera to power down, and pressing the WiFi button will activate/deactivate WiFi for connection to the mobile app.
Obtaining the mobile app was not difficult, but Xiaomi didn’t exactly make it easy. There is a QR code on the box and in the printed manual, however said manual is currently not available in English and the QR code directed me to a foreign website instead of, say the Google Play store. I made note of the app’s name however and quickly found it in the official app store for download. I’ve reviewed a few products from overseas and this is a common process, but may be off-putting to someone unfamiliar with the brand. It also doesn’t help that the app name, “MADV360”, seems completely unrelated and isn’t in English even on the Play store. Once downloaded and installed however, the app is clearly named “Mi Sphere Camera”. This is a simple issue to fix for Xiaomi, as they simply need to update the app name in the stores and correct the QR code link in their documentation when they officially release in English-speaking markets.
Once you have the app things go much smoother. The first time you run the app you are greeted with a lovely intro screen with a 360 video background. Pressing “Go” takes you to a short tutorial in English instructs you on how to connect to your camera. The process is straightforward, I had no issues connecting right away.
When using the app you get a live preview, stitched in real time. You can use your phone’s gyro to look around, or turn it off and slide the view around with your finger. There is a noticeable delay in the video, and it is a much lower quality than what the camera records, but this is to be expected.
The preview interface is simple and clear. There is a large shutter/record button at the bottom center, surrounded on either side by a mode button and gallery button. Above the mode button is a small icon that when pressed will allow you to adjust the length of a self times, which can be activated via the app or by pressing and holding the shutter button on the camera itself – even when the app is not in use. The top center of the window indicates the camera’s battery power, while the top right contains a settings button.
Opening the settings button you are greeted with many options, ranging from video quality to exposure. The Xiaomi Mi Sphere records in 3.5k at 30 frames per second, but you can lower the resolution and record at 60fps if you choose. Still images are taken at an even higher resolution, and you with a maximum 30 second exposure you can take some very interesting low-light photos.
Touching the gallery icon will show you the videos and images stored on the camera’s memory card, and allow you to download them to your phone. I did notice that the camera can get rather hot while using the WiFi and app, as the metal body acts as a heat sync for the electronics. This is fairly standard for these types of electronic devices however, and I have had the camera powered on with WiFi for over an hour with no ill effects. When you download the image to your phone they are unstitched, and therefore need “exported” in order to be used in any meaningful way. One issue here is that, at least for the Android version, I was unable to download or export the files to my phone’s SD card and could only use the internal memory. This limits how many clips I can export at once, and is something to be mindful of as the videos can be quite large. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future update.
While viewing downloaded videos, you have a few options for interaction. You can enable the phone’s gyroscope which allows you to tilt and rotate your phone to change your view, disable it to navigate with your fingers, or enable the “gyro calibration” option – a misnomer in this case as it isn’t calibrating anything, it instead enables the highly impressive video stabilization. Utilizing a gyro in the camera, the camera’s positional data is stored along with the video and then used to automatically roll, tilt, and pan the video clip contrariwise to the camera movement. The result is a fixed orientation in virtual space, making for a more comfortable viewing experience. In cases of extreme motion this doesn’t always work as expected, but in most cases it does a wonderful job. A problem arises however when it doesn’t work as intended, as at this time it cannot be disabled. Xiaomi has assured me that it will be an optional feature in a future update, and in fact older versions of the app did not export video in this way.
The playback window also allows you to change the projection type, so you can experiment with different looks such as the popular “Little Planet” view. There is a small clip editor built in to the app which could be used to trim the video length and perhaps even set the projection type, but I have not been able to get it to function correctly and it is only partially translated at this time.
These half-working features really don’t help sell the Mi Sphere at all, and in fact could turn some potential customers right off. Xiaomi appears to be aware of this as they are very active on Facebook, creating and responding to post after post in their Facebook group, and releasing regular updates that resolve issues and provide new features. Larger manufacturers should take note!
Small issues aside, the camera really shines when you finally get a good look at the video. It is gorgeous! The resolution is perfect for viewing with VR goggles, and with the right set of plugins can be used in very creative ways. I mounted the camera on a racing drone and was able to capture images of the drone itself in flight – I must say I love using this camera!
The craziness starts about 40 seconds in:
Of course, your regular old everyday 360 footage looks just as great:
The Xiaomi Mi Sphere 360 degree camera is a great choice if you are looking to get into 360 videos, or just want to add a new tool to your video/photo arsenal. The development team is working hard to squash the bugs and improve the features. it is well worth the investment now, but if you aren’t ready to work around the few minor issues and wait for a fix then maybe wait a few months before diving in. By then, of course, everyone else will already have one because this is one of the best consumer 360 cameras available right now.
- Pleasing design looks and feels great
- App in English
- Great quality photos and videos
- Stabilization works great most of the time
- Manual ISO and long exposure options for photos
- Android app is hard to find, IOS app is missing features, and PC app is still in early development
- Stitching videos takes a long time
- Android app saves to internal memory, can’t save to SD
- Exporting and sharing photos needs work
- Camera and app use can be confusing