Xiao Yi Action
The Yi Action camera

Ten years is a long time in the technology industry. It was 2006 when GoPro released its first digital camera — a waterproof, shockproof device with 32MB of memory for $80.

A decade on, GoPro is publicly listed with sales set to exceed $1.6bn in 2015. Its cameras sell for up to $500 but new competition is pulling the price back.

Last week, GoPro warned that the past quarter had not been as successful as it had hoped. Its shares fell faster than a base jumper, wiping hundreds of millions of dollars from its valuation.

In 2006, GoPro’s action camera was unique but today it is facing an attack of the clones, led by the $100 Yi Action, above.


Shared likeness
Its manufacturer, Xiaoyi, which makes home security cameras, is a China-based affiliate of local smartphone maker Xiaomi. It uses the tagline “See Different”but its cameras look pretty familiar.

Placed side by side (Vine link here), it is not immediately easy to tell the Yi Action camera from the long-running GoPro design. Both are matchbox size with an off-centre fisheye lens and two big control buttons.

The Yi’s waterproof case, an extra $30, even has the same three-ringed screw that fits many GoPro accessories.

The similarity is more than skin deep. The Yi camera uses a 16 megapixel Sony Exmor R image sensor, similar to those in GoPro’s line-up, and the same Ambarella chipset that is used in GoPro’s cube-shaped Hero4 Session, its latest camera. The Session was priced at $400 but by December that had been slashed to $200.

The Yi does make some concessions to cost, including an all-plastic case instead of the metallic plate often found on higher-end GoPros. With the ability to shoot in full 1080p high-definition at a slow-motion-friendly 60 frames a second, however, its specs are at least as good as the $200 GoPro Hero+.

The images reflect the high-quality parts. I took a Yi and a GoPro Session on a road trip in snowy US National Parks in Utah and Arizona. Both cameras produced excellent pictures and videos, with the GoPro’s higher resolution noticeable only if you zoom in.

Because both lack screens, most controls are done by wireless connection to a smartphone. I found the Yi app better than GoPro’s, which often struggled to connect to the camera. Neither excelled in low light but both survived the sub-zero temperatures of the Grand Canyon — unlike my iPhone, which lost its charge.

In short, other than queasy feelings about intellectual property, I see little reason why anyone would pay twice as much for a low-end GoPro when they could have the Yi — with change left for a selfie stick.


Three rooms for one
If GoPro is seeing the effect of competition from this Chinese rival, Nest should be worried by Yi’s home camera. The Alphabet-owned smart-home pioneer’s Nest Cam is seen as the leading security webcam, but at $200, it already looked pricey.

That was before Yi arrived with its product, which costs $60. You can remotely monitor three rooms for the price of one Nest Cam. Again, there are trade-offs: the Yi Smart camera has only 720p video resolution, unlike Nest’s 1080p, and the plastic finish is less elegant than its US rival’s metal body.

Xiao Yi Home Camera
The Xiao Yi home camera has a micro SD card slot

At first glance, though, the two products again look similar. Take the camera modules out of their stands and I struggle to discern a difference.

Much of the magic of these devices is in the software. Nest Cam made big improvements over its predecessor, Dropcam, in eliminating false alarms. Yi Camera, however, apes the Dropcam’s tendency to jump at its own shadow. Every evening, it interpreted its own switch to night-vision mode as an intrusion alert.

The Yi, however, has a trick that almost makes this worth bearing. Whereas Nest charges $10 a month for cloud storage of videos, Yi Camera has its own micro SD card slot, to which clips can be saved at no cost.


Verdict
Xiaomi’s smartphones have long been criticised for looking like an iPhone but, its software innovations are enough to fend off copycat accusations. However, Yi’s cameras have little such differentiation — just a big price advantage.

Does the high quality of these GoPro and Nest rivals excuse the flagrant imitation? GoPro’s sudden drop in sales suggests many customers believe it does.

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