Much has changed in the world of cameras over the last couple of years. Not only has the smartphone become the primary device for capturing and sharing photos and video, action-cameras specifically designed to capture active events, HD cameras fitted to drones and dash-cams have all seen an increase in sales. Next on the innovation curve are 360-degre cameras, which are able to grab a still image or video of your complete surroundings instead of just focussing on a single area. These 360-recordings can subsequently be shared on social media so friends, family or colleagues can enjoy an even more immersive experience than made possible by traditional cameras.
The current generation of 360-degree cameras are split into two design camps: spherical and rectangular shaped devices. Spherical models are relatively bulky, less portable and comfortable to hold. Rectangular shaped models offer a better grip and are generally easier to operate. Due to their shape, they do tend to catch more wind, however, making them unsuitable to be attached to a helmet, boat or surfboard.
Another differentiator is the number of lenses. Most devices use one front lens and one on the back to capture slightly more than a 180-degree viewing angle for overlap, and then try to seamlessly stitch these two images together. This stitching process is done automatically, but is inherently subject to small errors. Single-lens models, like the 360Fly, aren’t able to catch a full 360-view, but won’t show stitching errors since they only capture one single, ultra-wide shot.
Taking a good 360-degree shot isn’t quite as easy as might be expected. When manually holding the camera, images are prone to the ‘big-finger’ effect where a hand is presented as an unnatural huge object taking up a large portion of the recording. To mitigate this, just place the device on a table, or mount it to the wall and then use the app, self-timer or even a selfie-stick to start capturing.
Actual image quality, in most cases, also has room for improvement, especially when directly compared to dedicated cameras, or even those integrated into modern-day smartphones. A 360-degree camera has a much wider field of view to capture instead of focussing all those megapixels onto a relatively narrow and limited area. Furthermore, the chances of capturing direct sunlight with a 360-degree camera are significantly bigger, resulting in inevitable overexposure and flares.
Who’s buying them?
As the cameras record the complete moment users won’t miss out on any person, object or detail of the surrounding. There’s a significant demand from consumers to capture footage from holidays, concerts, bike rides or the atmosphere of sporting events like the Olympics. Commercial adoption is also starting to become more commonplace. Real estate agents, for instance, can use a 360-degree camera to record and show every nook and cranny of a house to potential buyers. Tourism destinations are using them to briefly immerse and tempt potential holidaymakers to visit. Conference and event venues can use them to promote the location to event organisers. Social media like YouTube and Facebook already offer many 360-degree recordings.
For this comparative review, we stacked up four 360-degree cameras that are, or will soon be, widely available in South Africa.
Before testing, all models were checked for available firmware updates, manually reset and supplied with the latest version of their software/apps. All settings were left to default, as determined by each separate brand. The four models were then tested and their end score based on aspects including general ease of use, setup, configuring, versatility, transferring/exporting and image quality.
All tested 360-cameras follow a similar setup, configuration and connection procedure. With the exception of the Ricoh Theta S, all use Bluetooth to initialize a connection and Wi-Fi to transfer files to a smartphone or tablet. Depending on the quality and length of the actual captured material, Wi-Fi technology and available bandwidth transfer speeds can be quite low. Video recordings can easily reach sizes of a few hundred MB’s. Recorded material always needs to be transferred to a mobile device first in order to view or share.
Ricoh Theta S
RRP: R5 500
Distributor : Bowline
For a long time, Ricoh was the only major brand offering a 360-degree camera. The very first Theta version was limited to just capturing still images and later on video in a mere 15 frames per second. This Theta S model now captures at 30 fps, resulting in much smoother playback.
While being relatively compact and lightweight (125g), it is quite tall compared to the similarly shaped LG 360 Cam. In general, the Theta is not as easy and intuitive to operate as its LG counterpart. The self-timer function, for instance, requires the app to activate while the camera itself refuses to remember specific settings. Switching from photo to video mode is also cumbersome because you need to press the small side-mounted buttons quiet firmly. In addition, options to configure the device are few. The Theta S is the only device in this test that doesn’t support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi won’t start up automatically, requiring you to manually press a button every time a transfer is due.
Image quality itself is mediocre at best, especially when directly compared to the three other models. Ricoh’s Theta S was unveiled in 2015 and is therefore the oldest of all four tested 360-cameras, and sometimes that shows in daily use. The Theta S is supplied with a polyester protecting pouch which is just too small for quick and easy fitting. The material is also too soft for sufficient protection.
Although Ricoh’s Theta (S) model has been a front-runner for quite a while, it has gained some serious competition from other major brands looking for a piece of the same pie.
Image quality : 5/10
Ease of use : 6.5/10
Overall : 6/10
Samsung Gear 360
RRP: R6 000
Waterproof: Yes, but limited
Samsung’s Gear 360-degree camera is spherical shaped, just like the 360Fly. The main differentiator are its two lenses and sensors, one the front and one on the back. When looking at the raw specifications of this 153 grams weighing device, it is by far the most interesting. The Gear 360 is the only one able to record in ultra-high 4K resolution, resulting is razor sharp recordings. Like the 360Fly, it can withstand water, but no more than just a quick splash or rain shower. Samsung has announced it will offer separately sold underwater casings for the Gear 360, though. The Gear 360 comes with a fairly simple carrying pouch, which is better than nothing, but a better fitting solution would have been nice.
It houses a small OLED-screen on top of the camera able to display relevant information. The camera also features three multi-function buttons facilitating intuitive navigation through all menu’s and tweak loads of settings. It’s this combination of physical buttons and on-board display that makes the Gear 360 great as an autonomous device, without the use of a smartphone, to squeeze the most out of its features. And that’s a good thing, since it currently only works together with a very limit number of mobile devices. Anybody who owns one of these handful of devices will find the associated app to be very comprehensive, offering detailed settings for exposure compensation, high dynamic range, resolution and light sensitivity to name just a few.
When it comes down to pure image quality, the Gear 360 blows away the competition. Both front and rear sensors have a 15-megapixel resolution to capture slightly more than 180-degrees, enabling 4K video recording and very detailed still images. Especially when using the Gear 360 in video-mode, it dominates over the other tested cameras. The Gear 360 is supplied with a small tripod making it easy to hold or place on a table.
Image quality: 8/10
Ease of use: 8/10
Overall : 8/10
LG 360 Cam
RRP: R3 500
To remove the device from this hard-plastic casing, you just need to press the two buttons on the side, requiring two hands. This solution works very elegant while simultaneously supplying each lens with just the right amount of protection. In the end, this all adds up to the LG 360 Cam being a very good standalone device. Only Samsung’s Gear 360 comes close to the same level of user-friendly controls.
It’s not all roses, though. Image quality leaves some to be desired. Although better than that of the Ricoh and 360Fly, it won’t blow you away like the Samsung Gear 360 does. However, the app offers tons of options to fiddle around with. Exposure compensation, white balance, light sensitivity and shutter speed can all be changed to suit specific personal preferences. The LG 360 Cam also comes with various presets, like night, sports and landscape modes.
Image quality : 6/10
Ease of use : 9/10
Overall : 7.5/10
Estimated Retail Price: R7 500, R9 500 (4K model)
Distributor: EU/USA direct online import only
4K-video: No, 4K model available in Q3
Of all tested 360-degree cameras, this 138 grams weighing 360Fly is the odd one out. It features just one lens on top, instead of two on the front and rear. Since the 360Fly can’t capture its complete surroundings, and actually has a blind spot at the bottom, the end result is less spectacular when compared to the three other models. For anyone planning to use the 360Fly as an action camera replacement, this probably won’t be a problem since most of the action will take place on the front or sides. Technically, the 360Fly should not be marketed as a 360-degree camera because of its blind spot.
Putting that aside, the single lens does come with some interesting advantages. Because it doesn’t capture two separate images, there is no stitching involved, eliminating possible stitching errors. In addition, its single lens is significantly bigger than those of the other models and has a definite premium look and feel to it. Image quality isn’t real HD, although marketed that way, since resolution is limited to just 1504 x 1504 pixels. Overall captured quality isn’t on par with the Samsung Gear 360. On top of that, it’s a real missed opportunity that the 360Fly is unable to capture still images. On the upside, this camera is the only device in this test that can safely be used under water, even for up to 50 meters deep. The 360Fly app is pretty limited to things like tweaking exposure, colours, light sensitivity and contrast.
Furthermore, the device is the only model that uses proprietary connectors for charging, transferring and mounting. It uses a mechanical and magnetic click-system that doesn’t excel in ease of use, but is responsible for the waterproof feature. Separately sold adaptors are needed to mount it to GoPro accessories or a tripod. The 360Fly comes with an adequate zipper sealed protective cover. In the end, the 360Fly is primarily an interesting alternative to the traditional action camera, both for above and below water level. While reviewing this camera, a more expensive 4K version was unveiled on the manufacturers website.
Image quality: 5/10
Ease of use: 6/10
After carefully putting all four cameras to the test, two models came out on top. Samsung’s Gear 360 manages to deliver the best quality, by far. It also scores high at versatility, but that plus is neutralised by its currently limited mobile device support. LG’s 360 Cam excels in ease of use and portability. Image quality isn’t top of the line, though, but better than that of the Ricoh Theta S and 360Fly. It’s relatively low price point, on the other hand, effectively compensates for its sub-top recordings.
The 360Fly requires its only button to be pressed for a few seconds to turn it on, after which a blue LED starts flashing. Starting the 360Fly up, and connecting it with another device, takes more time than with the three other cams. With the LG 360 Cam, a one-time connection with the local Wi-Fi network needs to be made. After that, this device functions exceptionally smooth and intuitive. None of the other 360-degree cameras deliver the same level of easy installing and configuring.
Although not completely on par with the LG 360 Cam, Samsung’s Gear 360 also proved to be extremely easy to setup and configure. After downloading the camera app, it will automatically and seamlessly start connecting with the device. The bad news: the Gear 360 currently only works with a handful of Samsung devices like the Note 5, S6 (Edge) and S7 (Edge).