The market for 360º-capable cameras is still growing, as vendors new and old enter a category that is wide open with consumers. The emergence of these 360º video cameras is running parallel to that of action cameras and cameras able to produce virtual reality (VR) content. Shooting spherically offers a perspective never seen before in conventional optics.
Defining 360º cameras, however, may be less clear when factoring in the different models currently available. Here, we look at four cameras that function quite differently.
IC Real Tech ALLie Cam
Unique for its original focus on home and business, the ALLie cam stands out for offering a 360º spatial live view wherever it’s placed. Free standing on a ledge or shelf, or mountable on a wall or ceiling, orientation is all but universal. Upright, sideways, upside down—it can be installed any which way to work, so long as it has a constant power source.
There are dual 8MP image sensors and two fisheye lenses. Each has a 180º field of view and 2,448×2,448 resolution. They combine to produce 4K (4,096×2,048) video at 20 frames per sec. Five infrared LEDs ring each lens for black-and-white night vision. There is also a built-in, two-way microphone and speaker. Many of these features are adjustable using the free ALLie app for iOS and Android. This includes the choice to either pan or swipe on the screen to view from any angle.
Initially designed for indoor use in a static location, the ALLie is breaking through to off-site recording. This is courtesy of the ALLie Go ($59.95), a separate battery pack that screws into the bottom of the camera. It can keep the ALLie going for up to two hours per charge. It also has a microSD slot (supporting up to 64GB cards). A standard screw mount for tripods allows hands-free recording and live streaming. Dedicated buttons for still photos and video are on the top. There is also an on/off switch at the bottom next to the mount.
The ALLie camera’s comparative girth and heft to other 360º-capable cameras are partly explained by its ability to disperse heat generated by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor it runs on. This means the camera can record for longer durations without shutting down from overheating. Even when attached to the Go battery, it doesn’t have any issues running for a full hour straight.
On the flip side, the larger size, thinner plastic, limited mounting options and lower frame rate make the ALLie less ideal for action situations. While the camera can record directly to the memory card, it doesn’t have Wi-Fi Direct for an ad hoc connection to a smartphone or tablet. As a result, it requires a Wi-Fi hotspot to make that work.
Image quality in daylight is quite clear and sharp, with good auto white balancing and exposure. Night vision is also solid. The microphone is perhaps too sensitive to noise and needs to be dialed back; it tends to pick up interference from radio signals coming from mobile devices. $499. allie.camera
Samsung Gear 360
Samsung’s first foray into 360º cameras is roughly the size of a lacrosse ball. It sports two equal f/2.0 fisheye lenses with 15 megapixel sensors capable of shooting up to 4K (3,840×1,920) video at 30 fps. They combine to produce 30 megapixel (3,072×1,728) spatial still images. When shooting with one lens, the field of view shifts to 195º, with video at 2,560×1,440. Still images drop down to 5MP in single-camera mode.
Onboard controls at the top with a small LCD screen are one option. Additionally, the free Gear 360 Android app offers full access, too. An NFC tag lies next to the compartment holding slots for a microSD card (up to 200GB cards) and the 1,350mAh removable battery. The unit comes with a short tripod that screws into the standard mount at the bottom.
Lowering the resolution and raising the frame rate to 60 fps through the app makes for better footage during action scenes and faster movement. The lower 30-fps rate (with higher resolution) offers better clarity for landscapes and gatherings. Footage is good in most cases, with fine colors and composition, including controls for manual exposure settings. Audio quality is superb, thanks largely to the dual mics capturing stereo sound. Stitching is fairly accurate, even in denser situations.
Without built-in infrared for night vision, nor larger micron pixels for low-light or night shooting in color, the Gear 360 is largely a daytime or bright light device. It’s also relatively fragile, as protection is limited to an IP5 rating for very minimal water and dust resistance.
It’s also hindered by the length of time it can shoot; it has a tendency to get hot after about 10–15 minutes of continuous recording. Samsung has built in a fail safe to ensure the camera shuts down when overheating. It functions best in shorter spurts and is ideal for capturing action sequences or travel sights that don’t require long recording time. Shooting in shorter bursts helps keep the battery alive for longer stretches, which can extend to beyond a day, if rationed properly.
Compatibility is currently limited to select Samsung smartphones running the Gear 360 Android app. Specifically, these are the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and Note 5. $349.99. samsung.com
The number “360” is somewhat limited in the case of the 360fly 4K; it uses one lens, instead of two, to capture content spatially, albeit without the need to stitch anything.
The smaller form factor, rubberized skin and single-button control make this camera easier to manage, and its 1 ATM water resistance allows users to shoot with it 30 feet underwater.
Recording options don’t vary widely, starting at 4K (2,880×2,880) at either 24 fps or 30 fps. The fastest is 60 fps at a lower resolution of 1,728×1,728, where detail is noticeably skewed toward the middle of the frame. That frame is also square, and 360º video playback software stretches it out to 3,820×1,920, showing a black bar at the bottom.
The camera has its own 64GB of internal storage, negating the need to buy a memory card to store anything. At full 4K resolution, that amounts to about three hours of video. Without a Micro USB port on the body, transferring files requires the magnetized base (where the port is) to plant the camera on top and do it that way. Alternatively, files can be transferred over Wi-Fi Direct to the free 360fly iOS and Android app.
The app offers excellent performance, from the initial setup all the way to viewing and editing footage afterward. Given the limited dynamic range available, editing sliders can help adjust lighting and contrast for a better final result, but tools are limited in going beyond simple fixes.
Unfortunately, footage and still images have a nasty habit of skewing purple on the fringes, and the more contrast between shadows and highlights, the more detail one cedes to the other. Shooting in low-light conditions produces noisier images, making night shots softer and less detailed.
The tiny microphone is only ideal for capturing voices and sounds in close proximity, otherwise they come off as tinny and muffled when further removed from the 360fly’s immediate range. That doesn’t matter when shooting while submerged but can be problematic when shooting in an area with varying noises at different levels. $499.99. 360fly.com
Ricoh Theta S
Sticking to Ricoh’s preference for an upright form factor, the Theta S is a highly portable, lightweight, 360º-capable camera that’s easy to store in a pocket or small bag. The rubberized body suggests there is a level of ruggedness and water resistance, but that’s not the case. The camera can’t be used underwater and is fairly fragile otherwise.
The two f/2.0 fisheye lenses each have 12 megapixel image sensors, stitching together a 14.4MP image at a total resolution of 5,376×2,699. Video tops up at 1080p Full HD at 30 fps for up to 25 minutes, though the actual resolution adjusts to 1,920×960.
A free iOS and Android app is simple to learn for controlling the camera. However, it doesn’t offer live view for video clips. Only a Windows PC or Mac can do that, but there is no way to edit clips afterward. A separate mobile app called Theta+Video is required to do that.
The 8GB of internal storage isn’t expandable. So total capture is limited to either 1,600 still photos or 60 minutes of footage in 1080p.
The 6-axis accelerometer inside the Theta S can right-correct footage properly, making orientation all but universal. Except this works best when not handheld. Fingers and hands can take up a significant bottom portion of the resulting spherical image. So a monopod or selfie stick should be used to create some distance.
Simple controls make the Theta S easy to use in a pinch. A small shutter button on the side switches between photo and video mode. The mode is indicated by a blue LED symbol appearing on the front. Pressing the main button under the lens captures stills or video, and pressing it again ceases recording. The included timer and Wi-Fi Direct connection prove invaluable in setting up shots while the camera sits on a tripod or flat surface. Video quality is decent, yet far from excellent because of reduced sharpness and fringing along the edges.
The form factor has made heat dispersion challenging. Ricoh has warned about using the camera in hot and humid conditions, where outdoor temperatures of 104º F are a tipping point. The camera will shut down on its own to avoid overheating. However, this is less of an issue indoors or in cooler temperatures outside. $349.95. ricohimaging.com