Hands-on review: Zhiyun Smooth 5S smartphone gimbal
Image credit: Zhiyun
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 had been released towards the end of 2021 to replace the Smooth 4. And so it goes. The annual cycle of rebirth and renewal continues with the 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 cope with 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 will be Max-ing the envelope of what is possible.
Available in either a striking white or smokey-grey colourway (we tested the more subtle/sober grey), the overall package and presentation is one of solidity. The heft of the hardware instils confidence without being overly heavy, with that same familiar and tactile big, fat, knurled thumbwheel on the left-hand side of the handle as was present on the 5.
In fact, side by side, there's very little to differentiate between the 5 and the 5S. This model iteration is more evolution than revolution. The two most obvious visual indicators that you're holding a 5S is the model name clearly displayed on the left-hand side of the gear housing (where the 5 advertised 'Zhiyun') and the 5S's new fill light, which is built directly into the main section of the phone clamp body.
This new light is arguably the headline feature here. Zhiyun has gradually been adding built-in lights to its higher-end gimbals – such as on the DSLR-oriented Weebill 3 – and its magnetic attachment lights have also been an illuminating 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 (in which you get simply the gimbal, a tripod and a USB cable), while the Combo package supplies one magnetic light (plus four colour filters, wrist strap, useful hard-shell carry case and a Zhiyun Prime membership card, which is necessary to unlock certain features in the supported camera apps).
For many people, and in many situations, the built-in light might be enough. It has a dimmable 650 lux peak illuminance on the tilt axis. Used in conjunction with two magnetic fill lights, you'd have a peak illuminance of 2,040 lux. That's pretty darn bright for lights so small and convenient.
It's nothing like as bright as a dedicated light stick such as Zhiyun's Fiveray FR100C, with its eye-searing 21,195 lux, but it's absolutely enough to acceptably light up a close-up, ideal for warming up human skin tones for a more natural, flattering appearance (colour temperature up to 5,000K) or cooling them down to the point of polar translucence, if you prefer.
Naturally, with the addition of one or two extra lights – perhaps also using the colour filters on one or all of them – more creative lighting effects can also be achieved. It's certainly cool to have these options (Zhiyun supplied one additional light and the filters for us to test), but the built-in light on its own resolves many low-light issues when you simply want to shoot your best footage, no messing about. 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, such that all key functions are a mere thumb waggle away; Zhiyun's preferred three-axis design, with more space between each orthogonal pivot axis 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 additional external lens options; a Portrait Mode switch for easy flipping between horizontal and vertical shooting; the delightful, Hitchcock-esque Dolly Zoom effect (a la 'Vertigo' etc); the 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 (strongly dependent on use case), and more.
In use, the Smooth 5S performed superbly. Zhiyun takes a different approach to balancing your phone than its competitors (e.g. DJI), whereby all three axes have to be correctly balanced before you can start shooting properly stable footage. It's a little bit more work, although we are only talking a minute or two more. You can't just throw your phone into the clamp and start firing away, is all. Once your phone is snug and balanced, however, you're up and running. Whether used in a traditional upright orientation or low-slung, our test footage always looked good.
Some users – mostly owners of Pro Max-sized iPhones and similar Androids – have noted that when the phone is stretching the clamp to its widest, the USB-C port of the phone can end up jammed tight against the business end of the clamp. This makes it virtually impossible to get a regular charging cable in there, or any other powered accessories. In this situation, it is a question of what trade-off is acceptable to you.
Possible solutions would be to reorient your phone, although this could seriously limit your filming angles by situating the camera lenses right next to the gimbal body, or to nudge the phone further out horizontally, although this may cause balancing issues and require the motors to work harder than normal. The Smooth 5S motors are strong enough to handle anything within the expected size and weight parameters comfortably, though. Also, given the fast-charging capabilities of both gimbal and phone, there shouldn't ever be too much downtime; it's merely something to bear in mind if you happen to own the largest handset available today.
The hardware design of the Smooth 5S and the placement of the physical controls have been ergonomically arranged, making handling and operation of the gimbal easy and natural (although arguably less so for left-handed people).
Using the large thumbwheel, the buttons on the central panel and the joystick, all essential functionality can be controlled with one hand. Once you get the hang of using the gimbal, it all becomes largely second nature. This is a good thing, as there is minimal visual feedback from the gimbal itself.
There is a tiny row of indicator lights to tell you which mode you're in – lights which also double to show charging status – but there's no interactive touchscreen to speak of, such as the one on the Crane M3.
Zhiyun's rationale would appear to be that with a DSLR gimbal, a screen – however small – is necessary, whereas with a smartphone gimbal you've already got a large, high-definition, full-colour screen on your device.
This rationale also explains why quite a few of the gimbals functions – mostly to do with advanced camera trickery and templates for easy video production – are only accessible via Zhiyun's accompanying apps. Yes, that's apps plural. Oddly, this time the gimbal's extra functions are spread across 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 to both apps that you might care to use. Even more frustratingly, you'll have to be a Zhiyun Prime member to be able to use some (i.e. all) of the app functions. This is where buying the Combo pack starts to pay off – as has often been the case with Zhiyun's gimbals – with one year's Prime membership included.
It's not ideal to have to resort to apps to unlock the full potential of hardware – with any product type – but it is what it is and seems to be the way the tech world is heading.
Overall, the Smooth 5S is another very good gimbal from Zhiyun. It resolves most of the reservations some users had about the Smooth 5 (you'd hope so, eh?) and in so doing 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 could well be all the gimbal you need.
Standard: £169 (gimbal, handle extension, USB-C cable)
Combo: £219 (gimbal, handle extension, USB-C cable, wrist wrap, magnetic light, colour filters, carry case, Prime card)
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