Hands-on review: Zhiyun Smooth 5S smartphone gimbal
Iterations and improvements ahoy, as Zhiyun updates its flagship smartphone gimbal.
Twelve months is a long time in Zhiyun World. The Smooth 5S – launched late last year – is the Chinese brand’s successor to the Smooth 5, which itself was released towards the end of 2021 to replace the Smooth 4. And so it goes. The annual cycle of rebirth and renewal continues with Smooth 5S.
As a smartphone gimbal, the 5S is Smooth by name, smooth by nature. Smooth as in silky. With updated algorithms controlling the steel motors, it has the mechanical chops to take on today’s Pro Max monster phones – although the bigger the phone, the tighter the fit. If your phone is at the outer limits of size and weight, you want to take maximum account of what is possible.
Available in either a striking white or smoky gray (we tested the more subtle/sober grey), the overall package and presentation is solid. The weight of the hardware inspires confidence without being too heavy, with the same familiar and tactile big, fat, knurled thumb wheel on the left side of the handle that was present on the 5.
In fact, side by side, there is very little to distinguish the 5 from the 5S. This model literacy is more evolution than revolution. The two most obvious visual indicators that you’re holding a 5S are the model name prominently displayed on the left side of the gear housing (where the 5 announced ‘Zhiyun’) and the 5S’s new fill light, which is built directly into the main body of the phone’s clamshell body.
This new light is without a doubt the headline here. Zhiyun has been gradually adding built-in lights to its high-end gimbals – for example on the DSLR-oriented Weebill 3 – and its magnetic mount light has also been a bright option for its recent smartphone gimbals.
Here, the Smooth 5S again supports two magnetic lights – one each above and below the phone clamp – but it also comes with one built-in light.
As is Zhiyun’s style, the two additional magnetic lights are optional accessories with the standard package (where you only get the gimbal, a tripod and a USB cable), while the Combo package supplies one magnetic light (plus four color filters, wrist strap). , useful hard-shell carrying case and a Zhiyun Prime membership card, which is required to unlock certain features in the supported camera apps).
For many people, and in many situations, the built-in light may be enough. It has a dimmable 650 lux peak illuminance on the tilt axis. Used together with two magnetic fill lights, you will have a peak illumination intensity of 2040 lux. It is quite strong for lights so small and practical.
It’s nothing quite as bright as a dedicated light stick like Zhiyun’s Fiveray FR100C, with its eye-popping 21,195 lux, but it’s certainly enough to light up a close-up, ideal for warming up human skin tones for a more natural, flattering look ( color temperature up to 5000K) or cool them down to the point of polar translucency, if you prefer.
Of course, with the addition of one or two extra lights – perhaps also using the color filters on one or all – more creative lighting effects can also be achieved. It’s certainly cool to have these options (Zhiyun provided one extra light and the filters for us to test), but the built-in light itself solves a lot of low-light problems when you just want to get your best shots, without pedaling. Having a built-in light is also one less thing to lose or forget to pack.
Other attractions for the Smooth 5S – building on the solid Smooth 5 base on which it is based – are the streamlined controls, so all key functions are just a thumb’s reach away; Zhiyun’s preferred three-axis design, with more space between each orthogonal axis of rotation enabling wider angles for filming; stronger magnetic steel motors with upgraded algorithms, to handle today’s larger, heavier phones; a wider phone clamp to accommodate more external lens options; a Portrait Mode switch to easily switch between horizontal and vertical photography; the delightful, Hitchcock-esque Dolly Zoom effect (a la ‘Vertigo’, etc.); full suite of shooting modes (PF, L, F, POV and V); support for PD fast charging, which sees full power restored in just two hours (you can also charge your phone through the gimbal) and up to 24 hours of runtime (heavily dependent on usage conditions), and more.
In use, the Smooth 5S performed excellently. Zhiyun takes a different approach to balancing your phone than the competition (e.g. DJI), where all three axes need to be properly balanced before you can start taking really stable footage. It’s a little more work, even if we’re just talking for another minute or two. You can’t just throw your phone into the clamp and start shooting, that’s all. Once your phone is snug and balanced, though, you’re good to go. Whether used in a traditional upright orientation or slung low, our test shots always looked good.
Some users – mostly owners of Pro Max-sized iPhones and similar Androids – have noticed that when the phone stretches the clamp to its widest, the USB-C port on the phone can end up close to the business end of the clamp . This makes it practically impossible to get a normal charging cable in there, or other powered accessories. In this situation, it is a question of which trade-off is acceptable to you.
Possible solutions would be to reorient your phone, although this can severely limit your filming angles by placing the camera lenses right next to the gimbal body, or to push the phone further out horizontally, although this can cause balancing issues and require the motors to work harder than normal. The Smooth 5S motors are strong enough to comfortably handle anything within the expected size and weight. Plus, given the fast charging capabilities of both gimbal and phone, there should never be too much downtime; it’s just something to keep in mind if you happen to own the biggest handset available today.
The hardware design of the Smooth 5S and the placement of the physical controls are ergonomically arranged, making handling and operation of the gimbal easy and natural (although arguably less so for left-handed users).
By using the large thumb wheel, the buttons on the center panel and the joystick, all important functionality can be controlled with one hand. Once you get the hang of using the gimbal, it all pretty much becomes second nature. This is a good thing, as there is minimal visual feedback from the gimbal itself.
There’s a small row of indicator lights that tell you what mode you’re in – lights that also double up to show charge status – but there’s no interactive touchscreen to speak of, like the one on the Crane M3.
Zhiyun’s reasoning seems to be that with a DSLR gimbal, a screen – no matter how small – is necessary, whereas with a smartphone gimbal you already have a large, high-resolution, full-color display on your device.
This reasoning also explains why quite a few of the gimbals features – mostly advanced camera trickery and templates for easy video production – are only available via Zhiyun’s bundled apps. Yes, apps are the majority. Oddly enough, the gimbal’s extra features are this time spread over two apps: the more consumer-oriented ZY Cami app (familiar from previous Zhiyun gimbals) and a more pro-focused StaCam app.
Frustratingly, there are aspects of both apps that you might care about using. Even more frustratingly, you need to be a Zhiyun Prime member to use any (ie all) app features. This is where buying the Combo pack starts to pay off – as has often been the case with Zhiyun’s gimbals – with a year’s Prime membership included.
Having to resort to apps to unlock the full potential of hardware – with any type of product – isn’t ideal, but it is what it is and seems to be the way the tech world is headed.
Overall, the Smooth 5S is another very good gimbal from Zhiyun. It addresses most of the reservations some users had about the Smooth 5 (you’d hope so, wouldn’t you?) and thus maintains Zhiyun’s position in the race for gimbal supremacy neck and neck with its rivals. Inevitably, there will almost certainly be a Smooth 6 by the end of this year, but right now the Smooth 5S may well be all the gimbal you need.
Zhiyun Smooth 5S smartphone gimbal
Standard: £169 (Gimbal, Handle Extension, USB-C Cable)
Bundle: £219 (Gimbal, Handle Extension, USB-C Cable, Wrist Pack, Magnetic Light, Color Filters, Carrying Case, Prime Card)
Sign up for the E&T News email to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.