Review: Zhiyun Smooth5 S Smartphone Gimbal

If the speed with which DJI and Zhiyun release gimbals, there must be money to be made!

The latest to enter the Auscam Castle is the Zhiyun Smooth5 S, a gimbal designed specifically for smartphones.

As is the norm these days from companies such as Zhiyun, DJI, Hollyland and others, the packaging is almost a work of art in itself. In the box you get a black carry bag with an external pocket and a series of inside netted pockets for bits and bobs you might want to carry.

You get the main body of the gimbal, a screw in tripod, a magnetic light and coloured filters, USB cable that is branded Zhiyun so you can easily identify it as “special” USB-C for charging and connectivity purposes (I wish more vendors did this) a multi-language manual and a quick reference card.

I recommend a read of the manual and the quick reference manual as there are a couple of potential gotchas, especially if you are used to earlier Zhiyun gimbals or indeed, DJI ones.

As is the norm, you need to charge the Smooth5 S before it can be used and herein lies the first catch if you haven’t studied the manual and especially the schematic of the gimbal.

To charge, the first thing you need to do of course is plug the USB-C cable into the USB-C port and the other end into a suitable charger (none is supplied) right?

Well yes, but after an hour, nothing had happened, no lights came on and I was starting to think maybe I had a dud unit or cable, or for some inexplicable reason, my charger had suddenly failed. By a process of elimination, I discovered the culprit was the gimbal, so decided looking up any sort of trouble-shooter might be wise.

And .. lo and behold there are TWO USB-C ports, the second being on the main trunk of the gimbal and tucked away under a rubber flap, whereas the one I was using was on the main arm and open. Reading the schematic, this is supplied as a mobile phone charging port. In other words, you can keep the phone in the gimbal charged from the gimbal’s battery which is a very neat idea indeed..

Now that I had that sorted, another minor annoyance was the LCD panel which doubles as a mode indicator and a battery indicator. It is tiny, very tiny and set on the left side of the gimbal on the main control panel (each side of the squarish body has controls / ports of some description).

According to the manual, a single press of the power button will show the battery level with a series of dots. It doesn’t, it shows the abbreviations for each of the 5 modes, each abbreviation being a 20% battery level.

The specs state charging time is a maximum of 3 hours and 20 minutes is needed, so after that, I placed my Samsung A71 into the clamp on the arm and started to have a play.

This clamp has a two-way position – vertical or horizontal and a single balancing slide. Once the mount / smartphone is in the desired position, you undo a tightening knob and slide the arm up or down until the phone is perfectly balanced.

By the way, it is recommended not to power on the gimbal without a phone in place, something I have not seen before.

To get the best out of the Smooth5 S / phone combo, of course there is an app, called ZY Cami. When this is installed and activated, you are prompted to connect the Smooth5 S to your phone via Bluetooth; mine simply refused to find the A71 – or more correctly, vice versa. Which was odd as in the phone setting it COULD see the gimbal, so I bit the bullet and manually paired the two.

Back in the app, I was informed there was a firmware upgrade which is pretty normal. It downloaded OK but refused to install despite many attempts.

This was getting frustrating I have to say.

At this point you might think it is time to start slinging off at Zhiyun for releasing a product and app not yet ready for market.

And you’d be wrong.

You see, if I had thought to have a look at the compatibility table, I’d have seen the Samsung A71 is not compatible, and this would have saved me a number of hours of cursing and swearing.

So, rule of thumb, before buying anything electronic / gadgetry these days that requites a host and OS of any description, always check the compatibility list!

To rescue this review, odd as it may seem, an olde Huawei P30 I have IS compatible, so I dug that up out of its hibernation hole and charged it up.

Take 2

The Zhiyun Smooth5 S is a gunmetal grey in colour with a rubberised handgrip that gives a feeling of security. As mentioned, there are controls and ports on every side. What would be called the rear when holding it, and the smartphone facing forward  is the main panel I mentioned earlier. This contains a Menu button, light switch inside a rotary dial, a mode button, shutter release / record button and a joystick. Above all these are the teeny, tiny LED screen.

The joystick is graduated; that is, the harder you push it, the faster the camera will fact to the direction it is being sent.

The shutter button’s responsibility is pretty obvious. In photo mode it takes a photo and in video mode it starts and stops a recording. However, if you press and hold it, the camera will switch between the front and back cameras. This can only work though if you have yet to start recording.

The mode button is used to switch between the different gimbal modes, and effectively changes which axes are locked thus making the gimbal perform in a specific way. Rather than rehash old ground, I did a story on the various gimbal modes and their uses some time back and you can read that here.

The light button in the centre of the ring is used to turn on or off the external fill light. Simply press and hold for 2 seconds to activate the light.

Unlike the DJI Osmo 6 fill light which is an optional AUD$79 extra, the Zhiyun Smooth5 S comes with an add-on light that connects magnetically to the top of the gimbal. Four different coloured lenses are supplied – Red, Blue, Yellow and Orange, and these too snap magnetically on to the light.

To change the brightness, you can turn the dial clockwise and to decrease it, anticlockwise.

When the light is on, the rotary dial has a secondary purpose too. Depending on where you double press it (top, sides, bottom), it will let you change the frame rate, ISO, display the playback menu or finally, display all the technical settings information on screen.

If the light is off, these operations change. Now you use this same double press system on the left and right to change camera modes or open the main menu to change camera mode and / or gimbal mode.

You can also perform all of these actions on screen in the ZY Cami app on the smartphone. Additionally, there is a gesture control system to tell the camera to start or stop recording by holding up your hand or giving the two finger “V” salute.

Going around the base clockwise, the large rotary wheel has two functions; the default is that of a zoom control, and the faster you turn it, the faster it will zoom in (or out of course). The button in the centre changes the operation to become a focus wheel and again, the speed of the rotation will change the speed of the focussing.

On the front of the gimbal are the aforementioned USB-C slot for charging, a switch to lock the rotation of the gimbal for transportation and a small trigger. If you press the trigger once, it enables smart tracking with the app attempting to identify what’s in the centre of the frame to track.

This is where having the grid turned on assists. Similar to the DJI system, you can also draw a rectangle around the subject, and this will also enable smart tracking. Doing it this way means the object you wish to track does not need to be centred in the screen. Pressing the trigger once again will cancel tracking as will clicking the ‘X’ on the screen around any tracked object.

A double press of the trigger will re-centre the camera and a triple press will “flip” the camera to selfie mode or back again if already in that mode.

Finally, pressing and holding the trigger will enter Sport mode enabling the gimbal to react faster to your movements.

Finally, we have the last side, which has the on / off switch and a programmable function button which is currently disabled in the ZY Cami app.

In Operation

A major test of any gimbal to me is it’s measure of comfort to use. Being right-handed and having a banged up wrist due to a carpal tunnel op that didn’t quite work a few years back, this is somewhat important to me, especially in extended use.

The Zhiyun Smooth5 S comes through that test with flying colours. As I mentioned at the start, the handpiece is easy to grip, well sculpted and the ergonomics of reaching the controls on the main panel are straightforward.  Even the operation of zoom and focus can still be done with one hand as this wheel falls tight under the thumb.

There are a lot of modes / commands to remember, but this applies equally to any gimbal – or any camera for that matter – and like anything, practice makes perfect.

It is a worthy competitor to the DJI OSMO 6 it seems, but I will be putting the two side by side in a forthcoming shootout. I am especially curious as to how the tracking systems compare.

At $299 it is more expensive, but if you add the fill light factor in, becomes slightly cheaper than the Osmo 6. It is certainly as fully featured – and you get a better carry case to boot.

The caveat here of course is to make sure your smartphone is on the supported list; the Osmo 6 does support a lot more makes and models. Hopefully for Zhiyun fans, the company will add to the list sooner rather than later, especially widening the Samsung options.

You can get more information on the Zhiyun Smooth5 S from their website.

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