Today we are going to take a look at our first motorized gimbal by the Chinese manufacturer Zhiyun Tech – one of the leaders in this emerging industry and the model that we shall be looking at today is the smooth Q – an entry level smartphone gimbal by the company.
I would like to start this review with a few basic reservations. First, consumer level motorized gimbals are quite a new phenomenon (a couple of years at most, at least for the more basic models like the ones that we are testing today). This means that manufacturers are still perfecting them with each new generation both in terms of hardware and software and there bound to be some kinks.
The second related point is that this is our first hands on testing of such a unit and hence – for us we have no real point of reference – if you have lots of experience with gimbals maybe you should check out some comparative reviews – there are plenty online, but if you are just starting with gimbals – this might be a good place to start to get an idea about what you might experience when you start using these type of contraptions.
Zhiyun Smooth Q Affordable smartphone gimbal
One more point before we start. A short time after we got the Smooth Q, Zhiyun introduced the Smooth 3 – a very similar unit, also for smartphones but one which is made from aluminium instead of plastic and has a somewhat different design and button layout, it is also about twice the cost as the Smooth Q.
An official video showing the Smooth III – the pro smartphone version
Materials and design
The Smooth Q is 28cm or 11 inches tall it is made of a plastic shell which can’t be separated (it would be nice if there was a way to remove the motorized parts for travel making the unit more compact when not in use). The plastic feels pretty strong although it does tend to bend a bit in the handle and make little cracking noises. We can only imagine that the Smooth III aluminium handle does not have these issues, but this is the price you pay for making this unit so inexpensive.
The only place where the plastic of the Smooth Q is less than ideal is in the arm mechanism which can be a bit hard to dial in precisely (you can see this in the video clearly).
In terms of general design the unit is quite comfortable to hold and operate. The buttons and the round joystick are in a good location, at least for our hand.
When using the smooth Q app you can do a number of things with the controllers on the unit (we are using the current Android version as of May 2017 – a new version should arrive in a few weeks – iPhone users already have this version so we are not going to go too much into it as it will be replaced with a completely new one soon).
You have the on/off button which you need to press for a few seconds to turn the unit on and off it can also be used to start recording or shoot a stills image depending on which mode you are on. Next you have the zoom switch – it works in a bizarre way – it isn’t smooth, it moves in jumps and if you push it up or down for a few seconds the camera changes to the front or the back camera of the phone.
Smooth Q motors
Finally you have the mode button which is the most complex part of the gimbal and we will get into it in a second.
The Smooth Q comes with a really nice semi hard case a strap and a USB charging cable. You can use it to charge the very powerful internal battery of the unit (we charged it maybe once or twice in about a month of use!) or use the micro USB connector on the side of the unit to charge your smartphone while it is on the gimbal (an angled cable is probably better for this task but even with it – it is not ideal as the phone moves and the cable moves with it).
Using the unit
Since this is our first time using a gimbal for any substantial amount of time we had quite a steep learning curve to go through. The first step here was to connect our phone to the gimbal. We use a OnePlus One smartphone (yeah it’s a bit outdated now and the camera isn’t really that great as you will see but for us it still gets the job done).
The OnePlus One has a 5.5″ display. The gimbal can definitely hold it but it requires opening the jaws of the grip part with two hands (and Zhiyun recommend removing the case – which is pretty annoying to do each time). We discovered that this is far from easy as you need two hands to open the jaws and somehow still hold the phone so it want slip out. On one occasion it did slip and fell (you can see this in the video – our camera was running when this happened and it wasn’t a lot of fun) – luckily only the glass screen protector of our phone broke – so you really need to be careful here.
Very strong grip mechanism
We tried an old LG G2 phone with a smaller 5.2″ display and it was significantly easier to put in – we really wish this gimbal had a different locking mechanism which wasn’t based on a super strong spring, but rather on some type of manual lock. On the plus side – once the phone is correctly placed inside the grip – it isn’t going to go anywhere.
Next you need to make sure that the phone is as levelled as possible. This is done by playing with the gimbal’s arm. The thing is that you need to be very precise here and the mechanism isn’t super delicate – I can only hope that with the higher end gimbals this process is easier.
One more thing which is more of a design issue – if you need to open the arm to balance a larger smartphone the motor can get stuck in the base. This isn’t a huge issue but if the right arm would be longer this would have been prevented and it would be much easier to carry the gimbal when not using it – since with the current design you need to close down the arm to fit the gimbal into its case which means levelling the phone again each time.
Once you have the smartphone levelled you turn the unit on and you can start shooting with your own camera app or using Zhiyun tech’s app. We used their app which I am not going to cover here since it will be significantly updated soon for Android (the new iOS version is already out).
Generally the gimbal is pretty easy to use – especially for video – you try and stay as stable as possible, frame your shot and either stay in one place or move and the gimbal helps to keep your image stabilized on 3 axis. If you want to see how intuitive something is to use – give it to some kids to try. We gave it to our 9 years old niece who was able to use it pretty quickly (although she didn’t do all the setup of course).
Even kids can use it (with some help)
The main drawback that we see in terms of actually using the gimbal, besides occasional instances where the gimbal just went crazy and we needed to do a restart, is choosing the different modes.
I’ll try to explain this to the best of my abilities (this actually took us some time and Zhiyun even sent us a diagram to help with this which you can see in the video). There are several modes that we are aware of – Follow, lock and Full plus a selfie mode.
- Follow – the initial state when you turn the gimbal on – the smartphone will move with your hand left or right and you can control the up and down or pitch movement with the joystick.
- Lock – the smartphone is locked in position it will try and keep the smartphone camera orientation as you move the gimbal. The joystick work in this mode in all directions (pitch and pan).
- Full – This is similar to the follow mode (the smartphone will follow your movements) but in this mode you can control the roll or incline of the camera (pitch and pan are disabled).
- Selfie (backward mode) – The smartphone turns to shoot the user.
If you are using the gimbal mode button, moving between the modes is the tricky part (you can also control the mode from the app “control” tab but not from the “camera” tab sadly, in our app version at least).
You can see in the video that one click on the mode switch between the follow and lock modes and double click goes to the full mode but to get out of the full mode you need to click once to go back to the follow mode. Triple click goes to the selfie (which is not exactly a mode since you can be in Selfie follow or Lock by pressing the mode key once). Remembering all of this is quite hard to be honest although you can probably get used to this after some time.
These are a lot of options which is nice, however since there is no indicator on the gimbal to which mode you are in (a small screen or even a number of small LEDs would be good indicators – we discovered after we recorded the video that there is a small blue text showing the mode on the app screen – but it is not very clear – it doesn’t stay on the screen and you can’t use it to change modes, plus if you are not using the Zhiyun app – you don’t have this info).
One nice thing that you can do is remote control the gimbal using a second phone with the app and having the gimbal on a tripod which is an interesting option in some situations. We do want to mention that with the existing Android app we sometimes had problems with connecting (and especially disconnecting issues after a few minutes) from the unit. We are not sure if this is an issue with the hardware, the app or something else – just like a few other points that we mentioned – this might soon be resolved with a new app (or a new firmware version for the gimbal itself).
The side arm of the gimbal – a more precise levelling mechanism would be appreciated
The Smooth Q is a very useful little tool which can help you get very creative with your shots and especially your videos. With the right smartphone it can be very effective especially if you calibrate it correctly, apply the right settings and the use the right technique.
The Smooth Q is pretty comfortable to hold, has a very very long battery life plus the ability to charge your phone on the go and you can mount it on all sorts of accessories as long as they have a 1/4″ 20 screw.
All this doesn’t mean of course that this unit isn’t without its drawbacks. We would definitely prefer the aluminium body that the Smooth III has, the smartphone holder is pretty annoying to use – especially for larger smartphones and having to remove the case is also not our favorite part. The unit can go crazy from time to time and we had some issues with disconnecting BT and the existing app for Android could be improved (which should hopefully happen very soon).
The biggest drawback in our view however is the way you choose and work with the different modes. We simply found it difficult to understand in which mode we are in at any given time and change modes (the clicking method can be a bit confusing) – this can easily be fixed in the updated app and we are hoping that it will as it will make using this gimbal so much easier.
At the end of the day even though this isn’t a professional gimbal, Zhiyun tech has the Smooth III and of course the Crane family of gimbals that work with actual cameras for that, given the affordable pricing of just under $140 it is very hard to criticise and if you take it as what it is you might be able to get quite a bit of use out of it.
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