A camera with two delicate lenses – an Insta360 Air – just rolled off the TDC desk and hit the floor.
When it connected with the hardwood, it bounced – with no apparent damage. It was yet something else to admire about this small camera, which does a lot of things incredibly well – especially when you consider the $129.99 US price.
First off, let’s have a look at the basics. The “Air” is a small camera capable of taking 360° stills and videos when attached to an Android Smartphone using the Insta360 app. It’s available in four colours.
It’s about the size of a ping pong ball or large lollipop, and it stores in a rubberized outer sleeve or shell that serves to protect those lenses and, as we discovered moments ago, provide shock absorption in the event of a tumble. Think of a rubber exoskeleton.
The design aesthetic encapsulates both form and function. It looks slick, catching the eye of people who see you pull it from your pocket, and then squeeze the Air from its case. And the case? Excellent protection for the lenses, which is always an issue with small 360 cameras, which require bulbous, protruding fisheye lenses.
For many small 360 cameras, these lenses – their greatest asset – is also their greatest vulnerability. The excellent little Ricoh Theta S, for example, has lenses that are notoriously easy to scratch, and the comments section on B&H features concern from a few customers who discovered, after the fact, that a good gouge can render the camera useless or very expensive to repair. (Still, TDC is a fan of this camera, which is simple to use, has WiFi, and produces quite good images and stitching. We just want the 4K version, which we just saw in Las Vegas, to be released.)
But now, we’re not in quite as much of a rush for that camera as before. That’s because we have the Insta360 Air in hand. And what this camera does, for the money, is remarkable.
Let’s start with the specs. For $129.99, you get this:
- 3K still image resolution (3008 x 1504)
- 2560 x 1280 video capture @ 30 fps
- f/2.4 minimum aperture
- micro-USB or USB-C connection, depending on your phone
To start with, the 3K resolution makes a tremendous difference over lower resolution models. And differences in resolution are all the more critical with a 360° camera compared with a “regular” camera.
That’s because 360° cameras must try to capture *way* more information than a camera shooting a standard 4×6, 16×9, or even a fully panoramic shot. That’s because they’re capturing the entire bubble of the world surrounding the camera: The full sphere of imagery all around. That means the moment you try to zoom in on anything shot with a lower resolution 360° camera, it’s going to start tearing apart. Very quickly, that ruins the whole experience. Not so with the Insta360 Air. Sure, there’s some tearing if you push it too far. But it’s a vast improvement over lower resolution 360 cameras.
TWO SMARTPHONE CAMS
Insta360 makes two different smartphone cameras. The Air is for Android phones, and TDC tested it with a Nexus 6P. The company also makes a Nano for iOS phones (that test is coming – we just picked up an optimal micro SD card today). We point this out now because there’s a key difference between the two products. The Nano is a camera in and of its own right, capable of stitching and storing images. In fact, you can carry the Nano around and take shots on your own without having it plugged into your iPhone.
The Air, by contrast, requires the horsepower of your app and phone to capture photos and video. It cannot take and store images without being plugged into your phone, and does not have any sort of rechargeable battery inside (which the Nano has). So you *must* have an Android smartphone to use the Air.
TDC did have an Android on hand (the aforementioned Nexus 6P). But because we had experience with the Nikon KeyMission 360, which unfortunately did not impress us very much, our expectations were low.
And that…made the performance of this little wonder all the more remarkable.
One of the greatest strengths of small twin-lens 360° cameras is also potentially their greatest weakness. Having but two lenses is great because you can make small form-factor cameras, like the Ricoh Theta S (and its 4K successor, which was on display at the NABShow). But problems often come in any sort of uneven lighting situation.
When you’re outside on a bright day, the stitching is generally fine because both lenses (on opposite sides of the camera) are capturing equal amounts of light. But the moment you’re indoors, when the lighting on one side of that camera might differ from the other, the odds increase that you’ll have a highly visible stitching line – along with having one slightly darker half of your sphere.
The Insta360 Air, with its dual 210° lenses, handled nearly all situations very smoothly – especially when you consider the price point. Remember: This is a $129.99 camera that shoots 360° stills and videos!
The stitching of the Insta360 Air, especially when compared with the KeyMission 360, was remarkable. In the example above, you have to look for it: Scroll up and you’ll see the exposure change slightly; there’s a demarcation point behind which the roof and some features are slightly darker, while the forward part of the cabin (which was brighter) is lighter.
It’s not perfect. But what’s great here is that with many other sub-$500 cameras you would see a seam slicing across the entire fuselage, like a cross-section. Many affordable 360° cameras, in sub-optimal conditions, leave a clear and present line that makes the image look like two halves that have been glued together. Not so with the Insta Air.
PLUS, NO LOBSTER HAND!
And where is the camera and phone? Well, the overlap of the two lenses and the stitching software has cleverly removed them. In doing so it has left some distortion where my hand is. But that’s not a huge issue. Some cameras (sorry, Ricoh!) can leave the shooter with a hand that looks like a lobster claw.
The Air isn’t always perfect – this example shows that. But for the most part, it’s very good.
Of course, one of the great things about the Insta360 Air is that it shoots video. And it actually shoots pretty good video, even with the ability to live-stream to YouTube and Facebook! We haven’t yet tested that function, and have noted that the playback quality depends almost entirely on the quality of your WiFi connection. If you have a blazing fast network, the quality of the crunched version is quite acceptable. But it’s never quite as clear as the original file that you view on your phone. In other words, if the file you see here isn’t quite what you were hoping for, it may well be the WiFi. Remember, 360° files are more data intensive than regular video files (assuming similar resolutions).
These casual video examples were shot during a trip to Cuba. Again, you’ll spot areas where the highlights are blown out, but it was *very* bright there, and the camera handled the rest quite well. Audio was also pretty good, considering it was very windy inside both the car and the ‘dome of mystery.’
RIDE IN A ’58 CHEVY
Kudos to the (possibly) unsung heroes at Insta360 who built the Android app. It’s intuitive, contains a tutorial for those who don’t read manuals, and comes with a ton of features ranging from filters to sharing tools, to even the clever app inversion switch. This switch allows the app to turn “upside down” relative to other apps, because when the camera is plugged into the bottom of the phone, you naturally flip the phone to hold the camera on the top.
The app also allows you to choose how you’d like to view the 360° content – everything from perspectives like Fisheye, Little Planet, Crystal Ball and more. You can explore the scene by dragging with your finger, by moving your phone or tablet in space, or – with the right toggle selected – pop your phone into a headset and see it in a more head-tracking VR-type way.
And – if you’ve got questions – Insta360 has answers. The company has taken the care to include *pages* of FAQs inside the app, which should solve pretty much any user’s issue (and save the company a ton of unnecessary email).
They take their updates seriously at Insta360, and pushed one out after we’d shot these videos that included electronic stabilization and some other goodies. Hopefully we’ll catch up with those, and try some live streaming, in the very near future.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
At TDC, we’ve been staying on top of the 360° scene for some time. Based on what we’d read, we were prepared to like the Insta360 Air, but – given the price – had modest expectations.
The Air vastly exceeded anything we could have hoped a $129.99 360° camera could achieve. We believe this is at the top of the pack for its price range, and an excellent product.
Well done, Insta360. You hit this ping pong ball out of the park.
Really, there simply isn’t anything else out there that can do more, for less.
And there are far too many competitors that do less…for more.
Apple Fanboy/Girl? Click here to buy the Insta360 Nano.