smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#37 Best video editors / video editing apps for Android in 2021 — 10. January 2021

#37 Best video editors / video editing apps for Android in 2021


Ever since I started this blog, I wanted to write an article about my favorite video editing apps on Android but I could never decide on how to go about it, whether to write a separate in-depth article on each of them, a really long one on all of them or a more condensed one without too much detail or workflow explanations, more of an overview. So I recently figured there’s been enough pondering on this subject and I should just start writing something. The very basic common ground for all these mobile video editing apps mentioned here is that they allow you to combine multiple video clips into a timeline and arrange them in a desired order. Some might question the validity of editing video on such a relatively small screen as that of a smartphone (even though screen sizes have increased drastically over the last years). While it’s true that there definitely are limitations and I probably wouldn’t consider editing a feature-length movie that way, there’s also an undeniable fascination about the fact that it’s actually doable and can also be a lot of fun. I would even dare to say that it’s a charming throwback to the days before digital non-linear editing when the process of cutting and splicing actual film strips had a very tactile nature to it. But let’s get started…

KineMaster


When I got my first smartphone in 2013 and started looking for video editing apps in the Google PlayStore, I ran into a lot of frustration. There was a plethora of video editing apps but almost none of them could do more than manipulate a single clip. Then, in late December, an app called KineMaster was released and just by looking at the screenshots of the UI I could tell that this was the game changer I had been waiting for, a mobile video editing app that actually aspired to give you the proper feature set of a (basic) desktop video editing software. Unlike some other (failed) attempts in that respect, the devs behind KineMaster realized that giving the user more advanced editing tools could become an unpleasant boomerang flying in their face if the controls weren’t touch-friendly on a small screen. If you ever had the questionable pleasure of using a video editing app called “Clesh” on Android (it’s long gone), you know what I’m talking about. To this date, I still think that KineMaster has one of the most beautiful and intuitive UIs of any mobile app. It really speaks to its ingenuity that despite the fact that the app has grown into a respectable mobile video editing power house with many pro features, even total editing novices usually have no problem getting the hang of the basics within a couple of hours or even minutes.

While spearheading the mobile video editing revolution on Android, KineMaster dared to become one of the first major apps to drop the one-off payment method and pioneer a subscription model. I had initially paid 2€ one-off for the pro version of the app to get rid of the watermark, now you had to pay 2 or 3€ a month (!). I know, “devs gotta eat”, and I’m all for paying a decent amount for good apps but this was quite a shock I have to admit. It needs to be pointed out that KineMaster is actually free to download with all its features (so you can test it fully and with no time limit before investing any money) – but you always get a KineMaster watermark in your exported video and the export resolution doesn’t include UHD/4K. If you are just doing home movies for your family, that might be fine but if you do stuff in a professional or even just more ambitious environment, you probably want to get rid of the watermark. Years later, with every other app having jumped on the subscription bandwagon, I do feel that KineMaster is still one of the apps that are really worth it. I already praised the UI/UX, so here are some of the important features: You get multiple video tracks (resolution and number are device-dependend) and other media layers (including support for png images with tranparency), options for multiple frame rates including PAL (25/50), the ability to select between a wide variety of popular aspect ratios for projects (16:9, 9:16, 1:1, 2.35:1 etc.) and even duplicate the project with a different aspect ratio later (very useful if you want to share a video on multiple platforms), you can use keyframes to animate content, have a very good title tool at hand, audio ducking, voice over recording, basic grading tools and last but not least: the Asset Store. That’s the place where you can download all kinds of helpful assets for your edit: music, fonts, transitions, effects and most of all (animated) graphics (‘stickers’) that you can easily integrate into your project and make it pop without having to spend much time on creating stuff from scratch. Depending on what you are doing, this can be a massive help! I also have to say that despite Android’s fragmentation with all its different phones and chipsets, KineMaster works astonishingly well across the board.

There are still things that could be improved (certain parts of the timeline editing process, media management, precise font sizes, audio waveforms for video clips, quick audio fades, project archives etc.) and development progress in the last one or two years seems to have slowed down but it remains a/the top contender for the Android video editing crown, although way more challenged than in the past. Last note: KineMaster has recently released beta versions of two “helper” apps: VideoStabilizer for KineMaster and SpeedRamp for KineMaster. I personally wish they would have integrated this functionality into the main app but it’s definitely better than not having it at all.

PowerDirector


The first proper rival for KineMaster emerged about half a year later in June 2014 with Cyberlink’s PowerDirector. Unlike KineMaster, PowerDirector was already an established name in the video editing world, at least on the consumer/prosumer level. In many ways, PowerDirector has a somewhat (yet not completely) equal feature set to that of KineMaster with one key missing option being that for exporting in PAL frame rates (if you don’t need to export in 25/50fps, you can ignore this shortcoming). The UI is also good and pretty easy to learn. After KineMaster switched to the subscription model, PowerDirector did have one big factor in its favor: You could still get the full, watermark-free version of the app by making a single, quite reasonable payment, I think it was about 5€. That, however, changed eventually and PowerDirector joined the ranks of apps that you couldn’t own anymore, but only rent via a subscription to have access to all features and watermark-free export. Despite the fact that it’s slightly more expensive than KineMaster now, it’s still a viable and potent mobile video editor with some tricks up its sleeve.

It’s for instance the only mobile video editor that has an integrated stabilization tool to tackle shaky footage. It’s also the only one with a dedicated de-noise feature for audio and unlike with KineMaster you can mix your audio levels by track in addition to just by individual clips. Furthermore, PowerDirector offers the ability to transfer projects from mobile to its desktop version via the Cyberlink Cloud which can come in handy if you want to assemble a rough cut on the phone but do more in-depth work on a bigger screen with mouse control. Something rather annoying is the way in which the app tries to nudge or dare I say shove you towards a subscription. As I had bought the app before the introduction of the subscription model, I can still use all of its features and export without a watermark but before getting to the edit workspace, the app bombards you with full-screen ads for its subscription service every single time – I really hate that. One last thing: There are a couple of special Android devices on which PowerDirector takes mobile video editing actually to another level but that’s for a future article so stay tuned.

Adobe Premiere Rush


Even more so than Cyberlink, Adobe is a well-known name in the video editing business thanks to Premiere Pro (Windows/macOS). More than once I had asked myself why such a big player had missed the opportunity to get into the mobile editing game. Sure, they dipped their toes into the waters with Premiere Clip but after a mildly promising launch, the app’s development stagnated all too soon and was abandoned eventually – not that much of a loss as it was pretty basic. In 2018 however, Adobe bounced back onto the scene with a completely new app, Premiere Rush. This time, it looked like the video editing giant was ready to take the mobile platform seriously.

The app has a very solid set of advanced editing features and even some specialties that are quite unique/rare in the mobile editing environment: You can for instance expand the audio of a video clip without actually detaching it and risking to go out of sync, very useful for J & L cuts. There’s also a dedicated button that activates multi-select for clips in the timeline, another great feature. What’s more, Rush has true timeline tracks for video. What do I mean by “true”? KineMaster and PowerDirector support video layers but you can’t just move a clip from the primary track to an upper/lower layer track and vice versa which isn’t that much of a problem most of the time but sometimes it can be a nuisance. In Rush you can move your video clips up and down the tracks effortlessly. The “true tracks” also means that you can easily disable/mute/lock a particular track and all the clips that are part of it. One of Rush’s marketed highlights is the auto-conform feature which is supposed to automatically adapt your edit to other aspect ratios using AI to frame the image in the (hopefully) best way. So for instance if you have a classic 16:9 edit, you can use this to get a 1:1 video for Instagram. This feature is reserved for premium subscribers but you can still manually alter the aspect ratio of your project in the free version. For a couple of months, the app was only available for iOS but premiered (pardon the pun!) on Android in May 2019. Like PowerDirector, you can use Adobe’s cloud to transfer project files to the desktop version of Rush (or even import into Premiere Pro) which is useful if the work is a bit more complex. It’s also possible to have projects automatically sync to the cloud (subscriber feature). Initially, the app had a very expensive subscription of around 10€ per month (and only three free exports to test) unless you were already an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber in which case you got it for free), but it has now become more affordable (4.89€ monthly or 33.99 per year) and the basic version with most features including 1080p export (UHD/4K is a premium feature) is free and doesn’t even force a watermark on your footage – you do need to create a (free) account with Adobe though.

The app does have its quirks – how much of it are still teething aches, I’m not sure. In my personal tests with a Google Pixel 3 and a Pocophone F1, export times were sometimes outrageously long, even for short 1080p projects. Both my test devices were powered by a Snapdragon 845 SoC which is a bit older but was a top flagship processor not too long ago and should easily handle 1080p video. Other editing apps didn’t have any problems rushing out (there goes another pun!) the same project on the same devices. This leads me to believe that the app’s export engine still needs some fine tuning and optimization. But maybe things are looking better on newer and even more powerful devices. Another head-scratcher was frame rate fidelity. While the export window gave me a “1080p Match Framerate” option as an alternative to “1080p 30fps”, surely indicating that it would keep the frame rate of the used clips, working with 25fps footage regularly resulted in a 30fps export. The biggest caveat with Rush though is that its availability on Android is VERY limited. If you have a recent flagship phone from Samsung, Google, Sony or OnePlus, you’re invited, otherwise you are out of luck – for the moment at least. For a complete list of currently supported Android devices check here.

VN


Ever since I started checking the Google PlayStore for interesting new apps on a regular basis, it rarely happens that I find a brilliant one that’s already been out for a very long time. It does happen on very rare occasions however and VN is the perfect case in point. VN had already been available for Android for almost two years (the PlayStore lists May 2018 as the release date) when it eventually popped up on my radar in March 2020 while doing a routine search for “video editors” on the PlayStore. VN is a very powerful video editor with a robust set of advanced tools and a UI that is both clean, intuitive and easy to grasp. You get a multi-layer timeline, support for different aspect ratios including 16:9, 9:16, 1:1, 21:9, voice over recording, transparency with png graphics, keyframing for graphical objects (not audio though, but there’s the option for a quick fade in/out), basic exposure/color correction, a solid title tool, export options for resolutions up to UHD/4K, frame rate (including PAL frame rates) and bitrate.

In other news, VN is currently the only of the advanced mobile video editing apps with a dedicated and very easy-to-use speed-ramping tool which can be helpful when manipulating a clip in terms of playback speed. It’s also great that you can move video clips up and down the tracks although it’s not as intuitive as Adobe Premiere Rush in that respect since you can’t just drag & drop but have to use the “Forward/Backward” button. But once you know how to do it, it’s very easy. While other apps might have a feature or two more, VN has a massive advantage: It’s completely free, no one-off payment, no subscription, no watermark. You do have to watch a 5 second full-screen ad when launching the app and delete a “Directed by” bumper clip from every project’s timeline, but it’s really not much of a bother in my opinion. In the past you had to create an account with VN but it’s not a requirement anymore. Will it stay free? When I talked to VN on Twitter some time ago, they told me that the app as such is supposed to remain free of charge but that they might at some point introduce certain premium features or content. VN recently launched a desktop version for macOS (no Windows yet) and the ability to transfer project files between iOS and macOS. While this is currently only possible within the Apple ecosystem (and does require that you register an account with VN), more cross-platform integration could be on the horizon. All in all, VN is an absolutely awesome and easily accessible mobile video editor widely available for most Android devices (Android 5.0 & up) – but do keep in mind that depending on the power of your phone’s chipset, the number of video layers and the supported editing/exporting resolution can vary.

Special mention (Motion Graphics): Alight Motion


Alight Motion is a pretty unique mobile app that doesn’t really have an equivalent at the moment. While you can also use it to stitch together a bunch of regular video clips filmed with your phone, this is not its main focus. The app is totally centered around creating advanced, multi-layered motion graphics projects, maybe think of it as a reduced mobile version of Adobe After Effects. Its power lies in the fact that you can manipulate and keyframe a wide range of parameters (for instance movement/position, size, color, shape etc.) on different types of layers to create complex and highly individual animations, spruced up with a variety of cool effects drawn from an extensive library. It takes some learning to unleash the enormous potential and power that lies within the app and fiddling around with a heavy load of parameters and keyframes on a small(ish) touch screen can occasionally be a bit challenging but the clever UI (designed by the same person that made KineMaster so much fun to use) makes the process basically as good and accessible as it can get on a mobile device. The developers also just added effect presets in a recent update which should make it easier for beginners who might be somewhat intimidated by manually keyframing parameters. Pre-designed templates for graphics and animations created by the dev team or other users will make things even more accessible in the future – some are already available but still too few to fully convince passionate users of apps such as the very popular but discontinued Legend. Alight Motion is definitely worth checking out as you can create amazing things with it (like explainer videos or animated info graphics), if you are willing to accept a small learning curve and invest some time. This is coming from someone who regularly throws in the towel trying to get the hang of Apple’s dedicated desktop motion graphics software Motion. Alight Motion has become the first application in this category in which I actually feel like I know what I’m doing – sort of at least. One very cool thing is that you can also use Alight Motion as a photo/still graphics editor since it lets you export the current timeline frame as a png, even with transparency! The app is free to download but to access certain features and export without a watermark you have to get a subscription which is currently around 28€ per year or 4.49 on a monthly basis.

Special mention (Automated Editing): Quik


Sometimes, things have to go quik-ly and you don’t have the time or ambition to assemble your clips manually. While I’m generally not a big fan of automated video editing processes, GoPro’s free Quik video editing app can come in handy at times. You just select a bunch of photos or videos, an animation style, your desired aspect ratio (16:9, 9:16, 1:1) and the app creates an automatic edit for you based on what it thinks are the best bits and pieces. In case you don’t like the results you have the option to change things around and select excerpts that you prefer – generally, manual control is rather limited though and it’s definitely not for more advanced edits. It’s also better suited for purely visual edits without important scenes relying on the original audio (like a person talking and saying something of interest). GoPro, who acquired the app in the past, is apparently working on a successor to Quik and will eventually pull this one from the Google PlayStore later in 2021 but here’s hope that the “new Quik” will be just as useful and accessible.

Special mention (360 Video Editing): V360

While 360 video hasn’t exactly become mainstream, I don’t want to ignore it completely for this post. Owners of a 360 camera (like the Insta360 One X2 I wrote about recently) usually get a companion mobile app along with the hardware which also allows basic editing. In the case of the Insta360 app you actually get quite a range of tools but it’s more geared towards reframing and exporting as a traditional flat video. You can only export a single clip in true 360 format. So if you want to create a story with multiple 360 video clips and also export as true, immersive 360 video with the appropriate metadata for 360 playback, you need to use a 3rd party app. I have already mentioned V360 in one of my very early blog posts but I want to come back to it as the landscape hasn’t really changed since then. V360 gives you a set of basic editing tools to create a 360 video story with multiple clips. You can arrange the clips in the desired order, trim and split them, add music and titles/text. It’s rather basic but good for what it is, with a clean interface and exports in original resolution (at least up to 5.7k which I was able to test). The free version doesn’t allow you to add transition effects between the clips and has a V360 branded bumper clip at the end that you can only delete in the paid version which is 4.99€. There are two other solid 360 video editors (Collect and VeeR Editor) which are comparable and even offer some additional/different features but I personally like V360 best although it has to be said that the app hasn’t seen an update in over two years.

What’s on the horizon?

There’s one big name in mobile editing town that’s missing from the Android platform so far – of course I’m talking about LumaFusion. According to LumaTouch, the company behind LumaFusion, they are currently probing an Android version and apparently have already hired some dedicated developers. I therefore suspect that despite the various challenges that such a demanding app like LumaFusion will encounter in creating a port for a different mobile operating system, we will see at least an early beta version in 2021. Furthermore, despite not having any concrete evidence, I assume that an Android version of Videoleap, another popular iOS-only video editor, might also be currently in the works. Not quite as advanced and feature-packed as LumaFusion, it’s pretty much on par in many respects with the current top dogs on Android. So while there definitely is competition, I also assume that the app’s demands are certainly within what can be achieved on Android and the fact that they have already brought other apps from their portfolio to Android indicates that they have some interest in the platform.

As always, if you have questions or comments, drop them below or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this article, also consider subscribing to my Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

Download KineMaster on GooglePlay
Downlaod PowerDirector on GooglePlay
Download Adobe Premiere Rush on GooglePlay
Download VN on GooglePlay
Download Alight Motion on GooglePlay
Download Quik on GooglePlay
Download V360 on GooglePlay

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2020!) — 5. October 2019

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2020!)

The fact that nowadays pretty much everyone owns a smartphone and shoots video with it has brought a gigantic wave of shaky handheld footage along. While some folks are actually allergic to any kind of shakiness in video, I personally think that depending on the amount and context it can work just fine – but definitely not all the time and under any circumstances. So there is a need to stabilize shaky handheld footage. Now the best thing to get smooth n’ stable footage is to avoid shakiness in the first place while shooting. While there are techniques for shooting (more) stable video handheld, the most common thing would be putting the phone on a tripod (using any kind of rig or clamp for mounting it). But maybe you want to move around a bit? More and more smartphones do have internal stabilization, be it on the hardware side with OIS (optical image stabilization) or on the software side with EIS (electronic image stabilzation). Over the last years there has also been a considerable and increasingly affordable influx of (motorized) gimbals that allow smooth camera movements. But let’s be honest: Unless you’re going to a planned shoot, you probably won’t carry around a tripod or gimbal (if you have one) – as compact as they have become over time, they are still too big and clunky to just put in your pocket. So it’s likely that you will find yourself in situations where you shoot video handheld and want to smooth out some distracting jitter afterwards. While most desktop video editing software has a built-in stabilizer function these days, things don’t look quite as bright on mobile but there are still a few (good) options.

Android

Google Photos
The easiest way to stabilize a pre-recorded video clip on your mobile phone is probably to use a little known feature of an immensely popular (and completely free!) app: Google Photos. Select any video clip and open the edit panel (sliders icon in the middle), then tap on the rectangle with the tilted image inside (to the right of the “Export frame” button). When I first used it I was really surprised how well it worked! The stabilization process doesn’t alter the resolution and frame rate but you will have to live with a lower video bitrate (sample clip: 17 to 11 Mbit/s) while the audio bitrate remains the same. Google Photos is basically available for all Android devices which is great. I have however found that very ancient pre-Android 5 devices (I tested it with two devices running Android 4.4) do not have the stabilization feature baked into the app. “What about iOS?” you may ask as Google Photos is also available on the Apple Appstore. Unfortunately, just like with the ancient Androids, the stabilization feature is not available in the iOS version of the app. Maybe at some point in the future.

PowerDirector
If you are looking for a stabilization feature already built into an advanced mobile video editing app with which you can produce your final edit, then Cyberlink’s PowerDirector is currently your only choice across platforms. Select the clip in your timeline, open the editing panel by tapping the pen icon on the left side bar and choose „Stabilizer“. Unlike with Google Photos where the stabilization is basically a one-button operation, PD does give you a 0-100 slider to increase or decrease the level of correction (default value is 50). The higher the level of correction, the more the image will be cropped. PD can keep the footage’s fps as long as it is a frame rate that is supported for export within the app. That means 24, 30 and 60fps – no PAL frame rates unfortunately. Resolution on the other hand shouldn’t be a problem at all, PD supports export up to UHD/4K resolution. You also get to choose between three bitrate options (Smaller Size/Standard/Better Quality), the actual bitrate will be depending on your export resolution. In the case of the sample clip used here the bitrate of 17Mbit/s remained unaltered when using „Better Quality“ but that seems to be the maximum for projects with FHD resolution. If you use a clip recorded in a higher bitrate it will be compressed upon export. The audio bitrate is reduced (sample clip 320 to128 Kbit/s). PD is free to download with watermark and some restrictions regarding certain features – watermark-free export and the complete feature set are only available with a paid subscription.

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
There’s a third option on Android. Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile shouldn’t be confused with Instagram’s „Hyperlapse“ app (which is only available on iOS so far). They are actually somewhat similar in that their main purpose is to speed up and stabilize video but while Instagram’s app can only do this for footage shot „live“ within the app, Microsoft’s version allows importing pre-recorded clips. By default, the result you get will be a 4x sped up clip but if you want the original speed, you can move the speed slider to „1x“ instead. As for the resolution, Microsoft Hyperlapse only supports import of clips with up to FHD resolution and you have to activate FHD export in the settings as the default setting is HD (720p). The frame rate remains the same, the video bitrate is seriously crunched (sample clip: 17 to 8 Mbit/s), the audio bitrate is kept intact. The stabilization result isn’t as good as Google’s Photos and while the app is free, you do get a Microsoft Hyperlapse branded bumper screen. There are no in-app purchases to get rid of this so you will probably have to trim it off using another app.

VideoStabilizer for KineMaster
If you were asking me which app I consider to be the best video editing app for Android, I would probably choose KineMaster. It lacked a video stabilization feature though and many people have been asking about it for quite some time. Just recently, KineMaster did something rather unexpected: They released a separate app called “VideoStabilizer for KineMaster” as an early beta (alongside another separate app for speed ramping). The official take on this is that they don’t want the main app to become too big size-wise and also want to keep it available for as many devices as possible. If you ask me, I would definitely prefer to have it as part of KineMaster and not a separate app. As mentioned, the app was released as an early beta and you can definitely tell, the result isn’t particularly impressive at this time and there are some glitches like the fact that it seems to slightly change the color of the original clip. The app is free to download but if you export the video directly to the Gallery, the video will have a watermark in the bottom right corner. You can only avoid the watermark by sharing the stabilized clip directly to KineMaster and you also need to have an active KineMaster subscription (because otherwise you will get a watermark when exporting from KineMaster). If you want to give it a go despite its current beta status, you can download VideoStabilizer for KineMaster on the Google Play Store. There’s currently no beta version on iOS but I think chances are good that there will be one later on or alternatively a version of the final production release.

iOS (iPhone/iPad)

Emulsio
As mentioned above, while Google Photos is available for iOS, the stabilization feature from the Android version is not. And neither is PowerDirector or Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile. Also, none of iOS’s best video editing apps including the likes of Luma Fusion, KineMaster, Adobe Rush, Videoleap or Splice feature a stabilization tool at this point. The only (fairly good) option to stabilize pre-recorded video that I was able to find was an app called Emulsio. The interesting thing about Emulsio is that unlike all other apps for stabilizing mentioned here, there’s a whole bunch of controls over the stabilization process at your fingertips. Just like PD it gives you a 0-100% scale for the strength of the correction, cropping more of the frame the higher the % is. But on top of that, you get control over which axes (X,Y,XY) are corrected, you can switch rotation compensation and wobble removal on or off and even reduce rolling shutter. Emulsio does keep resolution and frame rate intact but reduces both video bitrate (sample clip 17 to 15Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 256Kbit/s). It’s free with watermark, you can get rid of the watermark by purchasing a 8.99€ pro upgrade.

Windows Mobile

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
Before I wrap this up let me tell you that while Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile isn’t available for iOS, it (still) is for their own (now quasi-dead) mobile platform Windows Mobile. So just for the highly unlikely case that you are a die-hard Windows Phone enthusiast still holding on to your Lumia: You can join the stabilization fun! It basically works like the Android version described above but only supports import/export of HD (720p) clips, higher resolution clips will be transcoded to 720p. So when the resolution is reduced it shouldn’t come as a surprise that video bitrate (17 to 7 Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 192 Kbit/s) are as well. The frame rate remains the same as the original source clip.

And here’s a video presenting the deliberately shaky sample clip (shot on a Motorola Moto Z in 1080p 30fps handheld) in stabilized versions by each mentioned app (in the case of Power Director and Emulsio the default settings were used):

Have I missed something important? Did a new app or new feature for an established app just come out? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter (@smartfilming).

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

#13 The Xiaomi Mi A1 – A good budget option for mobile videography? — 9. May 2018

#13 The Xiaomi Mi A1 – A good budget option for mobile videography?

The Xiaomi Mi A1 is Xiaomi’s first “officially” internationally available phone.

Xiaomi has been a really big name in China’s smartphone market for years, promising high-end specs and good build quality for a budget price tag – but only at the end of last year did they officially enter the global scene with the Mi A1. The Mi A1 is basically a revamped Mi 5X running stock Android software instead of Xiaomi’s custom Mi UI. It’s also part of Google’s Android One program which means it runs a ‚clean‘ Google version of Android that gets quicker and more frequent updates directly from Google. For a very budget-friendly 180€ (current online price in Europe) you get a slick looking phone with dual rear cameras, featuring a 2x optical zoom telephoto lens alongside the primary camera. Sounds like an incredible deal? Here are some thoughts about the Mi A1 regarding its use as a tool for media production, specifically video.

After spending a couple of days with the Mi A1, I would say that this phone is definitely a very interesting budget-choice for mobile photographers. The fact that you get dual rear cameras (the second one is a 2x optical zoom as mentioned before) at this price point is pretty amazing. The photo quality is quite good in decent lighting conditions (low light is problematic but that can be said of most smartphone cameras), you get a manual mode with advanced controls in the native camera app and the portrait mode feature does a surprisingly good job at creating that fancy Bokeh effect blurring the background to single out your on-screen talent. A lot of bang for the buck. Video – which I’m personally more interested in – is a slightly different story though.

Let’s start with a positive aspect: The Xiaomi Mi A1 lets you record in UHD/4K quality which is still a rarity for a budget phone in this price range. And hey, the footage looks quite good in my opinion, especially considering the fact that it’s coming from a (budget) smartphone. I have uploaded some sample footage on YouTube so see for yourself.

The video bitrate for UHD/4K hovers around 40 Mbps in the native app which is ok for a phone but the audio bitrate is a meager 96 Kbps (same in FHD) – so don’t expect full, rich sound. But this is only the beginning of a couple of disappointments when it comes to video: One of the Mi A1’s promising camera features, the 2x optical zoom lens, CANNOT be used in the video mode, only in the photo mode! What a bummer! This goes for both the native camera app and 3rd party apps.

Despite running a stock version of Android and being part of Google’s Android One program, the Camera2 API support level is very disappointing.

Talking about 3rd party camera apps, it’s also a huge let-down that the Camera2 API support (what is Camera2 API?) is only „Legacy“ out of the box, even though the Mi A1 is part of Google’s Android One program. „Legacy“ means that third party camera apps can’t really tap into the new, more advanced camera controls that Google introduced with Android 5 in 2014, like precise exposure control over ISO and shutter speed. Due to this, you can’t install an app like Filmic Pro in the first place and other advanced camera apps like Cinema FV-5, ProShot, Lumio Cam, Cinema 4K, Footej Camera or Open Camera can’t really unleash their full potential. Interestingly, there seems to be a way to „unlock“ full Camera2 support via a special procedure without permanently rooting your device (look here) but even after doing so, Filmic Pro can’t be installed, probably because the PlayStore keeps the device’s original Camera2 support information in its database to check if the app is compatible without actually probing the current state of the phone. This is just an educated guess however. Still, many of us might not feel comfortable messing around with their phone in that way and it’s a pity Xiaomi doesn’t provide this out-of-the-box on the Mi A1.

UI of the video mode in Xiaomi’s native camera app on the Mi A1. You can tap to focus and adjust the exposure (+/- 2 EV), but not lock it.

Lackluster Camera2 API support can be remedied by a good native camera app but unlike with photos, there is no pro or manual mode for videos on the Mi A1, it’s actually extremely limited. While you can lock the focus by tapping (there are two focus modes, tap-to-focus and continuous auto-focus), you are only able to adjust the auto-exposure within a certain range (EV), not lock it. There’s also no way to influence the white balance. Shooting in a higher frame rate (60fps)? Not possible, not even in 720p (there’s a not-too-bad 720p slow-motion feature though). Apropos frame rates: I noticed that while the regular frame rate is the usual 30fps, the native camera app reduces the fps to 24 (actually 23.98 to be precise) when shooting under low-light conditions to gain a little bit more light for each frame. That’s also the reason why I made two different YouTube videos with sample footage so I was able to keep the original frame rate of the clips. I have experienced this behaviour of dropping the frame rate in low-light in quite a few (native) camera apps on other phones as well and from the standpoint of a run-of-the-mill smartphone user taking video this is actually an acceptable compromise in my opinion (as long as you don’t go below 20fps) to help tackle the fact that most smartphone cameras still aren’t naturally nocturnal creatures. It can however be a problem for more dedicated smartphone videographers that want to edit their footage as it’s not really good to have clips in one project that differ so much in terms of fps. 3rd party apps might help keeping the fps more constant.

And there are still two other big reasons to use a 3rd party app on the Mi A1 despite the lack of proper Camera2 API support: locking exposure and using an external microphone via the headphone jack (yes, there is one!). One more important shortcoming to talk about: It’s not too surprising maybe that there is no optical image stabilization (OIS) on a phone in this price range but given the fact that you can shoot 4K, I would have expected electronic image stabilization (EIS) at least when shooting in 1080p resolution. But there’s no EIS in 1080p which means that you should put the phone on a tripod or use a gimbal most of the time to avoid getting shaky footage. With a bit of practice you might pull off a decent handheld pan or tilt however to avoid having only static shots.

So I’ve talked about the video capturing part, what about editing video on the Mi A1? The phone sports a Snapdragon 625 which is a slightly dated but still quite capable mid-ranger chipset from Qualcomm. You can work with up to two layers (total of three video tracks) of FHD video in KineMaster and PowerDirector (the two most advanced Android video editing apps) which will suffice for most users. Important note: DON’T run the hardware analysis test in KineMaster though! It’s a hardware probing procedure meant to better determine the device’s capabilities in terms of editing video in the app. While the device capability information originally says you can have two QHD (1440p) video layers, it will downgrade you to two 720p (!) layers after running the analysis – quite strange. Don’t worry though if your evil twin grabs your phone and runs the test anyway – you just have to uninstall and then reinstall KineMaster to get back to the original setting. I ran some quick tests with FHD 1080p layers and it worked fine so just leave everything as is. Since the phone can shoot in UHD/4K resolution you might ask if you can edit this footage on the device. While you can’t edit 4K in KineMaster on the Mi A1 at all (when trying to import 4K footage the app will offer you to import a transcoded QHD version of the clip to work with) you can import and work with UHD/4K in PowerDirector, but only as a single video track, layers are not possible.

So let’s wrap this up: Xiaomi’s first internationally available phone is a great budget option for mobile photographers but the video recording department is let down by a couple of things which makes other options in this price range more appealing to the smartphone videographer if advanced manual controls and certain pro apps are of importance. As I pointed out though, it’s not all bad: It’s still hard to find a phone for that price that offers UHD/4K video recording – and the footage looks even pretty good in decent lighting conditions. So if you happen to have a Mi A1 – there’s no reason at all to not create cool video content with it – if you achieve a nice video package you can even be more proud than someone with a flagship phone! 😉 If you have any questions or comments, please drop them below or find me on Twitter @smartfilming.

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