In the theater of immersive imaging lives a cast of quirky characters, products of every shape and size. The threat of death looms every one of them; none are safe — even GoPro couldn’t produce a hero. The shaky first act feels cobbled together without a script, an incoherent improv that sees every player momentarily vying for stardom, only for most to promptly exit stage left. There is no director. The audience’s heads are literally spinning.
This may sound like a comedy, but it’s trending toward tragedy. 360-degree imaging promised to be the Next Big Thing in the photo/video world, but it’s a giant leap that has yet to nail the landing. Time and time again, we’ve seen new 360 cameras release with much fanfare, then cut prices by hundreds of dollars just months after launch. Such was the fate of the pioneering Samsung Gear 360. Even the pretty impressive GoPro Fusion, which cost $ 700 when we reviewed it last year, recently went on sale for $ 299. These products cannot hold their value.
Insta360 is one company that believes it can reverse this trend and give immersive imaging the triumphant second act it needs. It makes a variety of 360-degree products, from bulky professional rigs to tiny smartphone attachments. The One X is its most advanced consumer model and, to Insta360’s credit, one of the more refined 360 cameras on the market, both in hardware and software.
I’m not convinced this is the camera that will lead us to a climactic finale, but it combines a good collection of the best features available in 360 today. It still feels like a novelty, but so long as you’re aware of that going in, it’s worth your time to come back from intermission.
Design and connectivity
The One X is a sleek, tall, black camera body almost monolithic in appearance save for the obvious dual lenses near the top. Two buttons are all it takes to change settings and shoot pictures or videos, with a small LCD screen displaying the current mode. There’s a Micro USB port on one side, battery door on the other, and a MicroSD card slot on the bottom. Next to the card slot is a detail I was pleased to see — a standard 1/4-inch tripod thread.
The design is nice for handheld shots, but it seems a little awkward when it comes to mounting it, action-cam style. The helmet mount sees the camera jut straight up into the air, which adds nearly 5 inches to your height. It’s also not waterproof, but there is a waterproof housing you can buy for it.
There are also many other creative accessories, from a “bullet time” selfie stick that you can swing around your head, to a dart-like mount that lets you hurl the camera through the air like a football. Insta360 has clearly embraced the 360 camera as equal parts tool and toy, and that’s a good thing.
To edit clips, you can transfer them from the One X to your phone either over Wi-Fi or with a direct USB connection. The Wi-Fi setup was incredibly easy, with no need to enter a network ID or password. The app locates the camera via Bluetooth, then automatically connects to its Wi-Fi network.
For longer clips, the wired connection will save you a lot of time. A 1-minute clip took 50 seconds to transfer via Wi-Fi, but only 20 seconds using the cable.
Naturally, you can also control the camera via the app, and this is a requirement if you want to see a preview of what you’re shooting as there is no monitor built into the camera itself. Using the app also makes it easier to set up the camera, including selecting a framerate and resolution. You can also view tutorials and sample footage within the app, which is a nice touch.
360 to fixed frame
One of the most important realizations in immersive video was that you don’t need to always stay in the world of 360. You can use 360 capture to edit digital camera moves into traditional, fixed-frame output. By recording a full spherical area, you also get nearly perfect electronic image stabilization without cropping away pixels (the One X does this as well as anyone). These are real benefits of 360 capture, even if you never actually view your content in 360 or don a pair of virtual reality goggles.
The One X joins the Rylo and the GoPro Fusion in offering app-based editing controls that let you reframe 360 content into fixed-frame videos that can be easily consumed on social media without viewers having to spin around or hold their phones above their heads to get the full effect. The One X offers many of the same functions as the Rylo, although the interface is slightly less intuitive.
With enough effort, you can combine the One X’s multiple tools to get some nice results.
You can tap and hold to set a Pivot Point or a SmartTrack command. Pivot Points tell the camera which direction to face, automatically panning or tilting from one to the next. SmartTrack will lock on to and follow a subject, keeping it in the frame wherever it moves in relation to the camera. In practice, SmartTrack worked pretty well, but it was usually very slow in its initial processing step (we tested the app on an iPhone 7 Plus, so newer phones will likely perform better).
The app also houses a host of editing tools, from trimming and exposure controls to Instagram-style filters for changing the look and mood of the video. You can also change the playback speed, slowing it down to as low as 0.25xor speeding it up it to as fast as 64x, with 16xbeing labeled as Hyperlapse (this looks pretty cool). You can select the portion of the clip to change and you can speed up or slow down as many different segments within the clip as you desire. There’s a good amount of control here and we’re pretty pleased with how easy it is to access most of it.
What’s less intuitive is how you zoom in and out. You basically get a choice of two working angles of view, wide or normal, in a variety of aspect ratios including standard 16×9, portrait-orientation 9×16, and square 1:1. You can zoom out to “little planet” perspective in any of these, but if you actually want to make more subtle zoom adjustments or animate zooming in or out during fixed-frame playback, you need to go into ViewFinder mode — and this is a mess.
ViewFinder mode uses the accelerometer in your phone to pan and tilt within the frame (if you’ve ever watched a 360 video on YouTube, it’s the same concept). There’s a zoom slider that lets you set the field of view, and the app basically records your actions as you adjust the slider. This means you have to edit in real time, and it is nearly impossible to get the exact framing you want or zoom speed you want. This feels so counterintuitive compared to the simple way adding points works, and is certainly not as easy as the Rylo’s method of linking angle of view to a point, then automating the zoom between each.
This is OK if you just want to work loosely and a rough approximation of your vision will suffice, but a perfect result is a matter of luck. You’ll likely end up redoing what should be a simple edit many times to get the framing and zoom speed just the way you want them.
But with enough effort, you can combine the One X’s multiple tools to get some nice results, producing videos with cool zooms and pans that will have people wondering how you did it.
Image quality still isn’t ready for prime time
For the most part, the One X handles stitching pretty well. Stitching is the term used for combining the two hemispheres into a seamless 360-degree field — or at least, it’s seamless if it’s done 100% correctly. I’d rank the One X’s stitching above the Rylo and the GoPro Fusion’s mobile stitching (its desktop stitching is much better). The stitch line is still visible on close-up objects (such as your hand holding the camera), but it becomes all but invisible just a few feet away.
As with most consumer 360 cameras, resolution remains unimpressive. Yes, it’s 5.7K, but those pixels are spread out over a spherical area. If you keep to a wide field of view, it looks better, but the video quality isn’t going to hold up on a large screen, particularly when you start to zoom in. For the likes of Instagram, it’s probably fine.
Heavy compression also introduces a lot of artifacts, and if you turn on slow motion this gets even worse. I understand the need to use compression to keep file sizes manageable on this type of 360 camera, but I wish there was at least an option to select a higher bitrate.
There is, however, an option to turn on log gamma. Yes, this $ 400 party trick camera offers a professional picture profile, and I’m admittedly rather impressed by that. A logarithmic exposure curve maintains more dynamic range compared to a standard linear curve, but the footage looks very flat out of the camera and needs to be color graded to look normal. You’ll need to do this in a third-party desktop editing app (Insta360 has a plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro) but you can get much better results this way.
HDR (high dynamic range) video is also offered, but Insta360 warns this mode can cause problems with the stabilization system and is best used for static shots. HDR does make a noticeable improvement in image quality, with less highlight clipping in the sky, more detail in the shadows, and better color throughout.
HDR also works for still photos and, again, it works pretty well. But still images don’t really look much better than video. There’s less compression, and less sharpening (which I appreciate), but the resolution and stitching quality are about the same. You can add stickers to still images within the spherical space, which is fun but ultimately not very useful.
The Insta360 One X is a solid B student that looks even better because the average grade in the class is a D. Well, that’s a bit extreme. Several 360 cameras stand out now — the Rylo with its sublime user experience, the GoPro Fusion and its high image quality (if you can handle the slow desktop stitching process) — and the One X can certainly count itself among this small number that are actually worth buying. I wish all of the reframing controls were as easy to use as the Rylo’s, but this is otherwise a contender for the best 360 camera on the market, and it’s priced fairly.
At the end of the day, it is still a 360 camera, however. You probably don’t need one, but if the idea of immersive video intrigues you or you want to play around with reframing spherical content into fixed-frame movies, the One X is a good choice.
Are there better alternatives?
The Rylo is easier to use, but doesn’t offer some of the editing tools of the One X, like filters or slow motion. The GoPro Fusion can produce higher image quality, but only if you’re willing to work through the very laborious and time-consuming desktop editing process. The One X compares favorably here with its long list of features and unique accessories.
How long will it last?
The 360 industry still has a big question mark over its head. New cameras are coming out all the time, and companies continue to find new ways of using them. The One X is certainly built well enough to last years, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually enjoy using it that long. Insta360 will hopefully continue to support it via firmware and app updates, but those might not be enough to prevent the novelty from wearing thin.
Should you buy it?
Sure, as long as you understand what you’re in for. Again, this is a good choice for a 360 camera — you just need to make sure you want a 360 camera.